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“We Put It in Terms of Not-Nice”: White Antiracists and Parenting

I have had the weirdest spring this year. It has been weird in ways it’s hard to explain without violating family members’ privacy and spilling my petty resentments like a breached dam, and so I’m not going to, but just: it has been weird, and hard, and I’ve found myself trying very hard to be good at (temporarily? probably?) (co-)parenting some kids I did not sign up to parent, and mostly failing.

One thing I feel like I’ve been mostly failing at is parenting white(-passing? maybe? this is one of the weird things) two kindergarten-age boys, which is a Herculean task in the age of Trump. Some things we’ve got down:

You do not have to give people hugs if you don’t want to, and if another person does not want a hug you had better not try to hug them: Check.

Boys can paint their nails any color they want to: Check.

Some people are girls, some people are boys, and some people aren’t either; this often correlates with but is not caused by your genital situation, and this is unremarkable: Check.

People come in all kinds of family configurations and ethnic heritages and skin tones, nobody is better than anyone else, and you don’t use these things as criteria for who you’re friends with: Check.

I’ve been doing some self-education around Islamophobia, and so we’ve started reading books about the very basics of religion: what is a religion? What kinds of religions are there? What do people believe about God and death and how it’s right to live? We’re still working on this, but I’ve definitely had multiple conversations where I tried to explain Orientalism to a six year old with no concept of, like, continents or distance or how to tell truth from fiction. That’s a super fun experience, so I’m giving myself a check for that one too.

But overall I can’t say that I feel like I’m doing enough to counter the toxic messages these kids are getting every day at school, from how they see the world is structured, and from literally every single piece of media from Marvel movies to the infuriating Lego-brand picture books about firefighters (who somehow all happen to have Lego-brand white male faces! Ugh I get so mad about these books, you guys, they are Real Bad). I’m grateful for this research on antiracist parenting on two levels: it encouraged me about things I'm doing well, and it gave practical advice for improvement.

by Sarah A. Matlock and Robin DiAngelo, that appeared in the Journal of Progressive Human Services. You can download it for free! It's about a study conducted in Seattle among middle-class white parents who self-reported as antiracist. It’s not a comprehensive study: they only had 20 interviews, and it’s not like there was a control group or field research. But it’s pretty revealing anyway.

Some quotes that feel significant to me:

“Like many parents interviewed here, Rachelle worries that talking openly and directly about racism will be harmful to her White child. And as many parents did, she ends by giving him the option of considering whether racism—and in this case slavery—is fair or not.”

“[Two parents] stated that [their] child had integrated antiracist values into [their] live[s]. At the same time, these parents did not mention discussing the racism that their children had internalized or indicate that they were engaged in an ongoing process of self-reflection. Their focus in answering this question was on their children’s speaking out about other people’s racism.”

“Although [two parents] recognize that their sons are receiving White privilege, neither mother has taken steps to address this in their children’s schools.”

“The majority of participants—65%—stated that neighborhood choice was an aspect of integrating antiracism values into their parenting, and many of them cited it first, indicating that it is the primary way in which they identify their antiracism values in practice…All parents who described living in diverse neighborhoods were in areas of the city that are gentrifying.” (emphasis added by me because this is the most Seattle thing I've ever heard)

“This research shows that White parents who identify with antiracism values are almost universally contradicting their value system in significant ways. The most noteworthy contradictions that we will discuss here were related to school choice and denial of their children’s racial awareness.”

“[Parents] want to ensure privilege for their children, and their antiracism work—where it occurs—does not challenge their own children’s racial advantages.”

“[Parents] are in active denial of the racial awareness and racism their children exhibit. Further compounding this denial is that many of the parents—and all of those who brought up the issue of slavery in the interviews—worried about discussing racism in a developmentally appropriate way. This worry is significant because in their false belief that children are racially unaware, their assessment of what is developmentally appropriate is necessarily skewed. Thus, these parents are ill equipped to address the racism of their children.”

“[S]eeing parents live in accordance with values (rather than just espousing them) may be the most effective antiracist parenting strategy.”

One of the big take-aways here is that even antiracist parents use a search for ‘good’ schools as a way to keep kids out of diverse situations, and in programs (e.g. honors track, STEM) that are white or whiter. The authors recommend that parents with antiracist values should keep their kids in mainstream programs in public schools while advocating for improving the quality of education given to all students. This models allyship, improves schools, builds authentic cross-racial relationships, and while it doesn’t guarantee that your kids won’t be racist, it at least keeps them from being shitty private school racists.

The other big recommendation, and one that I feel less smug about, is to talk openly and honestly about race, racism, and American history even with young children, who are already internalizing racist messages (from those fucking Lego books I swear to God—as well as everywhere else). I have tried to do this, but there have definitely been times where I didn’t want to, because it was hard, and so I didn’t. And that’s a privilege not everyone has.

The Conscious Kid has a pretty good list of picture books to get you started. We’ve read some of these in my house, and there are others I’ve found at the library (including one I have checked out right now, Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness, by Anastasia Higginbotham; I like the idea of it, the execution is okay but makes me want to make my own book on the same topic because I wish it went into a little more detail). I've put a hold on Dreamers by Yuyi Morales because it looks darling. Anyway, if you find yourself in a position similar to mine (although, how could you? I cannot emphasize enough just how fuckin’ weird my life is right now), maybe you’ll want to check it out.


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