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At a recent conference on anti-racism and reconciliation, the man sitting next to me interrupted the speaker’s story about someone challenging her own racial identity to say, “You know, the problem is everyone’s got it wrong. There is no black and white. We’re all shades of beige.”
I had just begun reading Jennifer Harvey’s new book, Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, including a chapter that addresses the myth of color-blindness as a salve to this country’s racial woes. For a moment I considered offering up my spare copy, but I really wanted to hear the rest of what our speaker had to say. The moment passed.
Harvey’s book is addressed to the parents of white children negotiating a world in which they have an inherited privilege which she identifies also as a burden:
“White supremacy malforms my humanity, constrains my life, compromises my spirit. When I recognize this I begin to see the fight against racism as also a life-giving struggle for my own liberation.” (p. 118-9)
Part of the problem of teaching anti-racism to white parents, white children, white people like me is that balancing act that wants to reassure and retain the interest and cooperation of the white reader, while addressing the real and everyday enactment of racism within which we live. Hence the adoption of images such as “a life-giving struggle for my own liberation.” I might, as a preacher, indeed speak of liberation from the sin of racism as life-giving; but the fact is that as a white person, I have never been literally enslaved, imprisoned by racism; the liberation language in this context leaves me a little uneasy.
That the balancing act itself feels weighted is a symptom of how difficult and deeply rooted the problem of racism is, and how dangerous it can feel to address it. Even this approach of teaching white parents how to talk about race to their children feels like a stealth move actually designed to educate the adults on their own blind spots and sins of omission in becoming anti-racist. Harvey acknowledges this, reporting,
“Many parents today were raised either in families in which explicitly racist teachings were present, or in which teachings about equality were present but adults did not model antiracist interventions when racism reared its head. Many of us, thus, share a racial development journey. We have further growing to do ourselves.” (p. 132-3)
On the other hand, that makes this book useful beyond the parenting bookshelf. Educators, youth leaders, mentors, allies, as well as adults questioning their own conceptions of racial identity and complicity in social racism will recognize scenarios and find helpful material here.
Harvey has plenty of useful things to say to parents and others wondering how to shift their conversation around race from optimistic color-blindness to realistic anti-racism. She offers anecdotes throughout – things that children say that stump their parents and teachers – and runs scripts on how one might talk through a younger child’s conclusion from a Black Lives Matter protest that, “We’re white, so we’re safe,” or an older child’s concern that, “If I’m white, does that make me racist?” Or my own child’s question, a couple of decades ago, trying to puzzle out which one of their classmates I was talking about: “Is she one of the brown children?”
Harvey very gently addresses the issue of “white fragility,” suggesting that the best way to build a healthy identity as a white child is to teach a positive and engaged anti-racism.
Harvey’s prevailing premise is that children notice not only colour, but social scripts around colour, and that unless those social scripts, informed and underwritten by a sacred tradition of white supremacy, are specifically and critically deconstructed, they will remain the norm for yet another generation of American children. While that seems almost common-sense simple on the surface, learning how to address children’s questions, observations, and concerns around racial identity without anxiety is still hard for many of us raised “not to notice” difference.
When my children were very young, we lived in Singapore. One attended a local nursery. I did not realize the need explicitly to address my child’s experience of racial difference in that context until one day a new group of European children joined after their old school closed. That day, my child came running out of school with great excitement, yelling, “Mummy! Mummy! There’s someone at school who looks like me!”
Children notice. Children question, and, Harvey observes, unless we can entertain their honest puzzlings about race and racism as frankly and intentionally as we talk with them about any other aspect of their bodies, relationships, and communities, we will be letting them down.
As Harvey writes,
“We are a nation in crisis. Creating a different future requires that we tell the truth about that … We can and must push back against the silence that pressures us to raise our white children to be good people and just hope for the best. Going in, challenging taboos, speaking against racial dynamics, being brave not only impacts the world we live in, it teaches and equips our children to do the same.” (p. 290)
If you are up for it – creating a different future – this book may provide a useful and helpful standing start.
This review is based on a publisher-provided copy of the book.
If you would like to win a free copy of Harvey’s book, Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, leave a comment below. A winner chosen at random will be contacted to receive a second copy provided to the reviewer by the publisher, Abingdon Press. Contest closes March 2nd, 2018.
This giveaway contest is now closed.