You Want to Read This Book: Raising White Kids

On a recent Saturday night, one of my young friends and two of his classmates met up with the local police, who found a small amount of marijuana and some pills in the car. The two white students went home with a warning, and a seventeen year old boy I’m deeply fond of spent two nights in jail until he saw the judge on Monday morning.

The disparity in the “justice” they received continues to rankle. I hear, over and over in my mind, his smart, savvy mother saying how helpless she felt through all of this.

I also find myself wondering often what the two white students were thinking as their African-American classmate disappeared with the police. They drove his car home and parked it in front of his parents’ home. They didn’t ring the bell, or explain where their friend was. Back at school, they let him take the school’s discipline without volunteering the information that they were involved, too.

Did they think there was nothing they could do?

Were they already socialized to expect different kinds of justice, based on skin color?

Did they lack the words to explain, to comfort, or to stand with their friend?

Did they think it wasn’t their problem?

Dr. Jennifer Harvey’s thoughtful book Raising White Kids offers us hopeful and helpful tools for the white kids who will be involved in situations like this. If we’re longing for a better world, we need better tools, and Dr. Harvey has them.

As parents of white children, we have all kinds of power to help them navigate a racially unjust world, and to give them the tools to address injustice and racism when they see it. “Nonracism,” Harvey reminds us, “is not the same as antiracism.” Celebrating diversity ignores the layers of systematic privilege that come to people who are white.

We know that we have to talk to kids about sexuality, and we find ways to do it with wisdom, or awkwardness, or humor, or fear and trembling, but we do it. Harvey’s book gives us similar tools to wade into discussions about race and culture. As with talking to kids about sex, we have to keep having different conversations at different ages. We have to be prepared to address the stereotypes kids bring home from the culture around us. We want to share our values as we help kids develop their own principles. The same guidelines apply in conversations about race. Ignoring the topic isn’t going to help, and Harvey offers sample conversations for kids at different ages.

Harvey wisely points out that it’s not enough to be in favor of diversity, and it’s not even enough to convey a passion for equality and justice. Our culture is so saturated with racism (and other ills) that we, as parents, pastors, teachers and neighbors need to give kids the tools to see and then address the racism they will inevitably encounter. We can give kids, she says, a sense of purpose and capacity, “a vision of the kind of world they want to live in and a sense that their behavior and actions can help create that world.”

Because whiteness is the default in our society, we may think we don’t need to teach kids about being white. Race-conscious parenting, Harvey says, involves layers of teaching about what white skin can mean in our culture, along with not elevating or shaming anyone. It also involves teaching kids not to see anyone as the fulfillment of a stereotype, neither as a victim or just a recipient of discrimination. “Healthy white children,” Harvey says, “have been nurtured over time to be comfortable in their own skin…but also function well and appropriately in racially diverse environments. They are children who neither ignore…the racial identities of others but who also do not make assumptions about people based on their race. They are children who feel equipped and have strong moral commitments to interrupt and challenge racism when they witness it…” And if we can teach it to kids, perhaps we can learn it ourselves, too!

This kind of emotional and social health grows from conversations we keep having with kids, and Harvey notes that when we stay engaged in this process, “we teach our children to do the same. We’re not trying to hand them all the answers about racism…we’re modeling for them what persistence through difficult ideas and challenging encounters looks like.”

You can read the book’s Introduction here.

Harvey is both realistic and hopeful, and the insights she offers can be taken in bite-sized pieces, or in an all-you-can-eat buffet. I appreciate the concreteness of her examples, and her sense that this is a lifelong process in our parenting. Her book is a valuable resource for parents, educators, neighbors and churches. Get it! Give it to people!

The publisher gave me a free review copy, plus a copy to give away. If you’d like to have a copy, leave me a message below, and I’ll choose someone at random.

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