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.

Cracked

Visiting my daughter, The Teenager, recently, I notice she has a new travel mug, which seems to be…not so new. It has deep cracks in the plastic, fanning out from the lid. “Oh, I bought it at the thrift store,” she tells me. Looking at it, I feel divided between pain and pride.

The Teenager lives with her aunt and cousin these days, looking for a fresh start after depression stole two years of high school, and rearranged her life.

As her friends were applying to colleges, and celebrating their acceptance letters, she felt like there was nothing left for her in our little town. Every success reminded her how far she was behind the typical schedule. It’s hard to understand, at seventeen, that life has lots of paths.  Few happy people have hit every scheduled milestone.

Now, in a new city, she manages her own life, with wise advice from her aunt. She rides the bus to class and work, manages the small amount of money we put in her bank account and organizes her own days. She’s shed my daily, anxious reminders to take her medication.

The travel mug shows me how she’s figuring out how to make her life work.  It’s also an image of her story – cracked by depression, and still functional. Her years of high school are lost, but she has a new sensitivity to how fortunate her life has been.

The cracked reminds her that she’s resourceful, clever at managing her own life, a feeling I want her to always have. You can live on that feeling for a long time.

Keeping silent about the mug, I think about how cracked my own life is, too.

Like everyone, I have places of disappointment and loss. Failures pile up along with the wrinkles. Time goes by too fast. I sometimes think that if I were a better mother, my daughter wouldn’t be struggling. I feel sad about the things that I have lost, too – the chance to take prom pictures, be at the senior banquet and graduation. I miss the sweet feeling of success as a parent. I miss the parents I’ve known since kindergarten, but when I see them, I don’t know what to say to them.

My cracks reveal other truths.

Now, I finally glimpse the pain of parents who have kids with special needs, where there is never any typical path. I know what it’s like to lie awake worrying about a child, a sorrow I avoided for a long time. I see that the success grown out of bleak places is even more precious than anything expected.

The secondhand mug is a lesson in honoring the cracks. There is only our one “wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver says, and the wild and precious joys we wring out of the broken places.

Pool Party

 

Image via Lands  End.

Image via Lands End.

 

 

After reading news of the pool party in Texas, I sit on my bed and talk to my daughter. She lies across the foot of the bed, listening.

“I think you already know, honey, that if the police encounter you and your friends, they’ll treat you differently because of your skin color.”

“Yes,” she says, and my heart begins to break again.

Part of my job as a mother is to teach her not to take for granted the privileges I have as a white, educated, middle-aged woman who looks harmless. As a teenager, as a person of color, the world sees her differently. I have taught her to speak her mind, and now I am afraid I haven’t taught her enough about keeping quiet.

There are lessons we all learn as women.

When she started to go out with friends, I had to teach her how to respond to street harassment. When she began to study at a coffee shop, we talked about how to deal with unwanted attention, with people who stand too close or who won’t leave you alone.

There are lessons about being a person of color.

Now we talk again about how to navigate an encounter with the police. This is a conversation African-American parents have been having for years, but I am new to it. Privilege has shielded me in a way that will never happen for my daughter.

In my mind is the picture of a white man, a police officer, sitting on a teenage girl in a bathing suit. As a mother, as a woman, the image makes me want to throw up. The disrespect for her body and her teenage sense of self leaves me both enraged and in tears.

“If they tell you to stop, or to sit, follow instructions,” my husband tells her. “Do exactly what they tell you to do. And don’t be mouthy.”

“When people start yelling, no one can think clearly. Nothing good happens when the yelling begins,” I add, trying to help her survive any moment of chaos between police officers and teenagers.

“But,” I hear myself say, “in the beginning, if you think you can get away, run and don’t look back.” The advice surprises me. Recent events have taught me what African-American parents have known for a long time – skin color will trump everything else. I no longer have confidence that a police officer will see my daughter as an honor student, an employee of the library, a girl with a generous heart. My job is to nurture that in her, and other young people, even in a world that can’t always see it. My job is also to keep her alive, in a world that’s hard on young people of color, and I fear that I don’t know enough to teach her. I fear for the spirits of people who have to learn to be quiet, sit down, obey orders. I fear for us all, when this is acceptable to us.