While reading Dr. Jennifer Harvey’s latest book, both my kids asked me separately, “Mommy, why are you reading a book called ‘Raising White Kids?’” The conversation this question sparked advanced Harvey’s hope for the book—that parents of white children will talk about race (and racism) early and often in their children’s lives. Such conversations, Harvey acknowledges, are unfamiliar, uncharted, and, at times, uncomfortable, but necessary in order to move us beyond the “color-blind” teaching of the past and towards “race-conscious” parenting. Harvey believes “race-conscious” parenting will deepen our active commitment to everyone’s children by drawing more of us into the larger movement of social and racial justice—a movement that Harvey says needs “all of us to be all in.”
A few memorable takeaways from this book:
The old “color-blind” approach does not work for the simple reason that we cannot NOT see race. Harvey writes that teaching children to be color-blind is an inadequate strategy because as early as age five children recognize that different groups are treated differently. Noticing differences and developing prejudice are two distinct processes, though. Prejudice is learned, Harvey writes. “Prejudice is the step taken after one notices physical differences in which differences are assigned meanings—negative ones.” These prejudices need to be interrupted and counteracted with specific teaching. “Generic teachings,” Harvey writes, “such as ‘we’re all the same inside’ or ‘we’re all equal’ do not serve our children any better than does silence.”
White youth are ill-equipped to participate in conversations about racism and respond to such conversations with anxiety, guilt, cognitive dissonance, or even anger. Upon reading this, I immediately thought of my white students who go silent whenever the topic of race or racism arises. I had interpreted this silence as a lack of courage to engage a difficult topic or a lack of interest. Harvey, who teaches at Drake University, offers me a more empathetic understanding. She describes how her white students struggle to find a meaningful place from which to participate fully in conversations about diversity and race, even while they get pressure from adults to do so as they grow older. Her white students are often aware that racial tensions exist. Many of them also know or sense that these tensions have to do with injustices white people have committed. This awareness—combined with the absence of nuanced, supportive, complex discussions about race—reveals itself as anxiety, guilt, cognitive dissonance or anger when the topic of race arises.
“On top of all of this,” Harvey writes, “that whites are behind when it comes to race makes racial tensions worse. For example, when these same white students are reluctant to talk about, are ill-equipped to understand, or show anxiety and resistance to honest engagement with race, students of color in the room get the message that their white peers just don’t care.”
Having a sense of what white growth looks like along the way is useful. In her book, Harvey spends a whole chapter explaining white racial identity development as identified by psychologist Janet Helms in her book, A Race is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life. Helms’ six stages of white identity development are:
- Contact: Race is not perceived as a meaningful difference.
- Disintegration: What do you mean we’re not all equal?
- Reintegration Stage: Blaming People of Color
- Pseudo-Independence: Something is Wrong with Society
- Immersion / Emersion: Changing my Relationship to Whiteness
- Autonomy: I have a sense of my abilities, agency, facility, and language around race and antiracism.
Having a sense of what white growth looks like along the way helps us have better conversations about our antiracist development—what it looks like, how we get there, and how our children can get there.
Other appreciations: Overall, I recommend this book not just to parents of white children, but also teachers seeking to help their white students engage in topics of race in the classroom. I especially appreciated the examples of real conversations Harvey has had with her own children. Harvey is not just a scholar writing a book, but also a parent trying her best to raise her own white children to be antiracist advocates. Finally, Harvey includes an invaluable list of resources for further study and support.
**Interested in reading Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children In A Racially Unjust America for yourself? Well, SURPRISE, I have a free hardcover copy to give away! The first person to leave me a comment below saying they want the book wins the prize. I will contact you for your shipping information.