Raising White Kids: Book Review and Giveaway

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.

Waking Up White: A Book Recommendation

I have been reading and writing a lot about race lately.  The Black Lives Matter movement got me going.  Trump’s presidency stoked the fire of urgency. Over winter break I finished, Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. I highly recommend this book.  In fact, I wish every white person would read it.  Irving does such a good job highlighting issues of race that people of color deal with every day, but to which we white people remain oblivious.  Irving’s tone is not teacherly or patronizing, even though she is a diversity educator.  Instead, she is autobiographical and self-effacing.  She shares stories of mistakes she has made in her efforts to become a more racially-aware person.  Some of these stories made me cringe, because I have made similar mistakes.  But the only way to learn is to face these mistakes.  Here are just a few of the valuable lessons I gleaned from this book:

White people need to educate other white people about race.  Honestly, before reading this book, I thought I could only learn about race from people of color. (I’m embarrassed and ashamed to have just typed that sentence.)  White people often fail to recognize that “white” is also a race that we need to understand.  If we can understand whiteness and white culture, then we can better understand the challenges we pose to people of other races when we expect them to act like us, speak like us, learn like us, etc.

Irving, whose suburban upbringing was a lot like my own, helped me identify a variety of beliefs and behaviors indicative of white culture, such as: conflict avoidance, emotional restraint, a sense of urgency about time, a habit of asking social locator questions like “What do you do? Where are you from? Where did you go to school?” to determine what box we should put people or gage the level of success they have achieved.  I am guilty of this white judgmentalism and am determined to break this habit of asking “social locator” type questions.

Fair does not mean equal.  Equality starts with equity.  “Equity,” Irving writes, “means both holding people of differing needs to a single expectation and giving them what they need to achieve it.”  In other words, equity is a way to level the playing field and equality cannot be achieved without it. She illustrated her point with a hypothetical:  If there was a test that involved students writing their answer on a line on the board—a line five feet above the ground—what would you do for the shorter students who couldn’t reach the line?  You’d make the test equitable by giving the shorter students a step up so they could meet the same expectation as the taller students.  Such steps—like affirmative action—level the playing field to make it more equitable.

When it comes to racism, there’s no such thing as neutral.  Irving writes, “When it comes to racism, there’s no such thing as neutral: either I’m intentionally and strategically working against it, or I’m aiding and abetting the system.  As historian and activist Howard Zinn said, ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train.’”  Irving correlates this idea with her antibullying training as a teacher.  “Antibullying pedagogy describes three distinct roles: (1) bullies, (2) victims, and (3) bystanders,” she writes. “Traditionally the approach has been to reprimand the bully and console the victim while ignoring the bystanders, those who witness but neither partake in nor stand up to the bullying.  More recently, however, educators and psychologists recognized that the real power rests in empowering bystanders to become allies in the fight to eliminate childhood bullying.”

I am convicted by Irving’s words, realizing that I have lived most of my life as a bystander, as someone who has aided and abetted the system of racism because I was SO unaware and because I lacked the courage to do anything about it.  Irving shares that her ultimate goal is to interrupt racism, advocate against it, and educate without doing more harm than good. Even though I know I will make lots of terrible mistakes, I’m committed to this goal as well.  The burden to right this wrong is on those of us who benefit from this unfair and inequitable system.  Will you join me?  Reading “Waking Up White” with your friends, co-workers, or church groups is a great place to start.

[The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Co-Moderators, Rev. T. Denise Anderson and Rev. Jan Edmiston, have invited churches to read and study this book.  They’ve also published this curriculum to guide and encourage your study.]

Tired of Talking about Privilege

Last Sunday, during a program at my college about how to create needed social change, I observed a few of the white students tuning out.  One fell asleep.  Another started texting a friend.  Another tried to pay attention, but her eyes kept wandering to the floor, the window and the faces in the room other than the presenter.  The students of color, on the other hand, were engaged in the topic.  They asked and answered questions and contributed to the discussion.

After this observation, I decided to lead a program on privilege thinking it would be helpful for more of our white students to understand the social, economic, and political advantages they have over people of color.  When I shared my idea for the program with one of my more thoughtful white students, though, she told me that her peers were tired of talking about privilege.  “It’s everywhere, Teri.  Sure, it’s important.  But people are just tired of talking about it.” I was grateful for this student’s honesty, but also wondered how I could stoke the fire of this important conversation.  I decided to go ahead with my program.

In my planning, I came across Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh (who is white) helpfully unpacks the invisible knapsack of unearned assets she can count on cashing in every day, but about which, she says, “she was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”  Because of the color of her skin, McIntosh says she can count on the following:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily protection.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

This last example helped me better understand the disinterest and weariness of my white students.  There are no real consequences for a white person’s apathy, disinterest, or weariness of talking about privilege.  In fact, the system of white dominance and white supremacy that our country has been built upon rewards such passivity. If white people remain oblivious to our unearned benefits, then we cannot be expected to share, give them up, or work towards a more equitable system. It’s hard to hold an oblivious person accountable.  Thus, the system of white dominance is perpetuated.

Through the programs I lead and the relationships I develop, I hope to keep this conversation going.  I hope to keep learning how I can live faithfully with the unearned assets I have inherited and encourage others to do the same.  Jesus keeps calling me to the most disadvantaged.  Although it’s painful to acknowledge that my unearned advantages play a significant role in keeping others disadvantaged, I’ve got to face that harsh truth to have any hope of righting what is wrong.

[Feature Image: Elias Schewel]

 

Getting Back to Work

4890955_337d8bf744_oI woke up Wednesday morning with no words. I could not post to Facebook. I could not Tweet. I could not even begin to scratch out my thoughts in the battered green notebook I carry to catch my writing. I did read, though. I read the Facebook posts of friends who were reeling in disappointment, anger, and utter disbelief that Donald Trump is our President-elect. And I read posts by students who were afraid of the world in which they were now living.

When I got to the campus where I serve as Chaplain, I abandoned all that I needed to get done and just started walking. I came across a student who had recently come out as gay. He laughed at the absurdity of this election, the surreal feeling that this couldn’t possibly be life as we know it. But tears welled as he spoke, spilling freely down his cheeks onto the sidewalk we shared. I caught a professor outside of the mailroom, he too, in tears. How do I teach today, he asked? How do we just go on? Then, I started knocking on dorm room doors. I wanted to see my Latina student whose family is still in the process of becoming citizens. And our Muslim Syrian students, here on special scholarships, beloved by our community, yet wondering now if they will be rejected from this place of refuge. And the African-American student whose rage lit up Facebook, his fiery words highlighting his feelings of betrayal, once again, by White America.

As I walked and met people on the sidewalk, in their dorm rooms, in their offices and at the mailboxes, I had no words to reassure, no explanation that would make this okay, no wisdom, not even any prayers. I was as hurt, shocked, and disappointed as they. I kept crying too.

I am not among the most vulnerable in this new land of Trump. But as a woman with career aspirations, a woman who knows how it feels to be touched inappropriately by a man, a woman who started wearing a clerical collar because she was so tired of being demeaned and disrespected in her profession, I woke up Wednesday morning with a clearer understanding that this is still a white man’s world. I thought we were better than this. So I had no words to offer my students and my community who were in pain. All I could do was be with them and cry with them—which was probably more a comfort to me than it was them.

Then, on Thursday morning I read this Brevity blog post by Allison K. Williams about beginning to write again after the trauma of Tuesday night. Williams’ writes:

We sit down again. We tinker. We find the rhythm, we find that yes, it matters to say something, anything, on the page. That we are not just artists but craftsmen, and craftsmen go to work. We have spent—or are spending—our lives sharpening our tools, and they are not just for fine days. Our tools—our words—matter not for how we use them when all is well, but how we use them to shore up the levee when the waters rise.”

Williams’ also reminded me of this wise parable:

The novice says to the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”

“Chop wood. Carry water,” replies the master.

The novice asks, “What, then, does one do after enlightenment?”

“Chop wood. Carry water.”

And I realized that I needed to get back to work. The chores of justice have not changed, regardless of this election.   What has changed, for me at least, is that the need for justice is clearer.  So I begin by putting pen to paper in my battered green notebook and by adding my voice to all the voices saying “No” to misogyny, racism, prejudice, hate, and xenophobia. I chop wood. I carry water. Understanding that my load isn’t nearly as heavy as others. Understanding, too, that the burden of injustice is a burden for all.

[Feature Image: Paul Fosselman]

Jesus Cleanses the Temple: A Contemporary Retelling

22834033495_9c77bd31f9_oMy husband, the Rev. Dr. Daniel J. Ott, just wrote this contemporary retelling of Mark 11: 15-18 for his sermon this coming Sunday.  What an important text for what is going on in our society today.  Thanks to Dan for giving me permission to share.

“Today an indigent man shocked the community when he staged a violent protest in a house of worship. Little is known about the man who may have been radicalized by participation in secret cells in a rural area. Earlier in the day, he appears to have been part of another protest that involved blocking a primary highway into the city. As bystanders looked on in horror and fear, the man disrupted commerce by terrorizing vendors and attempting to destroy currency. He was ranting about government violence against marginalized peoples and the hypocrisy of people of faith who would not stand with “the oppressed.” The man seems to have slipped away in the crowd, but religious leaders are calling for a restoration of law and order. A spokesperson said that they would definitely file charges if and when the man is caught. “This sort of lawlessness cannot be tolerated,” one witness said, “if it were up to me, these protestors would be put to death.”

[Feature Image: Sean P. Anderson]

Getting to Know my White Privileged Self

5002004994_ab6c32ebbe_oA new essay is rising up within me. This is what it feels like when I know I have something to write about but don’t know exactly where this “feeling of an idea” is leading. It’s an exciting journey of discovery—exciting because I know I will learn and grow a lot in the process. But I also know this journey will require a lot of intense work, dedication, and a willingness to confront some painful and disturbing truths.

The topic of this new essay will be race. The journey towards this topic began last winter while reading and discussing Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow with a group of students at my college. Whenever I bemoan how busy my chaplaincy keeps me and how much I desire to have more time to write, reminding myself of all the rich experiences I am offered to learn and grow along with my students keeps me grateful for my career. The fact that I serve a racially diverse college as chaplain is an extraordinary gift that will deepen my exploration into the topic of race and positively influence my ministry with and among our students of color.

Reading James Baldwin (extraordinary! Can’t get enough of him!) Kelly Brown Douglas, and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz has taken me further in my understanding of the particular human experience of people of color. I have been confronted and awakened to the disturbing, evil ways white people have oppressed, marginalized, and disempowered Native, Black, and Latino peoples in our society. But as a privileged white myself, I cannot write about race from the perspective of Baldwin, Douglas, or Isasi-Diaz. That would be disrespectful and dangerous. I cannot even begin to assume I could write about the experience of marginalized people. That, to me, would epitomize white ignorance. But I cannot ignore or set aside this issue of race—that would also be irresponsible as a person of faith seeking to live into God’s justice. So I needed to find another way in. An essay by Eula Biss called “Relations” opened the door to a helpful approach.

Biss, a middle-class woman from Iowa, writes about race from her white perspective.  After researching her own family history she writes, “It isn’t easy to accept a slaveholder and an Indian killer as a grandfather, and it isn’t easy to accept the legacy of whiteness as an identity. It is an identity that carries the burden of history without fostering a true understanding of the painfulness and the costs of complicity. That’s why so many of us try to pretend that to be white is merely to be raceless.”[1] At another point in the essay Biss directly challenges me and all white people by writing, “We do not know ourselves, and worse, we seem only occasionally to know that we do not know ourselves.”[2] Here, was my way in. A challenge to get to know myself as a white person, to explore what my race has given me, how it has privileged me, and as a result of that privilege, how it has disadvantaged and oppressed others.

So I have begun my research on what it means for me to be born white in American society. My theologian husband has, as always, helped me deepen my thought by turning me to the work of philosopher Shannon Sullivan who has explored the racial habits of white people in two books: Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege and Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism.  I’m not sure where this journey into race will take me, but I feel its significance, at the very least, for me, to write about and articulate.

As I progress Thomas Merton’s well-known prayer from “Thoughts in Solitude” feels appropriate:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

[1] Eula Biss, “Notes from No Man’s Land”, (Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2009), pg. 32.

[2] Ibid, pg. 31.

[Feature Image: tobiwei]

Dismantling my Privilege begins with Understanding

In his essay “The Harlem Ghetto” James Baldwin describes the 1950 American reality as a “bitterness—felt alike by the inarticulate, hungry population of Harlem, by the wealthy on Sugar Hill, and by the brilliant exceptions ensconced in universities—which has defeated and promises to continue to defeat all efforts at interracial understanding.”[1] Baldwin could just as well have written his essay about our 2016 reality with all the bitterness, rancor, public cynicism and private despair running rampant among us.

With this current state of our union, it’s difficult to know what to do, what action to take, what, even, to pray for as an engaged, responsible citizen. What can make things better? How can I make a difference? It has occurred to me that there is an awful lot that is out of my control—historical structures in place that are inherently racist, politicians becoming popular among working-class whites with empty rhetoric and false promises that appeal to their sense of entitlement[2], and (again quoting Baldwin) “the pressure of living [that] is too immediate and incessant to allow time for understanding.”[3]

ImageI had never considered “understanding” a rite of the privileged until reading this quote from Baldwin. It disturbed me. How will we ever mature as a society if the pressure of living is too immediate and incessant to allow time for understanding? I hadn’t considered the stack of books on my nightstand, all conveniently purchased with 1-click ordering on Amazon, as a sign of my privilege. Nor had I considered the thirty minutes I set aside most nights to read these books to be such a luxury. But, unlike many in America, my mind is not preoccupied with questions about how I will feed my children or pay my utility bill or endure one more day on the line at a factory job. It is a part of my privilege to have the freedom, time, energy and resources to contemplate and consider the lives of others.

I recently learned about the idea of “dismantling privilege”, which means using your own privilege to benefit someone who has less. Since reading and studying Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness with a group of students this year, I have wanted to grow in my understanding of people of color and their particular experience in America today. I was also confronted by some hard truths shared by Dr. Eddie Glaude, Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, who visited our campus this year and told a room full of white liberal intellectuals, “You know, it gets tiring trying to teach you all about our experience. There are books you can read.” (Or, read this excellent interview with Eddie Glaude.) I took Glaude’s challenge to heart, realizing that I had been relying on my Black and Latino students to share their experiences with me so I could learn from them. Why should they bear the responsibility (or the burden) for my education? Don’t I wish men would educate themselves about my particular experience as a female? So this summer, I have decided to take advantage of my privilege to read books by theologians, essayists, and activists of color.

The books on my list include:

“Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin

“The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by James H. Cone

“Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” by Kelly Brown Douglas

“Mujerista Theology” by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz

I am disturbed by the state of our society today. I am disturbed and disappointed by the lack of interracial understanding. I feel powerless in the face of most of it, except for the misunderstanding that resides within me. I believe many of our social ills could be resolved if we followed Jesus’ advice in Matthew 7:5 to “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” To set aside time this summer to focus on my own understanding is certainly a luxury of my privilege. But it is a necessary first step if I seek to follow Christ and work, as he did, towards dismantling the systems of injustice that bind us all.

 

[1] James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Beacon Press, 1955), pg. 72.

[2] Read George Packer’s article “Head of the Class: How Donald Trump appeals to the white working class” in The New Yorker for more on this.

[3] James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Beacon Press, 1955), pg. 73.

[Feature Image: Johnny Silvercloud]