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.]