Real challenges exist when it comes to raising white children in a society that is full of racial injustice. Talking about race means naming white privilege and hierarchy. How do we do this honestly, without making children feel bad about being white?
In this webinar, award-winning educator and public speaker Dr. Jennifer Harvey, author of Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, talks about how to teach white children to notice race and how to address racism when they encounter it. She also answers your questions.
Moderated by League of Education Voters Communications Director Arik Korman.
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Dr. Jennifer Harvey is an award-winning author, educator, and public speaker. Her work focuses on ethics race, gender, sexuality, activism, spirituality, and politics. She spoke with League of Education Voters on how to teach white children to notice race and how to address racism when they encounter it, topics she covers in her book Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America.
Dr. Harvey’s points in the LEVinar centered on ensuring white kids understand their own ability to be a different kind of white American. This process begins with having conversations with your white children while they’re young and allowing them to reflect on themselves and analyze how to be anti-racist.
When and how to talk about noticing race
“If I want to raise children who believe in the value of sharing, I don’t wait until my maybe thirteen-year-old is ‘conceptually able to choose her behavior’ on sharing,” Dr. Harvey said. “We need to start right away. In the United States, white families do not talk about race.”
Dr. Harvey believes there’s no such thing as being “too young” to have conversations on race. She stated studies that have shown that kids by the age of four or five have ingrained opinions and perspectives on race. She believes that there are many ways to begin talking about race and making anti-racism a culture for white children.
Dr. Harvey believes that skin color and difference must be present in the discussions we have with our white children, which can be proposed through diverse media, toys, and books. She emphasized noting racial differences in book characters, for example, noting how a book character has beautiful dark skin and is African-American, which works towards normalizing the uplifting of non-white traits and people.
Dr. Harvey shared how she also brought up race with her child by having an honest conversation on European colonization in this country, wanting her kid to know the connection between being an oppressor and being white in the country’s history.
“There is no place that is mostly or exclusively white by accident in this country,” she said. “There were people here before us, our kids need to learn about that young and to critically interrogate how did this place come to be so white and that becomes a way we teach our children the truth about American history.”
With this knowledge, she wanted to ensure that her child knew that she has the capacity to make positive choices about what kind of white American she wants to be in this world.
She also encouraged actively bringing your children into multiracial spaces where folks were advocating for justice, such as protests and other community organizing events. After attending these spaces, Dr. Harvey would have conversations with her children about what they just witnessed, what they learned, and the importance of these events.
“I wanted [my kids] to know that fighting for racism is something that people do, including our white family,” she said.
How to teach your white kids to address racism
Dr. Harvey recommends that a great way to teach white kids to address racism is through modeling what that looks like through your own actions.
She brought up a common scenario in white families where a white family member says something racist at family gatherings, but everyone stays quiet and doesn’t speak on it to avoid conflict.
“Guess what our children saw us model [by doing that],” she said.
She believes that you must actively address racism in your own life to best do it with your kids, because silence only normalizes that it is okay to look the other way when racism appears.
Dr. Harvey also recommends proposing scenarios of racism to your children and asking them what they would do in that instance, asking them questions like “what would you do” and “how can you give support in this situation?”
“They get to practice anti-racist imagining and stepping into their own agency,” she said. “They also know that if they don’t engage [in real-life scenarios of racism], they know that they can probably talk to you about it for support.”
Dr. Harvey believes that giving young children concrete examples is very important, equipping them with the awareness that when they’re put out into the world and developing ideas allow them to be more suited to piece these things together. For example, she educated her kid very early on regarding what white privilege was, creating a foundational understanding of whiteness for her child to use in the future to combat its oppressive effects.
“Very young, my white child knew that people who were considered white, who had light skin, [would] get things, would be protected from people being mean, [and were] more likely to be taken seriously at a classroom space,” she said. “My goal as a parent is not to avoid white guilt with my children.”
Why it is hard to talk about race, and tips to overcome it
Overcoming the discomfort of discussing race as white people was a big message in the LEVinar, and Dr. Harvey addressed it by including conversations on avoiding white guilt, overcoming color-blindness, and opting for anti-racism.
Dr. Harvey believes it is generally uncomfortable to talk about race for white folks, especially because as white people the lens in which they perceive race is different when you’re not the demographic of people in a system of injustice that is being targeted or victimized.
“One of the most common [reasons] is that most white Americans, because we have not had to explicitly talk about race or racism in order to, for example, teach our children how to survive, because we’ve been insulated on the privileged side of racial injustice,” she said. “Even ‘good white parents’ like mine just didn’t have the conversation [on race].”
Dr. Harvey wants white guilt to be recognized, but must avoid the problem that most white Americans have in getting stuck in this guilt without action.
“White guilt is a normal developmental response when you believe yourself to be equality or equity committed, and you eventually figure out you are unjustly benefitting from harm that comes to others,” she said.
Dr. Harvey recommends taking action to combat white guilt and remove yourself from being stuck in it. This can be done by being anti-racist, which she believes is important because we live in a racist society.
She described anti-racism as “…an emotional, intellectual, spiritual commitment against racism” and a “proactive belief and dignity and value of all human beings activated and turned into behavior.”
Dr. Harvey also believes that in order to overcome the obstacles of talking about race, we cannot be color blind. She sees color blindness as another form of aggression, because by saying you don’t see color and all people are equal in your eyes, it ignores the very real racial disparities and upholds the invisibility of communities of color.
“It is ignoring what people of color have told us is true: I want my identity recognized and celebrated,” she said.
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