“Raising Antiracist White Kids: A Conversation for All of Us”
with Jennifer Harvey
Wednesday, May 11, 2022, 2 pm EDT
Video recording available here.
WATER is grateful to Drake University Professor Jennifer Harvey for discussing her popular book Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America (Abingdon, 2019).
1. Talking about raising antiracist white kids is not just a white conversation. Everyone is affected by what’s happening. It is also not only a conversation for parents; everyone a child encounters influences the growth of that child. It is also not just a conversation for kids; when adults find themselves getting stuck when talking about race with children, it’s often because it’s something the adults themselves did not receive as children. We have never raised a generation of antiracist white children, so this remains an open-ended conversation.
2. Being committed to justice but living in an unjust society that privileges white people creates complexities. This has often been met with “white silence.”
3. What is “white silence”?
a. White parents often view successful parenting as teaching their children “everybody’s equal” and to “not see race.”
b. Parents can be racist despite saying “everybody’s equal.”
c. Children begin to internalize racist perceptions by age 3-4. By age 5, they recognize that different racial groups are treated differently and they’re not supposed to talk about this in front of adults.
i. Studies show that children “play” with larger social messages about race when they think adults aren’t paying attention.
ii. Often our first reaction is to blame the parents for teaching racist ideas. Dr. Beverly Tatum: racism is like smog; white silence is like not giving a four-year-old a breathing mask.
d. Study of one high school that values multiculturalism: white young people couldn’t answer the question about what their race/ethnicity was. Many got uncomfortable, anxious, sarcastic.
i. Students aren’t sure if saying they’re white is the same as saying that they’re racist.
ii. Whiteness is associated with ‘uncoolness,’ blandness, and lack of taste.
iii. Sets up a situation for white kids where other people are supposed to celebrate their differences, but white kids aren’t supposed to celebrate their own differences, and they are supposed to be happy about it.
iv. The young people don’t resent the adults who haven’t given them tools to deal with these issues. They resent the entire diversity initiative, and turn their hostility toward their peers of color. White nationalists recruit these young people.
4. Three provisional counter-strategies
a. Develop race- and justice-conscious schemas
i. Analogy: Jennifer Harvey’s kids grew up having two moms, so they just find it strange when they get societal messages that families have to have one mom and one dad.
ii. Schemas are the deepest pre-lingual patterns that we use to make sense of the world – what is “normal,” how the world is.
iii. We need to make talking about race, naming injustice and racism, and people constantly taking action against racism as a part of white children’s basic schema. It’s normal to challenge racism when we see it!
b. Racial scripts
i. No one is immune from the complexities of race.
ii. Example: 5-year-old nephew, Black, suggested playing dodgeball “Black kids versus white kids,” and the teachers told him not to say that without explaining why. This silence left the kids more likely to succumb to racial scripts.
1). Questions to disrupt the script: “That’s interesting, what made you think of that?” “What about Black kids and white kids who are friends, would you let them play on the same team?” “How do we know who’s Black or white?” “What about kids whose families are Black and white, or are Latinx, or Vietnamese?”
2). Need to not underestimate children and stop freaking out
c. Racism in our bodies
i. Example: At Chuck-E-Cheese with her 4-year-old, Professor Harvey noticed that white adults would avoid eye contact with or touching the Black kids, which was very strange in such a crowded space. Racial “bubbles” developed in the room. At one point, she and her child stepped up to a game at the same time as one of the Black kids. He was avoiding eye contact, but she complimented him on his haircut and he smiled and said thanks. After that, that child and his friends kept finding her child and giving her all their tickets, a real gesture of friendship from older kids to a younger one.
ii. Our bodies are constantly creating racial dynamics which can create or shut down connection.
5. A tough issue is the need to stop protecting kids from heartbreak
a. Bartering away their humanity
b. Keeping them “innocent”
6. Most important thing: to be brave
a. Children’s humanity and children’s lives are worth it
Each chapter in the book ends with “Takeaways,” which would make a nice pamphlet, a good way to start discussion.
One colleague recently had to explain to an 11-year child the difference between the slave trade and apartheid. Do we have the right language to have that dialogue?
Jennifer Harvey’s response:
- Part of our work is to create those spaces. There are more resources than ever, and the conversation has shifted, more people are talking about race with younger children.
- It’s like if she taught a math class, and the students of color are ready to engage, because they’ve been doing calculus since age 3, but the white students are anxious and withdrawn, because no one taught them to do basic arithmetic.
- It’s a community conversation.
Free book group discussion guide for Professor Harvey’s book can be found at: https://www.abingdonpress.com/raisingwhitekids
One colleague was concerned about white adults because so many were not taught to deal with discomfort or how to approach antiracist work without tripping over themselves. Perhaps a prerequisite to teach kids to be antiracist is for parents to come to terms with their own whiteness?
Jennifer Harvey’s response:
- Yes, and… Some of her most important moments with her children were when she was unprepared or did not handle a conversation about race as well as she would have liked to. Yes, parents need to be in the work, but also, even if they haven’t been, it’s important to start talking with their children anyway. Whiteness teaches us we’re supposed to be the experts with perfect answers. It’s an important learning experience for kids to see their parents say that they were wrong, thought about it, and learned something new. This work is always ongoing, and it can’t be avoided.
The book has been out for 3 years, have you seen any changes since then? What do you think about the recent backlash in schools?
Jennifer Harvey’s response:
- Yes, I see a lot of changes, even before 2020. Since 2014, I started seeing significant changes in predominantly-white spaces in acknowledging that we didn’t even have the tools to begin dealing with racism – when young people rose up in Ferguson. The backlash is expected, and it’s evidence that people are scared, and this is a good sign. In 2020, many people were mobilized who had not been before, because Black Lives Matter was so effective in working for so long. It’s important to stay locally engaged, e.g., at the school board meetings. This creates relationships and solidarity with Black and Brown families who are doing this because their lives are at stake. Being in the same space as people who are vulnerable to the backlash political messaging is important in order to counter that messaging.
One colleague commented on the role of social media in promoting the far-right in Europe. Ireland has only become a multicultural space in the last 40 years. Despite identifying as welcoming, Ireland is often quite racist. How do we respond to the challenges of social media?
Jennifer Harvey’s response”
- Antiracism feels the most daunting in the context of social media, especially with the pandemic. I don’t know how to create family and school cultures and structures to combat that.
One colleague also wondered how much family life training can work as a bulwark against everything else in society. Eventually children grow up, go on social media, get a job, have many other powerful influences beyond family.
Jennifer Harvey’s response:
- I haven’t read any studies on this yet. Just as silence at home can allow racism to fester, justice-conscious speech at home is not enough. It’s not just about parents modeling antiracism, but about the broader community, the village that raises each child. A child can see many adults living out their values, and sometimes would rather talk to a different adult than their mom. School spaces are also crucial since kids spend so much time there. Building relationships with the parents of kids’ classmates is important. Values-laden connection matters, even with all the risks out there. We are still making it up as we go.