anti-racism for white people

White Parents: “Teach Your Children Well” to Understand Anti-Racism

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anti-racism for white people

White parents, this is an open letter to you from another white parent. I’m a white mother of a white male-presenting child. As we watch our country burn, we watch the miasma of racism float in the ashes of our streets. We see the patchwork quilt of America on the faces marching the sidewalks—Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, and white.

Yet.

Yet, the supposed values that should be embedded in this quilt, keeping our families and children wrapped tightly in freedom, do not exist.

As white parents, we have a duty. As Americans, we have a duty. As citizens of the world, again, we have a duty.

Sitting here, I can’t help but be haunted by the 1960s Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song, “Teach Your Children.” White parents, we need to teach our children well, or else this hell will not slowly go by. Nor, frankly, should it.

Listen to Black Parents

If nothing else binds all of us together—regardless of race—it’s our positions as parents. Nearly all parents want to protect their children from harm. We swaddle them. We feed them. We raise them. This desire to protect transcends all other aspects of our lives, creating our deep connections with our children.

Even in his last moments, George Floyd called out for his mother. On May 29, 2020, author Christy Oglesby wrote an article titled, “I need white mamas to come running.” Listen to what Black mothers are asking of us. If you’ve ever helped another woman’s child bandage a skinned knee, then you know treating other children the way you would treat your own is encoded in you.

Yet.

Yet time and again, we white mothers fail to treat Black sons and daughters as our own once they are no longer children.

We must listen to the Black voices in our communities. Listen to their cries for help. Listen to their children—both youth and adults—ask us to stand with them and tell us how to stand with them.

Silence, when used to continue oppression, is violence. Silence, when used to listen and truly hear, is allyship.

Teach Ourselves About Anti-Racism

We learn much as parents. At some point, almost every parent reads a parenting book. We taught ourselves ways to protect our children.

Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s have the “I don’t see color” mentality ingrained in us. We cannot pass that lesson on to our children. Black parents are telling us, time and again, that “colorblindness” perpetuates institutionalized, systemic racism.

Anti-racism goes beyond the multiculturalism we learned as children.  Mary Pender Greene, a Black social worker, described the difference in her article “Beyond Diversity and Multiculturalism: Toward the Development of Anti-Racist Institutions and Leaders.” As White parents, we should start thinking about the way she explains anti-racist work:

The core of anti-racist work is to seek to recognize institutional bias and to make structural changes that are supported by policies and procedures that are accountable with outcomes of equity.

Speaking for myself, I can say that I struggle with anti-racism and know that I need to learn more so that I can teach my child to be better than I am. The inherent biases I hold as a White woman whisper in my ear daily, thoughts that I hope to check and hope to erase. However, like many other White parents, I often fail. I need to do my best to make sure that my White child is better than me. 

Now, as white parents, we need to learn how we can help protect Black sons and daughters. We need to listen to Black parents as they tell us what they need us to learn. As a White person learning about anti-racism, I implore you to do the same. 

We need to educate ourselves about anti-racism and how to promote anti-racism in our children. But we need to listen to those who have the Black lived experience. They are crying out, asking the white mamas (and fathers) to come running. They are giving us anti-racism resources.

White parents, if we’re truly listening, then we need to read resources provided by the Black community. We must start by teaching ourselves what allyship means. Only then can we truly teach our children.

Teach Our Children

Our children will grow to become the next leaders of this world. We must teach our children what Black parents ask us to teach them.

Part of our white privilege is that we can decide “when” we feel our children are “ready” to learn about racism. Black parents are not afforded this opportunity. In this, we have failed Black parents and their children.

We need to teach our children how to be anti-racist even before we think they’re ready. Why should our children, simply because they were born white, be “allowed” an innocence that so many Black children are not afforded? Even more to the point, why should Black children have their innocence stolen simply because they were born Black?

For example, many white parents, particularly of the Gen X generation, taught our white children the lesson we learned from Mr. Rogers—that police officers are “the helpers.” Yet, daily, we see news items that tell us differently. We watch as police officers do the exact opposite of “help” to Black people like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, and too many others to list.

I can hear your inner voice (or maybe your outdoor voice even) say, “but not all police officers.” Perhaps you have a family member who is one. Perhaps you are one. This, however, is not about you. 

The “helpers” individually may not always be the problem. The institutions and systems to which the helpers belong, however, are. The history of American policing is rooted in slavery and racism. The institutions and systems that exist to control Black bodies need to be dismantled. All children should feel safe to turn to “the helpers.”

In fact, if we teach our children earlier, they won’t hold beliefs that create cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance—defined as holding multiple conflicting thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes about behaviors or actions—makes it even more difficult for children to learn later in life that the “helpers” are not always helpful.

If our white children grow up believing that the “helpers” are always good, they will find police brutality even more difficult to understand. They will be further inculcated into the white privileged belief system that has allowed these incidents to go unchecked for so long. They will be unable to use their white privilege to dismantle these systems and institutions. We need to be the ones who teach them what anti-racism is, even when we are still working on it ourselves. 

Pressure Your Schools to Be Anti-Racist

Schools, like police departments, are institutions. If I’ve learned anything as a parent, it’s that what I teach at home can be untaught easily in a school setting.

White parents, particularly those in predominantly white school districts, need to use their white privilege to pressure their schools and districts to be anti-racist.

We need to open our eyes, truly open them, and look around our children’s schools. Look at the books in our children’s classrooms and libraries. Look at the social studies lessons. Then, we must ask ourselves and our schools/districts:

  • What are the lessons our children are learning?
  • What books can we add to our libraries to teach anti-racist lessons?
  • How do the school assignments—whether consciously or subconsciously—reinforce institutionalized racism?

Take, for example, a fourth-grade history project. When my child was in fourth grade, the assignment was to learn about a historical figure in our state, write a report, and dress up as that person to deliver a presentation. Although there were Black historical figures listed, the “dress up as that person” acted either as a barrier to learning or as potentially racist blackface. When I emailed the teachers about this, my child’s teacher changed the assignment to read, “dress up as the person or someone connected to the person’s life.”

One simple change. One additional phrase. Suddenly, my white child would learn about Walter “Doc” Hurley, an important Black historical figure in our state’s history, and read about the struggles he faced. My white child might not have learned about Hurley if I hadn’t brought up the way the assignment erased him from white children’s education.

White parents, these are the types of actions we need to take. Most importantly, when those inherent biases whisper in our ears that something isn’t important, we need to listen to the voices who say that the concern is important. We need to use the power that comes with our white privilege to support those voices seeking to change the policies and procedures that reinforce institutionalized racism. We need to make sure that our white children can empathize with the struggles their Black peers face. We need to dismantle the hidden, underlying biases across these institutions.

Feed Them on Your Dreams

Today, as we look at the world around us, it’s almost impossible to feel that we can still have dreams for our children. We watch as police use pepper spray on Black children, clucking to ourselves, “how could they be so barbaric?” We hold signs at protests proclaiming, “No Justice, No Peace” or “Silence is Violence.” We shake our heads in despair that three other officers did nothing to stop Chauvin from kneeling on George Floyd’s neck as he screamed out for his mama.

And yet, Chauvin was some White parents’ child once.

Those white parents and the schools that reinforced institutionalized, systemic racism failed George Floyd. They failed Breonna Taylor and Rodney King and Amadou Diallo and all of the other Black people murdered in cold blood by the “helpers.”

In a few weeks or months, protests will die down. They always do. My question to other white parents is: What will we do when anti-racist work is no longer “sexy”? Will we go beyond performative actions? What actions will we take when anti-racist work becomes difficult and tedious?

And so, it is on us to feed our children on our dreams. To pick the ones that we want them to know us by. To make them the change that the Black community needs them to be in this world. Because this is not about us white people or about our white children.

Stan Lee’s Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Our white privilege unfairly gives us social, economic, and political power. And with that power, comes great responsibility.

We are responsible for listening to Black parents tell us what we need to learn. We are responsible for responding, “I hear you. I will listen.” We are responsible for passing Black parents’ message on to our white children. We are responsible for using our white privilege to help dismantle institutionalized, systemic racism.

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