Alt-Parenting: This Race Matters — Talking to My Kids About Their White Privilege

jelly-baby-631848_640One picture-perfect Sunday afternoon last month, my family gathered at my house for our 4th Annual Tomato Fest, where we can tomatoes, make fresh pasta and enjoy a meal together. This year’s festivities were somewhat interrupted by a text message my mom received about a “Black Lives Matter” rally on Main Street in East Greenwich, the town in which I live. I hadn’t heard of anything and therefore rushed to my computer to get the details. Could it be that my homogenous, Republican town has jumped on the racial awareness bandwagon? How exciting!

I quickly found that yes, people in my town were rallying to support black rights. Sadly, however, the rally was a response to something quite disturbing. Some brain-dead, Class A moron dropped flyers at people’s doorsteps titled “White Lives Matter.” The flyer discussed the fact that whites in America are losing their majority status. They are, after all, only 63% of the population (even though the other 37% is a mix of races, making us a majority of epic proportions, you boob). White people were urged to preserve their future, but thankfully no suggestions on how to do this were provided.

How could this happen in my town? How could anyone be so ignorant in this day and age? I told my family the whole story; everyone was equally horrified. Then we went back to our canning.

In case you haven’t figured this out for yourself, I should inform you that I’m your stereotypical white woman of privilege. I visit farmer’s markets, love a strong cup of French-press coffee, do yoga regularly and feel a slight thrill upon hearing of the opening of a fabulous new ethnic restaurant. People, I just used the word “fabulous.” Enough said.

Aside from being white, I am also extremely liberal and therefore care deeply about racial equality, but, like many in my position, do diddly-squat to promote it. I live peacefully in my white bubble, thinking I’m doing enough when I vote for Barack Obama, put pictures of Idris Elba on my hot men Pinterest Board, and treat people of color with kindness. But do I, or my children, have friends of color? No. Do I belong to a racially diverse church or organization? No. Do I attend rallies for racial equality? No. Instead like a bad cliché, I overcompensate by being ultra nice when I see someone of color. “Look, I’m not a racist!” I’m practically shouting. I have no idea how to act because I haven’t integrated my world in the slightest. I’m totally full of shit.

It’s not entirely my fault. I grew up in the ‘70s in a town with zero diversity where you were either of Irish heritage, Italian or a mix of both. Either way, you were most certainly Catholic. Our notion of diversity was accepting the Baptists and the Lutherans. I’d never even met a Jewish person until I went to college.

Since then I’ve grown by leaps and bounds. I attribute much of my growth to the fact that I’ve traveled to many parts of the globe; most of the countries being third world.  Through travel I’ve learned respect and deference for cultural differences, which is nice and all….but I still don’t have any black friends.

I’d hoped my children would have a more diverse upbringing, but here we are in East Greenwich. Yes we chose to live in a mostly white community, but it was a choice borne out of my desire to give my kids the best education possible. I have no regrets as I love my town, but we had to choose between living in an ethically, socially and economically diverse community and getting a stellar education, as we couldn’t have both. The stark reality is that the towns with the better schools are white. Ouch…it hurts to even write that.

So how can I raise socially responsible, racially conscious children while living in a white bubble? How can their generation do better than ours, so all kids might have equal access to good education, regardless the color of their skin?

In search of answers, I turned to a book I’d read a few years ago, Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. The book is a series of essays on things we thought we knew about bettering our children, but we were wrong (think praise). I reread the chapter “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” in which the authors discuss the fact that well-meaning white people avoid the topic of race and instead preach, “We’re all the same,” (sound familiar?). Kids, on the other hand, don’t see us as the same so it ends up confusing them. In addition, we tend to identify with people who look and act like we do. Therefore, living in a diverse community is no guarantee that kids of all races will mingle. As a matter of fact, the more diverse the community, the more likely kids will group themselves according to race. If you’ve seen “Orange is the New Black,” this should come as no surprise.

Are we a lost cause? Bronson and Merryman don’t think so. They believe the answer is simple: Talk openly about race with our children as early as possible. They’re not talking about just saying, “We’re different, but the same.”  They’re talking about specifics. Make history a part of that conversation and don’t sugarcoat the reality of the oppression and discrimination blacks have suffered in this country (and continue to suffer) at the hands of white people. Also, take cues from your child. You know when your kid makes a comment in public about skin color and you pray to be swallowed up by the floor?  We’ve all been there, right? Our instinct is to quiet our child and pretend the comment didn’t happen.  Or worse, we try to deny the very difference our child is seeing with his own eyes. Don’t. Instead view the comment as an opportunity to engage in dialogue.

My boys are almost 6 and 9 so I feel like I still have time to do the right thing. I have started talking to my older son about slavery and the recent onslaught of police shootings of young black men. We also discuss the lack of African Americans at his school. I want him to understand his white privilege and to appreciate everything he’s been given so I speak of this often. My younger son, who’s as pale as a full moon with bleached blonde hair and blue eyes, pines for brown skin. So I talk to him of the beauty of all skin color as I feel he’s too young to get much else. Once my boys are a bit older, we’ll start traveling to places – other than “It’s a Small World” at Disney — where they can see firsthand that the world is full of different yet wonderful people.

Will all of this make a difference? Is talking about the issue enough? I have no idea. I doubt my boys will have a group of friends that resemble those United Colors of Benetton ads, but I want them to be aware that they can make a difference, even if I have no idea how. Sadly racism is alive in well in this country, even here in the progressive state of Rhode Island.  That nasty flyer in my town is living proof. This cancer will continue to persist unless we, as parents, make the next generation more enlightened.  If you’re like me and have no clue where to begin, start with a conversation. If you’re not like me and have this in the bag, please share your ideas as I’d love to hear from you. Maybe one day we’ll all be marching down Main Street. Better yet, maybe we won’t need to.

5 responses to “Alt-Parenting: This Race Matters — Talking to My Kids About Their White Privilege”

  1. Wow..what a great and perfectly written article Kim.. again, proud of you and what you do! Remember when you were in school in Smithfield, the ONLY black student was adopted by a white family… hopefully things are changing a bit.. we can all hope and support it as much as possible.

  2. Great article! I remember growing up being taught very explicitly that racism was a Southern issue. We didn't have racism in New England: in fact, 150 years ago our region was the center for abolitionism. No slaves = no problem.
    Yet somehow I thought (when I was very young) my white neighbor who worked in Newport on yatchs and was very tanned all year round was black. Because he was the darkest-skinned person in my town. And we might had a problem….
    I'm starting a social justice book club the 2nd Thursday of the month at Symposium Book store in PVD. We're starting off with Between the World and Me – a for real look at growing up black in this country.
    A good way to get the conversation started in substantive ways.

  3. excellent! is the book club open for anyone to join or by invite only?

  4. Jen Rudolph says:

    LOVE this article! I have two very (blond haired and blue eyed) white kids, ages 4 years and 8 months. While I often feel overwhelmed when I look at the lack of awareness regarding instutionalized racism, I wholeheartedly feel that the next generation will not be as tolerant as we have been. The best way to ensure that things will change is to talk openly and honestly to our kids! As white parents WE need to get our heads out of the sand and start talking. Thank you so much for writing this Kim!

  5. thanks for your comment! maybe we should start a group :).

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