Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America
Paperback: Abingdon, 2018
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Reviewed by Cindy Wang Brandt
I have a mission: to do justice alongside my kids and all the children of our generation. But my firm conviction is that in order to do justice with them, we must first act justly towards them. For example, the best way to end vicious cycles of violence in the world is to begin by treating our children with gentleness in the home. And yet white kids, existing at the intersection of racial justice and justice for children, has been such a conundrum for the conversation—a paradox I’ve struggled to resolve—because it feels anything but gentle to raise white children into the awareness of their complicity in a racist society. Jennifer Harvey, in her latest book, Raising White Kids, demonstrates that power can and and does indeed arise out of softness, as she treats this highly contentious societal toxicity with the utmost empathy for parents—providing a “race and justice-conscious schema,” the term she uses to help parents raise white kids into a healthy self identity.
I’m grateful to Harvey for validating my own angst in the struggle to address parenting white children by naming that being white is a “vexed location.” Citing a sociological study from the 90s, Harvey finds that white children feel a palpable distress at their own whiteness, because to celebrate it is taboo, to name it is to confront a racist history and admit unearned privilege, and to ignore it is to live in dissonance with reality of a racial hierarchy. Harvey incisively nails the importance and the urgency in which parents ought to address race with their white kids for their own good, without centering white feelings. She consistently calls attention to the work led by people of color, as well as honoring the agency of the children.
In fact, it’s clear that Harvey, a white parent of white children herself, has done her homework in listening to leaders and friends of color herself. When her daughter sings the popular children’s song which begins with, “One little, two little, three little…” she asks her not to, because “the people who that song is about—Native American people—don’t like that song. They’ve said it’s disrespectful to them. And since they’ve said that, I think we shouldn’t sing it.” Her anti racism work arises out of deep listening and respect to those who suffer the oppressions of racism. As a person of color myself, I felt profound solidarity in the chapter titled, “Our Bodies in Racial Scripts,” in which she paints a scenario in the most innocent and apolitical location, Chuck E. Cheese, to describes how we feel racism in the air, around the people in the room, and in our bodies. “I know, because I have heard people of color say it many times, when you are a Latino/a person or African American person walk into a room of twenty-five white people you feel it. We feel race. Race is in our bodies.”
Racism is a deadly poison but so often erased from our conversations with young children because sensible adults know not to handle toxic substances in the presence of still developing young minds. And yet Harvey tells us it is far more harmful if we do not address it, because without making the invisible visible, it seeps into our pores, internalized into the racial scripts of our children’s lives. She does the hard work for us, the work of finding vocabulary to name our experiences, with articulate logic, researched evidence, and concrete examples of race-conscious parenting scripts. But all the reason in the world cannot save us unless we are also compelled by the beauty of radical hope. Harvey risks herself and her family in love in writing this book, as she shares vulnerably of a heartrending incident when her daughter crafted a colorful sign for a Black Lives Matter protest with these words:
“Black Lives Mater. They mater the same as whites. Stop killing them.” Below the sign, she lists this:
“People that are Blak are: t. (her cousin) a. (her cousin) topi (her aunt).”
The most dangerous part of anti-racism work with our children is not the risk of violence during protests or the imperfection of our methods, it is that our hearts may not survive the breaking by the stories of injustice and then by the beauty of hope rising from the most unexpected places like a protest sign from a seven year old girl.
What I feared most from one of the first pages into this book is that it is too hard. White people will find it more comfortable to pass on the book, because to engage in persistent learning and advocacy, alongside our children, is too tall of an order. Indeed, the book demands that parents of white children first move through their own racial development in order to model and provide a race conscious schema for their white kids. Some of the pitfalls, such as perpetuating the harmful colorblind ideology, takes painful dismantling of white parents’ blind spots. For those unacquainted with race conversations, or emerging into initial racial awareness, this book may not be as accessible. But for those who are committed to the racial health of their white children, and dedicated to eradicating racial inequities so that all children might thrive, Raising White Kids is an essential toolkit to begin rewriting the racial script of our time.