This past October, my son and his classmates lobbied their small private school to change the official holiday of Columbus Day to Native People's Day. My son wrote a short letter to the faculty explaining why they shouldn't celebrate white imperialism, and that native peoples were too often ignored or erased or pushed to the side in discussions of American history. Some parents didn't like the change, but the teachers and administration were supportive, and they changed the name.
As you'd imagine, my wife and I were very proud. We’d hoped to teach our son anti-racism, and here he was doing anti-racist activism in his own small way. We were glad we'd sent him to a school that encouraged kids to speak up, and was open to change.
One of our ongoing societal challenges will be figuring out ways to move beyond individual education and address the root issues of inequality — and our role in upholding them.
At the same time, though, the school is a private school. Sending kids to private school is an option you only have if you have a certain amount of money. In paying for him to go to that school, we were at least partially abetting a system that benefits more affluent people. And affluent people in the U.S. are often (though not always) white. We sent our son to a school that taught and encouraged anti-racism. But teaching people to be anti-racist doesn't necessarily address the structure of racism itself. In fact, racist structures often determine who does and does not have access to these kinds of educational opportunities. One of our ongoing societal challenges will be figuring out ways to move beyond individual education and address the root issues of inequality — and our role in upholding them.
Margaret Hagerman, a sociologist at Mississippi State University, talks about these difficult contradictions in her book, “White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege In a Racially Divided America.” Hagerman spent two years with 30 families in a midwestern city observing affluent white parents and their children and interviewing both groups about race and racism. She babysat, took kids to activities and listened in the car as they gossiped. Some kids claimed that black students in their schools sold drugs and were dangerous. Others talked about ways in which black friends were unfairly singled out for punishment, or even had their bathroom access restricted.
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Hagerman found important differences in the ways that parents talked to their children about race, and important differences in the ways that kids responded. But she also found that white parents — even anti-racist white parents — actively reproduce inequality.
Hagerman found important differences in the ways that parents talked to their children about race, and important differences in the ways that kids responded.
It may seem like there's already more than enough writing about white children. After all, the vast majority of children's literature is about white kids. But, Hagerman told me by phone, "while there is a lot of writing about white kids, there is not a lot from a critical race perspective. Much of the developmental psychology literature uses white kids as the sample, but doesn't interrogate what whiteness means or how it situates them in society." White children are everywhere, but their whiteness is effectively invisible and unspoken.
Some parents, Hagerman found, preferred to keep race unspoken. Families she interviewed in a wealthy, conservative suburb, for example, tended to avoid the topic of race with their children. "They adhered to a color blind way of thinking," Hagerman told me. "They would say that race doesn't matter, or that we're beyond race." One girl told Hagerman that in her school, they weren't even allowed to say the word "racist" — it was on a list of forbidden words that also included homophobic, sexist, and racist slurs.
Kids from these families were so worried about being labeled racist that they were reluctant to identify people as black or white. Yet, obviously, the children could see racial differences — and when pressed they would sometimes say things that were racist. Hagerman reports white children telling her that black children got in trouble in school because of the way they were raised. One 12-year-old white child told Hagerman that police treat white people worse than black people — an argument contradicted by a mountain of evidence.
People who identified as more politically liberal were much more willing to acknowledge the existence of racism, and to talk to their children about it. Many of these parents identified as specifically anti-racist, and were determined to teach their kids to work against bigotry and inequality. Parents encouraged their kids to do charitable work, for example, both in their own communities and on (expensive) overseas trips.
Yet, as Hagerman told me, "all of these families in their own ways were participating in the reproduction of racial inequality." Children were sent to private school, or when they went to public school benefited from private tutors or enrichment classes. Even community service can reproduce racist ideas. It's hard to see people as equals when you always have power over them, or when your primary experience with them involves giving them charity.
The spectacle of well-intentioned people working, half unconsciously, to solidify and perpetuate their own power is not an encouraging one. "I feel like my findings are pretty dismal," Hagerman admits. "When you have people who have a lot of wealth alongside this racial privilege, they're ultimately making decision that benefit their own kids, and I don't know how you really interrupt that."
Hagerman’s findings do offer at least one glimmer of hope. White children, she found, don't automatically reproduce the racial ideology of their parents. One white boy she interviewed, for example, disliked his private school in part because he felt the children were too privileged and too racially isolated.
On the other hand, children of anti-racist parents would sometimes use racist stereotypes or make racist comments. Kids aren't copies of their parents, which means as a society they can become better…or worse. "I don't want to paint this as, 'we're all going to be okay because of the kids!'" Hagerman told me. But the possibility for change is at least potentially positive.
As for white adults, Hagerman says, if they really want a less racist world, they may need to rethink how they approach parenting. "Everyone is trying to do the best for their kid," she says. "But I actually think that there are times when maybe the best interest of your own kid isn't actually the best choice. Ultimately, being a good citizen sometimes conflicts with being good parents. And sometimes maybe parents should decide to be good citizens over being good parents." That could mean voting to raise taxes so to better fund public schools. Maybe in our case it should have meant choosing a public school rather than a private one.
Of course, as a parent, you want the best possible future for your child. But the best possible future should include a society that isn't organized around racism. Hagerman's book is a careful, painful and convincing argument that when white people give their children advantages, they are often disadvantaging others. Racism is so hard to overturn, in part, because white people prop it up when they work to make sure their children succeed.