How White Supremacy Culture Shapes Your Parenting
And what we can do instead.
In 1999, Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones compiled a list of characteristics of “White Supremacy Culture” and began to share it in anti-racist circles. Okun and Jones wanted to make explicit these characteristics because “culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify.” In the years since, this list has been referenced in workshops and shared among friends and colleagues to shed light on the everyday ways that individuals, especially white people, perpetuate the system of white supremacy, often without knowing it. We too have found this list to resonate, helping us recognize and then disrupt harmful behaviors that are rooted in white supremacy.
Inspired by Okun and Jones’s list, we offer our own thoughts on how these characteristics of white supremacy culture carry over into parenting, especially within white families. It is important to note that our intention is to illuminate how white supremacy culture (WSC) – the subtle beliefs about white superiority and daily actions that exemplify this – influences parenting and not about how white supremacists or white nationalists parent. We believe that most families that enact these cultural characteristics, including our own, don’t set out to do so. But nevertheless we do because we have deeply internalized these characteristics and/or believe that other ways of being will disadvantage our children within the oppressive, exploitative society we inhabit. Some of these characteristics will likely also resonate with white caregivers raising children of color or to caregivers of color who have internalized these ways in order to function in this society.
Let’s be clear, WSC is not good for your child, no matter who they are. It undermines the physical and emotional safety of Black and Brown kids and families everyday. It dehumanizes and fractures community. And it teaches white kids how to be the dehumanizers, the fracturers, the ones enacting harm, small or large, or to just watch it happen. It says there is only one narrow way to be in this world, and anyone not in line will feel the consequences.
There are other ways to parent and we are likely already doing some of those things too. Our hope is that we can continue to grow and support each other in these other ways of parenting. Taking another cue from Okun and Jones, we offer in the table below some “antidotes” for these characteristics. Where WSC parenting emphasizes individualism, competition, scarcity-thinking, and narrow options, these “antidotes” emphasize collectivity and belonging, interdependence, abundance, and expansive possibilities. Our hope is that this list will encourage reflection, conversation, and shifts in our behaviors so that we may stop enacting WSC through our parenting and support each other in how we parent differently, in ways that are more nurturing, dignifying, and better for us all.
Finally, we do not intend for this list to be complete or “perfect,” but rather an initial offering of thoughts on WSC parenting and its antidotes. We would love to hear your reflections, additions, and suggestions.
Expecting that our children will be “above average” in all things, from academics, sports, music and art, and other areas.
Putting pressure on children, ourselves, and the adults they interact with in these areas to make sure they achieve.
Lifting up the humanity of kids and noting that being human involves making mistakes and that there is joy in many activities no matter our level of achievement.
Supporting our children in taking responsibility for their mistakes and holding ourselves accountable for our own, including mistakes in our parenting.
Sense of urgency
Rushing to ensure that our children meet milestones on-time or earlier than expected, from walking and talking to reading to advanced placement classes.
Using our networks, professional expertises, education, and other white privileges to gain early access to preferred child care centers, schools, sports teams, summer camps, and more.
Reminding yourself that variation is part of the beauty of humanity and that nurturing each child’s journey and unique strengths benefits our collective whole.
Pausing when we feel urgency to secure an opportunity for our children and asking yourself questions like, “Will this benefit my child only or is there a greater benefit?” “Am I taking a spot that would benefit someone else more?” and “Why does this feel so urgent?”
Because we believe our kids are entitled to happiness, to achievement, or are simply the standard to be upheld for other children, we will fight for them when this expectation is not met.
Disregarding and/or deriding the suggestions of childcare providers, teachers, or coaches of how to redirect our children because we believe we know our kids best.
In “advocating for our children,” we drown out other voices.
Recognizing feelings of defensiveness as cues that you are being offered feedback. Build your capacity to welcome feedback, process it, and use this to adapt, and model this for your children.
Learn to distinguish between when your desire to advocate is about something impacting your child alone, or about impacting many children. When it’s about many children, seek out the caregivers of color who are advocating and support their voices. When just about your child, reflect upon the root of your desires and what may be better steps for you to care for their needs.
Quantity Over Quality
Filling our kids’ time with after school, weekend, and summer arts, music, sports, enrichment and other activities to ensure they are “well-rounded.”
This drive to fill our kids’ time with experiences can lead to “opportunity hoarding,” or using our privilege and social capital to sign up for all the activities first or push our schools and community organizations to offer the activities that we value most and to the exclusion of others.
Making sure our children have unscheduled time for mind-wandering, creative play, to be in the company of others, and to practice being present with others. Knowing that boredom is okay. This will help them grow to be their best, most connected selves. This can also free us from the pressure to be constantly orchestrating our children’s lives.
Rather than hoard opportunity, ask why can’t there be more opportunity? Connect with other caregivers to advocate for more funding, more staffing, more programming, and more accessibility so that opportunities can be abundant.
Worship of the Written Word
Sending angry, well-articulated emails to teachers, coaches, elected officials and others to get what we want for our children, and devaluing or dismissing the communication of marginalized others, especially strong language or visible emotion.
Placing intense focus on literacy learning in reading and writing to the exclusion of other forms of communication or other learning.
Building your listening skills and attention to other types of communication (body language, artistic expression, etc.) and nurture this in your kids. Note when a message or messenger makes you feel uncomfortable and reflect on that together.
Recognizing the value of social emotional learning, the arts, and health and wellness in our schools and support these efforts.
Internalizing white cultural standards for child development and parenting to give unsolicited advice to caregivers of color on how they should raise their children.
Pausing and reflecting when we feel an urge to give advice to other caregivers and truly consider whether the advice is helpful and whether you’re the one to give it. If you do not have a strong relationship with the person, you probably should not.
Talking with your child about self-determination and who gets to make decisions for whom. Most often other caregivers know what’s best for their children.
Reinforcing binary notions of “good” and “bad” with the children’s stories, television, movies, media, and video games we provide access to, and in our conversations with our children about our society. When our children have conflict, we assume our white child to be innocent and assume the child of color to be in the wrong.
Talking with our kids about the complexity of people and situations and that life rarely fit into binaries of good/bad, right/wrong, us/them, etc. Seek out and discuss stories that help explore complexity together.
Recognizing your assumptions and questioning them, and engaging with the children and the other caregiver to come to a shared understanding of situations and responses.
Applying our networks, professional expertise, resources, and threats to withdraw to make sure our schools, programs, and other services cater to what we want for our children. In schools, this often involves talented and gifted programs, language offerings, music and theater programs, state-of-the art facilities, hand-picked teachers, and other asks that generally serve few and may overlook others’ interests.
Critiquing, undermining, or otherwise disrupting the efforts of caregivers of color to push for changes for their children.
Examining the feelings behind these urges to act and asking yourself, “Who benefits?” “Who is harmed?” and “What do others want to see happen?” If your efforts will benefit all children, ask “What people of color are leading in this effort and how can I support them?” Cultivating relationships with other caregivers committed to these antidotes so that you may turn to each other for critical reflections, “call-in” conversations, and taking accountability.
Fear of Open Conflict
Supporting discipline, punishment, and policing in our schools, as we have come to believe (consciously or not) that these practices protect our children from less-deserving children. Rather than address conflict ourselves, we trust that these institutions will do that for us.
Modeling for our children passive-aggressiveness and criticism of others behind closed doors.
Developing an orientation and practice within your family of productive conflict. This includes recognizing conflict as an opportunity for mutual growth, practicing deep listening, recognizing and naming your emotions, crafting solutions together, and being accountable for follow-through and our mistakes.
Paying little attention to how our children interact with peers and friends, within groups, and intergenerationally, and to our roles in nurturing collaboration and being part of a whole.
Crediting our children with success and/or emphasizing that their individual success matters more than that of a group.
Praising your children for their contributions to group accomplishments over individual achievements.
Expressing gratitude to your kids for ways in which they contribute in your family, school, neighborhood, and community.
Progress is Bigger, More
Falling into consumerist competitions with other families for the newest, best, and most exciting kids’ toys, birthday parties, clothes, activities, vacations, and more.
Making decisions with your time, energy, and resources to ensure your kids can have quality relationships and quality attention in their experiences.
Remembering that how you spend your time and money reflects your values and talking with your kids about how this impacts your decisions.
Conveying ideas that emotions are not important or are distractions and not then nurturing the emotional growth of our children, especially in our boys.
Fearing and/or disregarding the emotions of caregivers and children of color.
Helping your kids recognize, name, and decide how to respond to their emotions in a way that cares for themselves and others, and modeling this yourself. Acknowledging that navigating emotions is hard work and can be shared work.
Sharing and discussing with your kids books, movies, and music that lifts up the experiences and emotions of people not like you and nurturing empathy.
Right to Comfort
Getting defensive when our child has a bad experience, often attacking the other individuals involved without taking account the actions of our child or ourselves in the situation.
Responding with tears, anger, avoidance, or exiting when our parenting or its impacts is questioned.
Pausing when you feel defensive to reflect or connect with your support network before deciding your response.
Sharing with your kids your experiences of discomfort, how you’ve come to make sense of these feelings of discomfort, and the learning and change that came from it.
The phrase, “I’m just doing what’s best for my kid,” is a common one in parenting circles, said to justify all sorts of decisions parents make. Within WSC parenting, “what’s best” is often about something that gives your child an advantage over others and to help secure their status in a white supremacist hierarchy.
So what is best then, for white children or other children who have been parented in white supremacy culture? We think it starts with shifting from “what’s best for my kid” to “what’s best for ALL kids and our communities” and pushing ourselves to be on a different, more humanizing, parenting journey.
Families for Justice is a network of people working to dismantle white supremacy in Dane County and beyond through multi-generational community organizing and direct action. Learn more here.
Header photo by Taylor Heery on Unsplash.