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Let’s Talk About White Kids and White Parenting

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Recently, Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot by police officers in front of his three children not far from here in Kenosha, WI. He was trying to intervene in a domestic dispute and was shot seven times within minutes of police arriving. As parents, our hearts burn with thoughts of what this experience was for his children and the ongoing trauma it will bring, while we also acknowledge that we cannot fathom the full extent of it.

A few days later, amidst the protests in downtown Kenosha of Jacob Blake’s shooting and this constant string of Black violence at the hands of police, a white, right-wing vigilante shot into a crowd with a rifle and killed two and injured another. We wonder about the children in these people’s lives, their loss, and the ways in which this will change them forever.

And we think about Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year old shooter. He is a child, really, and more significantly to us white parents, a white child. But when we think about him, our first reaction may be to mark him a white supremacist, from a white supremacist family and a white supremacist community. Nothing like us or our families, and while unfortunate, not something we can do anything about.

We don’t know much about Kyle Rittenhouse’s family. What if his family is more like ours than we realize? What if his parents didn’t consciously raise him to be racist and violent? What if his parents didn’t raise him to value and protect “property” more than human life? What if, instead, his parents just didn’t do much to interrupt the racist ideas that a white supremacist society provides every day, especially to white children?

It’s beyond debate now that our society is not “post-racial” or that a “colorblind” approach is useful in our communities or in our parenting. Children take in many messages about race simply by living in the world. What we say and don’t say as parents matters. A colorblind approach doesn’t put racism in the past; it provides a silence that reinforces the messages children receive as they move through our too segregated lives, often separated from meaningful interactions with Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC).

Children as young as two begin to group people by race and use this to make sense of their world. They are shaped by the ways the media often portrays white as “normal” and BIPOC individuals and communities as “different” and “deviant.” They pick up these ideas more in how they hear adults around them talk about “good” schools and neighborhoods. And yet, if we actually talk with our kids about “race” and “racism” from the time that they are young (most BIPOC parents start to talk about race when their kids are two to three years old!) we can help them make sense of the messages they’re taking in and begin to dismantle the white supremacist, anti-Black, and racist ideas.

Simply talking is not enough. Children pay close attention to our actions as well. This includes whether or not we show up at the march and participate in protest and resistance, but also a lot more. They notice where we spend our time, which businesses or community events we frequent, and what the people look like there. They also notice how much time we spend at our jobs and how we may always be in pursuit of the nicer car or the bigger house or the blow-out birthday party. They notice when we leave our public institutions, like our schools, or move to a “better” (whiter) suburb. They notice the ways we value our own security and comfort over the security and comfort of others. But what we need is for our children to see us actively recognizing, valuing, supporting and connecting ourselves to the excellence of our BIPOC community members.

Our children notice the skin color of other kids on the playgrounds and in their schools. They look to us for subtle cues as to whether these kids are playmates or too different to play with. They watch how we interact with their parents and other adults. They notice if we intervene with their teachers or a coach on their behalf, demanding that their unique needs are met, regardless of time or resources or negative consequences that may have on others. Our children, especially our white male children, are also influenced by how much space and voice we allow or expect of them and they carry that sense of privilege forward. Do our actions suggest to white kids that they are better or more deserving than others? What we do and how we do it matters.

There are messages we allow to come into our homes too. Does our children’s television, games, books, magazines, music suggest that white people are the majority or the “norm”? Regardless of the representation of people in this media, or lack thereof, there may be other messages our children are exposed to regularly that uphold white supremacy. Maybe these stories normalize “good guys” and “bad guys,” make heroes out of cops or soldiers, prioritize adherence to authority (especially if that authority has a gun), and portray violence as natural and necessary. Do these messages emphasize individual actions and individual accumulation of “stuff,” or messages of community, cooperation, and collective well-being?

There are things we can do. We can have conversations with our kids about our anti-racist values and the future beyond racist oppression and exploitation that we want to see. We can talk with our kids about our own anti-racist journeys and what we’ve learned along the way, including how we’ve messed up, picked ourselves up, sought to make amends, and recommitted to the work. We could talk with them about how we’re trying to place ourselves and our ancestors into the context of 400+ years of systemic racial oppression and seeking to make sense of what our contribution to repair looks like. We can talk with our children about how we think white supremacy has cut ourselves off from right relations within our own families and our broader communities, and how we might look to BIPOC communities here and around the world for better ways to live together on this planet. We can involve our children in this ongoing work, define with them our roles in this movement to a better future, and figure out how best to support each other and be accountable as white people committed to racial justice.

We can’t “achieve” anti-racist parenting. While being anti-racist isn't a destination we arrive at, we can commit to and apply anti-racism each day in our actions and in our parenting. We parent within systems and a culture rooted in white supremacy. We will make mistakes. We will be faced with difficult choices shaped by the structures we live within. But we can engage in a process where we constantly reflect critically on our parenting and on our language, actions, and inactions with a lens of dismantling white supremacy, anti-blackness, and racism. We can make this visible to our children and to other parents, work together, support each other, and hold each other accountable in the difficult work towards a better future.

Interested in thinking more about this?

Families for Justice is a network of people working to dismantle white supremacy through multi-generational community organizing and direct action.

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