On Raising White Kids

by Danielle Veith

I’m a white mom. I have two white kids. There’s a lot I can ignore and avoid with them. I try not to avoid everything, but I get to make that choice. I get to decide when I want to turn a comment into a teaching moment. And when I’m tired or can’t think of what to say, I get to let it go.

At preschool, my daughter’s teacher spent several months working with her class on a self-portrait project that focused their attention on how to mix paint to match each of their different skin colors, their eye colors, the colors of their hair.

My five-year-old daughter calls her skin color pink. She doesn’t understand why we call someone’s hair “red” when it looks closer to orange. When she’s talking about someone in public, she identifies people by the color of their clothing. Once, she saw a tall black man walking down the street dressed head to toe in white, complete with a white hat, and said, “Look at that fancy white man.”

I didn’t correct her. Should I have? If I told her he was a black man, she would have looked at me like I didn’t know my colors. I’m pretty sure I’ve told her that people would call her skin color white, but I don’t even remember what she said to that.

What would it be like, as a parent, to have to tell your kids that some people will hate them, fear them, treat them badly because of the color of their skin? I don’t know. But it’s important that I try to imagine how that would feel.

As a white mother trying my best to raise children who embrace the diversity all around them, what are my obligations? My mother, raised by parents with racist ideas, chose color-blind as a better path, saying racial diversity was a revelation to her, that it confused her that there was any difference. It was a big leap for one generation.

My generation has been taught to look at things in a different way, to reject the idea of a melting pot as a failed attempt at seeing everyone as the same. Call it a salad or a rainbow or whatever you like, but we grew up in an era of different as beautiful. What will our kids see?

Children notice differences from a very early age, including racial differences. If we—especially white parents—try to ignore racial difference or pretend we’re all the same, they will get confused and navigate these questions on their own.

At two and five, my kids are still so young that talking about racial injustice would likely just confuse them. We’re in the take-it-as-it-comes stage, though I don’t always seize the opportunity when it pops up, always in an unplanned moment.

The first time my daughter ever verbalized anything about race was during a playdate when she was about two. One of her closest friends at the time was an African-American boy, just a little younger than her, who had been adopted by white parents. The kids were dressed in tutus and wings and sitting across the room from us, side by side, looking out the window. She turned to him and gently stroked his naked shoulder, saying, “Your skin is so… dark... and beautiful." His mother and I stared at each other, speechless for a moment. Then the kids started running around like two year olds again and we knew that we missed an opportunity. What should we have said? I still don’t really know.

I’m sure a lot of white parents have stories like this, maybe just as charming and sweet and innocent. I imagine that there is a different kind of moment that African-American parents share of their children’s first encounters with racism, not charming or sweet in any way. It’s heartbreaking to imagine this kind of moment, when a small child’s world is penetrated by the hateful thoughts of another person.

All parents will eventually witness their children learning about evil in the world, but I imagine non-white children don’t get to keep their innocence quite so long as my kids will.

When my first was a baby, I remember reading something about a study that showed that white babies get more attention from strangers, more people smiling at them and telling their parents how cute they are. I thought of that often as my little white girl was being doted upon. And I think about it when I see black or brown babies and try to remember to smile at them and tell their parents how cute they are. I know it helped me through hard days as a new mom to get that kind of attention and it sucks that not everyone gets that in the same measure.

More recently, my daughter said to me, “Everyone is nice, right mommy?” I did my best to say no in the least scary way I could. She’s old enough now and without me often enough to need to hear about stranger danger and other kinds of badness she might encounter.

I walk through the world with a lot of fear. I have intrusive racist thoughts that I have to acknowledge and fight against. I try not to cross the street to avoid imagined danger from people who are used to watching people cross the street away from them. But as a white woman, my natural anxiety is constantly reinforced by a world that tells me that I have every reason to be afraid.

As I absorb the events following the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and worry about the impact of his killer’s acquittal on the world in which I raise my children, I am left wondering what I can do.

Perhaps the best thing I can do is to teach my children not to be afraid.

Last summer around this time, a national conversation reverberated from the ignorant comments of Rep. Todd Akin about “legitimate rape.” I think a lot of people learned for the first time that nearly every woman lives their life afraid of being raped, that it is something on our minds all the time.

I hear echoes of that conversation in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. Just as women began to more publicly talk about rape and the fears that women face that their bodies are never fully safe, African-American men are stepping forward and talking about the fear they live with every day. And parents are talking about the fears they carry with them constantly about their black children, especially their boys.

It’s not that this is a complete revelation, but I can’t remember another moment when so many black men talked about the fears they live with in such a public way. I’m sure there are many white people who are seeing this, really imagining what it must be like, for the first time. More than I believe anything else about the world, I believe that the world gets a little better every time we honestly share our different experiences.

Listening to another parent talk about how my internalized anxiety is a part of what has built a world in which they don’t feel like their kids are safe is very moving. I want to be less afraid. I want to remember Trayvon Martin when I look at the young black men walking around my neighborhood.

Just as women are talking about teaching their sons how not to rape, instead of only teaching our daughters how not to get raped, white parents need to teach our children how not to be afraid of people with darker skin than ours. And, judging from some online dialogues I’ve read, I need to teach my son to recognize his white, male privilege, not to believe his advantages in life are because he works harder or his dad works harder than someone else’s.

There will be time when they’re older for them to learn the truth about American history. For now, I wish I better understood how to talk to my children about racial prejudice without introducing the idea of racism before they ever experience it. I could wait until there is a moment where we encounter some injustice, but I feel that will be too late. As I work to figure this out, their white innocence continues.

Like with much of parenting, I suppose I will stumble my way through this with as much love and good intention as I can manage. With Trayvon’s mother in my heart, I can promise that I will do what I can to teach my son and my daughter to not fear different faces. Not to be afraid of someone else’s child. So that child may live with a little less fear that my child might do him harm.

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