For white teachers teaching white kids: in the shadow of the Zimmerman case

When my oldest child was about 3 we had an African family over for lunch who had a child about the same age.  Now we were a white family and this was a family with black skin.  I naively assumed this was an irrelevance.

Imagine my embarrassment when my usually friendly child flatly refused to let our visiting child into the sandpit.  I thought I would die of shame and embarrassment.  Somehow I had managed to bring up a racist in my midst.

Oh how naïve I was about race, about difference.  It was, of course, a naivety no non-white parent would ever have had.

I read a really useful blog recently by Jennifer Harvey which brought all this back to me.

Dear Parents of White Children, it began:

“I vote that we strike the following from our parental lexicon:

1. “Everybody is equal.”

2. “We’re all the same underneath our skin.”

I realize this is counterintuitive. But I’m completely serious.

These statements, she argues, are “stand-ins for the actual conversations about race, racial difference and racism we need to be having with our kids” – and of course with our students

Harvey, a professor of religion, gets her students to write racial autobiography papers. They are asked to describe the impact of racial identity in their life, including any significant experiences, teachings and thoughts pertaining to that identity at various life stages. They also have to interview 2 family members about their experiences.

Now anyone who has tried anything like this (and I do encourage you to give it an age appropriate go)  will know what comes next – white kids find this almost impossible

Time and again, my white students write that “everybody’s equal” is the “most important” thing their parents taught them about race. Time and again, a not-insignificant number of them then proceed to describe their present trepidation about a.) telling their parents they date interracially; b.) bringing home a Latino/a or black classmate; c.) Thanksgiving break, when everyone will silently tolerate the family member who makes racist comments; or d.) something else that reveals how deeply and clearly these students know this “most important teaching” doesn’t mean a hell of a lot to their actual white experience.

She goes on to say that

I know “everybody’s equal” means “we all deserve to be treated with fairness.” And when we tell kids we’re all the same underneath skin, gender, sexuality, physical abilities and other differences we’re trying to tell them we share human dignity and worth.

Obviously, I believe these things.

But, have you ever actually met a “generic” human? Someone without a race or a gender?

Well, guess what? Neither has your child.

And by the age of 3, our kids are aware of this fact, even though they don’t yet use adult categories to talk about it.

As teachers and parents, rising to the challenge to do better is not going to be easy – its not an easy matter.

If white children grow up in a world where simplistic platitudes pass for conversations about this deeply important and complex matter, is it any wonder white students are so racially baffled and behind and so ill equipped to join their non-white peers as allies in building more racially just futures.

As teachers and parents, rising to the challenge to do better is not going to be easy – its not an easy matter.

But as Harvey notes:

If we want our white children to live in a world with more racial justice than the one we live in now, we need to figure out how to have conversations with them as real, thick, painful, resilient, strategic and authentic as the conversations … parents [in non white families] had to have. So that our kids can help build that world.


Note: I realize that if you are reading this and you have not been deprived of tough conversations about race from an early age, chances are you did not grow up in an all white family.  This will all sound far too obvious to you – insultingly so.  But you need to give the rest of us a chance to catch up.


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