Written by Heather Hernandez –
From Christine: I post this letter to support the growing collective of white people working intentionally to end racism in accountability to and in solidarity with people of color.
In the last week, I have found myself seeing social media posts from many white suburban mothers, like myself. In a nutshell, the vast majority have been looking for some way to help their children to both understand and fight racism. The response I have seen quite often included vague statements like, “I’m going to continue to teach compassion and acceptance to my children.” This made me angry, irrationally sick to my stomach angry, and I couldn’t quite pinpoint why I felt this way. I wrestled with my anger and came to some conclusions about the flaws in this “compassion and acceptance” logic.
First, it doesn’t work. Almost no one would argue against teaching compassion and acceptance to their children. Has the treatment of people of color in our country changed as a result? Based on what we can see quite clearly in the news: police murders of black individuals, disproportionate levels of poverty and incarceration of people of color, as well as continued discriminatory lending, housing, and school practices, I think we can quite clearly answer with a resounding no.
In addition, many of us white suburban mothers say we will “lead by example,” seeming to forget that we can teach compassion and acceptance all we want, but we live by choice in areas that are “safe,” have “good schools,” and not by coincidence, are predominantly white. Our children may know a handful of black families, and we pat ourselves on the back for that. But those living in middle class suburban neighborhoods almost certainly do not have populations of people of color equivalent to the population breakdown of the United States. We forget that, in leading by example, we have chosen to isolate ourselves from people of color, and our children see this. White suburbanites don’t view this lack of diversity as problematic in any meaningful way when we talk about race with our children. It’s just “the way things are.” Our children are smarter than we give them credit for. They pick up on the difference between words and actions, and we are sending very mixed messages with the actions that we take.
We also seem to ignore the bias that our children will be exposed to simply by existing in an age of media. When children are not exposed to people of color in their own lives, they get plenty of representation in the media, most of which is negative. Because this representation is so separate from their own lives, by default, people of color become an “other” group, and based on our own segregating actions, we enforce this notion. The idea of compassion and acceptance we preach is lost, because people of color exist outside of children’s worlds in any meaningful way.
The narrative stands in suburban motherhood. We are doing all we can, right? We are teaching our kids compassion and acceptance. But we are
If you haven’t seen this video, I recommend watching Jane Elliott, a nationally known diversity trainer, in a room full of white people. In one encounter, she asks white people to stand up if they would be happy to be treated as black citizens:
I want every white person in this room, who would be happy to be treated as this society in general treats our citizens, our black citizens. If you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society – please stand! – You didn’t understand the directions. If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society – stand! – Nobody is standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you are so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.”Jane Elliot
The narrative stands in suburban motherhood. We are doing all we can, right? We are teaching our kids compassion and acceptance. But we are not. We are teaching them that we will take advantage of good schools in safe neighborhoods, knowing that even if we worked hard to be there, we had a leg up due to the systems long embedded in this country, the ubiquitous white privilege that many of us really struggle to acknowledge, much less understand. Children see the inconsistency in our words and actions. We need to do better.
Black families who move into white neighborhoods have a choice, and one that they recognize comes with both advantages for their children, but also significant cost: cost of a loss of culture, loss of identity, and sense of otherness if not a loss of safety in a community full of white people. White people do not generally view a suburban neighborhood surrounded by others like them as lacking in any way. We, like most people, have provided the best opportunities we can for our children, and we have more opportunities than most to do this. Until we view this way of living as also a deficiency for our white children due to a lack of experience with those unlike us, we are not teaching them kindness and compassion. We are remaining silent, and maintaining the status quo, reinforcing the racist attitudes and beliefs that set up this system in the first place, and our children are smart enough to see that.
As I struggle with all of this, I realize that I may sound rather hypocritical to many, and I sound that way because I am a hypocrite. I think that is part of the reason I had such a visceral response to the “just teach your kids well” comments. I strongly identify with them. I am a white suburban mother, living and working in a predominantly white community. I have spent the early years of my children’s lives trying to protect them from scary things, like racism, and to teach them compassion and acceptance. I now realize that is not enough, will never be enough, and though I am not sure how to make major changes in my community, I do know how to make changes about how I speak to my children at home. Not only have I failed people of color, who have long suffered from racism, both overt and systemic in this country; I have failed my own children, who are unaware and isolated from the difficult racial history and present in this country, and who believe that compassion and acceptance is all it takes. Until I admit to them that I have hidden both our privilege, while simultaneously taking full advantage of it, I am not being real in my parenting and they are likely to repeat the same cycle: to be nice people, but nice people unable to push any sustainable, real change.
We need to explicitly teach the negatives of racism, both in what actually happens to people of color in our country and our community, and the ways we have been complicit. For me, my strong desire to avoid conflict means I have not spoken out when I should, and my children see this, though all along I have been preaching kindness to them. Teaching compassion and acceptance equates to being silent, complicit, and maintaining the status quo. We can see in the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests and riots, this is not an acceptable white answer to racism of any kind. It is not and will never be enough.
I have presented many challenges to the way many white suburban families go about parenting their children. Luckily, though I have few answers, people of color have been putting options out there for decades about ways to put our money and our efforts where are mouths are, and a quick Google search will take you to many places to donate, many of whom also offer anti-racism resources, locations to shop and eat, and books to read. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey are both written by white women and good starting places to learn from a white perspective, though I strongly encourage you to consider looking carefully at reading books written by people of color, not just about anti-racism, but in all genres. As white suburban moms, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to trust the people of color who have been trying to get us to do more than listen for a long time. We need to do our part, and that means more than teaching a vague notion of acceptance. Our kids are watching. Don’t let them down.
I would like the opportunity to talk about ways to change for the better. Those who may be interested, please feel free to reach out. In addition, please add useful resources in the comments.
- Heather Hernandez