This past week, a friend found herself with a dilemma. Her parents had given her child a police toy to play with and it made her uncomfortable. I’ve been thinking about her dilemma, because I’ve faced it too. As someone who works toward being conscious and conscientious about the decisions I make as a parent, issues like this require a lot of consideration. I don’t know what the right answer is, but I know what my husband and I have decided.
Our perception of the police is complicated. As a Black man, my husband has been targeted by the police over the course of his life. I have been in the car when he’s been pulled over for no reason and let go as the officer refused to state clearly why we had been bothered. I support the cause of Black Lives Matter and I believe in the use of civil disobedience to protest the egregious treatment of Black people at the hands of the state. I believe that the police are agents of the state issued forth to carry out the dictates of a white supremacist culture. That is the reality we’re living in.
So, why on earth would I allow police imagery in my home? Because while I support defunding and de-militarizing the police, as well as reallocating monies toward community building, I also recognize that even if we could achieve the extinction of poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like, people would still find ways to hate and to hurt. We will always need some form of refereeing in order to live in concert with one another. That much is true, but policing in its current state does not serve the common good and should be revolutionized.
As I thought about this crisis of conscious, I was reminded of the time my mother brought us a white-centric board book version of the Thanksgiving story. In that moment, I had to make a split second decision. Do I stop her and tell her not to read such a thing in front of my children? I did consider it, but ultimately, I sat as she read and I corrected everything that was wrong. I stopped her every few lines to provide accurate information and appropriate terminology. That is the spirit with which my husband and I interact with the word. We acknowledge the things that aren’t right but, instead of ignoring them, we address them.
When my kids want to watch shows that contain police imagery, I don’t stop them. And, when they receive gifts like Paw Patrol toys, I don’t ban them. Not because I consent to violence, but because proscribing these symbols of tyranny does not eliminate them. It curtails important conversations about them. The police are everywhere. My husband and I have to teach our kids how to interact with them so as not to be killed. We have to explain how members of our community who are kind and care for our kids could be part of a cruel, racist system. We have to help them forge a vision of a future where policing is far less destructive and less necessary. And, we have to give them the space they need to process all of these huge and heavy ideas. Our kids will likely eschew the police in the future, of their own accord. For now, we’re working through concepts that are awfully big for people so new to the world.
So, we won’t go out of our way to expose our children to police shows or toys and we won’t ever buy any. We won’t criticize people whose solution is to ban police images from their homes, as doing so is a completely understandable and valid form of protest. But, we will use the organic opportunities presented to us through curiosity and play to counter the glorification of the police and we will offer, as an alternative, the goal of widespread liberation for Black people from the oppression of law enforcement and criminal justice.
I’m curious how you work through difficult concepts and what you do in your home?
I am the only white member of my household as my husband and children are all Black. As a result, I live a life that is different from families that are entirely white. My whiteness grants me access and privilege that does not extend to the rest of my family, so I’m outside looking in at their experience while simultaneously living with worries about their lives and welfare. My husband has a long commute for work and I am often afraid of what could happen if he got pulled over or if his car broke down in a predominantly white area. It’s a complicated place to be and one that I didn’t fully understand when I got married.
To help those of you who might not realize just how complex it is for white people and people of color to be in relationship with each other or for white people to parent children of color, I’ve condensed some of the lessons I’ve learned as a mom since my little family got its start all those years ago. If any of this is upsetting, I get it. When we choose to partner with people of color, we’re choosing a road that can lead to a lot of painful self-realization and recognition of challenges we cannot resolve. Our job is to keep investigating our perspectives and motivations, never letting up, for the benefit of our partners and children.
Principle 1. We Must Know Our Place and Understand Our Impact
Start by figuring out where you fall among the 8 White Identities and then do the work yourself to progress along your path. A lot of white parents get stuck in white guilt and heap exhausting performative monologues upon people of color. Don’t do this. We are absolutely steeped in White Supremacy Culture and it gets reinforced for us daily. Read about it. Learn about it. Actively reject it.
As Yolanda Williams of Parenting Decolonized explains, “To divest from white supremacy means you’ll have to give something up, something that you benefit from as a white or non-Black POC. Think hard about it. The fact that it’s a struggle for many to figure out how to divest is a testament to how privileged you are and how intertwined white supremacy is to that privilege.”
It is imperative that we seek out decolonizing and anti-racist resources while understanding that we are colonizers who benefit from the impacts of colonization. We will not be able to decolonize our minds entirely, but we can certainly minimize the harm we do.
Principle 2. We Must Decenter Ourselves and Listen to People of Color
It can be difficult to maintain perspective when we’re close to a situation. When we begin to identify with our partners and children, who are experiencing the trauma of oppression, that feeling is empathy and it’s a good thing. However, we can lose ourselves in it and slip into taking the position of an oppressed person. When we do that, we are centering, which means we are no longer bearing with our loved ones. Rather, we are prioritizing our own feelings and, in doing so, we can lose sight of what we should be doing.
Are you familiar with Ring Theory? It’s an approach to compassionately support grieving people while getting our own needs met. The goal is to avoid unloading our emotions onto the people closest to the grief or trauma. Instead, we should turn to people who are even further from the situation than we are. A typical ring might look like this:
The person in the center is the focus of our empathy and we must find ourselves somewhere in the concentric circles. Once we know where we are in relation to our loved ones, we need to be careful not to vent inward. I think about Ring Theory often as a white wife to a Black man, because it’s far too easy for me to forget that he is the person experiencing first-hand oppression. Not me. So, what Ring Theory does for me is that it conditions me to be cognizant about how I talk to my Black friends and family about the struggles I’m facing as a white person. And, I try to avoid centering my feelings and fears in conversations about race whether in person or online.
And, when I do need extra support, I have cultivated a circle of friends that includes white people who understand all of this and are willing to validate my feelings or tell me the truth, whichever the situation calls for.
Principle 3. We Know What It’s Like to Be White and Only White
White parents cannot raise children into their non-white cultures. I cannot raise my children to be Black. I am not Black. Therefore, I have to make every possible effort to steep them in their own culture.
For my part, I defer to my children’s Black relatives on matters of race. For instance, my children have a Black father and a white mother and I say they are Black. Why? Because I defer to their father and I understand that the terminology we use every day is crucial as he raises them into their Black identity. I also recognize that my children will not be viewed as white by white people and I am unwilling to send them out into this world unaware of what that means for them. However, I do not argue with Black people who tell me my children are biracial or Black biracial. The parameters of Blackness are not my white business. Group dynamics like these are matters that are internal to non-white cultural groups and they need no white perspectives.
On that note, we have to stop butting in everywhere and getting too comfortable in spaces where people of color are trying to coexist. Remember that neither our presence nor our opinion is needed where people of color are fellowshipping. While our contributions may possibly be of some value, our absence is always of value. That means observing hard and fast rules like no using the n-word (er/a) period, no memes of Black people (aka digital blackface), no speaking up in conversations where people of color are talking about their own business that has nothing to do with you, no walking into discussions that have explicitly been opened to people of color, and no using euphemisms for the word white (e.g. YT, whyte, etc.). If that last one threw you off, here’s an explanation. These words are used online, especially on social media platforms, by people of color because their posts about white people tend to get flagged as hate speech. Their accounts get suspended, which silences them. Predictably, white people don’t experience the same silencing for our blatantly racist posts. And, while we’re on the topic, we should also consider not using words like “Becky” and “Karen” that place distance between us and problematic white people because we are also problematic white people!
And, another thing. If one person of color tells you something you’re doing is ok and 99 others tell you it’s not, take care who you listen to. No group of people is a monolith. Our responsibility is to understand our impact as white people.
The more you learn, the more you will recognize when your choices are separating your child from their culture, which happens often when WE are uncomfortable. We cannot truly identify with our children’s lived experiences, so our children need people around who can. Do not allow your child’s heritage be defined or described in terms of their relationship to whiteness. They have their own needs and it is incumbent upon us as their parents to learn about what they need. From psychosocial necessities to basic hygiene, do not assume their needs are the same as yours. Take it upon yourself to seek out spaces that are managed by people who look like your child and are willing to open up education to white parents. Find folks who will unabashedly challenge your whiteness for the benefit of your kids. Try Unlearning Racism on Facebook as a general starting point. If you are a white parent of Black kids like me, Culturally Fluent Families might be for you.
Principle 4. We Cannot Raise Our Children Into Their Full Cultural Heritage and Birthright
Teach your child about their heritage to the best of your limited ability and give them proximity to it. For some parents, that may even mean moving out of predominantly white areas. Every single choice you make regarding your child is an opportunity to give them exposure to their culture. For instance, if your Primary Care Physician is white, you could find a PCP that shares the same cultural heritage as your child. When you’re deciding on extracurriculars, seek out ways to incorporate aspects of your child’s non-white culture. Embed your children in their cultural institutions such as churches, schools, and organizations that were founded by and for members of your child’s cultural heritage. At the very least, seek access to spaces where your children see their own faces reflected back at them.
And, make sure your children know who their ancestors were BEFORE they were colonized. White supremacy likes to do things like starting Black history off with enslavement as though that is the beginning of the story. We have to counteract that evil. So, think long and hard about everything you willingly expose your child to. Little things as simple as reading Dr. Seuss books can come with lifelong consequences. Every choice matters.
Principle 5. Our Whiteness Is Harmful to Our Children and Their Communities of Heritage
If your kids are your biological children, understand that not every person of color is going to celebrate the infusion of your whiteness in your non-white child. If your kids are not your biological children, especially if they are adopted and do not have a white biological parent, understand that there is a lot of discomfort around white people raising children of color and that you might hear difficult things like claims that you stole a child from a different culture or that you are not qualified to raise your child. Instead of defending yourself, understand that these concerns exist for good reason. Take the initiative to learn why your whiteness is not necessarily appreciated, particularly considering the history of whiteness in the United States.
As you do, pay very close attention to how you use your words to talk about your child’s non-white culture. What we say to our children makes an enormous impact and we may be doing harm unintentionally as our perspective is filtered through our whiteness. No matter who you choose to listen to and what you choose to believe, be very careful how you talk about things like movements by and for people of color such as Water Protectors and Black Lives Matter. Consider that, if you take a negative stance around these movements, it is because you either do not understand their purpose (which is correctable ignorance) or because you understand their purpose and you don’t care (which is racist). You don’t have to throw your full support behind complex things that make you uneasy, but you do need to investigate that uneasiness and, at the very least, avoid disparaging the work that people of color are doing for their own well-being.
Bottom line, people of color do not owe us their labor, their explanations, or their friendship. Realize that we are distrusted and disliked by virtue of our oppressive culture and the ease with which we slip into our privilege to their detriment. We should be doing anti-racist, decolonizing work, no matter how people of color regard us. Let go of the ego.
As I learn more about the impact of my whiteness, I have moments when I wonder if it would have been better for me not to have ever encroached on Blackness to begin with. I’m sure there are Black people reading this who would absolutely agree with me and I understand why. I mention this to communicate the weight of what it really means for a white person to choose to parent interculturally. It is not something that can be resolved. Certainly not by using our whiteness as a blanket to snuff out criticism from people of color. It is a choice we will live with as long as we draw breath and it deserves our utmost consideration and respect.
We are responsible for the harm we cause and, frankly, the best thing we can do is shut up and learn every single day. If you are willing to be wrong and to be embarrassed, you’ll make progress. And, if you accept that you will never be everything for your children, you might just be able to give them what they need. Let yourself be left out and let your whiteness be pushed to the side. If you are willing to sacrifice for your children, sacrifice your whiteness first.
Have you ever heard the term __________ People Time to refer to someone running late? That blank could refer to Black people, Latinx people, or any number of other cultures. Do you know why it’s a thing in the first place? Because of something called “time orientation.” Some cultures don’t have any real investment in the passage of time, some are polychronic, and some are monochronic. Perhaps, unsurprising, it’s been theorized that the less concerned people are about time, the warmer the climate in the culture’s ancient past. The idea is that inhabitants of warmer climates, historically, had to concern themselves less with clothing and food than did inhabitants of colder climates who spent more time on basic survival. If you have a short growing season and a long winter, time will feel in very short supply.
Polychronic cultures are those in which people are lax about time. Their focus in on community and relationships and they value things like relaxation. Monochronic cultures are centered around time and schedules. They work through time in a linear direction and they value things like promptness. So, when I tell you that predominantly white cultures are primarily monochronic, including the colonizers who settled in the United States and built a culture around their values, does it come as a shock? Probably not. Fast-forward to today and people from historically polychronic cultures are made to feel that they are wrong for being late or for talking for too long or for assuming context or for interrupting. However, they aren’t wrong. They’re just different.
The characteristics of any culture arise from legitimate needs during that culture’s history. However, one group’s cultural values, in particular, have obfuscated the valid cultural traditions of people groups the world over via mass colonization: White Supremacy Culture.
As defined by DismantlingRacism.org,
White Supremacy Culture is the idea (ideology) that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.
White supremacy culture is reproduced by all the institutions of our society. In particular the media, the education system, western science (which played a major role in reinforcing the idea of race as a biological truth with the white race as the “ideal” top of the hierarchy), and the Christian church have played central roles in reproducing the idea of white supremacy (i.e. that white is “normal,” “better,” “smarter,” “holy” in contrast to Black and other People and Communities of Color.
White supremacy culture is an artificial, historically constructed culture which expresses, justifies and binds together the United States white supremacy system. It is the glue that binds together white-controlled institutions into systems and white-controlled systems into the global white supremacy system.
Perfectionism: Inadequacies matter more than competencies, mistakes reflect badly on the person rather than being seen as neutral opportunities for reflection and growth, and problems are more identifiable than strengths.
Sense of Urgency: Schedules are more important than people, decision-making and strategizing are rushed, and results are more important than the process.
Defensiveness: Saving face and not ruffling any feathers get prioritized, hierarchies control for perceived insubordination, and leaders reject constructive feedback as unjust criticism.
Valuing Quantity over Quality: Meeting measurable goals takes precedence, emotions have no place, and completing the checklist wins out over any harm or the actual outcome.
Worship of the written word: Documenting everything accurately is more trusted than putting faith in people, and alternative communication styles are abhorred.
Belief in Only One Right Way: Divining the perfect solution to a problem is the goal and no flexibility exists to apply a fundamentally good solution in ways that address differences.
Paternalism: Only people in power are capable of making the right decisions for the people they rule and little vertical collaboration in the hierarchy occurs.
Either/or Thinking: Binary thinking rules, all nuance is lost, and the agenda of people in power gets advanced.
Power Hoarding: Preserving power toward the top of the hierarchy is key and those not in power are viewed as incompetent and emotional when they defy the power structure.
Fear of Open Conflict: Politeness rules all, conflict is unbearable, and emotional responses signal lack of intelligence or capacity.
Individualism: The ability of the individual is valued over the ability to work as a team, people should solve problems on their own, individuals want credit rather than cooperation, a rampant lack of accountability for those in power exists, and everyone is pushed into isolation as a result.
I’m the Only One Who Can Do This Right: The focus is on concentrating knowledge and effort into individuals, others cannot be trusted to do the thing correctly
Progress is Bigger and More: Progress matters more than process and those lacking power are exploited and excluded.
Objectivity: Neutrality is the priority, emotions invalidate the emotional person, perceived illogical thinking is met with impatience, and out of the box thinking is discouraged.
Claiming a Right to Comfort: Comfort for those in power is emphasized, those who cause discomfort get blamed, and fragility is the result.
Tema Okun, author and social justice advocate explains further that “the characteristics listed [above] are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. Because we all live in a white supremacy culture, these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us – people of color and white people.”
We are all influenced. Our worldviews are impacted. And, the way we approach parenting is affected. Here are a few of the ways in which White Supremacy Culture is impacting the way we treat our children.
Signs You’re Buying Into White Supremacy
At this point, your chest might be tightening a little. You might already be convincing yourself of how wrong I am. You couldn’t possibly be buying into White Supremacy Culture! Could you? Let me me the first one to admit that I struggle. I truly struggle. I see clearly where White Supremacy Culture has molded my thinking, even as a Peaceful Parent. The truth is that acknowledging reality and being honest with myself is the only way forward. Not only is it a way to become a better parent, for me, it’s also a way to help me become a better, more responsible white person.
I invite you to read through this list and see if your parenting has also been influenced by White Supremacy Culture like mine has.
Children can’t make mistakes without being punished
They are pulled to and fro by the draw of our schedules
We become incensed when our kids “disobey”
If our children aren’t progressing then they must be falling behind
Preliterate children in particular are infantilized by our communication requirements
We push kids toward the “right” way to do things and ignore their unique ideas
Children have no say in their upbringing
Children are either good or bad
Parents hold 100% of the power in the relationship
We demand politeness over realness
We expect our kids to figure things out on their own (“I’ve told you a hundred times! Go figure it out!”)
We react to mistakes by taking over
We praise progress and criticize mistakes made during the process
We believe we are more objective because we are less emotional than children
We punish children for “embarrassing” us in public
In the beginning of this piece, I looked at the ways in which cultures perceive time to illustrate the legitimate differences that exist across cultures. I talked about White Supremacy Culture and how ubiquitous it is. We are impacted by it without knowing it. I laid out the characteristics of White Supremacy Culture, followed by some of the ways in which White Supremacy Culture affects our children. If we accept that White Supremacy Culture does not contain exclusive knowledge of the only right way to believe and behave, what does that say about the way we treat children as isolated subordinates under the influence of white supremacy?
In 2013, Ghanian researcher, Patricia Mawusi Amos, authored a chapter in a book called Parenting in South American and African Contexts. Her chapter, Parenting and Culture – Evidence from Some African Communities, highlights common parenting practices in Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia that produce positive results in children. Notably, she includes the extended family system, folktales, and puberty rites. These practices defy the White Supremacy Culture values of Paternalism, as multiple family and community members help care for the children; Sense of Urgency, as time is taken to teach children through storytelling; and Individualism, as children are included in cultural rites of passage.
And, research backs it up. For instance, Tadesse Jaleta Jirata’s 2014 paper, Positive Parenting: An Ethnographic Study of Storytelling for Socialization of Children in Ethiopia, concludes that the tradition of intergenerational storytelling “is a means for parents to accomplish their parenting responsibilities in line with the needs and concerns of their children,” “fosters close social relationships between parents and children and facilitates intergenerational transmission of knowledge and values,” builds “creative child-to-child interactions and help[s] children adapt themselves to their social world.”
So, if you find yourself locked into a White Supremacy Culture mindset, try moving in another direction. Read up on how parenting happens in other cultures. Look to find ways in which you can reduce the childism inherent in White Supremacy Culture. At this point, I should note that simply by engaging in Peaceful Parenting, you’ve already begun the work. One of the most common criticisms I’ve received about Peaceful Parenting is the amount of time it takes to go the gentle route. So, you know what? Go the gentle route! Ready for a final list?
How to Make a Positive Change
It’s one thing to say we want to reject White Supremacy Culture and quite another to actually do it. It’s hard to go against the grain. How about starting with a few resolutions to incorporate into your daily life?
Stop railing against “giving in” to your children and trying giving choices instead. Children who learn early how to make wise choices are better prepared for a lifetime of decision-making.
Understand that people are too complicated to be either good or bad. We are a culmination of all our experiences and all our reflections. Children benefit from being guided toward wisdom rather than being held to the impossible standard of “good.”
Why in the world am I talking about writing rules on a parenting blog? There must be more important things to discuss. Oh no, white friends. This is critically important! Let me tell you why.
Recently, I came across a post in a group about cultural fluency in which the author expressed frustration at seeing people use a lowercase b when referring to Black people. It surprised me. I’ve been using lowercase letters for Black and white for as long as I can remember. It was a requirement for my college papers many years ago.
My initial reaction was to get defensive. How could I have been wrong all this time?? Maybe I’m not wrong after all. When I’m feeling defensive, I know it’s because I’m actually feeling convicted. So, I took that energy over to a trusted resource group and posed a question about capitalization. One response, in particular, hit me hard. The author, a Black woman, is an Arts & Culture writer, so you better believe I took her position seriously. She explained:
Black is capitalized when used in reference to Black people because Black is then a proper noun, referencing a people. When not capitalized, black is a color, an adjective. An adjective by nature is an “added descriptor” that modifies another word. This implies that you can remove the adjective. In a post-colonial, diasporic world, folks feel compelled to assert that their identity is not an added factor to their being, but essential. Blackness (as it has been driven from colonial concept to tangible reality in our world) is a way for peoples of the diaspora to connect in identity beyond the borders in which they find themselves and outside the context of colonization. It’s similar to how native and Native mean completely different things. Now, white was not capitalized in the recent past because white was not something that people identified as… Italian-American, Jewish, etc were the proper nouns because these were used as markers of identity that were attached to, adjacent to, “whiteness.” HOWEVER, in the present with the rise of white supremacy, people are capitalizing white because it is becoming (being framed as) an identity in and of itself. A lot of white supremacist manifestos capitalize white to prove a point that whiteness is a thing to rally around and unite behind. I have much less to say on that. So that’s that on that. But yes, Black is capitalized if you’re referencing the people. It makes my eye twitch to see it in lowercase at this point.
Whew. Each point she makes is absolutely relevant. Every time I’ve used a lowercase b, I’ve been actively disenfranchising Black people. I’ve been using my platform, as a white woman, to minimize Blackness. And, countless people watched me do it. I have no idea whom I may have influenced subconsciously. And influenced I most certainly did.
Last year, The Brookings Institution changed its style guide to remedy the lowercase b once and for all in their publications. In describing their reasoning, they note the history of capitalization and the harmful influence of failing to capitalize cultures:
In fact, after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the federal government struggled to determine what to call freed Black people. The government used various labels: black, negro, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon. It wasn’t until 1930 that the U.S. Census Bureau finally settled on one prevailing term: “negro.” Years earlier, W. E. B. Du Bois, activist and co-founder of the relatively new NAACP, had launched a letter-writing campaign to major media outlets demanding that their use of the word “negro” be capitalized, as he found “the use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings a personal insult.” After initially denying the request, the New York Times would update its style book in March 1930, noting, “In our Style Book, Negro is now added to the list of words to be capitalized. It is not merely a typographical change, it is an act in recognition of racial respect for those who have been generations in the ‘lower case.’”
However, over several decades, as the term Negro grew out of favor, the spirit of that decision fell by the wayside. Since that time, the U.S. Census Bureau and many major institutions—including Brookings—have used the lowercase term “black” to represent more than 40 million Black Americans.
The trouble with a deceptively small issue, like the capitalization of a single letter, is that these small issues pile up over time and become big issues. This week, a story hit the headlines about DeAndre Arnold, a Black student in Texas, who has been both suspended and barred from walking at his graduation because his hair doesn’t meet the standard of the school’s dress code policy.
Supporters of the policy point to its explicit ban against hair on male students that is longer than their collars. That policy, clearly, wasn’t written with this Trinidadian family in mind. The men in Arnold’s family grow their dreadlocks out well past collar length. Up to now, Arnold’s mother had been carefully styling her son’s hair to ensure that it met the requirement, but the powers that be decided that it wasn’t enough.
Let’s be real. That policy was written for white students. Period. And, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Because the policy isn’t culturally inclusive, and it normalizes white grooming protocols, a young man has been forced to make a choice between his culture and his education. At first glance, the policy may look innocent enough. It’s not. It’s harmful.
By the same token, the lowercase b isn’t innocent either. Don’t think I didn’t notice that, based on the article I linked about Arnold, the Washington Post has obviously opted for a style guide that minimizes Blackness when talking about a Black family. Even in an article that seemingly provides a well-rounded account of what’s happening with this student and his family, there is glaring anti-Blackness just two words into the read. When Blackness is undermined so gracefully in publications across the country, it adds up. Readers who are passing judgment on the ruling that placed Arnold on suspension are reading about a (lowercase b) Black student. The entire controversy is about nothing but his culture, yet articles like the one I linked openly downplay Black culture in an insidious way.
White is not a culture. It is a descriptor. But Black… Black is a culture, a shared life, a way of existing in a space that tears you apart at every turn. So, for my part, I have updated this blog to ensure that all references to Black people have been appropriately corrected. Furthermore, I am committed to using this blog for the elevation of Black people in any way I can, including the tiniest clack of the keyboard.