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.