Raising White Kids (book review)

In her book, Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America (Abingdon), Jennifer Harvey offers practical parenting advice designed to help parents of white kids enter bravely into conversation with their children about systemic, structural, and individual racism. Harvey is a professor at Drake University and the author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Wm. B. Eerdmans).

When I was growing up in 1960s and ’70s Virginia, my moderate-to-liberal parents did all they could to shield me from the racism around us. They did not differentiate in the respect that should be shown to adults of any race, or use derogatory language of any kind about People of Color. Yet we lived our lives in white social and professional circles. Most of the Black people I knew when I was small were domestic workers; despite my parents’ efforts, I knew these adults were different if only because I was not instructed to call our beloved-by-me housekeeper “Miss Catherine,” or the kindly janitor at church, “Mr. Henderson.” At the private schools I attended later, I rarely had more than one Black classmate. Many conventional ideas supported by structural and systemic racism which were not promoted at home got into my head through the culture, directly or indirectly. Overt racism such as “jokes” I knew to find offensive, but stereotypes seeped in, and our lack of conversation at home about the reality of racism left me to figure things out alone.

I moved from Virginia to very white Maine as a young mom and raised three children there – born in 1986, 1990, and 1995. I would have been very glad to have Jennifer Harvey’s book as a conversation-starter with other parents twenty+ years ago, when I had only a dawning sense of the need to be race-conscious myself. For me it was grounded in my faith, which is not a viewfinder used in this particular book. My thought process circa 1993 would have been something like: “If I believe that God loves all people, and I do, then it naturally follows that all people have equal value in God’s eyes, and if we don’t value all people equally, we need to get to work on it.” That line of thinking became fleshed out as I attended seminary beginning in 1994, interacting with classmates from varied backgrounds, including a Black classmate who also grew up in my Virginia hometown. The unfolding realization for me that we didn’t know the same places and people because of the virtual apartheid we lived in as children caused a radical change in my understanding.

Of course it came as no surprise to my classmate.

As my children made their way through school, we saw Portland become a tiny bit more diverse. The existing Southeast Asian community grew the old-fashioned way, and their children entered school as English speakers. As my two younger children started school, Portland welcomed waves of refugees from African, Eastern European, and Arab countries. I liked the diversity of the schools they attended, but wondered why my sons never seemed to make friends with – or even have classes with – kids who were not white. When the topic of race came up, I tried to respond in ways that were inquisitive and developmentally appropriate, but I had no tools other than a style of parenting that took that approach in other areas.

Harvey’s book is necessary and timely at the same time our conversation is far too late and still too white-centered. I understand the need to write for white parents who are, in 2018, where I was in 1993. They may have a sense that things should be different, but not know where to start, and not be aware of how influenced they are by systemic, structural, and individual racism in the national atmosphere. Harvey makes a convincing case that the kind of color-blindness my parents tried to teach fifty years ago still will not accomplish the goal of true anti-racism work. Harvey is gentle (some other reviewers think *too* gentle) in naming the “vexed” condition of being white in the midst of a movement to celebrate diversity and multiculturalism. Any concept defined in relationship to whiteness will still center whiteness.

I appreciate the content of Harvey’s book and can recommend it to pastors and parents who seek a starting point for conversations about race with their children and with each other. This is beginning level race-consciousness with clear explanations that are repeated so they will sink in deep. She relies on the good work done by others and shares many resources that will be helpful. I think the chapters are a little long for our short attention spans, but that is partly a function of the repeated emphasis on the important points of each chapter. Her writing is accessible, and her personal stories make it clear that she is in the midst of both the parenting work she describes and the resistance work we so desperately need.

The work before us is clear. It’s important to talk with our white children in developmentally appropriate ways about the realities of our nation’s history and our current times. Pretending everyone is the same will not bring us to a new tomorrow.  Celebration of diversity is problematic, when “diverse” simply means “not white.” As parents and people of faith, white people need to search not just our hearts and minds but our calendars and our “friends” lists, because if we talk to our children about racism but we are only in relationship with other white people, we are not moving ourselves or them toward a more race-conscious society.

I received two copies of this book from Abingdon Press in exchange for my unbiased review and with the understanding I would give one of the books away. Please comment here or on Facebook for a chance to receive that copy.

3 thoughts on “Raising White Kids (book review)”

  1. Years ago, before I went to seminary, I taught managers about racism and sexism, what they could and could NOT say when hiring and firing, and equal employment opportunity requirements. A lot has changed in the intervening years, and I feel like I still have so much to learn about “whiteness” and our ideas about race … or lack thereof. I really need to read this book and will look right now to see if my library has a copy. Thanks for telling us about it. (Nope, my library doesn’t yet have a copy of this book.)

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