“But what can we do?!” A white mother’s reflections on racial justice and parenting

On June 18, 2015, I woke up to news that 9 Black people had been killed in a Charleston, South Carolina church by a White supremacist. Something cracked wide open inside me.

But let me back up a bit. I became a mother in 2012, and had the privilege of being able to leave my job as a college advisor for an education non-profit in Oakland, California, and transition into stay-at-home parenthood. I worked part-time from home, but mostly I was sucked into the vortex the routines and joys of new parenthood provide.

Obsessing over sleep patterns, food consumption and soiled diapers lulled me into becoming a passive observer of all that was happening in the world around me. In retrospect, I realize my racial-and-class privilege afforded me the ability to check out.

Yes, I followed the Trayvon Martin murder trial with interest and was disgusted when George Zimmerman was acquitted, but my life continued on as normal. I was outraged when Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson and when Darren Wilson received a non-indictment, but my life continued on as normal.

Over the course of two years, there were numerous mainstream news stories I could point to that illuminated the falsity of “America, the post-racial society,” yet my life continued on as normal, wholly unaffected. I felt some sadness, yes, some frustration at the state of our country, but to be honest the thought never even crossed my mind that I was part of the problem or that I could be part of the solution.

My Awakening

On June 18th , 2015 my life changed course. It was a gorgeous, early summer day in Atlanta and after I read the horrifying news report out of Charleston, I took my infant daughter on a walk in search of some sunshine therapy.

Perhaps it was because the victims were praying in church when they were murdered. Perhaps it was the image of the shooter eating Burger King with the police. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was that shook me from passivity, but I distinctly remember strolling through my predominately White neighborhood, pushing my expensive stroller, past the expensive houses, in my expensive exercise clothes,thinking, “what in the hell am I doing?” How was it that I was only just coming to realize how much I was part of the problem?

At the time, I considered myself a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, yet I had to ask myself, did anyone else know that? In what ways was I demonstrating that support? And then when I thought about the parent I was, the books we had in our library, the private school we sent my son to… the suffocating guilt rolled in.

Over the next few days, I started talking to anyone and everyone I could about Charleston, about the Black Lives Matter movement, about the guilt and self-loathing I was feeling over my life choices. During many of these conversations between me and my White friends and family, inevitably someone would say, “but what can we do?” It was an exasperated acknowledgment that while we cared and on some level recognized the structural racism in our country, we felt helpless because we didn’t know how to fix it. The more I heard that question, the more dissatisfied I became.

Embracing change

Within a week, I started writing what would become my blog, A Striving Parent. I no longer wanted to feel helpless, or believe I could not effect change in my own household or community. Over the past year, I’ve documented my journey to seek out resources on how I, as a White, heterosexual, affluent, cisgender woman can raise my kids to be socially and racially conscious. I’ve sought ways to disrupt White, patriarchal supremacy as a parent. I am not the same mother I was 365 days ago.

I started with our children’s library, which was painfully heterocentric and White-washed. I added titles that featured diverse characters and story lines and removed books that were problematic. Our book collection is a work in progress, but this was the easiest thing to change quickly.

I then took the webinar, Raising Race Conscious Children, where I learned skills for naming race with my children and started practicing, primarily using the new books sitting in our library. Naming race did not come naturally; in fact it was incredibly uncomfortable. But with time and practice it’s now part of the fabric of our family.

Also uncomfortable, but so important, was for me to “come out” to my friends and family as anti-racist. Perhaps that sounds strange, but in White communities, at least my White community, we don’t talk about race much, if ever. We don’t have to, so outside of national news that forces the subject to the surface, living an ostensibly colorblind life is the path of least resistance. Writing the blog disrupted that comfort for me and for those who love me, which was really scary for everyone. Mostly, I’ve found support where it counts the most, with my husband, family and closest friends.

I’ve built community with like-minded parents through organizations like Showing Up For Racial Justice, Raising Race Conscious Children, and EmbraceRace. I’ve met folks doing social justice work in Atlanta, like Danielle Slaughter at Raising an Advocate, Elizabeth Anderson at Charis Circle and Becky Rafter with Georgia WAND.

I’ve educated myself on the Black Lives Matter movement and curated my Twitter and Facebook feeds to ensure they provide racial and social justice news. I’ve spoken to my son’s teachers and administrators about how race and diversity are addressed in the classroom (this is a work in progress).

Am I doing enough?

I’m doing so much more than I was a year ago. Yet, I am constantly asking myself, am I doing enough? Can I truly be an anti-racist parent if I live in an affluent, White community or if I send my children to private school? Do I truly care about ending systemic oppression if I am not making greater efforts to relinquish my own privilege in all its many forms?

I read articles like, “I Don’t Know What To Do With Good White People” and think, well, shit, the author is talking about me. I read articles about how White parents need to send their children to public school and cringe with guilt. The discomfort with my privilege and the choices it affords me has not gone away after a few strides in the right direction. Nor should it.

The dissonance between the comforts White privilege provides me and my deep commitment to racial justice will continue to be there. This is my work. I do not have all the answers on how I can effect change on a large, systemic scale. Perhaps I never will.

For now, I’m working to answer the question “but what can we do?” as an individual and as a parent, believing that uprooting my family, moving from our neighborhood or enrolling my son into a public school would not necessarily provide the answers I seek. There is a lot of work I can do inside of my family, community and school and I celebrate the fact that I’m striving to do better and, thus, am indeed doing better.

**This piece was originally posted on the EmbraceRace publication on Medium. **

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