Interrupting whiteness with my white children

I am a white, cisgender woman, married to a white, cisgender man and we have two white children. I started naming race with my kids about two years ago, when my son was three and my daughter was an infant. Research, organizations and online communities such as Raising Race Conscious Children, Raising an Advocate, Showing Up For Racial Justice Families and EmbraceRace equipped me with the tools and education I needed to understand naming race does not promote or perpetuate racism. Avoiding talking about race or pretending we’re part of a post-racial society, however, causes real harm.

Children notice physical differences from infancy and form biases as young as three years old. We live in a world where race still matters. But naming race was really uncomfortable at first.

I had been taught my whole life that acknowledging race was racist. I had a lot to unlearn, but my confidence and comfort grew the more I practiced. Naming and talking about race started to become a part of the fabric of our family.

I felt like I was on the right track as a parent. But then I started to notice a troubling trend.

My son, who is nearly five, would proactively point out when a character had brown skin, but rarely made similar observations about a character with pale or peachy skin. My son would mention when a friend of his or mine had brown skin, but he did not do the same for our white friends and family.

Despite my well-intentioned efforts at diversifying the books and media we consume, despite my well-intentioned efforts at openly naming and discussing race, despite my well-intentioned efforts to have a diverse community of friends and family, my children still experience a life where whiteness is centered and celebrated as the norm. Whiteness is the default and people of color are the other. Their schools are predominately white, our neighborhood is predominately white and even with the filters we place on books and media, the narratives they are exposed to are predominately white.

good-intentions

My good intentions were not enough. I was missing opportunities to interrupt messages that normalized whiteness because I was failing to notice them in the first place. When I started to pay attention and to critically examine my own behavior and tendencies, there it was.

I don’t always notice when all the characters in a book are white.

I don’t always recognize when all the characters in a tv program are white or racially ambiguous. 

So often, I’ll be reminded to name race with my white children when a book’s protagonist is a character of color or the book includes characters of color.

I help my kids name their skin tone, but I overlook many, many opportunities to question and interrupt messages that equate whiteness with the norm. 

Naming race is important and my kids understand that talking about skin tone is not taboo or anything to avoid. This is a good thing. But naming race is not nearly enough to combat the overabundance of messages our society generates that center and uplift whiteness as the default.

I realized I needed to do a much better job at helping my children think critically about whiteness. As a white parent, I needed to do a better job at paying attention to when these messages arise and call them out. The opportunities to do this work came quickly.

In my son’s National Geographic magazine subscription, the content focuses on animals. But this month’s magazine included a final matching game with pictures of children, all of whom were white. We were about to finish the game when I finally noticed all six of the children depicted were white and I brought this up with my son.

“Hmmm…I just noticed all of the children in these pictures are white,” I said.

My son looked intently at the pictures and replied, “Oh yeah. They have peachy skin like us.”

“That’s right,” I said. “I wish they included pictures of children with lots of different skin colors, because not everyone in our world is white.”

My son nodded and added, “it’s not fair to leave someone out!”

“Yes,” I agreed, “it’s not fair. Lots of kids get this magazine and it’s important everyone sees kids who look like them in the pictures too.”

The conversation stopped there because my daughter ripped the magazine out of my son’s hand and all hell broke loose. But other opportunities are presenting themselves on a daily basis.

“I wonder why the only human character in Paw Patrol is Ryder, who is a white boy?”

“I just noticed all the people in Thomas the Train have peachy white skin like us. What do you think about that?”

“All of the characters in Frozen are white. I wish the movie was more like real life and showed people with all different color skin.”

And so on and so forth.

My kids are young, so complex discussions about privilege and the violent effects of whiteness are still to come. I don’t always know the perfect way to interrupt the messages they are receiving and sometimes my son will engage in a robust discussion with me and other times he doesn’t respond at all. I have a long runway in front of me.

For now, I can develop my own skills at recognizing and interrupting the every day messages that make whiteness the default. I can help my children think critically about who is represented in media and why. As a family, we can question and push back against the status quo and seek alternative narratives.

Whiteness is said to be invisible, but really it’s not. Saying that let’s me off the hook as a white parent and person. Our society is saturated with messages about whiteness , so much so that it’s nearly impossible to interrupt every single one we encounter. But this is critical work.

There are many current examples of parents and kids who are advocating for the decentralization of whiteness from stores, TV shows and within their own families. Read Why are all the white dolls sitting together on the Target shelf, from EmbraceRace. Visit My Reflection Matters for educational resources that affirm Black & Brown youth identities & promote awareness of social inequities. Read Black History Month Deserves More, Barnes & Noble, from Mamademics. Read What I say about a children’s book when all of the character’s are white, from Raising Race Conscious Children.

Countless families are resisting the white as default messaging in our society and demanding better. It’s about time I joined in.

What about you? How will you interrupt whiteness within your white families?

A version of this post was originally published on Raising Race Conscious Children.

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