Teaching My Kids About Being White

We recently had a diversity and inclusion seminar at my office. At first, I thought the idea was kind of silly. Having a diversity seminar at my office would be like having a scuba seminar in the desert. Not that we discriminate in our hiring practices in any way, but we are in Grand Rapids, Michigan – a city with a population that is 67% white in a county that is 73% white. Statistically speaking, even if our employees were perfectly representative of the entire population of the area, we’d still be about as diverse as the PGA Tour. Unless of course you count some of our great-great-Grandparents being from Poland and some of our great-great-Grandparents being from the Netherlands as us being diverse. Which I don’t.

Then, about ten minutes into the seminar I realized something. Not about lack of diversity or my awareness of it, but about at how late of an age I became aware of my whiteness. I’m not The Jerk, I’ve always known I’m white, but I didn’t grow up knowing just what that meant. Being white wasn’t a topic of conversation any more than being a human was. We just were. I went to a school that just was, in a city that just was. Of course later I would realize that nothing “just was,” but growing up in it I had no idea. Things like redlining or the lasting effects of reconstruction weren’t taught in my social studies class. But we did watch the “I Have a Dream Speech” on Martin Luther King Day. So we got it, right?

The leader of the seminar asked us a question about how we talked about our own race and ethnicity growing up. I literally had nothing to say. My Dad is part Irish so we’d have corned beef and cabbage one day a year, and my Mom is part Polish so we ate kielbasa a few times a year. Thus ends my childhood education on my race.

I now wonder, when is the appropriate age to teach my kids about what it is to be white. To help them understand that they can’t possibly grasp the wide variety of human experience if they only view it through the lens of white suburbia. To let them know that empathizing with others starts with understanding them – both in what makes us similar and in what makes is different. Ignoring race – theirs or somebody else’s – won’t help the next generation overcome racism. Education will.

I don’t ever want my kids to feel entitled to anything, but I want them to be aware that we live in a world where white privilege is real. While they will still need to work for everything they’ll get in life, realistically they probably won’t have to work as hard as somebody who isn’t white. They will need to set and accomplish their goals, but nobody is going to move the goal posts. Honestly, my kids will probably have relatively easy lives. I’m not wealthy, and my kids weren’t be born on third base, but they will at least be in the lineup. Their lives will be a little easier than mine because mine was a little easier than my parents, and theirs a little easier than their parents. Each generation building up the next because the socioeconomic conditions allowed for it.

My grandparents lived in the white-flight-filled suburbs of Detroit and sent their kids to private school. My parents did the same. I went to the same high school as my parents actually. If I look through my parent’s high school yearbook from 1974, I bet I won’t see any people of color. I don’t have my yearbook handy, but I think there were three black kids in my graduating class in 2003. I guarantee you that in 1974 it wasn’t the case that minority families that just didn’t work hard enough, or want it bad enough to send their kids to a school that would set them up well for college or a career. Just like I guarantee you that 30 years later only three did work hard enough. Again, I’m not saying my school had discriminatory admissions practices, I’m saying the broader forces at play allowed for me to be fourteen years old before being in a class with somebody who didn’t look like me.

My know kids will grow up in a more diverse school system than I did. By the time my oldest daughter was in pre-school she had already been in school with more people of color than I had until I was in high school. I know this because she would come home and tell us she played with “Black Matthew.” Never just Matthew, always “Black Matthew.” On one hand, good for diversity. On the other, I doubt Matthew went home and told his parents he played with “White Lucy.” My wife and I didn’t make a big deal of it at the time, and the color of anybody in any of my kid’s classes has never come up again. Perhaps the next time race does come up with my kids it should be their own.

The more aware they are that while their race will probably never be an identifying factor the way it is for Matthew, it is part of their identity. It is part of how they will experience the world. Hopefully the more they understand their own perspective, they will be better suited to understand of perspectives of others as well. I mean, if they don’t understand their own comfortable whiteness, how can they possibly begin to understand the struggles of others? And if they don’t understand, how can they help? Not that I want my kids to have some kind of savoir or guilt complex about being white, but if I’m not raising them to be aware of and empathetic to the challenges of others, what am I doing?

My kids are still very young, and should probably master writing their own names before we tackle a topic like biases in the criminal justice system. But the conversations have to start somewhere. I’d rather introduce concepts to their young minds before they get ideas set in their old minds that everybody must be like them, or worse, they develop misconceptions about people who aren’t.

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