“I wish I were Black”: Talking about White privilege with my six-year-old
As a child playing in the ocean, I was taught about the undertow and its power to sneak up on you.
As a White child (and beneficiary of White privilege), I was not, however, taught about the undertow of racism and the power of racism to sneak up on you, without even being aware of such privilege.
I am a White woman with three daughters (ages 6, 3, and 1). My parenting has sought to ensure that my children pay attention to the undertow of racism—and to prepare them so that they know what to do when they confront it. Like the ocean’s undertow, racism is a strong force and it is easy to let it carry you. If I do not actively teach my children to be vigilant anti-racists, they will not be able to see racism until it is too difficult to get back to shore. In fact, they may not even be able to see shore at all.
When I talk about racism with my six year-old, my daughter has, at times, showed a sense of self-righteousness.
“I am never going to be a racist,” she has shared. “I can’t believe people would be that way.”
So, I told her the truth about where she comes from:
“We have racist family members. We have had family members who were proud of their racism, and we also have people in our family who do not realize that they are racist. But, we are also members of our family, and we can make the choice to stand up to racism.”
I want her to know that racism is in her blood.
We started talking about racism with our daughter when she was four—so we have a platform for our conversations about racism. After the events in Charlottesville recently, I was noticeably upset.
“What’s wrong?” my White six-year-old asked me.
“There are people who are racist, who are marching in a different state because they hate people with Black and Brown skin. But, there are people who are marching and protesting the hate and racism. And I am upset because a White supremacist hurt the people standing up for love, just like we stand up for love and against racism.”
“I wish I were Black,” she told me.
“Why do you wish that?”
“Because all of the racists were White and I’m White.” Then she adds, with emotion, “what if I accidentally turn into a racist?!?”
It is important for me to acknowledge that we have not exposed her as much as I intend to going forward, to the community of activists working together to fight against racism and White supremacy. I told her about the people who were White alongside people with Brown and Black skin at the rally who were protesting for love and against hate.
“You were born White so you have White privilege, but you were also born with a brain and heart. You have a brain and a heart to love others well and to fight against racism. Even though people are racist, it doesn’t mean they always will be. ‘Sneaky racism,’ (as we’ve termed it) benefits people with light skin, like us. And while it benefits us, we don’t always realize it. We don’t always know it’s happening, but what is important is what we do when we do realize that we’ve been benefiting from ‘sneaky racism,’ or that we have been participating in sneaky racism.”
Her statement of wishing she were Black is stating her dismay with the White culture. She recognizes that people who look like her, are propelling hate and she can’t stand it.
Our family believes that anti-racism is as essential to teach children as it is to teach them not to lie. Below are some examples of how we approach conversations about race, racism, and White supremacy with our children.
Often our approach stems from asking questions about the books she is reading, or we are reading to her. For example, “What do you see that’s different about that school room and your school room? How do you think that situation made that character feel? How would you feel? What do you think you could do to change the story if you were there?”
We approach intervening in overt racist situations our children may witness with four postures.
1. Beside. Be beside the target. Do not leave because you feel uncomfortable. Engage with the person who is the target. Talk to them, about anything, but keep their focus with you and yours with them.
2. In between. Place yourself in between the racist and the target. Engage the racist and stand up for the target.
3. Walk away together. Take the person being targeted by the hand and leave. Go together to a safe space.
4. Name it. If you observe a racist action, book, etc., say what it is. “This book is racist. That joke was racist.” Etc.
We also role-play situations of racism and White supremacy targeting her friends. For example, I pretend to be a child who is preventing a Black child from playing with the group because they are Black. My daughter practices ways she could stand up for her friend. I play the role of the “bully,” justify the exclusion, and then up the personal cost to her for standing up to me. We practice different strategies until she feels confident. This exercise makes her uncomfortable…I am glad it makes her uncomfortable. I hope that when she is faced with racism she will have the skills to function in her discomfort; she will know what to do
As parents, one of the hardest things to do is to see your child suffer. White parents can be tempted to believe that not exposing your children to difficult concepts prevents suffering. However, just like we vaccinate our children for their own good, we must educate them about racism, and how it is happening today.
It is hard to know that I am making my children feel pain or fear. But, it is imperative we do not remove the discomfort of racism in our White children’s lives. It should be uncomfortable and horrific. It is important that we sit with them in the uncomfortable emotion of it, to lament with them, and then, teach them that they have power to fight for change; teach them they can manipulate the systems of White privilege from within because they are White.
If we, as White parents, gloss over racism, if we perpetuate racism in our culture…there will be no progress. Children are the panacea to end the horrific reality of White supremacy in the United States. We must empower our children to be the change our country needs.
Ruthie is from a long line of White Southerners. She holds her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Tennessee and is a mother to three girls. She and her husband live in St. Louis and are passionate about raising children who are consciously acting to fight against racism in the United States. Being from the South, Ruthie is acutely aware of the impact of White privilege and institutionalized racism and its effects on the children being raised submerged in it.