Terry Keleher is a parent and racial justice educator with the Applied Research Center, which publishes ColorLines.com. Read his essay on being a white father of an adopted black son here. Below, he offers some actionable advice for racially conscious parenting in a supposedly colorblind world.
Though I’m learning by the day, I’ve gleaned some tips for racially conscientious parenting that can also be helpful for grandparents, guardians, teachers and others involved in childraising.
1. Acknowledge and discuss the reality of racism.
I began talking with my son about race at an early age. We’ve discussed how sometimes people don’t get treated fairly because of their skin color and how they’ve had to stand up for their rights. I’ve explained that I’m called “white” even though my skin is tan, and he’ll often be called “black,” though his skin is brown. We talk about current events, like a few summers back when a group of black children weren’t allowed to swim in a Pennsylvania pool. These conversations are as natural as talking about the changing weather and safely crossing the street. I’m helping him understand his reality so he’s equipped to deal with it. And I want him to know that it’s OK to talk openly about race, especially with me, and hopefully with others.
Addressing racism involves seeing and listening more carefully, and speaking up when something’s wrong. Don’t be “colorblind” or “race mute,” for avoidance is unhelpful and silence is complicity. We must illuminate racism in order to eliminate racism. As adults, we can step up and initiate ongoing and age-appropriate discussions about race. We can learn through practice how to lead and model constructive, validating and enlightening conversations.
It’s helpful to connect with, or create, a group of allies with whom you can talk on an ongoing basis about race issues. Look around to see if there’s a local organization that addresses racism, or try to find an online community. Don’t be afraid to start a local group, if needed, by pulling together some interested acquaintances who are willing to meet regularly. My son and I have found a genuine community of people engaged in racially conscientious parenting through a summer camp put on by Pact, an organization that specializes in providing services to families with adopted children of color. Pact provides educational resources and services that directly address racism and highlight the perspectives of adult adoptees of color.
2. Learn to understand and challenge institutional racism.
Racism is not simply personal prejudice, but rather, a system of institutional inequality. It’s not enough to try and change yourself or other individuals. We also have to change institutions that have biased practices and unfair policies. Schools are a great place to start challenging institutional racism, since most families have direct experience with them.
When parents at my son’s racially diverse school learned of a proposed policy change that would make it easier for the district’s wealthier and whiter schools to obtain more computer equipment, we started a petition and presented it as a group to the school board. We know that the so-called “racial achievement gap” is often a reflection of a resource gap, where unequal inputs yield unequal outcomes.
If the advanced placement classes are filled with mostly white students, if the curriculum is perpetuating stereotypes, if there aren’t many teachers of color, you can do something about it. Ask questions, talk with students about their experiences, request public documents, organize parents, talk to elected officials, notify the media and take public action. If you’re white, you don’t have to wait for people of color to complain first. You can be change agents and agitators by speaking out when something’s wrong, as well as allies to people of color.
Love Isn’t Enough is a very helpful blog for gaining a deeper understanding of “raising a family in a colorstruck world,” featuring insightful commentaries on parenting and race from a variety of contributors. As the blog’s name suggests, it takes a lot more than love to create a family that is well prepared to constructively address racial inequality.
3. Skip the name calling and offer proactive solutions.
Reacting to racism is necessary, but not sufficient to bring about change. Instead of dwelling on “Who’s a racist,” it’s more useful to ask “What’s causing the racial inequality?” and “What can be done to make things fair?” These questions move you from a reactive to a proactive framework. They also shift the focus from individuals and their intentions, to institutions and their impacts.
In Chicago, near where we live, parents and students in some schools with highly biased and punitive disciplinary practices have introduced restorative justice programs. Some schools have implemented new curricula to accurately teach about racial histories and cultures. Look around and the possibilities are endless. Perhaps your public library needs more computers for those who don’t have them at home; maybe your local hospital could devote more profits to health care for low-income families. Many positive models already exist. It just takes proactive thinking and persistent action.
The Internet has made it easier to find organizations and campaigns that engage different communities in efforts to advance racial justice. ColorOfChange.org features a variety of highlighted campaigns and actions that specifically affect black Americans, while helping “to bring about positive political and social change for everyone.” Similarly, Presente.org focuses on the political empowerment of Latinos and allies by organizing people online and through grassroots networks. U.S. for All of Us: No Room for Racism is a national network of anti-racist white individuals and organizations engaged in collective learning and action. These and other organizations offer concrete actions and solutions for advancing racial justice.
4. Learn by taking action.
Most racism is not perpetrated with intent or malice; it’s perpetuated through silence and inaction. Only when we move from words to action will real learning and change begin. You’ll gain clarity and confidence as you take action, risks and leadership. You’ll expand your insights, skills, connections and support. The path forward may not always be clear and direct, but moving from where we’re stuck to a place of new possibilities is well worth the journey.