As a white parent, I feel very conflicted about wading into a debate about Black History Month. Plenty of people have argued that we shouldn’t confine our study of Black history to just one month (and that it has failed to bring about any improvement in race relations, and it wasn’t intended for White people at all). I see Black History month as a less-than-ideal but still necessary tool to elevate discussion of Black contributions to American society while we work toward a situation where Black History Month is simply not necessary.
The biggest paradox with Black History Month is that it provides parents and educators with a convenient ‘teachable moment’ to help their children learn about slavery and the civil rights movement but then we abandon the concept again for another year, and usually fail to even mention the ongoing presence of both racial prejudice and structural racism in our society.
What we currently teach about race and racism is grossly inadequate:
- A parent in a Facebook group I’m in recently commented that for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, her elementary schooler had learned that Black people had been oppressed but Dr. Martin Luther King made a speech and Rosa Parks sat at the front of a bus and the child was left with the impression that structural racism is no longer an issue in American society because everything had been fixed;
- The view of Black history that the White establishment teaches is highly problematic at best and at worst it continues to promote systemic racism. Think that Lincoln abolished slavery because he thought it was immoral? In short, Lincoln said that “I am not, nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races” (it really is worth reading a slightly longer excerpt of this speech to see how he joked about equality and that just “because I do not want a Negro woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife [Cheers and laughter]”). Lincoln thought slaves shouldn’t have to work for others (although he didn’t believe they should have full civil rights), but he wanted above all else to save the Union, and actually blamed people of African descent for fomenting the crisis between slave-holding and Northern states as he asked them all to move to Panama: “You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated.” This idea that “President Lincoln thought that all American people should be free…Abraham Lincoln wanted to set the slaves free” (without clarifying that Lincoln didn’t really mean “free” in the way we might think of it: with all of the rights of citizenship) and many other historical inaccuracies (like the Emancipation Proclamation occurring before the Civil War!) permeate the kinds of trade paperbacks that elementary school teachers use as an escape from the dry prose of textbooks. And if all the slaves are free now, doesn’t that mean that everyone is equal and no person has any advantage over any other?
- We might think that the inclusion of texts by Black authors and study of Black leaders is a positive step, but the Whites who create school curricula are either willfully ignorant about the history their own textbooks describe or deliberately choose to present a biased view. (The process of textbook adoption in the U.S. doesn’t help, whereby a 15-member panel in Texas essentially approves the majority of textbooks used in the entire country and routinely selects textbooks with information that is biased or just plain wrong.) This is how we end up with textbooks that present slaves as immigrant workers, and resources from textbook company Scholastic suggesting students celebrate Black History Month using “math to determine how many meters per second [Jesse Owens] ran during his gold-medal races” and bake sesame seed cookies because “In Africa, sesame seeds bring good luck” – technically including African Americans in this curriculum but failing to address any issues of value related to prejudice or racism. Even worse, the website suggests that teachers “have students study an African American historical figure, then dress up as their subject” without warning about the inappropriateness of blackface, which continues to be a problem in colleges, high schools, junior high schools, and even elementary schools across the country. While state academic standards now devote considerable space to African Americans during the formation of the United States, African American narratives are presented in a way that helps students to avoid thinking critically about racial tension or systemic racism and also fail at conveying factual accuracy: only 8% of American high school seniors can accurately identify slavery as a cause of the Civil War. (Unfortunately there are few comprehensive online resources that can help you to understand these issues, but this book is pretty easy to read and discusses the myths around Lincoln’s image.)
Around 80% of teachers in the U.S. are White, and many of them feel highly uncomfortable discussing race with students (so if your child’s teacher is making an effort to do this, please support them by letting them know you appreciate their work and continuing the conversation at home!). Many teachers attempt to avoid the discomfort of an actual conversation by using classroom simulations of racist situations. While there’s a dearth of actual evidence on their effectiveness several groups warn against these because they perpetuate stereotypes, oversimplify history, and leave students with the impression that the problem has been solved when in fact racism still today causes disparities in health and wealth, experiences with the justice system, and access to credit and housing.
Parents who want their children to understand the implications of prejudice and structural racism cannot rely on schools, textbooks, and teachers. We must take on some of this responsibility ourselves.
Here are six ideas to get you started:
- Learn about the difference between racial prejudice and racism. They are not the same, and discussing issues related to prejudice and racism does not make you racist. In fact, not talking about race (aka the “colorblind approach”) is one of the most effective ways to raise a child who is prejudiced and perpetuates racist societal structures (you will see from that episode title that my own learning on prejudice and racism has evolved over the last couple of years!);
- Read Carol Anderson’s book White Rage, which is where I first learned about many of the ideas in this article. (Unless you already knew that Lincoln didn’t care about freeing the slaves, or that newly-freed Blacks in the South were required to sign annual labor contracts with plantation, mill, or mine owners and would be whipped and sold into slavery if they left this “job” – in other words, they were “slaves in everything but name,” – and that white liberals are hardly free of either racially prejudiced ideas or innocent of perpetuating racist systems.)
- Read books with your child about children of many races, not just white children (which is admittedly made more difficult because only 12% of children’s books published in the U.S. are about people of color – although at least this is better than the 1% in the U.K. market!). But do pre-read books before you share them with your child, and be alert for microaggressions in the text (this article contains a very helpful list of things to watch out for; one simple shortcut is to check whether a book about children or people of color is written by an author of color). If you find microaggressions, consider reading the book with your child anyway and making a point to discuss them. There are some good lists of books to consider here and here.
- Answer your child’s questions honestly and completely, using age-appropriate language and ideas. If your child asks about issues related to race, don’t ignore them or change the subject. If you can’t think of the right words in the moment, use the technique that sex educator Saleema Noon suggests when children ask about sex: “I’m so glad you came to me with that question because I think it’s really important that we talk about it. I need a bit of time to think about how to explain it to you. Let’s chat after school, OK?” Then make sure to come back to it, or the child learns that the topic is something that shouldn’t be discussed.
- By all means, teach about Black history during Black History Month. Teach about slavery and civil rights – but don’t leave out the fact that the struggle against the oppression of Blacks specifically and members of non-dominant cultures more generally by Whites – even those whites who ‘aren’t prejudiced’ but nevertheless benefit from racist system – is still very real today. Teach that Black History does not begin with slavery and end with the Civil Rights movement: advanced, rich, and vibrant cultures existed in Africa before slavery and Black culture today is both distinct from American culture and makes large contributions to it. Teach your child to be an ally for members of non-dominant cultures: there are lots of resources for learning how to do this here and here (and books for children here and here), and moving even beyond allyship to becoming a “co-conspirator” here.
- Be an anti-racist role model. Accept that racism is not something that poor, uneducated people do: it’s a system in which you and I participate. We must educate ourselves and our children, but we also can’t stop there. We must be willing to call out prejudice where we see it. We must be willing to look for racist systems in which we participate in our daily lives and do what we can to change them (we’ll have lots of information coming up in podcast episodes soon on how to do this).
You can learn more about these topics through a series of podcast episodes that I’m running right now. I’ve already released a conversation with Dr. Margaret Hagerman, author of White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, on the topic of white privilege in parenting. Up soon will be an interview with Dr. Allison Roda, author of Inequality in Gifted and Talented Programs: Parental Choices about Status, School Opportunity, and Second-Generation Segregation on white privilege in schools. Then we’ll talk with the renowned educator on race relations in the U.S. and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, and we’ll conclude the series by asking Dr. John Bickford about what children learn about race and racism in schools, and what needs to be our role in this process.
Click here to listen to the first episode in the series and subscribe (it’s free!) to make sure you catch the rest, then join us in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group to continue the conversation (just search for the #whiteprivilege thread).