Your Parenting Mojo

091: Do I have privilege?

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Each time I think I’m done with this series on the intersection of race and parenting, another great topic pops up!

Listener Ann reached out to me after she heard the beginning of the series to let me know about her own journey of learning about her white privilege. Ann and her husband were a ‘normal’ white couple who were vaguely aware of some of the things they could do to help others (Ann works at a nonprofit) and saw politics as an interesting hobby.

Then they adopted a Black daughter and had a (surprise!) biological daughter within a few months, and Ann found that she needed to learn about her privilege – and quickly. She’s had to learn about things like the features of a ‘high quality’ daycare for both of her daughters, how to keep them safe, and we get some feedback from Dr. Renee Engeln about how to help Black girls to see and be confident in their beauty.

Ann is openly not an expert on this topic, and does not speak for adoptive Black children, or even for all white adopting parents. But she finds herself far further along this journey of discovering her privilege than the vast majority of us – myself included, until I began researching this series of episodes.

Read Full Transcript

Jen: 01:24 Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. When I started this series of episodes on the Intersection of Race and Parenting, I had no idea it was going to go on for so long. I had initially planned to do the episodes on White Privilege and Parenting with Dr. Margaret Hagerman and White Privilege in Schools with Dr. Allison Roda and then How To Talk About Race with Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum. After the conversation with Dr. Tatum, I realized that we hadn't talked a lot about what we should teach about topics like slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, and so we went on to cover that with Dr. John Bickford and then I got to chatting via email with Ann Kane who is a listener and who's our guest today. And so before I tell you about Ann, I just wanted to tell you a snippet about my own journey toward learning about my privilege.
Jen: 02:06 I was actually listening to an episode of The How To Get Away With Parenting podcast, which is published by my now friend, Malaika Dower. And in it Malaika made a comment about how it might not be safe for a black toddler to have a tantrum in a store. And the implication was because the white parents would potentially find this threatening in some way. And if you'd ask me before that moment whether I had white privilege as a parent, I would have said, I really don't think so because I'm really not sure I could have named a single way in which I experienced this. So uncovering my privilege has been a very deliberate exercise for me that’s taken a lot of hard work because the point of privilege is you don't really see it. It's there to protect you from having to see it.
Jen: 02:48 But our guest Ann has been forced to confront her privilege in a completely different way. So Ann who is white, spent 10 years working in the field with Doctors Without Borders and she left to work in Program Finance for a nonprofit in New York City so that she and her white husband could raise a family and she adopted a daughter, Alice from the foster care system. Alice was 8 days old at the time and is now just over two and she is black. And then Ann and her husband had a surprise baby named Audrey who is almost two and is white. So when Ann and I started emailing about this, she told me, “Raising Alice in a society that still has so much structural racism is my biggest parenting worry. I'm so afraid that my white privilege is going to harm her. There's so much I'm unaware of. And as a white person, I don't feel I can prepare her for all she'll face.”
Jen: 03:35 That's when I knew I had to talk with Ann in an episode, because while she isn't and doesn't claim to be an expert on race or racism or raising a black child, she's been forced to confront her own privilege as a white person and as a white parent to a much greater extent than I have. And then I think probably many of my listeners have as well. So my goal for today is that perhaps you hear something in Ann's journey that resonates with privilege you didn't know you had, and maybe you'll take an action to lift somebody else up who has less privilege than you. So with all that said, welcome Ann.
Ann: 04:08 Thank you. Hi Jen.
Jen: 04:09 Hi. Welcome to the backside of the microphone.
Ann: 04:12 Okay.
Jen: 04:13 So, we started each episode in this series with both me and my guests stating our privileges. And so you have heard this before and some of the listeners as well. So I'm just going to state mine really quickly. My whiteness, my economic status in the upper middle class, heterosexuality, able-bodiedness, my education, and my presence on the land of the Chochenyo Ohlone native Americans to whom I pay a voluntary tax called the Shuumi Land Tax as a form of reparations. Could you please start by telling us some of your privileges?
Ann: 04:43 Sure. I think I have pretty much all of the privileges. I'm white, my economic status is the upper middle class, I’m heterosexual enabled body. I have a Master's Degree. My upbringing in a working middle class family back when it was more financially feasible to do so. I have two married parents who have always been supportive. I think the list goes on and on.
Jen: 05:04 Okay. So, I wonder if you could tell us a bit about what you thought about racial prejudice and structural racism before you became a parent. Did you already have an understanding of your privilege?
Ann: 05:16 I thought that I did. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I don't know and how much I still need to learn. Before becoming a parent, I realized how unfair the world was to black people, but it's become so much more apparent as the parent of a black child. Growing up, I was pretty clueless behind the basic history lessons of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Race wasn't something that was discussed in my family. However, as I get older, I moved to a diverse liberal city and started traveling internationally. So, I became more aware of our country’s long historical structural racism and how it still exists today. We knew when we became foster parents, it would most likely be for African American child. So, we did take that responsibility seriously and really tried to learn all that we can. But as I faced these issues on a daily basis with my daughter, I have learned how much I was unaware of and how much I still have to learn as she grows.
Ann: 06:14 I don't pretend to know anything about what it's like to be a black person in America, but being Alice’s mom has taught me a lot about my own privileges.
Jen: 06:24 And so what are specifically some of the things that you've learned about your privilege as a person? Just as a white person, not even as a parent of a black child over the last few months?
Ann: 06:33 Sure. I think the main one is how much I didn't have to think about things as I go throughout my life and have conversations in my job and with people on the street and I never have to question anything. I take it at face value that they're talking to me as me and not as a minority or as how they view me because of my skin color as the dominant race in this country. I know that people are talking to me because of me and with Alice, I have these questions all the time. Is this because of her race or is it for something else that I'm not realizing? So that lack of understanding of how it's in so many situations that race is a factor.
Jen: 07:10 Yeah. I had one of those realizations recently. I went to an event at work, it was called a building bridges conversation and they started out with an exercise, they made us all dance around the room and of course as a profound introvert, this is extremely uncomfortable for me. And so I was kind of annoyed that they were doing this thing. Most of the people who work in a consulting firm are pretty extroverted. They get on well with clients and like socializing and that kind of thing. And I was annoyed that they were putting me in this situation.
Jen: 07:41 And then I had a realization afterwards, what if this was how I felt at work all day, every day. The absolute discomfort with just being in this situation with people and also the annoyance that they would put me in that situation. And that was a really profound awakening for me. And I'm not sure that was the lesson I was intended to take out of it, but it was profound for me. So I wonder if we can go on and talk about some of the things you've learned since you became the parent of a daughter who's black. You told me that you can no longer live just anywhere and you have to live in an accepting community with people who look like Alice and so I think you live in Harlem right now (which for those of you who don't live in the US is a neighborhood of New York that 60% black and it holds a huge place in black history and culture). Did you live there before you became a parent?
Ann: 08:30 Yes, I moved here to go to Grad school roughly 15 years ago.
Jen: 08:33 Oh, okay. And why did you pick that neighborhood?
Ann: 08:37 It is near the university that I attended. It's actually been gentrified quite a lot. I'm not far from a predominantly white university, but this area was within walking distance but still did not have a lot of white people. And I moved in basically for affordability issues and I have seen gentrification and how it's affected my neighbors in my neighborhood as I've been there quite a while now.
Jen: 09:01 Yeah. And so I'm curious about whether you've taken Alice to predominantly white neighborhoods, maybe to visit your family or friends and are the interactions between Alice and that community different than when you're in Harlem?
Ann: 09:15 Sure. We have been to various areas that are predominantly white and we grew up with white families. So, this is the norm for us. Most of the blatant things we've been warned about, for example, being followed around by (in stores) security guards, scary interactions with Police, obviously aren't things that are happening to a 2-year-old. Most of her interactions go through us simply because she's not old enough to have full conversations. We've heard this from other adoptive parents that they turned from cute children into adults quite quickly in the public’s eyes and you'll start to see these things. But so far our interactions have been different in these areas, but not in that regard. In these areas, what we've noticed is there is a certain kind of othering. I feel like they pay more attention to Alice and not in a negative way, but they kind of fond over her in a way they don't with our other daughter who’s only 5 months younger.
Ann: 10:07 They tried to touch her hair, which of course we don't allow and go on about how beautiful she is. I obviously don't know their intention, but it feels like their way of saying they approve of her, our family without directly coming out and saying that, which is obviously a nice gesture and it's better than the alternative, but other ways it seems unnecessary and we're not asking for permission to be us or her. I've read these feelings from other transitional families, so I don't think I'm totally imagining it. However, it goes back to some of the things I discussed earlier is when you're a white person you never have to question your interactions with others. In this case, is it because she is cute? Obviously I think she's cute. Are they only paying attention to her by chance or is this a racial thing where they're trying to make us feel accepted?
Jen: 10:52 And is this primarily white people who are doing this? The touching?
Ann: 10:57 Yeah. Yeah. Mostly.
Jen: 11:00 Okay. All right. Yep, that makes sense. And I've definitely heard about that as well, that white people feel as though they have to sort of exhibit this acceptance in ways that potentially aren't so appropriate on the receiving end of it. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about daycare. What kind of setting do your daughters attend now and how did you choose that?
Ann: 11:19 Sure. Our daughters are in a small in-home daycare run by an African American family. Making sure Alice was around people who looked like her was our number one priority with other priorities being of course, we want a loving environment that keeps the girls safe and happy. We also wanted something within walking distance to our home because we wanted to build a community within our neighborhood. And logistically taking two babies on the subway ride everyday didn't seem doable. When searching, we didn't find many places that had both black and white children. There seems to be daycares with mostly all black kids or daycares with mostly all white kids. And for the first year our daughter who's white, Audrey was the only white child at the daycare. But now there's one or two other white children. It's been such a blessing, this daycare. I don't know if I'm being honest, we probably wouldn't have prioritize this as much and we might have missed out on the chance to go to this school that our girls love and that we love. They really treat them like family. The grandma (all the kids call her grandma Barbara) helps us with Alice’s braids, something that I'm still working on and we've just been very lucky to have found such an important place in our life.
Jen: 12:31 Yeah. So, I'm curious about whether you think Audrey might have benefited in the same way from attending that daycare if Alice wasn't in the picture, you were still living in that neighborhood anyway. It was still an option. What direction do you think you might've gone in for Audrey's care?
Ann: 12:46 Hard to say, but our number one priority wouldn't have been diversity. We would have looked for it, but in our experience we didn't find it. It was mostly all black or mostly all white were the two options. Audrey has us that look like her, so we felt like we'd prioritize that for Alice. And she definitely benefits from being there. It's an amazing environment filled with people that take good care of her and her friends. At the age of two, she loves it very much. So, I think she'll learn to be with people that looked different than her as she grows also.
Jen: 13:20 Yep. And how are you preparing both Alison and Audrey for school? What kind of school environment do you think you'll choose and how are you getting ready for that?
Ann: 13:29 Sure. We will most likely go public schools, there's quite a few public charter schools in our neighborhood that we'll be looking into. My husband and I are products of public schools and had positive experiences that we would want to give our children, New York City and our neighborhood. Those are the most diverse options which would be our top choice. Again, it's what we'll have to prioritize to make sure Alice sees people that look like her on a daily basis. I think picking schools, our definition of what a good school because we have a black child has changed. Maybe in the past we would have focused only on test scores or other indicators that most white parents are using. But now while those things we will look at, they're not our number one priority.
Jen: 14:11 And so is it that you see diversity as more important or is it that you see that test scores are not necessarily an indicator of what is good about a school?
Ann: 14:22 I think both. I think it's reprioritizing what you think is the best opportunity for your child. And while I want both of my girls to get good grades and learn all the textbook facts, I think it's more important that they're good people. And I think the way to do that is to have them around people who look different than them and have different religions and have different viewpoints so they can learn from their experiences also.
Jen: 14:46 Okay. So your sort of understanding of this and your approach to school has probably shifted a little bit because you've had this experience, right? You're not necessarily going to look for the public school with the highest test scores, which you might have done previously?
Ann: 14:59 Exactly. And I think it is another area that shows my white privilege in a different way. I haven't seen a lot of research that says if you put a white child in an adequate school, as long as they have adequate supports at home, they're mostly going to do okay. So, we would have certainly searched for Audrey, but it doesn't seem that it's as important or significant as it feels with Alice. We have to get this question right with Alice, because there is a lot of research that shows that many schools are failing the country's black children, and I wanted to make sure she's not facing that.
Jen: 15:31 Yeah. We definitely learned in our episode on White Privilege in Schools which will have been released by the time this episode goes out that more than half of parents say they value diversity in national surveys, but they aren't willing to travel further to attend a diverse school and possibly less of a concern in New York City where everything's a little closer together. Although it might involve a subway ride with young children, but there are definitely parts of the country where you're going to be bused across town if diversity is important to you. And so I think what parents need to think through is do you think it's going to be critical to your child's success? And I think there's a lot of indicators that say that content knowledge and being able to pass the test is one part of being successful. And that being able to get along well with other people and not just get along with them, but know how to collaborate with them is going to be an even more critical skill in the future. So, I think that your approach of selecting for diversity is actually going to end up benefiting both of your children more than potentially a school that just has high test scores.
Ann: 16:34 That has been my experience with a lot of these things like I mentioned with the daycare, we wouldn't have found it, but it's been such a blessing. So, diversity isn't always easy and sometimes there's some uncomfortable with it while it's happening, but in the long run it's better for our whole family.
Jen: 16:50 Okay. I wonder if we can just dig into that for a minute. What kinds of discomfort do you experience that other white parents who might be thinking about this might be thinking, yeah, I could make that extra step, but it just doesn't feel right. It feels as though my child is going to be missing out. How would you describe how that's played out for you and what would you say to those parents?
Ann: 17:08 Sure. For us it feels like we're learning what Alice might feel like. We do go to preschool events and the graduations and things and we're the only white people in the room and that's the norm for Alice in her life because her family is white and her grandparents are white. And that's what she's going to have to deal with. We want to counteract that as much as possible by getting other people that look like her around her. But it's not going to be a reality. It's not the reality of many black people in many workplaces and then in many cities. So, I think recognizing when it feels like to be the person who's not in the majority has helped us when we go to these school events. It's not that everyone is very welcoming and kind, but you do realize you don't understand that you have different cultures in some ways than the people that you're interacting with.
Jen: 17:57 Yeah. So moving on from schools a little bit, when you emailed to me, you mentioned something I would never have thought of, which is that before you go on vacation, you have to make sure the place is okay for Alice and for you as a transracial family, what do you mean by that? What do you have to make sure is okay?
Ann: 18:12 Sure. And I don't want to overstate the issue. There are many, many places that we can go. In fact, most places are totally fine, but a vacation is supposed to be fun, relaxing time for our entire family and if Alice is seen as other and treated differently or feel like she's being stared at, it’s not going to be fun for her or for us. So, we have to be aware of that before we go. And I've learned, which I certainly didn't know before Alice, there's many places in America where black people don't feel physically safe. Some of the transracial family groups on Facebook, there's been various conversations about what places not to take a black child. And these are places in America that odds are you'll be fine, but you might not be and you don't want to risk it with your child on a vacation that's supposed to be fun.
Ann: 18:55 And after reading those conversations, I joined a Facebook group called Black Kids Do Travel. Just started by a mother whose goal was to offer encouragement, support and some travel tips for children of color. It's predominantly black families, but she allows anyone with a child of color to join. So in that group, there's lots of tips just on travel in general, that people will come and ask if it's safe or if people are welcoming there, if they’ll be treated differently. Our first big international trip with our kids in Bali was recommended. It’s a place that everyone was very kind to children regardless of color. And it turned out to be a great experience. So, we're really thankful that we have that information before we went. And recently last summer, we went on vacation in Vermont and had a good time and realized after the fact that maybe we didn't do enough research because there was also, in the same summer, a transracial family conference and a few of the adolescent teens were called the N word and harassed on more than one incident within this town. And obviously that's not something we would want Alice to ever have to deal with and we can't protect her from everything. We don't think we can, but certainly on vacation she shouldn't have to deal with that.
Jen: 20:07 Yeah. And it's just incredible to think that that might have to be a consideration before you choose a vacation destination even within our country. I mean maybe there are some places that we could think of that those kinds of interactions might be more potentially expected, but there are, I would probably not have put Vermont on that list, I have to say.
Ann: 20:29 Exactly. And I think that's what the conference owner said is like, we didn't expect this here. Again, they met many nice people there, but if their kids are having to deal with that, it's not what we want for Alice.
Jen: 20:41 Yeah. Okay. So back to your kind of daily life a little bit. You mentioned that you think about different things now when you're buying clothes or books or toys for your daughter. What kinds of things are you thinking about and what are some of your favorite places to buy, the things that you do buy?
Ann: 20:54 When it comes to books, I really only buy books with lead characters that are black or other people of color. Of course there's many books we love that don't have black characters as the lead, but that's the norm. Everywhere we go, the library is (even in Harlem) filled with books of children that are white, though they do have sections of books with children with color. And so in order to counteract that, I want most of the books that I buy to have that for her so she can see herself. Many books we received as gifts feature white characters. So Audrey certainly sees herself in our home collection too. We would face the same issues with clothing. For Alice, I'll normally pass in the items that have people that don't look like her because I think she can't or couldn't on occasion. But in general, I want her to see herself when she comes back to us.
Jen: 21:42 And when you say clothing, this is characters on the front of the t-shirt or something?
Ann: 21:46 Yeah, exactly. The princesses or even just normal characters. So again, I don't think it would hurt her on occasional basis, but mostly I want her to see that she's represented in many places. And so I've heard in the past that it was much, much more difficult to do. We have a lot more options now, but it still takes that extra work. Even in New York City in Tribeca where I work has a huge children's section. I found Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks children books, but not just normal characters. So I had a few aunts and my mom searching different Targets for some black Santa wrapping paper ‘cause I went in our Harlem store we didn't have it and it wasn't available online. But we are lucky enough to live in Harlem, which has some local businesses. I just bought Alice a little black wonder woman shirt. It's pretty cute. We like to support those businesses. In St. Louis where my family's from, there's an amazing bookstore called I See Me that features only books that have lead characters, which are black. So, we tried to make it a tradition that we let the girls pick out a book every time we go home.
Jen: 22:52 Yeah, it certainly is an extra mental step, isn't it? I mean, not that this is massive work for you in your life and we're not trying to make it into something huge here, but this is something that I, as a white parent, yes I want diversity, but it's in my child's books and in the things that are around her, but it's not necessarily a primary consideration. And sometimes it figures into that decision making process and sometimes if I see a shirt that I think is nice, it's okay for me to just buy it because the person on the shirt probably does look like her.
Ann: 23:26 Exactly. And I do want to make the point that none of these things that we do for Alice are a burden on us, it's not. Being Alice mom is the best thing that I've got going for me and Audrey's mom of course. But they are things that I was unaware of and in many ways just embarrassed that I was unaware of what black people face in this country. And I understood it on some sort of superficial level but not on the… and I still sure don't understand it in any way completely, but I am trying to learn.
Jen: 23:57 Yup, me too. So on that difficult topic, we did an episode a while back on why we shouldn't ban children from engaging in war play or play with guns. And I still stand behind the developmentally appropriate conclusion of that episode, which is that we shouldn't ban children from engaging in war play. But I'm embarrassed to say that we didn't really consider the implications of that for all children. And for some children it's just not safe to play with toy guns in public places. What's been your experience with this?
Ann: 24:26 So I'm from Missouri and most of the men in my family are deer hunters, my father has an extensive gun collection while I am now a big supporter of gun control. Guns aren't something that I am afraid of because I’ve been raised around them my entire life. I have two nephews back in Missouri who has a very extensive nerf gun collection. They love them and I'm glad it's something they get to do, but it's not something that I would allow Alice to do outside of their home. Not because I am against playing with guns, but because I'm afraid for her safety. I can't imagine any parent of a black child hasn't heard of Tamir Rice. And that's just not something that I'm willing to put at risk. And if Alice can't do it, then of course Audrey also will have the same rule. I have no doubt that my family thinks I'm being dramatic and perhaps, but I just don't think it's worth the risk.
Ann: 25:19 I'd rather be overly dramatic than have Alice face the consequence if someone thinks it's a real gun. She's still very, very young, but I've read the studies that show that black children are often seen as older than their age and she'll be there before we know it. So, I think we have to prepare for her for it. Now, it’s not a conversation I wanted to have with my child. I'm sure it's not a conversation that any black person wants to have with their child, but they've been forced to have those conversations for so long.
Jen: 25:47 And so I'm curious as to why your family thinks you're being overly dramatic. And I don't know if you can speculate as to their thinking, but do they not see the news? Do they think that it just could never happen in their neighborhoods? Do you know what's going on there?
Ann: 26:01 I can't explain some of it. There are certainly family members who are supportive. Speaking of the buying, I have aunts that buy all my kids black dolls. They’ve learned and grown as we have. But also I think, yeah, they think it wouldn't happen in their neighborhood. It just happened once to that kid but it doesn't mean it's going to happen to your kid. I think it's a hard fact to come to that that is what an entire population in our country has to worry about with their children. I think the same thing with police brutality. I think they think that, I don't know, police are good people. Of course there's a few bad one, but it's hard for me to understand why they can't see that. It's something that we have to be aware of to keep her safe.
Jen: 26:47 Yeah. And that this is a persistent problem.
Ann: 26:50 Yeah. So much data that shows it. I mean, for me, when I read, I forget the number, like three or four out of every five black people say they've had faced problems with police officers. Like that’s all I need. Like if I hear that, I believe it, why would they not be telling the truth? But even if I didn't, there's so much data that says that black people are pulled over more often. All of these things it’s just the reality and it doesn't mean all cops are bad. Of course there's many wonderful cops who will help both of my children, but I don't know which ones they're going to be dealing with. And I don't want her playing with the toy gun outside. If she ends up dealing with the one who doesn't and either knows it and it's purposely aware of it or we all have our biases and are unaware of them.
Jen: 27:34 Yep, for sure.
Ann: 27:35 And certainly I wouldn't be worried about it, but she's tall kid. She's going to be six before we know it. Yeah.
Jen: 27:42 Yeah. That time is coming quickly. So shifting again to sort of parenting advice and when I see parenting advice articles online or perhaps if I hear about them in a podcast, I can pretty much assume that they're going to be relevant to my daughter. But I also know that the vast majority of psychological research is conducted on convenience samples of white children and may not produce relevant results or even ask relevant questions for children of nondominant cultures. I'm curious about how this has played out for you when you've read or heard parenting advice?
Ann: 28:14 Sure. For some topics, I do think parenting advice applies to both of my children equally. For example, something about teaching your children to walk or what to eat seems universal and wouldn't change based on the color. However, parenting advice that focused on discipline or how our daughters interact with the world is something that I have to be sure to understand or try to understand or seek out the advice of people who have lived it to say, this has been your experience and it's just so can it work with our child?
Jen: 28:42 Could you give us an example of one of those things?
Ann: 28:45 Sure. I think you mentioned with your friend, at the age of two I don't worry about Alice having a tantrum in public, although I am more aware of, I feel like people do look at her behavior, and our reactions to her behavior more than I think I would be aware if we only had a white daughter.
Ann: 29:00 But as she starts to become older we have to teach her how to behave in public and in public schools I think there's a lot of data that shows in schools, black children are disciplined more actively than white children for the same behavior. So I don't want her to start on a bad foot. I want her to get in and like school and like her teachers and to be liked by her teachers because I think that can go a long way in our future.
Jen: 29:26 Yeah, absolutely.
Ann: 29:27 I don't think she has the same options to make the mistakes that I think Audrey has.
Jen: 29:32 Yeah, we've definitely seen that in the literature. It was Dr. Hagerman ‘cause she also looked at children in schools, so then we primarily talked about things outside of schools and she said that there was a rule that the kids were not allowed to wear hoodies with their hoods up in school. And everybody knew this rule. And the white kids would wear their hoods up all the time and would not be asked to take them down. Would not be disciplined in any way. But if a black kid put their hood up, then they were asked to take it down. They were sent for detention. And so when you start on this step of detention leads to suspensions potentially, leads to expulsion, leads to all kinds of other things. And just this simple differential enforcement of this tiny little rule around hoodies or something like hall passes or something that seems absolutely insignificant can have these profound effects over the longer term.
Ann: 30:24 Sure. And I think that's why in cases that have to deal with racial things, I tried to seek the advice of black men and women because they know what it's like more than research that as you stated it doesn't always take into account the different ways the world sees my two perfect children.
Jen: 30:42 Yeah. And so still on the topic of parenting advice. I wonder if we could spend a bit of time talking about beauty because we did an episode on this where we talked with Dr. Renee Engeln on how to raise a woman with a healthy body image, a girl with a healthy body image. And so I wonder firstly if you could tell us kind of what have been your thoughts and your concerns on this about what Alice is learning about beauty and then actually have some things to share. I have been in an extended conversation over the last week or so with Dr. Engeln and I'm going to share some of those things as well. So could you start off by telling us what has been your approach until now?
Ann: 31:15 Sure. I'll start by saying of course, I think both of my children are the most beautiful. It's hard to resist telling them that all of the time. But I do try to follow the parenting model that suggests avoiding focusing on our daughter's physical appearance by commenting on how beautiful or cute they are. Well in the long run, help them to value other things that our family values more like how they act or how they treat other people or their intelligence. For my white blond hair daughter Audrey, I agree society already tells her in countless ways that her physical appearance matters in ways that we don't want her to value. But for our black daughter, I feel in many small ways and some not so small ways, society tells her she's not the right kind of beautiful. So I want her to be hearing it from us, just how perfect I think she is. I've been told by other black mothers that because so much of western culture and the media doesn't value this kind of beauty that it will be important that we frequently tell her how beautiful she is. And as black mothers know what it's like to be a black woman, I defer to their expertise.
Jen: 32:17 Yeah. Okay. So when you mentioned this to me, I realized that I had once again exhibited my own white privilege when I interviewed Dr. Engeln on the topic of raising a girl with a healthy body image because I didn't think to ask her about this and I should have done. So, I reached out to her about it and I'm going to summarize some of the resources that she was kind enough to point me towards. So Jen is going to kind of switch into lecture mode for a bit here and then we'll pick up the conversation again. So I want to be clear, I'm summarizing these resources myself rather than quoting her directly except for an extended quote from Dr. Engeln at the end that I'll call out. Although she did tell me that there is really no empirical data on whether parents of color or parents who are raising children of color should be more active about telling their daughters they're beautiful.
Jen: 32:58 So she suggested, I think about, you know, what are Western cultural beauty ideas and where do they come from. And so I'm not sure exactly how far back the idea of superiority of the white race goes, but it's at least as far as the 1700 when some German theorist started saying that the Caucasian race was superior to all the others. And one of them, a gentleman by the name of Christoph Meiners in Germany said that “The ugly black peoples are distinct from the white beautiful peoples by their sad lack of virtue and their terrible vices.” And so these theorist were basically looking for differences between people that could justify their own superiority. It was in that similar period that Americans began to use these physical characteristics as a basis for saying who was a slave and who was not a slave. Before that slaves could actually earn their freedom by converting to Christianity, which turned out to be a loophole that couldn't be tolerated.
Jen: 33:50 So once the white race became superior and white men are the most virile, white women are the most beautiful. And it actually wasn't until 1940 that the official rules of the Miss America pageant where changed. So contestants no longer had to be “Of good health and of the white race.” And so in the 1960s a man named Stokely Carmichael started using the phrase “black power at rallies” and while whites found it intimidating, black listeners heard a call for cultural, political and economic self-determination. And the phrase resonated especially powerfully for people who had been measured by these arbitrarily set white standards in aesthetics. And so Carmichael told his audiences that being black meant being strong and resourceful and beautiful. And just as a side note this western beauty standard doesn't just affect black people, which is why the global skin lightening products market (which is hot in Asia) is worth 5 billion US dollars and more than 7 million Chinese people a year have their eyelids operated on so they can look more like the western ideal of beauty.
Jen: 34:50 So, I wanted to know whether women in different cultures experience problems with their body image at the same rates that white women do. Several studies have actually found a disproportionate number of African American women with positive body image compared to white women, which researchers have theorized, may be due to black women reporting greater acceptance and appreciation for larger body proportions than white women and researchers showing that black girls also define beauty in a more flexible way than white girls, including the ideas of being well groomed, adopting a personal style, exuding inner confidence rather than just trying to achieve a particular body standard. And one study of women from different cultures living in London, researchers found the Hispanic and African Caribbean women had low scores on an indicator of having internalized European American beauty ideals, but rather depressingly a very recent study that was published actually a month ago found no difference in the prevalence of eating disorders across a thousand young women.
Jen: 35:48 Although admittedly their sample size was skewed with 72% of the sample being white and 5% being black and a mixture of other races as well. The proportion of the US is about 72% white, so they hit the mark on that one. But blacks are substantially underrepresented since they're almost 13% of the population which could have impacted the results. So the researchers did also find that black women were much less likely to idealize a thin body than white and Asian American women, but they didn't attempt to explain the discrepancy between blacks having a better body image but the same prevalence of eating disorders as whites. It's possible I suppose that even though black women idealize a larger body type than white women, their own body mass indices are still higher than their idealized body state, which leads to the eating disorder, but it's really not clear from the literature.
Jen: 36:37 So, the general idea of black women reporting greater body satisfaction than women of other races echoes previous studies looking at this topic, although other studies still have found no differences in body image by race. Some of them have linked these ideas to what is known as ethnic and racial identity or ERI, which is what individuals believe about their racial and ethnic group and the process of exploring this over time and greater ERI has been associated with greater body appreciation among black college women. Although not for Latina and white women, which means that this affect my interaction in different ways for different ethnic groups. So, a big part of the problem is something that all women face, which is the idea that girls and women have learned to internalize an observer's perspective as a primary view of their physical selves. And researchers call this objectification theory.
Jen: 37:26 This internalization of an observer's perspective can lead to habitual body monitoring, which increases women's opportunities for shame and anxiety and diminishes awareness of internal body states. And so the results of one study suggests that their history of racial oppression could lead blacks to construct a sense of self that deflects rather than reflects others appraisals. Although it's possible that the more black women seek upward social mobility in a society dominated by a white male culture that values thinness and beauty, the more they're vulnerable to these pressures. So, I want to finish this little lecture with an extended quote that Dr. Engeln sent me and approved for use in this way. It is a bit long, but I think it's important for white parents raising white children and also parents of nondominant cultures raising their children and even raising a white child and a black child.
Jen: 38:16 And so Dr. Engeln says “It's completely natural for any mom to want her daughter to feel beautiful. But I have yet to see any compelling evidence that once girls begin having significant interaction with messages from media and peers, that they trust their mothers to provide an honest assessment of their physical attractiveness. One young woman I spoke with called this mom beautiful. Mom beautiful is when your mom thinks you're beautiful, but you know better because other people think you're not.” She says, “I wish parents had more power in this regard, but the truth is that girls face a veritable tidal wave of cultural messages telling them they're unattractive, that they'll never be pretty enough. Girls of color face an even more powerful and toxic life. I'm all for doing what we can do to build daughters up so that they can be more prepared to face the onslaught of cultural messages that makes them question their worth.
Jen: 39:05 But if you want your daughter to have a strong foundation, telling her she's beautiful isn't going to cut it, the deck is stacked against her. She'll be growing up in a culture dominated by industries that make their profit off convincing her she is not acceptable the way she is and research is clear that the more she focuses on how she looks, the more likely she is to struggle with serious body image issues. I think that many mothers, when they tell their daughters they're beautiful, aren't really talking about physical beauty. Instead they're communicating things like, I cherish you. I think you're important. I see someone special when I look at you. So, why not say those things instead? Additionally, why not teach girls that their bodies are good and worthwhile no matter what they look like.” And Dr. Engeln concludes “In terms of a reality check, of course, complimenting your daughter's appearance once in a while isn't a big deal. The big deal is how much our culture emphasizes how girls look over what they do. The home is a great place to emphasize other values, values that girls are less likely to encounter on Instagram or other media sources. And extended quote and extended lecture.
Jen: 40:10 And having sort of heard that and read it ahead of time and perhaps had a little bit of time to think about it, I wonder if you could sort of see if that has shifted your perspective at all on how you're going to raise Audrey and Alice?
Ann: 40:23 Sure. I believe everything that she said I believed it before. I think it's true. As I've tried to say it less because it does just kind of come naturally when you have these two cute little babies staring back at you as I'm sure you're aware of. I have realized how much it does just come out without thinking. We’ve tried to counteract that by like, okay, every time that sneaks its way out I'm going to say something else about how wonderful they are and the many other ways they are. And I think what we tried to do with all of these topics with Alice, what we want to do with both our girls as they grow is talk to them about these things and why we wouldn't focus on that. But at the end of the day too, I also want them to know their mom thinks they are beautiful. If that's mom beautiful, that's okay. My mom thinks I'm beautiful and now that I'm adult it makes me feel good to know someone is in my corner and there's nothing I can do wrong in her eyes. So I want my kids to have that too. So I think there'll be a mix of trying to focus on the other things, but also teaching them that it doesn't matter what society thinks. I want you to think you're beautiful inside and out of course.
Jen: 41:30 Yeah. Okay. Well thanks for thinking about that. And thanks to Dr. Engeln as well for taking the time to extend her thoughts and ideas on that, which I know she's very busy and doesn't have a lot of extra time to do. As we head towards the conclusion here, there's a couple of other topics to talk about. One is politics. And you said to me where I once thought of politics as an interesting hobby, I now realize it is life or death for keeping our daughter's safe. And so it's pretty clear that there is one party in the US that really does not prioritize diversity. And there's another party that is doing a lot better at getting diverse candidates elected. But even that party has a really troubled history with racial prejudice. I don't think it's any secret that President Clinton's war on drugs had an exponentially larger negative impact on black people and black communities than it did on white people and white communities and prominent Democrats, even those who just announced today that they're running for president actually have been accused of making racist comments. And so I'm curious about how you're addressing these issues through your own political activity.
Ann: 42:26 Honestly, I don't feel like I'm doing enough and I haven't figured out what is enough or how to do that and anything that would make a significant change. Of course we vote, I speak out on social media in ways that I probably would have shied away from if I wasn't Alice's mother and that hadn't shine light on so many ways America remains an equal. When there is an option, I vote for minority candidates and woman assuming they are a member of my political party. I tried to listen to people of color's opinions about who I should vote for. We support financially, not in large amounts but what we can handle and through phone calls, issues that seemed untagled to changing the structural racism in our countries. And these are issues that might not otherwise be priorities for my own life. Things like overhauling the criminal justice system, addressing the racism inherent in the foster care system, legalizing marijuana and others that in my day to day life, they wouldn't affect me.
Ann: 43:23 But they do affect so many people of color. And there are things that I think are so important to try to overhaul. But I do also think this is another way that I learned about my white privilege is that by nature I'm a fixer of things. I think though, here's the problem, here’s X, Y, and Z, what I need to do to fix it. And in the past I thought, oh, well things work out in my favor because I worked so hard at it, but now I can see that that's not always the case and there's these big things that you can't fix, at least not on your own. I hope that as a country we can work towards fixing them and my little things can add up to other people's bigger things. But I now realized that just hard work isn't enough for other people because they face so many structural problems in this country. Just another part of realizing what privileges I've had in the past and what I considered my hard work was just luck in so many ways.
Jen: 44:21 Yep. And I love how you say that you listen to diverse people and talk to them about how you should vote for. Because I think there's a real tendency on the part of white people to say, oh yeah, we know how to fix you. We know how to fix the things that are wrong with you and impose the solutions on other people. Instead of saying, what do you think you need and how can I lift up your voice to help to move forward on this? And so I try and do that as well. I'm not sure that I always do the best job at it, but I think that it is really critical to not just think, okay, here's the solution, here's what I'm going to do. But instead look to the people who are originating solutions themselves to fix their own problems and to help them and to make their journeys easier. So thank you for the work that you are doing on that and I hope to be doing more on it in the future as well. I wonder as we wrap up, if you could share maybe just a nugget or two about what you wish white parents would recognize about their own privilege and what do you wish they would do about it?
Ann: 45:23 Sure. I think you touched on what I want to say that black people are speaking and they're telling us what's happening in their lives. If you listen, you can realize how unfair it is. I personally realized I wasn't listening nearly enough before Alice came into our life. I wish I would've listened more to the many ways our system is unfair and the many things that people of color have to deal with on a daily basis in their life that they don't deserve. I know Alice personally as a strong little girl, so I don't doubt that she's going to be able to deal with these things, but it's not fair that society puts these things on her or any black children. So, if we could just try to listen and understand and then do our part to make it better, I think that's the first step. At least.
Jen: 46:11 Yeah. Listen and do the things they're asking us to do.
Ann: 46:13 Exactly. Yes, yes. And I think in our case, we've really learned that when you try to do those things, it makes life better for everyone. Audrey would have missed out on so much if we didn't know these things and try to change them for her sister, but it's better for her too. It’s better for us. It's better for everyone. White privilege hurts everyone.
Jen: 46:36 Yeah. White privilege hurts white people. I think that's a point that is so often missed and that I've heard in other contexts as well, I'm going to forget the scholar's name at this particular moment, but yeah, there's a white scholar who says, and he says this kind of controversially, you know, I'm not working to dismantle white privilege for black people. I'm doing it for white people because they miss out because this is a sickness and I don't want the people I know, the white people to be afflicted with this sickness anymore, to miss out on the resources and the things that they could achieve if they supported diversity and if everybody had the same rights and the same privileges. So yeah, I think that's a really critical thing to understand that it does not have to mean you're missing out on something because you are valuing diversity.
Jen: 47:22 That valuing diversity brings with it more benefits than the privilege that it sort of insulates you in your own little box. So well, thank you so much Ann for taking the time to do this and putting in the energy to do it. And I know that it can be really hard to put yourself out there, especially on something that you don't consider yourself an expert and that you're just learning about yourself and that you've made so much progress already and there’s still so much to go. And I'm really grateful that you would spend the time to think about this with us and help us to understand it better as well.
Ann: 47:51 Thank you very much. I was happy to be here.
Jen: 47:54 So, listeners can find the references for the resources that we've consulted today at YourParentingMojo.com/LearningPrivilege.

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About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership

She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com

And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school

2 Comments

  1. GC on June 29, 2019 at 2:29 AM

    Would Ann be willing to share a list of favorite children’s books that she has bought for Alice?

    • Jen Lumanlan on July 2, 2019 at 3:39 AM

      Why, yes she would! Ann recommends the books below, and also follows the Instagram account We Need Diverse Books for more ideas. Hope this helps!

      Here are a few of our favorites:
      Last Stop on Market Street
      Lola at the library
      The Day you Begin
      We Are the Change: Words of Inspiration from Civil Rights Leaders
      Grace for President
      Jabari Jumps
      Juneteenth for Mazie
      Little Leaders in Black History
      Mae Among the Stars
      Amazing Grace
      I am Rosa Parks
      Ada Twist, Scientist
      The Library Book by Tom Chapin
      Hair Love by Matthew A Cherry
      Sesame Street – We’re Different, We’re the same

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