Inside Higher Ed has a brief interview up with sociologist Margaret Hagerman on her new book, White Kids: Growing up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America. I’m not familiar with her work, but this book sounds impressive and worth a read. Her methodological approach reminds me to a degree of one of my favorite works of sociology, which I’ve used in the classroom several times, Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods. I could have sworn I’d written a post about Lareau’s book at some point, but I’m not finding it. Crooked Timber’s Harry Brighouse, another big fan of Lareau’s work who also uses it in the classroom, has a nice post on it here.
Hagerman uses ethnography and interviews to explore and better understand the emergence of racial consciousness among white children. An interesting but not surprising finding is that kids are as, or more, shaped by what their parents do than what they say. For the purposes of raising non-racist white children, how to talk to your kids about race is probably secondary to the examples you set and the environment you choose:
Q: How do young white people today learn about race?
A: Many people think that white kids learn about race based on what their parents say (or do not say) to them about the topic. For instance, after a racist hate crime, I often notice a surge in parenting blog posts and op-eds published that urge white parents to speak to their children about racism in America. One of the most important lessons of my research, though, is that “actions speak louder than words.” Whether parents use colorblind language (“We don’t see race”) or color-conscious language (“We are antiracist”), what they say often matters far less than what they actually do — and specifically, what they do to design their child’s social environment. When parents move to a segregated white neighborhood because the kids in the integrated neighborhood are “too rough,” or when they believe a “good” school is a whiter school, or when the only people in a child’s life are also white with the exception of the economically marginalized black and brown people at the soup kitchen whom they are told they must help “save,” white children notice and develop understandings of not only the position of others in society but also of themselves — they learn about their own power and privilege through observing and interpreting this world around them.
I know Erik is widely regarded as History’s Greatest Monster for pointing this out, but when parents both a) try to teach their children to not be racist and b) move to mostly segregated communities, neighborhoods and schools based on (often methodologically dubious) assumptions about safety and school quality, the latter choice has the real potential to undermine the former effort.