Round Table: Explaining Privilege to Kids
This week, we were passing this article around the backchannel on how this one parent tried to explain the concept of White Privilege to his ten-year-old son (in light of what is happening in Ferguson). And it made us think–what sorts of conversations about the concept of privilege would we have with our own kids? Or, at what point in our lives did we become aware of our various privileges?
James Baldwin said that “Being white is never having to think about it.” Many white people I know seem to have taken that as advice and not commentary on white privilege. Whatever, whiteys, you annoy the hell out of me. (note: this author is glow in the dark white.)
On a recent trip to Washington DC, I was overwhelmed with the overload of whiter than white portraits of the slave owners who get sole credit for building a country that I enjoy living in so much. How do you impress upon your kids that this country was not founded on freedom but free labor? Seriously, were it not for slavery, we would probably still be flying a Union Jack instead of buying wallets emblazoned with them at Hot Topic. You can explain that while most of us can trace our heritage back generations and consider it a point of pride that their European ancestors came here to the US with nothing and prospered while African Americans can only go back four generations until they were property and not even considered people. “Hey there’s Aunt Eddie, she fetched a handsome price back in the day!” How about instead of game night this week, try spewing out some death row statistics or taking your kids to visit their uncle who is in jail. What? No uncle in jail? So much for that plan!
When I was a kid, my mom wouldn’t let me buy Levi jeans because she believed that they were part of some labor dispute with their workers. I’ll never really know if she was just being a cheap ass or really had some moral leg to stand on but I do know I had to wait until I was about 20 until I could afford a pair of Levis. To this day, they are my favorite jeans so screw you, old lady! Now I really do try to be a responsible consumer but everything I buy always seems to lead me down a road of horrible oppressive earth raping practices. But by all means, enjoy the next trip to Party City to buy the crap for your next birthday party and have funnnn!
I would rather not talk about any of this and just say that no matter how much money you have you are capable of real joy and real pain, compassion and callousness, beauty and ugliness. Everyone wants to have a good time and to be loved. As much as capitalism tries to convince me that folks who are Zestfully clean are better than me, I know they still occasionally stink.
Like many of the most important topics we discuss with our kids, we’re talking about privilege all the time. When we talk about listening to other people and letting them define their experience, we’re talking about navigating privilege. When we talk about consent, we’re talking about assumptions born of privilege. When we explain that intent doesn’t matter if your actions cause pain, whether it’s a pat that feels more like a slap or a joke that falls flat, we’re talking about checking privilege.
Some of these are extended “come sit down on the couch and let’s talk” situations, but most often they are quick chats that grow out of a question about a story in the newspaper or something my son overheard somewhere – maybe even at our own table. Sometimes these conversations relate to some potential lack of privilege on our part (“Son, this is why people will think you’re weird that you’ve never been to a church service, but we still have a tree up in the living room in December…”). But let’s face it – we’re a very middle class white family with two different sex married parents living in a very middle class, not particularly diverse neighborhood, with good schools and infrastructure in the suburban east coast. So, most of the time we are talking about the profound inequality that benefits my tall slim blond son.
He asked about Ferguson a few nights ago, after seeing some of the Washington Post coverage and hearing us talk about it a little at the dinner table. We use the filter of these specific events to frame what we hope are larger conversations. This one, mostly between my son and my husband, went something like this:
Son: Why would police shoot an unarmed man?
Dad: Because he was black and poor, they perceived that he was up to no good and violent.
Dad: It’s a vicious circle. When you’re poor and you have no opportunities, it can seem like the only road that you have is a small crime here or there or getting involved with people who are committing crimes, just to get by. Because people of color are more likely to be poor, some people assume that they are the same thing – a person of color is going to commit crime. This limits their opportunities and then makes it harder to get out. So the police officer assumed the worst based on what Michael Brown looked like and then made it worse by handling things badly.
Son: But that’s not fair.
Dad: No, it’s not.
This turned out to be even harder than I had imagined. I tried to have a talk with my son a few nights ago about privilege and Ferguson. I described the fundamentals of the situation, and his first response was, “that makes no sense. The president is black. Why would people still be racist?”
Ah, out of the mouths of babes. This innocent, delightful attitude completely derailed my attempt for that evening. Logically, it’s better that I pop the bubble in a controlled space, but wow is it hard to intentionally force harsh reality into his world.
Perhaps it’s a conversation that will need to wait for an in-person talk. I guess I haven’t found the right moment or the right tools yet, but I promise his future self that we will have it soon.
I am fortunate to live a life filled with many privileges; I’m a white, cis, straight, financially stable, English-speaking, Christian-culturally-based, generally-healthy male who lives in a good safe neighborhood with good schools. Obviously, my two boys inherit a lot of these privileges, but I hope they won’t take their privilege for granted.
One area in which their privilege comes up for us is in their school. Although there is a good elementary school up the street from up that they could go to with mostly other suburban kids, we instead send them to a Chinese Language Immersion Charter School in St. Louis City. Not only does this expose them to the Chinese culture, but also it exposes them to poor and minority families that they wouldn’t see nearly as much in our suburban school.
But even our freedom of school choice is a privilege. We are able to attend the school in the city because of desegregation – since our home district is white enough, we have the option of bypassing our good suburban school and sending our kids to a specialty school in the city, an option that is not available to children in more challenged areas that are just as close to the city, like Ferguson, Missouri. Ironically, this choice is available to us only because we don’t really need it. Further, if the school fails for some reason, we have our suburban schools as a backup, but many of our kids’ classmates are at the school because the standard public schools in the city are barely accredited, and they would have nowhere else acceptable to go.
Given all this privilege, I don’t know that we do enough to make it visible to the boys.
- We remind them that not everyone has the money we have for toys and trips, but I don’t know that it has sunk in.
- We talk a little bit about what has been happening in Ferguson, but we haven’t delved into the deeper issues.
- We make use of the Junior Ranger programs at National Parks, and many of our stops have been related to slavery and the Civil War, so we’ve had conversations about why some white people thought that it was ok to own black people, but I don’t know that they relate that history to their current world.
- We explain that not all boys want to kiss girls and some want to kiss boys instead, but otherwise our life is very heteronormative.
Writing this down makes me realize how much more we need to do to help them not take their good fortune for granted.
I’ve never had much luck in the sorts of conversations with my son that require me to bring an agenda. When he was younger, he didn’t really get whatever point I was trying to make. These days he’s just not interested in anything that smacks of a lecture. It’s possible, though, that we just needed something to spark the conversation.
Yesterday I was watching this clip of an on-air argument between CNN host Don Lemon and rapper Talib Kweli, and because suddenly there was conflict on my computer screen, my son wanted to pay attention. We started talking about what happened in Ferguson and why, and while he was mostly puzzled — “Why?” “That’s not fair.” “That doesn’t make sense.” — he at least started to think about racism as something more than past history.
I think it’s important to question our motives as parents — am I having this conversation because I have a need to talk about the subject or because my son needs it? In this case, probably both. But I’m suspicious of having a conversation about Ferguson in order to give myself some false sense of doing something.
My kid isn’t even close to being old enough to understand these things yet, but I think my approach will be to take it as it comes with him, through real life examples he experiences.
I think I might come from a weird place in terms of privilege. My mother grew up in Newark NJ in the 1960s, and has a story about being escorted home from a sleepover at a girlfriend’s by a member of the National Guard because there was a race riot going on. My first memory of noticing skin color and difference was when I was 3 or 4 and we were living in Air Force housing in the South (it was either North Carolina or Mississippi). There was a new family and the other kids went to see if their kid wanted to play with us, but their mother wouldn’t let them, because we were all white. Which, in hindsight, I can see as being normal, although tragic, caution. It was the South and we were a gang of white kids, however benign our intentions might have actually been.
When I was 10, it was 1980. I had been living in Jersey City NJ for 3 years and attending elementary school, to which my sister and I walked. It was not a very long walk, although we had to cross Communipaw Avenue, which was about 6 lanes of scary traffic, mediated by the laughably unfunctional pedestrian crossing lights. Google Maps says PS #33 isn’t there anymore, but my recollection is it was on West Side Avenue, so it was about 6-10 city blocks.
Walking to school was an exercise fraught with apprehension, because we never knew when we’d be chased and beat up by gangs of little black kids. We had memorized stores that were on our route (Schluer’s Ice Cream Parlor, Mike the Butcher’s) that we would duck into if we were scared.
It got to the point that my parents were worried we wouldn’t live through high school, so we moved to Vermont the summer I was 10. My parents were bitter about it, my stepfather had to sell the home he’d lived in all his life, and they both missed the thriving social life they’d had living so close to New York City. From that I learned advanced bigotry and racism.
As an adult, and a white female, I am aware that I still have it a lot better than people who are non-white. As a person who is trying to be self-aware, I am ruthless about examining what I feel are knee-jerk (“Not all white people!”) reactions to my privileged state in the world. I do not want my experiences growing up to do anything but help me become a better person.
I now live in Madison WI, which is an odd mix of segregation and inclusion. We live close to downtown, in a large apartment complex, so our life is probably less segregated than it might be in other parts of the city or suburbs. My daughter’s life has always been full of diversity. That is one of the great things about living in a city.
I haven’t really had the privilege conversation with her. At least, not in a way that is deliberate. In the same way I critique the image industry in media, I critique, as much as I am able, the way non-white people are portrayed and stereotyped. I remind her of how certain things will never happen to her because of her skin color, frequently using media as an example. I point out how unfair it is. I challenge her when she says things that seem to be prejudiced or uninformed. I try to lead by example in treating people as I would like to be treated, while acknowledging that not everyone has had the same opportunities offered to them in life.
It never feels like it’s enough.
My stepson has been spending the last few weeks with his mother, so we haven’t had an opportunity to talk about the events in Ferguson. But, we have had conversations on privilege, and if there’s any influence I want to have on him, it’s how to recognize his privilege as a white, middle-class male in America (I know there are other forms of privilege, but I don’t want to project any cis, straight or other assumptions onto a 12 year-old.).
As GT gets older, these opportunities come up more and more often. We’ve talked about how he has advantages that many of his classmates do not. He doesn’t ever go to school hungry because there’s nothing to eat at home. He dresses as warmly as he wants to through our frigid winters. When he outgrows his clothing, he gets more to replace them.
Because GT and I share a love of video games, we’ve started watching Anita Sarkeesian’s excellent Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series on Youtube. Although the content of a couple of the videos has been too mature for a 12 year-old, we’ve watched and discussed all of the others. In this case, it’s less a conversation on privilege than an absorption of the concept. He’s already started pointing out inequalities that he’s observed in other media, like the underwear commercials that focus in on a woman’s underwear-clad rear-end while men are filmed in a way that’s much less exploitational. I’m hoping his next level of observations extend to his classmates and how they’re not all intrinsically treated the same.
Before we moved away a few years ago, we were living in a town that although located on an indian reservation, was predominantly white. The racism in the town wasn’t overt, but existed more as a constant undercurrent that went largely unacknowledged. GT was young enough to be unaware of this, and two of his best friends were Dakota Sioux. It’s hard to know if he would have maintained those friendships as he grew older, but my only regret in leaving that place was taking him away from that social circle.
I don’t know how aware GT is of the events in Ferguson, or if he’s had any conversations with his mother on it while he’s been away. I don’t know if there will be a good opportunity to bring it up with him that won’t feel forced or incongruous. But I do know that I’ve only recently started to truly understand the many ways that I benefit from my own privilege, and I’ll do everything I can to give GT a head start on that process. The trick will be doing it in a way that fosters empathy, rather than a sense of superiority.
My children are very young (5 and 21 months), so I like to use real life experiences as teachable moments to allow them to draw conclusions, ask questions and learn from examples that are easy for them to understand.. Honestly, race hasn’t come up often, other than in the context of people looking different and that is okay.
The first time I talked to my daughter about race in a specific way we were in IKEA. She was just about three years old. She had picked out a black doll as part of her birthday present. When we were checking out, the black cashier asked her what she was going to name her doll. She promptly looked up and said ethusiastically that she was going to name her “chocolate baby, Silverware.” The cashier didn’t miss a beat and said, “that baby does have beautiful, chocolate colored skin, doesn’t she? Silverware is a really nice name.” And then she winked at me. I was mortified. I ended up using it as a teachable moment about not having to talk about the color of one’s skin when we describe someone or one’s doll.
The challenge with talking about race and white privilege with your children in a white middle class, progressive family is that we have spent so much time teaching our kids that race doesn’t matter. That you can’t judge the quality of a person’s character by the color of their skin. That all people are equal. We have been speaking in ideals that don’t reflect reality. It’s a nice idea and something I hold as a value, but not yet achieved in our society.
And the media that they have exposure to as preschoolers tells them the same thing. My kids love Daniel Tiger and one episode talks about diversity in a song – “In some ways we are different. But in so many ways, we are the same.” The characters move forward accepting each others’ differences and they all win. In reality, everyone doesn’t always win, especially if you are a person of color or another marginalized group.
I have decided to introduce topics related to white privilege as examples of discrimination or special treatment and questions about fairness. I may have to wait for appropriate times, teachable moments and my children to reach ages where these examples make sense. So far, my daughter responds to questions about unfair treatment based on race, gender or sexual orientation with confusion as to why anyone would do that and anger. That makes me happy, but as they grow, I want my children to also be able to recognize their own privilege and be an ally when someone needs help or is mistreated. To be a part of a culture that wants to work for that ideal Daniel Tiger introduced. If we all did this, maybe someday it will be possible.
The fact that I am thinking how to talk about privilege with my daughter, as she grows up, is a form of privilege itself.
As with all of us, the privilege that is most invisible to us is the one that benefits us. Growing up as a girl, especially in the traditional South, I noticed male privilege all the time. I had two older brothers and it did not skip my attention that they were treated differently than me. My mom was always on me to be “ladylike,” and I would point out to her that she never told my brothers to be “gentlemanlike.” There are other, minor examples, but you get the point. By the time I was a teenager, I didn’t know the phrase “male privilege,” but I knew how to describe it.
I’m also white and I grew up in a middle-class family in a good school district. I knew about racism, and I knew it was wrong and unfair, but I didn’t realize that I was treated better because of my white skin. Growing up, I was under the impression that as long as one studied hard in school, the same opportunities were available to everyone. I was also politically conservative and anti-feminist up until I was about to graduate college. (But in my family, we listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio, and the only NPR station played classical music.)
Every time I came to understand what privileges I had, it’s always because of some sort of “teachable experience” that I went through. I volunteered at a homeless shelter as a teenager, and that was an eye-opening experience, and I hope to share that with my daughter some day. As a senior in college, I went through a period of time where I had no money except what I was making from a part time job, and I had $20 per week for my food budget. My parents paid for my health insurance, which I am grateful for, but going through that made me realize that my libertarian-ish ideals and my thoughts about people on welfare were unfair and false.
I’m somewhat ashamed of how ignorant I was of privilege until I was in my mid-twenties, even as I was becoming a feminist (at 21 years old). The most important lesson that I’ve learned is to listen to others and to keep an open mind. I’m hoping that my daughter has an advantage over me by growing up in a feminist household.