MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Michel Martin. By now, we assume most people have heard about the talk - that's the conversation many African American parents have with their kids about how to avoid altercations with police or what to do and say if they're stopped. But with the recent unrest sparked by anger over police brutality against black men, it got us thinking about the role that white parents could play in talking to their kids about race and about this moment. In this special episode of LIFE KIT, I talk with Jennifer Harvey, the author of "Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children In A Racially Unjust America," about how white and all nonblack parents in particular can talk to their children about concepts like privilege and allyship.
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MARTIN: Jennifer Harvey is also a professor of religion at Drake University, and she is with us now.
JENNIFER HARVEY: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: You just actually wrote a piece for cnn.com titled "How Do I Make Sure I'm Not Raising The Next Amy Cooper?" - Amy Cooper being the white woman in Central Park who was recently recorded calling the police on an African American man who had just asked her to leash her dog, which is, in fact, the law...
MARTIN: ...And, you know...
MARTIN: ...Invoking his race - basically, said I'm going to tell the police that a black man is threatening me. And I want to read from what you wrote. You say, most white parents of today have come up in families in which white silence was a pervasive norm in our socialization. These same parents are now passing such silence on to their kids. Could you talk a bit more about that?
HARVEY: Sure. So, you know, many white Americans today were raised in families where explicit racism was not what parents were trying. Now, of course, some white Americans were raised in such families. But many of us were raised in families that thought that they were teaching equality, but the way that they did that was to just say, well, we're all equal and not say anything more explicit about what does it mean when you believe everyone should be equal but many members of our society do not experience equality. And so what happens is the racist culture that we live in - and Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum talks about it as smog - our kids, our youth, we adults just breathe it in. So we end up showing up in racist ways, even from - when we come from families where equality was the presumed value.
MARTIN: You say that - well, here's what you wrote. You said that sometimes it sounds like everybody's equal. Sometimes we white parents tell our kids, be colorblind. Sometimes we even say, celebrate diversity. And you say, but we say this while failing to notice we're expecting children to be magically immune from the same racism-induced tensions that get in the way of white adults successfully navigating diversity and sustaining interracial relationships. And you say sort of the consequence of that is - the silence, you said, kind of breeds what?
HARVEY: It breeds a lack of capacity among white people to engage well in conversations about race, to talk about and respond when racism is happening. So we literally develop not enough capacity to - for example, oh, I hear racism out on the street or from a co-worker; should I challenge it? What should I say about it? And then if I have friendships across racial lines, if my African American colleagues or friends see me be silent because I don't know what to do, I become untrustworthy, right?
So I think about this with children and youth, for example. You asked about - you know, named the talk. If my 11-year-old, who is white, if I only ever say to her, hey; police are safe, go find one if you're in trouble, but her African American cousin, who's 13, is learning really complicated messages about the police because his parents have to teach him that, they can be great friends for a while, but eventually, over time, their friendship, the depth of it will erode because she, my white child, will not be able to identify with her African American cousin or her African American friends.
And so I have to teach my kids - we, all white Americans, have to teach our white kids how to identify with that experience and how to be good friends to black and brown youth as they grow up. And that requires us teaching about - them about racism, and it requires us teaching them and modeling anti-racism, which is something a lot of white Americans really struggle with, even when we think we want to.
MARTIN: So let's talk some practical things here. Obviously, this has a very deep stem, and there are so many more conversations that ensue but - or should ensue, as you point out. Let's start - a video, like the one that just surfaced. Clearly, not the first, but it may be the first for some child - right? - seeing what has emerged here, this African American man being pinned to the street, you know, saying I can't breathe and calling for help, and the other officers standing around to - you know, some of them participating, and one of them just standing there.
MARTIN: How do you discuss this? Do you wait for the child to come to you? Do you show it to the child and say this is something I need to talk about with you?
HARVEY: So in white families, we cannot wait to talk about it with our children because segregation is so deep that if we just wait, it will never come up. Having said that, I never show my video - my children videos of black people being killed by police. I try not to watch those videos myself. I do talk about the videos with them, and I started doing that work with my own children before they even had words, really. I would make sure we were in spaces where we were engaged in anti-police brutality visuals and organizing. And I knew they wouldn't exactly understand what was going on.
But, for example, my 5-year-old, one time after a rally we were at, when we got in the car, she started saying black people are not safe. And I said, yes, that's true. And then she said, white - but we're white, so we are safe. And I said, yeah, that's true, too. And then I said to her, and the reason we went to this rally to be with people is because we're trying to tell the government - that's how you tell it to a 5-year-old - we're trying to tell the government that everybody deserves to be safe. So now, you know, six years later, she's already got deep understanding of this. And so we can talk about what happened to George Floyd. And, you know, we're much further along in the conversation than if I had waited until she was 14 to start talking about this with her.
MARTIN: How do you discuss the unrest that they are also now seeing? I mean, we're also as we in the media are, of course, also now seeing in our discussion boards and Twitter feeds and so forth, people saying, well, then people should stop rioting. You know, they have no right. This is looting. This is - as the president said, these are thugs. How are you discussing that?
MARTIN: How would you discuss that?
HARVEY: I discuss that with my children by talking with them about how they might end up responding when they have been harmed or an injustice or an unfairness has happened to them and they can't get heard, right? And so at this point, because we've been having these conversations, my kids are like - you know, they're afraid, of course, and they are hurting watching what's going on across the country, but they also understand that, you know, peaceful protest has not yielded justice for black people and brown people in this country.
And so we're sort of wrestling with it as a family and acknowledging that it's really unsettling, but also appreciating that people are really hurt and really angry and the government hasn't responded, right? And so we're just talking about that honestly. I'm always trying to complicate with them messages about, you know, follow rules and obey the law. Like, when we talk about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, I make sure they know that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were breaking the law - right? - because my kids need to know sometimes that's what's required. So that's the way we've tried to talk about it right now.
I mean, they're certainly unsettled, and it's a scary time for everybody, but they at least do appreciate that when you've been hurt and harmed and no one is giving justice, that sometimes this is the kind of eruption that happens.
MARTIN: Obviously, for some people who just feel that people of color, black people in particular, are inferior or are prone to criminality and therefore deserve whatever happens to them, that's a different mindset - right? - different conversation.
MARTIN: But for people who just say, you know what? This stuff just gives me a headache. I don't want to be bothered. This isn't my problem. I just...
MARTIN: Why do I have to think about this? I have problems of my own. What do you say?
HARVEY: Well, when I get to talk to those folks or when they'll (laughter) say that out loud to me, I ask them what they would do - would they call it a headache if it was their child or their sister or their brother or their parent? To white parents who say this is too much work or this is too much and I'm tired, my messaging, my belief and the way I'm trying to live is - we're talking about our fellow human beings. And it could be - you know, what would you do? What would you do on behalf of your own? And then my work as a parent is to raise my kids in a way where they experience communities of color, black people, Latino people, literally being human beings they identify with as part of their human network. And that's something that hasn't really happened in part because of segregation in the United States.
MARTIN: That's Jennifer Harvey. She's the author of "Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children In A Racially Unjust America." Professor Harvey, thanks so much for talking to us.
HARVEY: Thank you so much for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: A shorter version of this interview was originally aired on All Things Considered on May 31, 2020. For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. There's one on what to say to your kids when the news is scary and how to run for office. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.
This episode was produced by Gemma Watters and Audrey Nguyen. It was edited by Natalie Winston. Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan, and our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I'm Michel Martin. Thank you for listening.
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