Are You The Right Kind Of White Parent?

Garrett Bucks’s book cracked open the world of what it means to be a white person in America for me.

As a good progressive parent, I teach my kids about consent. I teach them about gender construction and ableism and abortion and the dangers of colonialism. Being a white mother of white children, I also teach them about race, sort of. We talk about the historical roots of racism, we ask where all the brown-skinned kids are in the picture books. In their classrooms at the global majority school where I send them (in part, so they will learn about races other than their own), they study the legacy of the Black Panthers and the tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement.

But I am constantly struggling with this question: What, if anything, should I teach them about whiteness? And what, I worry, am I already teaching them, without much intention?

When I read the white anti-racist educator and organizer Garrett Bucks's book, The Right Kind of White, it cracked open the world of what it means to be a white person in America for me. It chronicles Bucks’s own upbringing in a progressive family, and his efforts to be a “good white person” by doing Teach for America and advocating on behalf of people of color who he later realized hadn’t asked for his help or been given the opportunity to communicate their needs to him beyond his own assumptions.

With intimate detail and Bucks’s signature balance of self-deprecating humor and compassion, The Right Kind of White challenges white liberals to think less about ourselves in relation to people of color, but to consider how we relate to our own and others’ whiteness, and what we risk when we try to distance ourselves from it.

I asked Bucks, a father of two, if he would help me grapple with these ideas in my parenting, and luckily, he was game.

I saw myself a lot in your book. We share the experience of having been raised by white parents and in a community that explicitly valued diversity and equity. And yet, it didn’t solve all the problems of whiteness for us. What sense do you make of that?

I joke a lot about how memoir is this genre where you typically get to look back at your life and blame your parents, but in my case I’m really grateful for the intentionality with which I was raised. So many of the things that you’d find today in “how to raise white kids to be anti-racist” listicles were hallmarks of my upbringing: the diverse books, the conversations about privilege and oppression, the carting us along to protests and benefit dinners.

For me, though, and this is no fault of my parents, I internalized something from all those lessons that I find is really common amongst progressive white people: I grew up thinking that the work of anti-racism was performance. [It was all about] proving that I had learned and could reiterate the right answers, proving that I could self-flagellate in exactly the right way, and most of all, proving that I wasn’t like other white people.

Across political and ideological divides, the only way white people know how to define ourselves — because what is whiteness, actually? — is in opposition to each other. “I’m not one of those color-blind white people, or I’m not one of those MAGA white people, etc.” And if we’re the racial group that actually needs to transform in order for white supremacy’s stranglehold on American life to be loosened, then we’re not going to get there doing that dance.

That’s a big paradigm shift. I see the effects of that dynamic in my parenting — the ways I subtly indicate to my kids that other white people are the problem and we are the solution. Do you think we should teach white kids explicitly about whiteness? And what, exactly, should we be teaching them?

Yes! Yes! Yes! Just as all kids should be wrestling with capitalism and patriarchy and heterosexism, because if one of the core works of parenting is “raising kind humans,” it’s impossible to do so without understanding the systems that prevent our full, radical kindness to each other.

But I think there is a real risk in what the goal of conversations like this are. One of the things that worries me the most about the “how do I raise anti-racist children?” conversation, particularly among white parents, is that it feels like just one more tentacle of parenting as upper-middle-class performance culture checklist: “Wait, your child hasn’t read Ibram X. Kendi? And also they have how much screen time? And they don’t ‘eat the rainbow?’”

I want my kids growing up loving their community, loving humanity more generally, and loathing the structures and caste systems that prevent us all from truly caring for each other.

My wife and I are trying, likely clumsily, to teach our kids to understand that the challenge of a lifetime isn’t about individual righteousness, but collective care and transformation of a broken world. And that comes out in a lot of ways: through explicit conversations about community and about the art of both giving and receiving care from our neighbors, how we model and talk about the decisions we have and haven’t made on their behalf, and it also comes through discussing the pull of systems of oppression on people with good hearts. It also means that my kids explicitly see me organizing for social justice in white communities and with other white people. I hope they internalize anti-racism as a collective struggle rather than a competition.

I’ll never forget the first conversation I had with our 11-year-old when he discovered that most white kids attend schools with other white kids. He was shocked, and then angry, and immediately jumped to judgment of millions of white parents. And so together we wrestled with that. The judgment isn’t wrong, but also, what is it about the structure of our society that continues to incentivize that decision? And how do we make similar decisions? And what would it look like to organize with other white families to make that decision rarer?

That sounds hard but important. How does a conversation like that translate into your kid’s daily lives? Like, is there an action that results from that? Or a different way of talking about things that you hope your kid gets in the habit of?

You know, like any aspect of parenting, if you were to ask me, “How do you know this particular aspiration is going well?” my answer here would be, “Jeez, I don’t know! That’s why parenting is such a leap of faith!”

I will say, there are moments where my kids inspire me, not just because they’re parroting back some perfect anti-racist statement — I love a cute report back about what they learned in Black History Month as much as the next person, but that can’t be the only goal — but because I feel them openly wrestling with questions about how well we’re doing as a family at actually living up to our values.

Here’s a quick example. The other weekend, we finally started volunteering at a particularly thoughtful local food bank, one that does a lot of work to blur the lines between folks who volunteer and folks who shop there, and who really does operate with a mutual aid ethic of “everyone gives, everyone receives." And that was great, but what was better was the conversations with our kids afterwards, both about what we loved about it (the connections and conversations with our neighbors) and the questions or the unease we still have: “What does it mean to live in a country where volunteer-led food banks have to exist?” “How do we feel that we met a lot of our neighbors today, neighbors who live around us, but who we’ve avoided except for this single moment when we were ‘helping’ them?” “In what way were our biases and judgments showing up in that space? And why, with all that said, are we still amped to all keep showing up?” And yes, a 7-year-old and 11-year-old can be welcomed into that conversation! In fact, they’re better at it than adults, because kids understand intuitively that not every question has an immediate answer, but that you keep trying.

So it sounds like it’s messier than a certain parenting script or reading a book about whiteness? And almost that, rather than go in saying “well kids, being white means…” you spend more time fostering this idea of authenticity, self-reflection, and communal thinking that combats the harms of performative white saviorism??

Yes, totally. There’s a koan I return to throughout the book. I first heard it from my childhood pastor, so forgive the theological framing, but it really applies to any belief systems: “There are two religions in the world. The religion of being right and the religion of being in love, and the only rule is that you can’t be a member of both at the same time.”

I want my kids growing up loving their community, loving humanity more generally, and loathing the structures and caste systems that prevent us all from truly caring for each other. And as their father, I know what prevented me, for far too long, from focusing on those three north stars was an over-obsession with “how I looked doing it.”

We both live in diverse cities and send our children to minority-white public schools, where there are lots of opportunities to perform the “right kind” of white parenting for us and the “right kind” of white student-ing for them. I recently got this write-in question for my parenting advice column, and can really relate to it. Do you have any thoughts?

“My son has mostly white friends despite being in a diverse school. I have a slightly more diverse friend group but not by much. How much should I push this versus letting him be drawn to whomever he is drawn to?”

First up, and I say this with love, isn’t it interesting how obsessed we are, as white people, with having Black and brown friends? A quick anecdote: I’ve heard from multiple Black activists with large social media followings that among the most active people in their DMs are white strangers literally asking to be their friend. It’s not right or wrong, good or bad, it’s just interesting with how that became the implicit if not explicit goal of anti-racism. Obviously, there’s a lot that’s great stuff embedded in that longing — a desire to build common cause and community across racial divides, an impulse that there’s likely so much about other people’s experiences you don’t understand and that prevent you from showing up, etc. But personally, I care less about how many Black friends you or any of us have than I do with what life choices you’re making that support or subvert white supremacy, what you are or aren’t organizing for in your community, and what conversations you are or aren’t having with other white people.

Secondly, I agree with the question-asker: this is a very real trend in socio-economically and racially-diverse schools. I’ve seen it in our school, as well as others’ across the country. One thing I’ll offer is that white parents who worry about it often focus on it as a racial divide (there’s some of that there), whereas in practice it’s often much more likely to be shaped by class differences. One of the dilemmas of a lot of “integrated” schools is that the white and Asian kids are disproportionately middle and upper-middle class and the Latino and Black kids are working class. Another reason why my book focuses on intra-white relationships is because that’s another way of elucidating class biases that go under-explored in these discussions.

One hope I have for them is that they spend a lot more time noticing their impact on those around them and way less time caring about how they look doing it.

But all that being said, I’m sincerely glad this person asked this question, because it shows so much care and vulnerability. To answer more directly, I don’t think there’s much worth in directing your kid to make more Black and brown friends, nor should you have that explicit goal in your own life. Speaking for myself, whenever I’ve let my mind go down that route, it’s really hard not to get super tokenizing super fast. Instead, I’d step back and ask, “In what way are all of us in our family involved in this school community right now — both kids and grown-ups — and in what way does that match our ideals for how we want to build, give and receive in community and how does that fall short of it?” I think that reflection can give you a pathway for potentially deepening relationships or showing up in spaces you all haven’t yet that avoid the risk of making Black and brown friendships merit badges to collect.

Oof, the idea of white people “merit badges” makes me cringe with self-recognition. So if having more friends of color isn’t the metric, what do you envision when you imagine your children growing up to be white people who are part of the solution, not the problem?

Well, first off, as with so many things with parenting, I hope that they surprise me, that they reveal the limits of my imagination for what they and their peers create. But one hope I have for them is that, unlike how I lived so much of my life, they spend a lot more time noticing their impact on those around them — both their immediate relationships and the broader world — and way less time caring about how they look doing it. And that doesn’t mean that they aren’t intensely aware (and curious) about the way that race, class, and gender show up in their individual interactions. The important distinction that I hope they make is “what is true in the world because of how I’m showing up” instead of “how do I make sure I don’t mess up.” I’ll feel pretty excited, for example, if in high school my kids aren’t talking about how they won this or that political argument but that they are excited because they and their friends organized to change a school discipline policy or a gap in the curriculum that was leading a lot of their friends to feel less welcome.

I notice here and in the book, you capitalize the word “white.” What’s behind that choice? Could you humor me by trying to explain it as you would to your own kids?

I begin the book with a quote from Eve Ewing, the Black sociologist who wrote “I’m a Black Scholar Who Studies Race. Here’s Why I Capitalize White.” It’s a brilliant piece, and I hope everybody reads it. Here’s how I’ve explained it to my kids, though:

Being “white” is a totally made-up idea. And it was made up for a terrible reason — because there was money to be made from separating people by race and giving some people the power to do terrible things to other people. And we want to see a world where all of that disappears. The tricky thing is, we’ve had hundreds of years of people like us knowing ourselves as “white,” and, whether we like it or not, we all do share that: the fact that a terrible system was created for us. And so, since we do share that experience, we both have to learn from people who have been harmed by that system, but we also have to figure out our role in undoing all this awfulness. So that’s why I capitalize White — whether I like it or not, I’m part of a group, and that group has a specific job to do together.

Thanks for naming the “job” to be done Garrett, and for avoiding overly-simplistic answers.

Thank you back! This is what it’s all about, isn't it? Fumbling around, out loud, together.

The Right Kind of White is on sale now.