Unpacking our Kids' Backpacks...of White Privilege

Post date: Mar 31, 2014 3:20:21 AM

How do you talk to children about race and skin color?

What role do parents have in supporting their kids to become allies instead of bullies?

How can we bust the myth that kids are colorblind?

How do we create a world that celebrates and respects our differences instead of letting ourselves be divided by them?

As a parent I sometimes feel at a loss for how to support my white kids to become allies for racial justice. I'd like to believe that their innate goodness will be enough but of course they live in this culture and cannot help but soak up these messages of racial superiority and inferiority, just like my daughter will one day question whether she is beautiful and thin enough, and my son will wonder if it's okay to cry or hold hands with a boy.

As a white woman and aspiring organizer back in 2001, I was made aware of my white privilege through a training that challenged anyone working for social justice to understand that if we wanted to be successful in building grassroots power to make social change, we needed to centralize the experiences and leadership of people most marginalized from that power, namely communities of color, immigrants, queer and trans people, poor people and women, and folks who can claim all of the above in their identity. And to do that, as white people, we needed to deal with our own white privilege - recognize it, keep it in check in our personal relationships, and most importantly, work to dismantle the systems that perpetuate white privilege while targeting and oppressing everyone else. Clearly that is important and ongoing work.

Living in Portland, Oregon, and working for seven years with the Rural Organizing Project throughout rural Oregon, I have learned about Oregon's history of racial exclusion, the desire of far right hate groups to create a white homeland ("no people of color, no race problem") and the discriminatory policies of the state into recent years, that literally forbid people of color from living in or owning property in Oregon upon penalty of public beatings. There are many painful, hateful reasons from the past and today that answer the question of why there aren't more people of color in Oregon, why it can be such a hard place for people of color to live, why so many friends and organizers of color have left the state. Despite this history, there is a strong and growing population of color in Oregon that has resisted, survived, and made a home here. As a recent article put it, if Iowa is becoming more racially diverse, so will Portland; it just might take a little longer.

One of the things I learned about, and experience, is that once your eyes are opened to your own privilege, you feel horrified, embarrassed, guilty - and you are reminded that those emotions are not actually helpful to advancing racial justice. We need to work those through in order to take action as an allies and organizers in our shared struggle towards collective liberation. But despite that wisdom, you still don't want to screw up, and you cringe when other white folk do, as we all will at some time. It is hard but important to fight the urge to distance ourselves from the "bad white people" and instead see ourselves as in it together, supporting our white friends and neighbors, and yes ourselves, to deal together with the ignorance and pain that our white privilege causes, opposing, transforming, and ending the systems that perpetuate white privilege (namely white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy), rather than keeping us divided and trying to one up one another. That includes being in it with our children.

When I read many of the articles (and comments) making sense of Portland as "the country's whitest city" I know it is absolutely my responsibility to give my kids the tools to understand their own privilege and start now, in preschool, to call out unfairness and injustice where they see it. I have a huge roll in whether they will say "F*ck that - let's organize to make the world better for us all!" or stand aside or even be part of hurting other kids. I had a hunch it wouldn't be by reading them that seminal article for white folks, Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" but I still wasn't quite sure where to start. Until about three months ago, when I met Oregon educator Katie Kissinger. Katie has worked for decades advancing anti-bias curriculum in early childhood education as an author, activist, educator for social justice, and an early childhood education college instructor. She is also founder and a board member of Threads of Justice Collective, an informal group of educators who work together to promote social and cultural justice for all children and families.

This March 10th, Katie will be facilitating a two hour workshop sponsored by creating democracy and Hawthorne Family Playschool for parents, educators, and organizers who want to begin this conversation of how we engage with our children, white kids and children of color, in a positive and empowering understanding of race and skin color. Obviously two hours will just be enough to really hunger for more, but it will provide an introduction to a framework and some concrete ideas and activities for ways to begin with young children to bust the myth that kids are color blind and help set the stage for our beloved children to become allies and activists who are able to speak up for fairness now and throughout their lives. And it will be an opportunity to connect with others who want to do this work.

Please come if you can and spread the word to others who might be interested. Download and print a copy of the flyer to post around town, RSVP and share the event on Facebook.

Amy Dudley - 3/1/2014