I couldn’t persuade my 6-year-old daughter to change out of her flannel footie pajamas even though it was the height of summer, but at least I got her to put her mask on. We threw the other kid, 3, on the cargo bike alongside her stubborn, sweating sister, taped on our homemade Black Lives Matter sign, and headed to the high school down the street. Our kids looked at us, bewildered, as we got closer. Their wide eyes essentially asked: Why are we deliberately heading into a crowd of thousands after avoiding even our closest neighbors for months?
Because it matters this much, we told them. Because we have to be willing to risk something if we want the country to be different when you grow up.
We also promised them Popsicles if they didn’t whine the whole time.
Last summer, so many white families took to the streets to express our outrage over the murder of George Floyd (and so many before him) at the hands of police. For many, it was a first: first time protesting, first time explaining racism in any kind of detail to their white kids, first time posting about police violence on Facebook or Instagram. The significance of this widening circle of white Americans willing to take physical and emotional risks against racism—in the midst of a pandemic, no less—is worth celebrating. The New York Times posited, based on the turnout, that Black Lives Matter had become the largest protest movement in US history.
But more than half a year later, it’s critical that we look soberly at that widening circle of white families.
It’s not unexpected that the level of participation we saw this past summer would wane. All movements have ebbs and flows. But that doesn’t mean that white families who woke up to their personal responsibility to condemn and take action against racism can rest. On the contrary, we need to invigorate our commitment by thinking creatively about all the places in our lives where neglect exists. The bad news: The insidiousness of racism seeps in everywhere. The good news: There are so many ways to pursue its end.
Anti-racism, as so many white families have come to understand, is both inner and outer work. The inner work can feel more approachable, particularly the way many white folks do it—at an academic distance. Just look at the New York Times best-seller list, filled with titles on anti-racism. Webinars with best-selling writers like Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands, are seeing unprecedented turnout.
There’s another kind of inner work that threatens to rearrange your life—what Esther Armah, the executive director of the Armah Institute of Emotional Justice, calls “emotional justice.” This is the kind of inner work that shows up not just on your bookshelf but in your marriage, your therapist’s office, your journal, your dreams. You start seeing white supremacy even in the most intimate of settings, even when there isn’t a person of color in sight. Most of us aren’t there just yet.
The outer work—which requires actually doing things differently than we have done them before, not just reading or talking about reading—is a bigger leap for most white families. Too often, white parents think they can exorcise racism from their kids by saying all the right things, without making the necessary choices to create less segregated lives.
Case in point: where we send our kids to school. In many districts, parents have just finished up an anxious season of online touring, spreadsheet sharing, and strategizing about how to rank their school choices in order to ensure getting their already privileged kids into the best possible public schools (read: the whitest and wealthiest). Too many white families still think of this moment only in its most personal dimensions: What is best for my particular kid and our particular family? In fact, the choice of where you send your kid to school has a powerful political dimension as well.
Take Oakland, Calif., where we are raising our family. Though the city is 36 percent white, the school district is only 10 percent white. Many white families, faced with a district that has a well-earned reputation for dysfunction and even corruption, choose private schools. The pandemic has made this route even more desirable; while public school kids continue to languish online at home, private school kids are back in person, learning outside under big redwoods and well-appointed tents. Added bonus: The private schools do a prodigious job of marketing just how much they will train your kid to be an anti-racist systems thinker, soothing the progressive conscience. All the while, your family drains the public school system, and its predominantly Black and brown students, of much-needed resources.
In Oakland, as in most American cities, the white families who stay in the public school system jockey their way into just a handful of schools where the PTA fundraising and other forms of privilege accrue. The Center for American Progress found that in the 2013-14 fiscal year alone, the nation’s 50 richest PTAs raised and spent $43 million for the most affluent schools. In this way, you can technically be part of the public school system, but your kid gets more attention from teachers, diverse curricular and experiential learning opportunities, and better facilities via private dollars than those at schools with less wealthy PTAs.
We tried something different with our white kid. We didn’t strategize or labor over a spreadsheet. Instead, we chose our neighborhood school, where the majority of kids are Black or brown and qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. GreatSchools.org rates it a two out of 10. It wasn’t an easy choice. At the time we made it (in 2016), it felt like a risk. Within our existing social circle—rich with progressive friends—only one other family made this choice for their kid.
We worried, but we read the research, the most comprehensive of which comes from Rucker C. Johnson, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. White kids who go to integrated schools thrive academically and develop the mental and emotional muscles for long-term interracial friendships. And the earlier and longer that Black and brown kids are in integrated schools, the better their educational outcomes, the more they earn over their lifetime, and the longer they live. Or as Johnson puts it, “The medicine called integration works.”
Now that we’ve lived our choice for three years, it’s hard to remember how it ever could have felt so radical. Our kid is thriving, even during the drag of distance learning. She loves her school and her friends. And my husband and I are learning how to show up in a multiracial community. The most important value isn’t what you can provide for the annual PTA fundraiser; it’s how well you can love all the kids, which means both nurturing them and demanding excellence from them. Our school site council, the representative body that helps the school leadership set priorities for the budget, is now working on defining success for our kids. We talk about our collective dreams—that they have multiracial friendships, a lifelong love of learning, and critical thinking skills—in Zoom meetings and then try to figure out what metrics we can use to assess them. It’s been an education in democracy for our whole family, grown-ups included.
We’re still full of contradictions when it comes to our own anti-racist identities. When does building a relationship with our kid’s teacher drift into hogging all of her attention? How much money should we donate to our own kid’s school versus the other Title I schools in the district? What do we do with the jealousy we feel when we see that pickup line at the private school down the block, while our kid grumbles before every Zoom meeting and then participates while doing a headstand?
We’re not going to get it perfect, but we can’t expect our kids to grow up in a different nation if we don’t do some initially uncomfortable work to seed it now. Or as Courtney Everts Mykytyn, the late founder of Integrated Schools, a national organization supporting white and/or privileged parents who are voluntarily integrating schools, put it, “Choosing an integrating school is not so much a sacrifice as it is a reprioritizing what matters in building a world we want our children to be adults in.”
White America has some massive reprioritization to do in the years ahead. And let’s be clear: I’m not just talking to the families nostalgically clinging to their MAGA hats. In one study of the most and least progressive districts in America, researchers found that Black and brown kids actually get a better education (scoring 15 and 13 percentage points higher in math and reading) in what we might reflexively assume are more racist cities. In other words, if you’d like to leave elementary school literate, you’re better off being a Black child in Oklahoma City than in San Francisco.
That Black Lives Matter sign our daughter made to get out of nap time on that inspiring day in June didn’t do a whole lot to change the lives of Black and brown kids. It mattered symbolically, but it wasn’t instrumental. The money that the state sends to her historically underenrolled school because she’s on the roster, that might actually make a difference. The art supplies I got donated for distribution to all the kids because I have a generous artist friend (for the nerds: social capital), that might actually make a difference.
Part of the work ahead is right-sizing whiteness, it seems to me. Sure, we bring resources to our kid’s school, but there is nothing magical about her presence, or ours. On the contrary, sometimes the most important thing we can do is shut up, listen to what Black and brown families want and need, and stop monopolizing the attention and time of our teachers, principals, and district leaders.
White people have to see our impact with clear eyes. We can’t throw up our hands and say, “The public school system is so broken, our individual choices aren’t all that important.” Our choices do matter. In the aggregate, they make the system what it is. But we must also rid ourselves of the idea that our choice is going to “save” anyone or anything, that our presence in the school is somehow special, that it earns us some kind of immunity to racism.
This is generational work. Which means that showing up at protest marches and posting on our social media are meaningful but not nearly enough. We must employ what Martin Luther King Jr. called “creative maladjustment”: doing what our parents and friends think is maybe a little too extreme and very much unexpected. We must take what can feel like risks on behalf of our white families—where we invest our money, where and how we live, where we send our kids to school—but which often turn out to feel more like grace. It’s what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “a dilemma of inheritance” in his congressional testimony on reparations. Sometimes it feels awfully liberating to shed something that was too much all along.