I was a college senior, in one of my first (and only) Women’s Studies courses, when I read “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” by Peggy McIntosh. As a white girl from Vermont transplanted to North Carolina to attend school, I thought a lot about how Black people were treated, at least in the obvious ways: the racist remarks, the social segregation on campus, the negative portrayal on the five o’clock news. Living in a diverse community for the first time in my life, these things were impossible not to notice. But the idea of “white privilege” was totally new to me and McIntosh’s list of ways my whiteness shaped my day-to-day experience was eye-opening.
Twenty years later, being momma to two biracial boys has made me aware of white privilege and made it real to me in ways that reading an essay never could. I think sometimes about the things I worry about as a parent that probably wouldn’t be on my radar if I was raising white kids. This is what prejudice and it’s monolithic sister racism look like when your children have brown skin. The flip side, the ability for parents of white kids not to have these worries – to have the luxury of not even knowing they exist or, if they are aware, choosing to ignore them – well, that is the white privilege part.
Just to be clear, this is not a Whoa-is-me-my-babies-are-brown kind of a post. Heck no. My boys are exactly – EXACTLY – who they should be. They are the lights of my life and I wouldn’t change them in any way, not for a minute.
And yes, there are definitely lots of parents raising white kids who do notice and do care that so many of the privileges their children enjoy don’t extend to all children.
I am also very aware that the fact I am white gives my kids certain privileges other children of color may not have – like the fact I can walk into my children’s school to address a concern and not worry that, because of the color of my skin, administrators will dismiss what I have to say.
With that said, this post is about is raising awareness and making the invisible more visible. When I think about how my life as a mom would be different if my children were white like me – if I were raising them in a world made for them and of them – I think about how…
1. My children could turn on a television show, go to the movies, or open a book, and almost always find characters that look like them. They wouldn’t ask, after leaving a theater, why no one in the movie looked liked them. I wouldn’t have to worry that as they get older, when they do see characters of their race on screen, they will too often be tied to negative stereotypes.
2. I could walk into the closest department store and find dolls and action figures with the same skin color as my children. White dolls are plentiful, so if I needed to order one on-line, I would have plenty of choices and wouldn’t have to pay ridiculously high prices
3. My children would have numerous examples of people in positions of influence and power who look like them. I could send them to school knowing they will have plenty of teachers who look like them and could easily find a pediatrician who is their race.
4. I wouldn’t wonder whether my child’s girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s parents won’t approve because of his race, or fear that someone will refuse to date him for no reason other than his skin color.
5. I wouldn’t worry about the first time someone says something racist to my child and how it will affect my child. I wouldn’t be afraid that hurtful comments will one day come from the mouth of a friend.
6. I wouldn’t be concerned with making sure my children are well-dressed on the first day of school, just to counteract any racial stereotypes they might face when they walk into the classroom.
7. I could be confident that at school my children would learn history from the perspective of their people. Throughout the school curriculum, there would be many examples of people of their race in positions of influence and power. I wouldn’t wonder if people who look like them will be presented almost exclusively as powerless victims.
8. I wouldn’t wonder if my child feels “different” because he is the only brown-skinned child in the class.
9. I could rest assured that my children’s teachers don’t expect less of them than the other students, the moment they walk into the classroom, because of their skin color.
10. I wouldn’t worry that someday my dimple-faced boy with a wiggly tooth might be the target of violence or a hate crime.
11. I wouldn’t worry that when my children go off to college, someone might write racist remarks on their dormitory door.
12. I could be confident that when my children misbehave, it is understood as “kids being kids” and not attributed to their race.
13. If my children get in trouble at school, their race wouldn’t put them at risk for an unfairly harsher punishment.
14. When my children start to drive, they wouldn’t be at risk of being pulled over for baseless reasons because of their race. In fact, if they ever do get in trouble with the law and end up in contact with the juvenile justice system, being white would provide them certain advantages.
15. I wouldn’t hold my breath when I meet a new group of people, wondering if someone is going to say something racist.
16. I wouldn’t wonder, when my child makes a new friend, what the other child’s parents’ feelings are toward people of his race. I wouldn’t worry that a new classmate or friend might say, “I can’t play with you because you’re Black.”
17. As teenagers, my children would be able to walk through predominantly white neighborhoods without raising suspicion.
18. As teenagers, my children could go shopping without raising the suspicion of the store clerks or being followed around to make sure they don’t steal something.
19. I wouldn’t need to think much about ensuring my child feels good about his racial identity.
20. When my child applies for his first job, the chance of his race being counted against him would be slim to none.
21. I could easily find a school with many other children who look like him, without compromising his education. (American schools have become increasingly segregated over the past 20 years, and those attended by Black and Latino youth tend to have fewer resources.)
Sure, some parents of white children may in fact think about some of the things above. For instance, maybe you have a white child who attends a predominantly Black school. But the point is that, for the most part, parents of white kids can go about their work of parenting without thinking about most or any of these things. Parents raising children of color, however, go about parenting thinking about most or all of these things.
“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” ~Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack
My hope in writing this is that thinking about how race intersects with being a parent – with this work of raising the people we hold dearest in our hearts – helps to make that privilege a little less invisible.