EmbraceRace

"How do I make sure I'm not raising the next 'Amy Cooper'?"

In our social media age, the figure of the "entitled White woman" who calls the police on people of color, especially Black people, simply for living their lives has become so common that she has become a meme. In a week also marked by the 100,000th official COVID-19 death in the United States and the death of a Black man, George Floyd, at the hands (and knee) of a White Minneapolis police officer, Amy Cooper took her place in that long, infamous line of White women. We believe that relatively few people would have behaved as Amy Cooper did that morning in her Central Park encounter with Christian Cooper (no relation) on the morning of May 25th. But it is self-serving for the rest of us to believe that we have nothing in common with her. The truth is that the attitudes and impulses made manifest in her behavior are pervasive, and she wasn't born with them; she learned them. 

EmbraceRace had this conversation with Dr. Jennifer Harvey, from whose CNN article we draw our title, for a conversation about what the parents of White children, in particular, can do to ensure they're not raising white children who are quick to call the police on Black and Indigenous people and people of color.   

EmbraceRace: We're so excited today to have Jennifer Harvey on with us  -  we have been hearing about Jen for a while before she wrote her book that a lot of you are reading or have read from the comments that you sent in. And we're really excited because we just consider her a comrade in the work. But we haven't had a chance to do anything together. So this is sort of a big moment for us.

Jen wrote a great piece that probably many of you have read about the Cooper situation, all the Coopers. We took this webinar title from her article, How Do I Make Sure I'm Not Raising The Next Amy Cooper. 

Dr. Jennifer Harvey

Dr. Jennifer Harvey's work focuses primarily on racial justice and white anti-racism. Her most recent book, Raising white Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, great title, brings her longtime experience in multi-racial activism to her journey as a parent. Jennifer is also a professor of religion and serves as Faculty Director for the Crew Scholars Program at Drake University, and is ordained in the American Baptist Churches.

We're just really excited to be having the conversation. Welcome, Jen, from Des Moines.

Jennifer Harvey: So great to be with you. Thank you both so much and for your work as well. I'm so glad we could carve out this time.

EmbraceRace: Thank you. Yeah, after such a long day. Jen's been all over the place. We want to know a little bit more about you. How did you get into this work, and why do you do this work?

Jennifer Harvey: Yeah. This question always means telling a true story that might be made up, because I never know quite what the "why" is, but this is the story I can tell that I know is true. I grew up in Denver, Colorado going to Denver public schools under a busing mandate for desegregation, which means that my elementary school years in particular, most of my friends at school were Black, especially Black girls. I was a racial minority demographically because lots of white parents had pulled their kids from the public schools under the busing mandate.

But by high school, though I was in a multiracial high school, Denver South High School, I noticed that all of my classes were white. I had been racially tracked, which I didn't know that language, but I would look around and I would think about my early friendships and wonder what happened to them. Didn't have words for that. Separate thread, I was raised in a Christian family, and we've been taught that God is love. And so, I went to college thinking I was a committed Christian, God is love. And I found the work of James Cone when I started asking questions about why in my school, where everyone said, "God is love," we also were okay driving by homeless men and women on the street, and thought, "This is strange."

The short version of that story is that James Cone, who founded Black Liberation Theology, taught me that a loving God is a God who is a God of justice. Because by definition, if you love humanity, you have to love justice. And also taught me that a God of justice had to identify with Black people because of the state of the country. And so, in that moment, when I engaged Cone's work, I thought, "Oh, this explains my growing up experience. I was raised in white supremacy!" So went looking to understand God and found, oh, God had something to say about white supremacy. 

The final piece of the story I think is that I then went thinking, in this very audacious, privileged, white way, thought, "Oh, I'll go study with this person in seminary in New York City," which I did do. But when I got there and I found a community of very politically engaged, deeply committed Black and Latino and Native American Christians who would say back to me, "Okay, this is great. You can be about God is Black and racial justice, but did you notice you're white? What does that mean?" And I thought, "Oh, I don't know what that means."

That was more than 20 years ago. And so, I feel like that community that said to me, "You can be about racial justice, but it needs to be different for you. You have a different kind of responsibility," gave me a charge that I had not heard before, and frankly that I didn't know what to do with for a long time. I just wallowed around in my 20's trying to figure that out. But I did, and I've been doing that ever since. Then I became a mom in my late 30's. And after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, found myself in spaces where white adults were saying, "But what about our kids? What do they do? What do we teach them?"

I thought, "Oh, what am I teaching my own kids?" I was teaching my own kids, but I hadn't reflected intentionally on that and learned about what that needed to look like. And so, I started reading and thinking and realizing there wasn't that much out there. So that's how the book came to be. And that's how I started more intentionally reflecting on my own practices as a parent. I know nothing about childhood psychology other than what I have learned to try and write the book and do better with my own kids.

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Jen. And that's actually the path most of us travel, if we travel it at all, right? What's the best we can do? How do we learn along the way? How do we not pretend to have expertise? But do learn enough to do better and better as we can.

Jennifer Harvey: Yes. A lot of mistakes along the way. A lot of mistakes.

EmbraceRace: A lot of mistakes!

Jennifer Harvey: A lot of cringe-worthy mistakes.

EmbraceRace: So let me ask about the title of the article, which of course is provocative. A lot of people loved it. Some people thought it was harsh. And as the article itself makes clear, it's not just about Amy Cooper. So when in this work of not raising the next "Amy Cooper," certainly isn't just about individuals, and how some of the challenges we face are manifest in individual behavior. But it seems like a good point of departure. Can you tell us, what do you mean when you say, "How not to raise the next Amy Cooper"?  [The name of the article was changed to: “How to not raise a racist white kid.”]

Jennifer Harvey: Yeah. I'll be honest. My partner actually said after she read it, "I love the piece. I really wish you hadn't used Amy Cooper's name. That felt..." But I think, for me, the point of that article and what I tried to really be clear about is that it's easy for us to see really explicit racism out in the world and immediately go, "Oh my gosh, that's not me! That's not me. That's not me." And so, I wanted to ask that question in part to signal like, "Well, how do I be sure that's not what's happening, that that couldn't show up in my home?" Because the reality is white Americans, without explicit anti-racist engagement in our homes, could very easily, any of us and our own children and youth be raised in ways that would show up in that way.

And so, for me, I was trying to own that and not "other" Amy Cooper, but more signal, are we really sure that's not what is happening in our homes? Then it was interesting to me later that we learned that it looks like probably Amy Cooper herself was a Democrat voter. And that didn't surprise me at all, actually. And so, I really want to break down some of these like, "Oh, it's easy to point out those others over there," but how does more equity-minded, white parenting also potentially show up in very racist ways that we might not expect? And we could any of us be white Amy Cooper. 

EmbraceRace: And Jen, really what it means to be a white Amy Cooper. So that's like Derek Chauvin, the police officer who had his knee on the neck, I mean, obviously that's an extreme manifestation. Most of us aren't going to find ourselves in that position. Most police officers, I believe, wouldn't do that. But when we say "it" showing up, yeah, "it" shows up in many ways, many of them in a more routine, less dramatic, but in some ways more pervasive and actually more consequential.

We talk about hiring practices. This will be familiar to people. We talk about how teachers and students interact. We talk about segregation, where we choose to live. I just want to offer one quick example because it's so stark and less dramatic, which is, we know, for example, that if people are driving and they see someone at a crosswalk waiting to cross, and the identity of the person at the crosswalk, age, race, gender, for example, absolutely shapes how many cars are likely to pass before someone stops to let that person cross.

It's relatively innocuous, but I use it because it's an example that many of us like, "Oh, let me think. Would I treat an older person differently than a younger person, a Black person in front of the white person?" etc. The answer may well be yes. 

Jennifer Harvey: Amy Cooper is sort of a symbol in some ways. It's both the way implicit bias affects behavior. Sometimes we don't even realize it. But it's also that, we are all individual selves, but also when we get in shared spaces, we create a collective phenomena that's beyond that. And white culture tends to produce predictable types of behaviors. 

For example, people of color talk all the time about white women's tears and how dangerous they are because they are a defense mechanism that shuts down conversation when a Black person, or a Latinx person, or an Asian-American person names racism. And all of a sudden, everyone goes, "Oh, we need to attend to the tears of the white woman." That's a collective phenomena that shows up when we have spaces where white silence becomes this norm that literally shapes the space.

So it's not just me as an individual, but it's like the environment at my workplace becomes a space where those kind of behaviors can manifest by any of us, and they're kind of predictable,-white tears, white rage, white vindictiveness. It's like the sum is greater than its individual parts. And so, we've got to interrupt and break white silence in part, yes, to parent our kids differently, become different and constantly ourselves, but also to interrupt the environments where those kind of behaviors are allowed and are fed without us even realizing it.

It's predictable. For lots of people of color, that Amy Cooper video was a predictable response. It wasn't unique to her. It's the predictable outcome of an environment of whiteness where silence has been the norm.

White culture tends to produce predictable types of behaviors... white tears, white rage, white vindictiveness... And so, we've got to interrupt and break white silence in part, yes, to parent our kids differently, become different and constantly ourselves, but also to interrupt the environments where those kind of behaviors are allowed and are fed without us even realizing it.

Dr. Jennifer Harvey, Raising White Kids

EmbraceRace: Although the fact that she said it, that she performed in that way.

Jennifer Harvey: Yes.

EmbraceRace: There are a lot of white women that the response to the Black male body, or the male body, we could say, within the Black male body, can be one of fear. But she was so calculated. But that was sort of remarkable, just the way she performed her anxiety.

Certainly, I mean, when you talk about implicit bias, we often talk about how that operates reflexively, automatically. It may be that someone really doesn't understand that they're doing it. She really understood it.

She purposely mobilized it. I assume that most people or everyone on this call has seen the video, but, to me, the heart of the matter, the crux of the thing is when she says he wants her to leash her dog in Central Park. Her dog is unleashed. It should be leashed. There are signs that say it should be leashed. He's a birder and he says, "Can you please leash your dog?" She won't do it. And then, he starts recording. She gets upset and she says, "I'm going to call the police and tell them an African-American man is threatening me."

It's important to watch the video, actually, to understand the tone, that it's not just about the words. It's the tone. She's lobbying a threat at him, because she not only understands that a white woman who is in the wrong can call the police into the situation against a Black man who was in the right, but she understands that he understands that.

Jennifer Harvey: Right. Right. And when the 911 operator picks up, she tone-switched again. And suddenly she's the panicky, fragile white woman. And, of course, we just need to name it because it's true. And our kids need to learn this too. She is drawing out historical predecessors that lead to lynching, right. Emmett Till and [Carolyn Bryant]... the white women who, I was just reading again about this... 

Emmett Till ends up lynched because she claims he... Well, her story kept changing. It's not only the real reality of police do end up showing up and harming or killing Black people. It's also drawing into a historical reality that gets played out over and over again when white women claim assault and Black men end up dead.

EmbraceRace: Right. Jen, you suggested in your article that parents show the video to their kids. And we certainly did as well and had a good conversation around it. And I'm wondering how that went for you.

Jennifer Harvey: Yeah. I showed them the video and I asked them what they thought was going on. They first kept saying, "So he's not doing anything to her. She's lying. She's lying. She's lying." And then I said, "Yeah, did you notice what she said she was going to do, and what she then did do?" And they said, "Yeah, she said it's an African-American man." I said, "What was that about?" And my kids said, "Well, she was being racist and she was hoping the police would come be racist with her."

My children are 9 and 11 [years old]. And what's important to the context for me sharing this conversation is that it's obvious it's not the first one we've had. If you've got a white kid or a child of any color, but this is more common in white families that you've had no conversations about this. And you showed that you asked that question, your child might be like, "Well, why is she doing that?" 

My kids, we've talked about these kinds of matters their entire lives. So they have more context. I try hard to begin, still knowing that, just asking lots of questions and not lecturing at them about, "Here's what you're seeing in this video." And just ask them so we can explore together, which helps me both partner with them, but also find out what they do and don't understand so I can keep revisiting.

They also observed and said things like they were aware that if he had not taped, that nobody probably would have believed him. They knew. They said, "It's a good thing he taped that because you know that's the only way people would have believed him if he had said, 'I really wasn't threatening her.'" So they understood the power dynamics with the videotaping. And then I asked them, "What would you do if you were there?" I try and often ask my kids that question in stories and experiences that make sense to ask that, because I think we need to activate our kids' moral imagination so they practice, what would I embody if I had been in this moment?

And, of course, they both were like, "I don't know. I would have probably called you," which of course makes sense because that would have been a really overwhelming experience for a 9 year old. And I said, "Yeah, that would actually make sense." But then we talked about, "Okay, but let's say, at the very least, if you were in a situation like that, a white person needs to stay. If the police are coming, a white person should stay." And they were like, "Oh yeah, because if you stayed, then you could make sure that you could also say, 'I know, I saw.'"

And so, we talked a little bit about how white skin can sometimes... That privilege, that unjust privilege, can be used in support in moments of crisis to create a little bit of insulation for Black and Brown people. So that was the conversation that we had.

EmbraceRace: That is wonderful, Jen. And as you say, you've been having these conversations for a long time. Your children are old enough, and you've built enough of a scaffolding that they can have a more sophisticated conversation than perhaps many 9 and 11-year-olds might be able to have. But also certainly more than a 4 or 5-year-old might have.

Jennifer Harvey: Yeah. Right.

EmbraceRace: Unfortunately, we've had lots of examples like this and others that we can draw on. You had such examples more or less when your children were 3 and 4. You have folks who are wondering, what about younger children? What about perhaps even older children, let's say the ages of your children who haven't had that scaffolding.

Let me go back to four, five years ago with your children. If your children were four or five years younger than they are, what difference might that make? Would you still be engaging them with that video, a 5 year old? And what kind of conversation or what different questions might you ask? 

Jennifer Harvey: I don't know. I'd be curious if other folks with kids that young... I wouldn't be afraid to show that a 4 year old, that video. I mean, I don't show my kids graphic videos of people being killed, just to be very clear, because we've got all these videos. That video, I'd probably still allow a 4 year old to see it. I don't know if we could talk about it. When my kids were that young, I was doing things like saying, "We're going to go be with people tonight because a young Black teenager was hurt by police and people want the government to make this stop. They want all people to be safe and sometimes Black people are not safe. So we're going to go be with other people who also believe everyone should be safe, and that's why we're going to this space."

I would take my kids hoping that they weren't quite listening closely enough to actually hear that someone had been killed. I did sort of fib that. I don't know if that's right or wrong, but I also think our kids, at least my children, will often absorb what they're intellectually more ready to handle. And so, I was doing things like that talking about, "Oh my gosh, this really hard thing happened in the news today. Someone was unfairly treated because they're Black, and people who are also Black, and some white people who care about that are standing up, to say no." That kind of language.

So I would say that's how I started when my kids were younger, and they would then show me... One of the most amazing things that happened was when my kids were I think 2 and 4 or 3 and 5, either after Trayvon Martin had been murdered, or it might have been after Michael Brown was murdered. I think it was Trayvon Martin. I took them to a protest. I said what I just said about someone had been hurt, someone who is Black, a young Black man. And my 5 year old-ish said to me, what she heard was, and we were at the rally, she started saying, "Black people aren't safe!" And I said, "Yeah, that's right. They're not."

This will make white parents squirmy, because we were in public when she said that. She yelled, "But we're white, so we are safe!" And I was like, "Okay." I kind of leaned down. I said, "You're right. That's true. But let's talk about that in a little bit." Because I didn't want her to cause harm to people who were grieving and outraged. But I also was like, "Oh, she's noticing white privilege." So then when we went to the car, I said, "Hey, you noticed something amazing. Remember how you said Black people aren't safe?" She said, "Yes." I said, "Remember how you noticed and said we're whites, so we're safe?" And she said, "Yes."

I said, "That's exactly why we were there. We want everybody to be safe, don't we?" She was like, "Well, of course! We want everybody to be safe." Boom. That's a 5 year old conversation about white privilege, and we didn't even use those words. So I would say, if your kids are older and you haven't built that scaffolding, you can still start though right with that Amy Cooper video and just say, "What do you think is going on? And I realize we haven't talked about this much yet."

You don't have to start all the way at the 4 year old level, but you do just need to say, "I've not really talked to you about this, and we actually need to start talking about it. I want to tell you what I see and let's talk about what you're wondering about." And just start right there, wherever you're at, you just need to start. You don't have to get it right, you just have to have the courage to start.

EmbraceRace: When you talk about how we shouldn't distance ourselves from Amy Cooper. There was someone who wrote a question about, "How can we not be the nonwhite Amy Cooper?" To suggest that actually, it's even bigger than that. In this case, it was weaponizing white privilege. So the systems are so complex and the biases are so complex. And I wonder about, with your kids, when you talk about recognizing our own biases, when we do that in front of them, or just even sympathizing, like, "Oh, we've all got this work to do,"

I wonder if that's a conversation that you've had with your kids because I do think that kids recognize very early who's more popular, or who might get excluded because of how they act, or what they look like, in even preschool, who's chosen. And there are ways in asking those questions that we've certainly had those conversations with our kids that we can talk about, "Have you ever done that?" So I'm coming to the, "And I've done that," to the, "Are we Amy Cooper?"

Probably not necessarily adding any more clarity, just to reinforce. We've had versions of this question come up, a bit of concern that when we focus so much, when we're at these sort of spectacular things like Amy Cooper, like George Floyd's death, that we risk, in effect, as it were, disappearing the myriad ways in which discrimination and bias shows up. Because like, "Oh, we're not that." And especially for our children who might miss, again, the more subtle, but nevertheless important ways.

What are some ways, for example, in talking to your children, what are some ways in which you might show to them smaller, but important ways that their own or your own or other people's own biases may show up at school that they can recognize?

It might be a hard question, but I find that's the hardest thing to do and the most necessary, is to just speak super honestly, about our own biases in front of our kids. 

Jennifer Harvey: A couple of things come to mind. I mean, and the question even just makes me think about, in a helpful way, areas of growth in my own parenting, because I don't think I ask my kids often about the possibilities and the ways that they may have showed bias, other than, of course, asking about and interrupting when I hear language of meanness around any kind.

We about words like "fat" and how that gets turned around a lot in our culture, and observations people make that are negative about people's bodies. We do talk about that. My kids are being raised by two moms, so we certainly talk about different families and the way different families get described as better than other families, and whether or not that happens. And I definitely have taught my kids, and I will tell my kids stories about when I showed exclusionary behaviors as a child.

I tell my kids most of my dirty laundry around behaviors I had as a child and ways that I've learned. And people have held me accountable. I have not done as much asking my kids, unless something was flagging for me. Like, "Would you ever do that? Have you ever done that?" In part because I do worry about... I guess there's two things I want to say. One, it's absolutely true it needs to be well beyond just these spectacular moments. This is like every day work. "What's going on at school? What's going on in your friend group? What do you do when your friend is excluding someone?" It's every day kind of discourse.

So I love that, making sure it's not just about these big, like, "Oh, we've got to not be that!" But I also would say, for me, I worry a little bit about how pointed my questions might get in part because of the work I do. So my kids are hyper aware that this is my work. And so, I worry about them performing perfection for me around racial justice. So I would struggle a little, I think, to be like, "So have you ever done this?" Because they would hear it in a particular way because of who I am in the world, I think.

But I do think asking lots of open-ended questions all the time about dynamics in friendships ("Why do you think that kid might be popular?"). Those kinds of conversations, especially if we're helping our kids notice systems and patterns is really, really important around all kinds of issues. But I think race tends to be the hardest piece for white parents to bring in. Parents are having a much easier time, white parents, talking about lesbian families than talking about race with their kids 

I find that over and over, which doesn't make it more urgent. But for some reason, I really do believe there's a deeper silence there for white parents and white adults that shows up than some of the other forms of exclusion and bias.

But I think race tends to be the hardest piece for white parents to bring in. Parents are having a much easier time, white parents, talking about lesbian families than talking about race with their kids.

Dr. Jennifer Harvey

EmbraceRace: To Jen's point about a lot of white families having a hard time having these conversations or just even starting. I see that a lot in questions that were asked, like, "Oh, but what about this? But what about that? But what about..." Like as though you need to have everything confirmed before you try something.

And it reminded me of, I have a lot of reluctance around... I'm a city person. We're both city people, and we moved to this place where everyone has a garden. I've so much reluctance around gardening. And I'm just watching videos about worms, and compost, and till, all this stuff, and in looking at books and asking people. Then I just come home and I'm really overwhelmed. That's me and cooking as well. You've gotten a lot of information, but you haven't acted.

And to some extent, I think, you really have to just start asking questions. I loved the way Jen said you can start with, "We haven't really talked about this before, but I wonder how you feel." There are a lot of great books as well, that we have a lot of great books on our website

A lot of you are asking how teachers can do this work, which, of course, is a critical question. The school, being obviously a crucial ground, not only because kids are spending a lot of time there, but because very often, schools are the only place, certainly the most significant place, where children encounter real difference, whether it's racial class differences, religious difference, whatever the identity line might be.. Kids are likely to find that in school in a way they may not find at home. How can teachers support this work, especially if parents aren't on board?

At the same time, even teachers who really want to do the right thing, who are putting the extra work of figuring out what it looks like in their curriculum, also have a constituency of parents, typically, or guardians, or grandparents, or whoever it is, 30, 40 of them, some of whom may not be supportive of the work they might try to do.

Jennifer Harvey: Many of whom.

EmbraceRace: Any words of wisdom then for the educators, let's say, elementary school, or even early childhood who want to do this work but fear opposition?

We've got to be vocal advocates in our schools to have teachers' backs, because that power dynamic is very intense for teachers... We need to link arms with each other in the spaces we're in because we are often, in institutional spaces where we might feel like, or might be the minority perspective in terms of growing anti-racism.

Dr. Jennifer Harvey

Jennifer Harvey: I guess, the adjacent, clear mandate is to all of us who are parents. We've got to be vocal advocates in our schools to have teachers' backs, because that power dynamic is very intense for teachers. With all the challenges around teacher education, teachers have parents, they have administration, and they have these curricular demands that are also usually not adequate. So it's a big ask for teachers. So I really want to honor the work teachers do. So those of us that are parents, you got to get in there and advocate and support them.

I would say, in a situation where that's not happening, where teachers don't have parent buy-in, or don't have some vocal parent buy-in, at least finding ways to ally with one another, to try and figure out, who in my building is on board with some of this? We need to link arms with each other in the spaces we're in because we are often in institutional spaces where we might feel like, or might be the minority perspective in terms of growing anti-racism.

We've got to look around and say, "Who's on that continuum that I might form some partnerships with?" So we can be a little bit strategic in moving a needle that is very difficult to move just by yourself, especially in systems that have a lot of stakeholders competing.

But the other thing I would say to teachers is that the language that I feel like I would defer to as a teacher, I mean, I am a teacher, but I have a different kind of installation because I'm in a college, is, "Look, my job as a teacher is to teach everybody, and so if I'm not teaching in this way, you're asking me to throw some kids under the bus."

That's the truth. And so, if teachers can find ways in the most hostile or challenging environments to frame it as, "This is my moral obligation as an educator, to teach everybody. That requires that we are doing anti-racist approaches to education." And sometimes maybe like saying, "As an expert in education, this is my job. It's my mantle to make sure every student is included. And that means teaching everybody's history. It means teaching the humanization of all people." That language might be helpful, but we really need allies. We need to build a network of people who have our back, because it is really difficult. 

This is my moral obligation as an educator, to teach everybody. That requires that we are doing anti-racist approaches to education... And that means teaching everybody's history.

Dr. Jennifer Harvey

EmbraceRace: Yeah, for sure. We have a question from Christine who asks, how do you deal with close friends, family that are implicitly biased around your white child, i.e., joking, making uninformed comments, etc.? How do you talk to your kids about the Amy Coopers hiding in plain sight around you? 

Jennifer Harvey: That's such an important question because white families is where a lot of this festers. I try and remind myself that my audience... And I said this in the CNN piece, actually, the folks that joke or do whatever they do, whatever the continuum is, if I start telling myself, "I need to engage them because I need to win them over." And then I see that that's not going to happen, I get tempted to not challenge them. When I remember I am modeling something for my child, a behavior that I want them to emulate, then I go, "Oh, there's no question. I have to engage them in some way, even if I totally screw it up."

And so, I name it. And it's anything from, "Wow, I'm really uncomfortable with what you just said. Seemed a little racist to me." That's all I gotta say. I don't have to win the argument. I can just say that. That models for my child that the behavior that we want at minimum is, "Nope!" We certainly have family, I don't want to out my whole family, but we've had a lot of struggle, especially since 2016. And so we talk about that with our kids and say, "You know what? You might hear these things. You're allowed to challenge authority. You're allowed to tell X family member, 'This is what I believe.' And just because it's an adult saying it doesn't mean they are correct. 

And so, we don't also expect them to only be the ones to do that. We also have to do it too. But I have found, actually, some of the most transformative, racial justice change in our family network has come actually because people in my family who loved my kids actually listen to them more than they will listen to me. And there's been some change that has come by way of my kids saying, "You know what? I actually believe somebody fleeing war or trying to feed their kids should cross a border even if it's illegal. That's what I believe in, is feeding your family,"

And relatives going, "Oh." But if they hear it from me or my partner, it's like, "Well, you liberal," you know. We need to tell our kids it's okay to disagree, and we have to model that. 

If I start telling myself, 'I need to engage them because I need to win them over.' And then I see that that's not going to happen, I get tempted to not challenge them. When I remember I am modeling something for my child, a behavior that I want them to emulate, then I go, "Oh, there's no question. I have to engage them in some way, even if I totally screw it up... We need to tell our kids it's okay to disagree, and we have to model that.

Dr. Jennifer Harvey

EmbraceRace: There are a lot of parents for whom the baseline is, we want children who minimally do no harm, whatever that exactly looks like. And then we have parents, including our guardians and teachers, including some folks asking questions here who wonder, how can we do more than that? You've given some answers, including from the discussion about how you engage your kids on the Cooper's tape.

How do we raise white children in particular who will be allies to children who aren't white, who will recognize their own privilege, who will be actively anti-racist, which I believe is your work? Can you give us a few tips for how to raise active anti-racists?

Jennifer Harvey: Yeah. We've been talking a lot about breaking silence in individualistic ways, which is really, really important because that's developmentally the day-to-day work. Jen Baptist preacher's going to get in a pulpit for a second.

This country is on fire. I do not believe this country will have a viable future if more white people don't get off the sidelines, which means not only we adults activating, but it also means raising kids who are able to be activated.

And so, my children this week, we know, and we've talked about, who in Des Moines, where I live right now is leading the protest right now. And here's the things we are doing to support them. And then, yesterday I took them in the car with me and we went around and we just dropped off takeout food to a number of local, young Black leaders who I know are exhausted and tired and outraged and grieving. And my kids were in the car. We texted to make sure it was okay. We just dropped off food. Then I said, "You know what? We're just dropping off food because the folks who we love in the city are working so hard for justice." And so, I think we have to take our kids into modes and spaces.

I didn't take my kids to the protests. It feels too unstable, but we did take food to people the next day. We need to be plugged into organizations that are creating change, and we need to bring our kids along with us while we do it so that they learn, not only how to do it, but they learn that we need to be doing it in multiracial ways. And they start to recognize who the leaders are where they live.

My kids know who is leading in Des Moines right now, and that's important. And they see themselves as part of a community of activists, even though they're not out at the protest right now because it does feel too unsafe to have a 9 and 11 year old out there. But we can do other things, and so we're doing that. And so, I want parents to involve their kids in that work. 

We need to be plugged into organizations that are creating change, and we need to bring our kids along with us while we do it so that they learn, not only how to do it, but they learn that we need to be doing it in multiracial ways. And they start to recognize who the leaders are where they live.

Dr. Jennifer Harvey

EmbraceRace: Yeah, I mean, I hear you. Preach. Because, yeah, that's a thing that as communities of color, that we talk about, is just, "We can't do this alone." Luckily, I mean, what's great about doing this work is that we meet lots of people, including lots of white people who are really getting in there and doing the work. Jen, you had said that a lot of white people that you talk to stop themselves from having the conversation, from doing the work, or just are reluctant. What do you think that's about? 

Jennifer Harvey: I think it often is about not thinking that we know what to say, being afraid we're going to say it wrong or inaccurately, or that we're going to make things worse. And to that, I really deeply believe that when we start speaking, we will hear ourselves not knowing quite what more to say, or hear ourselves not saying it as well as we wanted to and go, "Oh, but I get to have the conversation again tomorrow. In the meantime, let me think about this a little more."

I have had so many conversations with my kids where I left it going, "Wow, Jen. Like it went over their head," or, "Wow, what was that?" The gift of a parenting journey, not for all parents, but for most of us is that it's long, and we get to go, "You know what? I didn't love how I explained that yesterday. And I actually wanted to tell you a story." Or, "I found a book we could read together that explains it better."

And so, we're not trying to fill our kids who are empty vessels with all the accurate information. We are trying to partner with them. And they will sometimes ask the most brilliant questions. They will show us what they don't understand. And we get to try again tomorrow. And so, we do not have to be right or perfect. We just have to be brave. We just have to start.

EmbraceRace: We just have to be brave.

And so, we're not trying to fill our kids who are empty vessels with all the accurate information. We are trying to partner with them. And they will sometimes ask the most brilliant questions. They will show us what they don't understand. And we get to try again tomorrow. And so, we do not have to be right or perfect. We just have to be brave. We just have to start.

Dr. Jennifer Harvey

Jennifer Harvey: We just have to start and be brave just like in the garden.

EmbraceRace: I used a gardening metaphor, how I hesitate to garden, and I just watch all the videos and read the books, and I'm like, "I'm a city person," and I just don't do it. Like, you just have to put your shovel in the soil.

Jennifer Harvey: Yeah. Yep. Yep. I'm like, if nothing else, my kids will be further along when they're 20 than when I was 20. My 20's were a decade of wallowing in white guilt and feeling lost. And my kids are already past that. Thank God. That doesn't mean they aren't going to screw up. It doesn't mean I'm not screwing up. It means they are going to already show up as better friends, better allies and partners and colleagues to people of color in the world. They already are than I was when I was 19. And that's not because I'm perfect or right. It's because we've just been continuing to talk about it and try and figure it out together with others and in multiracial community. 

EmbraceRace: Then just to add onto that, one of the hesitations or the worries, and this is something that definitely happens, is someone says, "My kid is uninterested, and I can tell I'm pushing too hard to help her understand. How can I help us both?"

And that, when kids are like, "Really?" Or they don't want to read the book that is heavy handed or whatever. I mean, that's certainly happens. That happens to us all the time. So how do you respond to that? I mean, I think that can really stop people. 

Jennifer Harvey: Yeah. I think there's a couple of responses. I love that question. There's been a couple books that I got for my older child who loves to read, and she just has not wanted to. And I've been having this, like, "Do I make her read this book?" But I also don't want anti-racism to become the point of rebellion either. This is me just talking as a parent, not as an expert. Sometimes, for me, I definitely think there's a time and a place. Not like, "Oh, my kid's not interested, thus I don't need to ever bring this up."

But there is a line around making it into the constant lecture or the obsession in a way. We have to connect with our kids. If it's a lecture or a way that causes further disconnection, I don't know what that looks like in different parental relationships, but I can sometimes start to feel it with my own kids. I try and avoid that. Having said that, there are times when my kids are like, "I don't really want to go be at the Surge meeting tonight." And I'm like, "I know you don't really want to, but guess what? I actually don't really want to either. But I do really know that my work is to be part of helping make the world more just and safe for everybody. So we're going to go anyway."

It's sort of like, "I don't always want to eat peas, but I make my kids eat peas." I don't think there's a one size fits all. And I think it's important to stay connected, which means it can't be like this, didactic like, "You are going to care about this." But it is also modeling. And I do have times where my kids have been uninterested in X, but I've been like, "You know what? You're not interested in this book? I'm going to read it." And then, lo and behold, a month later, my 11 year old's like, "You know what, maybe I'll read that book and then we can talk about it." So we also just keep modeling and doing it in our own life. And sometimes our kids will go through cycles.

EmbraceRace: Yeah. I think the modeling is so important or having the conversation. Andrew and I can have a conversation, and they're [my children] taking in a lot that way, even when we're not directly discussing it with them.

Jennifer Harvey: Absolutely.

EmbraceRace: Exactly. A couple of people have actually asked how old our children are. They're 9 and 12, so very close to yours. Recently turned 12 in April.

And we have a few questions that are really sort of flip sides of the same coin. I'm going to put them both to you. What are some ideas about how we can support kids to be upstanders in school, for example, where if they say something, they can intervene in a way that's supportive as needed, but also relatively safe for them? How do we do that?

How do we show them, prepare them, support them to do that while also, as Laurie says, teaching our children to have empathy for a person who makes a mistake, not just engaging in blaming and shaming?

Jennifer Harvey: Yeah. That actually, the second part of that question, is one of the reasons that like the fear we get where we don't speak, because we're afraid we're going to get it wrong. I didn't think to say this, but I've thought about this and talked about it in other places, that that's actually important to actually speak anyway and get it wrong because then we actually get to model the humility of saying to my kid, "You know what? I didn't describe that well at all."

One of the truths of anti-racism is the ability to make a mistake and be humble about that and learn. So that's another reason not to let the fear stop us because it's okay if we make a mistake, as long as we return to it. And so, I think we partly help our kids do that by modeling that too, modeling humility, telling them that we've made mistakes, showing when we learn something new, when our language has changed around something. 

The question about empathy and being upstanding, I think that's a point in which like, "Okay, we show the Amy Cooper video. I asked them what they're going to do." That was kind of a far out question for them in that context. But all the time, our kids are hearing racist things at school and on the playground.

And so, when my kids were much younger, and we still do this, but much younger, some of our earliest conversations were me sharing things I'd heard parents share about what had happened to their 4 year old or 5 year old or 6 year old at school and saying, "What do you think was going on in this situation and what would you want to do, or what do you think you should do if that happened and you were there?"

One of the truths of anti-racism is the ability to make a mistake and be humble about that and learn. So that's another reason not to let the fear stop us because it's okay if we make a mistake, as long as we return to it. And so, I think we partly help our kids do that by modeling that too, modeling humility, telling them that we've made mistakes, showing when we learn something new, when our language has changed around something.

Dr. Jennifer Harvey

Those real-life, same age kind of scenarios that happen all the time, partnering with our kids and exploring what an upstanding moral response would be, is a really great conversation fodder. It helps them think about it. It also helps them know, hopefully, if you do it with humility as an adult, that if they experience it and they don't say something or they don't know what to say, they can ask you, like, "Oh God, this thing happened. And I didn't do that. What should I have done?"

A lot of this is about just keeping the conversation going and it also helps us then also understand what they do and don't yet quite understand in the way we want them to. It gives us lots of information when we ask our kids those kinds of questions. 

EmbraceRace: Yeah. I've certainly talked to them about a microaggression or two that I've committed.

Jennifer Harvey: Yeah. Yeah.

EmbraceRace: Those are good. I mean, that can also undercut the possibility of the child feeling shamed or blamed, just like you said, humility. So, yeah. There was a question about co-parenting. This might be a tough question, but co-parenting when your co-parent, and you live separately, is not so into social justice or doesn't see white supremacy the way you might. Do you have any advice on that? To be clear your co-parent doesn't need to be living somewhere else for that to be true. It's also truth, couples who are under the same roof.

Jennifer Harvey: That's right. Yeah. That can be really, really painful and difficult. I think different contexts vary depending on the intensity of the relationship itself, especially in a situation of separation or divorce, depending on how much hostility there may or may not be. So I want to be cautious. But I do think, in some ways, the principles stand around helping our kids know by what we do with them, that even if they're getting counter messages from a co-parent, but those of us who are not co-parenting with someone where they're getting those messages, our kids are getting them from all kinds of places, too. That there's not really a problem, that colorblindness is a thing, that people of color shouldn't be resisting the way they are, whatever it is.

And so, in some ways, I think it's the same thing, only in a more extreme situation, more difficult situation where we still stay in our truth, model what we need to model, tell them the honest truth. And even if it means they experience being conflicted and challenged because they're getting two different messages, the job, I think, especially when they're in our care and when they're young, is not to convince them that we are right, it's to model so that as they come into their own... Because there's lots of things we can't control.

But what I hope is that my kids will, as they make choices about their own values, they'll be able to look around and go, "Oh, these are the adults that I want to be like. These are the adults I trust to talk through this with me." And that we as adults can be that. And it's same for folks who have aunt and uncle relationships, who might maybe have a close relationship with a child who is in a home where the racial teaching is very different. 

The point is there's lots of things you can't intervene in, but you can still model and show in ways that help that child as they age go, "Oh, but there is that aunt over there who has a different way of talking about this." Kids also have their own moral conscience too that will show up and they will seek out the adults that are askable and who are modeling the values that they are coming into. But I acknowledge that's really difficult and really painful.

But what I hope is that my kids will, as they make choices about their own values, they'll be able to look around and go, "Oh, these are the adults that I want to be like. These are the adults I trust to talk through this with me." And that we as adults can be that.

Dr. Jennifer Harvey

EmbraceRace: Jen, thank you. We're at time. I want to go back actually to a thing you said that I mentioned before, just before we came on, when you said we could be at a revolutionary moment. It's a very difficult moment, but it's one that spurred such a significant group of people, large number of people, including many whites. Certainly not exclusively whites, but many whites I think who are thinking, "We can't. The sideline has disappeared altogether. If it ever existed, it's not there now. And if it's there now, I'm not comfortable standing on it, right?"

Jennifer Harvey: Yes.

EmbraceRace: And again, 9,000 people are here [on this webinar]. But it's not just EmbraceRace in different ways. The various folks that we consider fellow travelers in this work are also telling us about much more tension coming their way, and many more people looking to engage. Some of those people have asked us how they can help. I want to mention just a few things in closing. One, we know a lot of you who are listening, a lot of people who registered are new to this community.

The first thing I want to say is, please stay engaged. Stay with it. It's wonderful that this was an occasion perhaps for you to take up this work, to look to learn more, wonder what you can do. But if you're not doing this work, in six months, in a year, in two years, it will have gone for nothing. And we are trying to build a community. We really want to support you and us and Jen, and have us support each other to do this work. So please stay with us. If you're not on our email list, certainly please get on that email list.

Second thing, frankly, donate. We provide everything that we do, including this program, for free to registrants. But of course, it's not free to produce. And more importantly, perhaps, there is so much more work we can do and so many partners. Jen, I'm looking at you. So many partners we are planning work with and it will take money to really propel that work. Obviously, if you can. A lot of people can't. If you can, please do. We want to also have people pay for people who can't pay. That's the point of making it accessible. So when we do have money, we give. Yeah.

The third and last thing I want to say, and this of course is a larger thing, do something. There's so many things to be done. Jen, you mentioned a number of them. We mentioned we have lots of things on our website. Other people have things. There are groups if you're especially concerned about police and policing, the relationship with communities of color. So many groups doing amazing work and have been for a long time. Working with your children, of course, the theme of this show. There are so many things. Please do something. Make a commitment. Hold yourself accountable for continuing to routinely staying in the game.

Thank you so much, Jen. 

We have another webinar coming on Friday called: "I [STILL] can't breathe": Supporting kids of color amid racialized violence. And one of our favorites, Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith will be on. So try to make that one. And we always publish our webinars after on our website, the day after, and the transcript the week after. So go to our archives.

Jen, it was wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much. We've got to meet in person.

Jennifer Harvey: Thanks for having me. Can I just say, and also white parents should sit in on those webinars too.

EmbraceRace: Absolutely.

Jennifer Harvey: You need to learn more about how families of color are talking to their kids. We need that learning too. We all need white folks listening to that one. Thank you so much.

EmbraceRace: Jen. Thank you so much.

Dr. Jennifer Harvey

Jennifer Harvey’s work focuses primarily on racial justice and white anti-racism. Her most recent book, Raising White Kids: Bringing up Children in a Racially Unjust America, brings her longtime experience in multi-racial activism to her journey as a parent and was a 2018 Foreword INDIE GOLD Winner. Dr. Harvey is widely published and has written for the New York Times and CNN. She is frequently heard on the radio. Dr. Harvey is also the author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation. She is a professor of religion and serves as Faculty Director for the Crew Scholars Program at Drake University, and is ordained in the American Baptist Churches (USA).
  • Share
  • facebook
  • twitter