Parents of white children have an invisible luxury: They don’t need to start talking to their kids about the subject of race as young as preschool.
That’s a privilege not afforded black and Latino parents, many educators say, because their children’s lives and educations are literally at risk from the moment they enter society.
But even bringing up the issue causes problems, they have found. Meanwhile, incidents with racial overtones continue to dominate school-safety discussions, from the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting in February, to a Manual High School football game against a mostly white school last fall, during which students reported hearing racial slurs.
With more than half of its nearly 100,000 students minorities, Denver Public Schools is worried.
“It’s a hard conversation to have without context, or without helping people understand this is not about blaming, shaming or judging you,” said Allen Smith, chief of Denver Public Schools’ Culture, Equity and Leadership Team.
DENVER, COLORADO – APRIL 15: A portrait of Allen Smith, Denver Public Schools chief of equity and leadership team, Sunday, April 15, 2018 outside Ellis Elementary School. (Photo by Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post)
That’s why Jennifer Harvey, a professor of ethics and religion at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, has devoted herself to bridging the gap. A graduate of Denver Public Schools, from Park Hill’s Stedman Elementary to East High School, and a mother of two elementary school kids, she sees only peril in ignoring the subject.
An ordained member of American Baptist Churches, she wrote the 2014 book “Dear White Christians,” and now, “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America.”
“White privilege is a crisis for students,” Harvey said. “We’re telling them they are supposed to value equity and celebrate diversity. But we are not understanding that for them to do that, they also have to grow an anti-racist skill set. And it is complicated because they aren’t supposed to celebrate their whiteness. A few are going off in different ways and are ripe for the picking, like some of those who showed up in Charlottesville.”
Harvey came to Denver over the weekend, with the help of Park Hill Collective Impact and Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education, to give free, public lectures and workshops at Park Hill Library, Stedman Elementary, Montview Presbyterian Church and, on Monday, an 8 a.m. event at McNichols Civic Center building
The most immediate concern is violence. The Parkland shooting has been attributed, in part, to the alleged shooter’s racist radicalization. Swastika-carved rifle magazines were found at the scene, according to authorities, who also found connections to anti-black and anti-Muslim groups on social media.
But at a more basic level, ignoring white privilege continues cycles of segregation and misunderstanding, Harvey said — especially in schools, where students need all the peace and acceptance they can get to learn and grow.
“American schools are disturbingly racially segregated, period,” said Catherine Lhamon, head of the U.S. Education Department of Education’s civil rights office, in an October speech. Her remarks echoed recent studies showing that integration efforts have lost ground in recent years, returning racial demographics in U.S. education to the same divided levels as in 1968.
Diverse districts like DPS, where the student population is 55.5 percent Latino, compared with 23.2 percent white, according to a 2016 DPS report, need to confront it, and not only because the majority of educators are white women. The silence is also noticeable in majority-white areas, some students say.
“Hispanic kids are hanging out with Hispanic kids and white kids are hanging out with white kids,” said Alec Eyl, an 18-year-old junior at Boulder High School. “Even in a town like Boulder, which is something close to 85 percent white, it’s noticeable. People here like to say they’re liberal, but our demographics do not represent America.”
That’s why teachers and students need proper context to even begin talking about white privilege, proponents of the conversation say: one of cooperation and mutual respect. Otherwise, the topic can seem irrelevant, or, on the other side, as a personal attack designed to induce guilt over one’s race.
“I remember one (teacher) telling me she didn’t feel safe having the conversation because she didn’t want to make the wrong statement,” said Smith, who conducts bias training and “equity boot camps” for DPS educators. “But you have to start somewhere. This is about developing that muscle. It’s uncomfortable at first.”
The right context is hard to find, Drake University professor Harvey added, which is why she wrote the book “Raising White Kids.” And defensiveness is practically baked into the subject.
A flyer promoting an event for the book in January caused an uproar that a Des Moines CBS station attributed to its flashy headline: “Raising Healthy White Kids.” Harvey subsequently appeared on TV to defend herself against accusations that the event was a “white supremacist project.”
When Park Hill Collective Impact and Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education (PHNEE) brought Harvey to town over the weekend, organizers were careful not to give the same impression.
“We did chose a slightly different name, as the workshop (was) focused a bit more broadly than just (Harvey’s) recent book,” said Andrew Lefkowits, co-chairman of PHNEE.
“Given Park Hill’s history in fighting for integration (and) that it was at the center of court-ordered busing in Denver,” he said, “we felt that there was an opportunity to drive a conversation about equity in our schools.”
Some of Harvey’s practical tips in the book include age-appropriate teaching tools for kids, jettisoning the “color-blind” approach for a race-conscious one that acknowledges whiteness isn’t the standard for everyone, and encouraging parents to bring up the subject early and often.
If black parents are talking to their children about the increased dangers they face in society as a person of color, whether behind the wheel of a car or playing in a park, white kids should be aware of how they can use their privilege to help them, she said.
“This is a multi-racial project,” Harvey said. “I don’t want to break my kids’ hearts. I want them to think the world is amazing and it’s their oyster. But I also want them to have deep relationships with black and Latino and Asian people, and they can’t do that if I lie to them about how the world is.”