Tuesday, November 25, 2014

10 Ways I Am Trying to Raise White Male Allies

After the expected but disheartening news that Officer Darren Wilson will not be indicted in the death of Michael Brown, a friend reposted this article from August on 12 Things White People Can Do Now in Reaction to Ferguson.

Upon thinking about this, I've decided that I would like to add some things white parents can do to help raise allies. Because unless and until America as a whole is willing to stop and look long and hard at our ugly ugly history, improvement will be incremental at best and we can expect nothing better than each generation doing slightly better than the one before. Knowing this, I want to be intentional in raising my kids to be both feminists and black allies.

These are 10 things that I do or plan to do to that end:

1. I have taught LO the word "agency" and I try to use it regularly.
Whether he is being too rough with our dog or is trying to hug his little brother when BB wants none of it, when I correct LO's behavior I try to explain that the object of his affection also has agency. I want LO to grow up with the understanding everyone has the right to their own body, and that right trumps LO's wants.
2. I talk openly about race.
Several years ago, I read the book Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. One of the important points they talked about was the fact that our kids are sponges. They see that race makes us uncomfortable, and since we don't talk openly about it, they draw their own conclusions. And generally that means they internalize racist attitudes because we don't shine a light on those attitudes in our society and ourselves.
Talking openly about race is SO HARD. As is the case for many whites who are nervous about being allies, I am afraid of causing offense or saying something insensitive or being clueless. But it's much better for my sons to see me say that I'm uncomfortable because of those things, and that I am willing to apologize and listen when I am wrong, than for me to remain silent and have them learn only from my silence.
3. I let my boys watch The Daily Show, John Oliver, and other media dealing with issues of race and gender with me.
There is a part of me that is ridiculously pleased that LO knows Jon Stewart's name. And that's not just because Jon Stewart is one of my heroes for consistently calling out hypocrisy. I'm also pleased that LO likes to watch my shows with me because I know that he is being exposed to the issues that I care deeply about.
This might be a controversial parenting decision, considering the adult language and jokes on The Daily Show. But I don't have an issue with my children hearing salty language, and I know that the jokes sail over their heads. What I know my child is seeing when he watches this kind of media with me is that I care deeply about speaking truth to power.
4. I let my boys see my reaction to current events.
On the day that Robin Williams died, I cried in front of LO and told him that I was grateful for a very sweet and funny man.
As I have rewritten a great deal of my childhood over the past month because Bill Cosby is not the man we all thought he was, I have let LO see that I am upset. He does not know more than the fact that a man I admired has disappointed me, but he does know it has made me sad.
In the aftermath of Michael Brown's death, I would tell LO when he asked that I was sad because something unjust had happened.
My little boy is four years old and I tailor my explanations to his ability to understand. But I don't protect him from my shock, sadness, and anger as terrible things happen in the world. He needs to know that injustice and violence affect all of us.
5. I apologize to LO and BB when I am wrong.
This Sunday, I overslept and had to hurry to get to our Temple's Religious School (which I teach and LO attends) on time. LO was in a bad mood and threw a tantrum when I tried to get his coat on. I don't deal well with time crunches, and I yelled at him.
In the car, after I had calmed down, I apologized to LO for yelling. He told me he really does not like the yelling, which of course pierced my heart. I asked him if we could work on it together. He tearfully agreed.
Not only do LO and BB need to see that I am fallible, but they need to understand that everyone is fallible. Being able to apologize when you are wrong is an important and difficult-to-master skill, particularly when coming to the understanding that you were wrong is painful. It's much easier to double down on your wrongness. I want LO to learn to listen when he is wrong, so I am trying to model that behavior.
6. I proudly call myself a feminist.
This is both easy and hard for me. I am happy to self-identify as a feminist. But I am also loathe to bring attention to myself in public.
For instance, I worked as a volunteer at Planned Parenthood when I was in high school (a fact which I often keep to myself, even though I'm proud of it and it was a wonderfully eye-opening experience.) The workers there once gave me a tee-shirt with Rebecca West's quotation: "People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat." I never wore it for fear of being called on it in public, even though I believed it whole-heartedly.
In our home, I call myself a feminist. I am working on doing so in public, as well. If I want LO and BB to self-identify as feminists and allies, that's what I have to do.
7. I tell the boys what I am grateful for every night.
As Janee Woods points out in the article that inspired this one, the twin pillar of racism is economic injustice. (And I would opine that financial abuse on both the micro and the macro scale is one method of keeping women submissive.)
I personally feel that the opposite of economic injustice is gratitude. When those of us who have plenty recognize our plenty and are grateful for all the goodness in our lives, we can let go of any resentment we might feel about how much others are receiving. Those who are angriest about the poor collecting government benefits or earning higher minimum wages are often afraid that they personally will have less if others get more. The only way to recognize the fact that economic justice is not a zero-sum game is to stop comparing. Being thankful for what you have brings serenity for yourself and allows you to be more compassionate to others.
For that and other reasons, part of my bedtime routine with the boys is telling them three things for which I am grateful every. single. day.
8. I (try to) listen when LO is sad.
While I love the Reasons My Kid is Crying blog, and I enjoy the absurdity of what can throw a small child into an existential-level nuclear tantrum, I also try very hard to remember that my sons' feelings are valid and should be listened to. His feelings matter, even if he's mad because the dog just ate the food he held out to him.
Just because a child's world and interests are different from an adult's does not make that world and those interests invalid. Learning that they are welcome to feel their feelings will help LO and BB understand that no one's feelings should be belittled.
9. I will teach LO and BB our full cultural heritage.
As is common in Jewish tradition, both LO and BB are named after relatives who have passed away. BB's middle name also commemorates an important Jewish engineer who was the father of the Corvette. I love this naming tradition, because a child's very name is the beginning of the story of their heritage.
But in addition to the lovely stories from our family and cultural heritage, I will be sure to teach the boys about unpleasant aspects of our family history, our religious history, and our American history. As with current events, I will tailor these lessons to the kids' ability to understand and take in. But I want them to know the full story of how they came to be living in the world we inhabit.
 10. I try to be the best person I can be.
J and I are the boys' first teachers. They will learn more from us than from anything or anyone else. And what they are learning--from every interaction and every observation--is how to be an adult in this world. Though I fail often, I want to be a mensch in all things. I hope to provide an example to my kids in how to be a good person who is compassionate, strong, committed to justice, and able to look at ugliness without flinching.
These are just the strategies that I have come up with. What have I missed?


  1. A few I would add, which I'm guessing you do already:
    1) Exposure to books/art/music from many cultures to reinforce that all races contribute to the advancement of humanity.

    2) Present history from different perspectives. I believe that much of our American racial tensions come from the white-dominant retelling of history. As often as possible I try to help Lil visualize and empathize with the motivations of all parties involved in historic conflict, settlement, and decisions.

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  3. Great information... Children live what they learn, and we can all play our part in marking the world a better place.