A White Parent’s Lament

Friday, October 14, 2016 - 5:30 am

A White Parent’s Lament

I have never felt so white as when I became a parent.

Let me explain. In my 20s, the way I moved through the world was no doubt colored significantly by my race and class background, but it felt largely under the radar. My parents paid for my college education, but that wasn’t something that I readily volunteered. When other kids talked about financial aid forms, I just nodded knowingly. I consumed culture in much the same way my friends of color or those from working class backgrounds did — listening to hip hop and watching The Wire like any race-conscious white kid who came of age in the ‘90s. I dated a black guy for nine years — something that actually made me feel more white, by virtue of the contrasts and questions it surfaced. But I loved him and he loved me, and that always seemed to transcend any complex political questions we might entertain.

But when I got pregnant with my first child at 32, it was like I was suddenly transported into a blatantly, unapologetically white world. The other couples scrolling through Instagram in my midwife’s waiting room were white. The prenatal yoga class I went to was filled with other rapidly expanding white ladies. Once I had the baby, things only got whiter. The mothers who exchanged pleasantries and compared opinions about Ergo and Bjorn and Moby and K’tan (carriers, for the uninitiated) at the coffee shop were white. When our nanny, a woman of color, bought our daughter no end of princess and Hello Kitty-themed accoutrements, we thanked her in the moment and cringed later (our daughter, meanwhile, loved it all). Preschool was one long anxious tour with other white and some Asian parents.

It would all be kind of funny (and, I recognize, is ripe for satire), if it weren’t representative of a deeper dynamic in this country at the root of so many of our worst inequities. Anxious white parenting (I’m using this term as a stand-in for anyone, even non-white, who falls into this general category) is not just exhausting and, perhaps, counterproductive on a personal level; it also reinforces racial and class divisions at every structural and cultural turn. In short, I’ve come to believe that as long as elite parents feel justified in an all-consuming focus on their own children’s advancement, the whole country will remain deeply and immorally unequal.

It’s a big claim, and I recognize that it not only implicates me, but flies in the face of some deep human urges we have to protect our own. Trust me, I am obsessed with my two daughters. When I dropped Maya off at preschool the other day and one of the older girls looked down her nose at her because she’s a “monkey” (the two-year-old group), it took everything in me not to flip her the bird and scoop up my kind genius of a child and go eat ice cream all day instead of going to school with evil four-year-olds. I massage my two-month-old’s pudgy little limbs with coconut oil, all the while telling her that she’s the most perfect little angel that was ever created. I have drunk the maternal Kool-Aid.

And yet, I’m simultaneously sober about structural racism, and it turns out that I’ve become increasingly complicit in its perpetuation as a parent. The spreadsheet I made (and then promptly lost) of preschool options, the time I spent going on tours and asking other parents for intel on the process, was energy that I wasn’t channeling into increasing quality preschool options for all kids (something I wrote about already). When I spend extra money on organic foods for Maya and read articles online about GMOs and BPA, those are resources I’m not channeling into collective action on healthy food for all kids. As we look toward kindergarten, I can already feel my best research and networking skills being sucked into the vortex of making sure my kid gets the best.

All of this exists against the backdrop of the “messy middle” — as people call this stage of life that I’m white-water rafting through. There aren’t enough minutes in the day. Ever. I’m proud when I manage to keep my eyes open long enough after getting Maya to bed to research where I might get her some swim lessons or text my mom to see how she’s feeling. It rarely feels like I have additional energy for further understanding the education crisis or toxic stress or the increasing rate of maternal and child mortality among black women in the U.S., much less doing something about any of it.

I recognize that sitting around feeling guilty and inadequate isn’t going to get anyone a decent preschool education or get toxins out of anyone’s baby bottle. As with all personal problems, “right action” is probably in looking to a community that can collectively share the weight and urgency of this conundrum with me. But the majority of what I see elite parents thinking and talking about when it comes to race is good, but anemic — how to make sure your kid has diverse representation in the books they read, how to talk about race directly with them. Yes, of course… and then what?

If I’ve learned any one rule that seems worthy of repeating about parenting it is this: it’s what we do, not what we say, that our kids will remember and embody. So I can talk myself blue in the face about race and class with my daughters, but if they see me pouring all of my energy and resources into improving their chances of success, while other kids get poisoned, undereducated, stressed, discriminated against, then what am I really teaching them?

There must be some healthy balance (and I mean healthy for me, my kids, and society) between self-interest and collective action. I’ve got to believe that I can love my kids and want the best for them, while still pursuing better conditions for all kids. And what’s more, that this pursuit, while it may siphon off some energy or resources from my own children in the short run, will be better for them in the long run, too.

Now, where and how to start…

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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