The Story is Already Starting to Change
There is much research that shows that white parents don’t often talk about race at home, defaulting instead to generic, colorblind “all people are equal” messages. There are lots of theories as to why. Some parents believe that pointing out racial differences reinforces them. Some are uncomfortable and don’t know what to say. Many live in highly segregated communities and therefore don’t talk about what they don’t encounter.
There is also some research that indicates that parents don’t want to talk about race with their children. One study conducted by Brigitte Vittrup, which was reported in the book “Nurture Shock” and is excerpted seemingly everywhere, showed that even parents who signed up to be part of a study on children’s racial attitudes displayed a great reluctance to have these conversations. A full 30 percent of study participants dropped out when they learned they were expected to talk to their children about race as part of the experience.
Taken together (most white parents don’t explicitly talk to their children about race and many don’t want to), it seemed more than a little risky to create a program that is predicated on just that…getting white parents to voluntarily and explicitly talk to their children about race. So, as we embarked on this process we endeavored to be cautious in our estimates while remaining bold in our vision.
We hoped that after many priming conversations explaining the research case for talking to young children about race and racism that maybe we could get 60 children enrolled in our pilot program. We sent an email to 25 families, a few that we knew well, but many that we did not. We had no logo or website. Nothing more than a story of what St. Louis could be, if we did our part in creating it. We had 139 children enrolled in one week. More than 65 percent of the people were unknown to us. Hailing from Ballwin to Soulard, and from Florissant to Grantwood Village. We closed enrollment with 150 children and have almost 200 on the wait list. Pretty remarkable.
This first hurdle is in some ways the biggest and most important, mostly because the interest and enthusiasm alone has already busted some important myths, proving wrong the conventional wisdom about white parent’s appetites for conversations on race. Conventional wisdom is essentially a set of expectations that are generally accepted as true by the public. It is the story we tell ourselves. And that story is powerful. It in and of itself helps to maintain the status quo, in part by discouraging alternative interpretation, further examination, and even innovative thinking.
We know our work is just beginning and that there’s a big lift ahead – parents still need to navigate these complicated conversations and challenge some of their own experiences, behaviors and thoughts – but our experience so far is showing us that the story we’ve heard (and maybe believed) isn’t true, at least not in the way it’s presented. We aren’t seeing the rumored apathy and resistance. In fact, in our first 10 days, we’ve seen passion and care, commitment and grit, empathy and a desire for change. Parents are using the books to engage in real race conversations with their children and starting to think about how else they can impact their family and environment with everything from school practices to toys in the home. It turns out that a lot of white families in St. Louis do care about racial inequity, even if you can’t see it in their behavior…yet. A lot of white families are willing to talk about race and racial difference with their children. A lot of white families in St. Louis are looking for a different narrative for our city and their families.
While we aren’t underestimating the real work ahead we are letting ourselves continue to dream a little bigger. And more importantly we are starting to wonder…what else isn’t true? We can’t wait to find out.