Do Black Students Matter to ‘Good’ White Parents?
I wrote this for a journal, which wasn’t into it because, well, it’s more of an essay than it is research. But here’s the thing: more of you are going to read it here anyway, and it will rapidly become irrelevant if it goes through another review process! So here you go. Enjoy!
In this current moment of potential racial reckoning, visible changes have occurred. Statues have been toppled, more people have marched than at any other time in American history, and opinions have shifted dramatically on the pervasive results of systemic racism and anti-Black violence, even when compared to just a few years ago. These are necessary initial steps for us to take as a country, and I was initially hopeful, as the protests began, that we might see substantive movement towards a racially just world, even during a particularly traumatic time. This country, and all of us educators within it, had the opportunity to be galvanized towards lasting action, and I was eager to see what transpired in what could have become a brand new society.
This may yet occur at some point, and many will continue to fight for necessary changes, but one troubling trend has confirmed that, when it comes to racial oppression, the status quo is always the likeliest outcome. In the absence of competent guidance from local, state, and federal leadership, and under pressure to return to full productivity, many parents have taken the issue of school re-opening into their own hands and have set up “pandemic pods,” small groups of students with a teacher or tutor either providing the instruction or supplementing their school’s remote learning. The discourse on these pods and their varied manifestations is unfolding as I write this, and it will likely remain unclear for several months hence how many have opted into pods. Several recent articles have pointed out, however, that these pods have the potential to increase inequity in education. An article I co-authored states, “When parents with privilege open their checkbooks and create private one-room schoolhouses for their children, they follow a long pattern of weakening the public education system they leave behind, especially in districts with predominantly Black, Latinx, indigenous and low-income students.”
Whether or not pandemic pods are eventually proven to have substantively weakened public education, they are the latest entry in a long line of choices made by well-meaning white individuals with children, individuals who surely would prefer to be seen as not racist, individuals who may have broadcasted their support for Black Lives Matter just a few weeks before they started strategizing for the fall. These individuals, who I will call good white parents, assert a commitment to not being racist, but continuously make choices that harm Black students, even if indirectly, and would deny their complicity in the perpetuation of white supremacy if accused as such. In the pages below, I will provide my conceptualization of good white parents, describe their impact on so-called good schools and the harm done to the students excluded, and demonstrate how, despite their adoption of new terminology, their patterns rarely evolve. I will conclude by offering suggestions for how good white parents in general, and educators specifically, can engage in substantive, collective action in support of Black students, a group that will soon include my infant son. Ultimately, good white parents can continue to serve as a threat to Black students, or they can choose to make the changes necessary to help dismantle the system they uphold. This essay intends to provide a path from the former to the latter.
What Does it Mean to be a Good White Parent?
At its essence, the good white parent is an individual (with children) who exhibits outwardly prosocial behavior while upholding whiteness. Prosocial behavior is that which is seen as benefitting others (Eisenberg, 1982), and a good white parent is not simply one who helps others but one who is perceived as being helpful to others. Building off Veblen’s (1899) influential sociological concept of conspicuous consumption, where citizens compete to display their worth through their visible acquisition of material possessions, a good white parent can be said to practice conspicuous altruism, visible if superficial sacrifice of time and/or money to maintain their public image. In the United States in particular, one of the ways in which goodness can be proven is by creating visible distance from the popular conceptions of racism and white supremacy, which are seen primarily as the province of individual acts of cruelty (DiAngelo, 2010) from people who are decidedly not “good.” They may prefer to avoid directly discussing race at all costs, choosing color-evasiveness (Annamma, Jackson, & Morrison, 2016) instead, but a good white parent is “not racist.” They may choose a white-dominated helping profession (e.g., nonprofits, social work, or education) that serves as what I refer to as the altruistic shield (Gerald, 2020), a career choice used as preemptive defense against any perceived complicity in white hegemony, a self-soothing story that serves as substantiation of their virtue (Miller & Harris, 2018). However their commitment to proving their lack of racism manifests, they are certain that, whatever causes the oppression they may well agree is pervasive in this country, it is not something to which they contribute.
The “goodness” of good white parents requires a performance of non-racism, and so common is the belief that racism is maintained primarily through the malice of others that, as Bonilla-Silva (2017) has argued, an atmosphere has been created in which, curiously, there barely seem to be any racists at all, just a few easily-avoidable archvillains in white hoods. The conspicuous altruism of the good white parent, like conspicuous consumption, becomes a competition, divorced from the potential beneficiaries and centered on the actors themselves. The supposed goodness of good white parents is in fact a self-righteous battle, and if these parents believe themselves to be not only good but better than others — as is true for most people (Sedikides & Gregg, 2008) — then who and what maintains the system of racism? Surely, good white parents and the choices they make on behalf of their families are racially-neutral and divorced from the inequity they are likely to decry.
Several scholars have addressed the issue of white individuals taking steps to address racism, and their work is tied to the ideology of good white parents. Crowley (2016) described competing versions of white racial knowledge as negotiated and transgressive, with the latter defined as “crossing of established boundaries in white racial discourse” (p. 1), and appearing far less frequently. Part of being a good white parent is refusing to challenge proscribed norms, and those norms include, somehow, both being not racist and not speaking openly about race, and certainly not about whiteness. Cabrera (2012) wrote of how the rare white college student who was willing to challenge their relatives on issues of race was often met with strong resistance, and in some cases a frayed relationship with their elders, with these elders, of course, being these same white parents. The ideology of good white parents demands the performance of not racism alongside the defense of the status quo, and therein lies a corrosive contradiction. If we internalize the work of Critical Race theorists like Bell (1980) and Ladson-Billings (1998), Kendi’s (2017) historical account of the country’s refusal to evolve, or even the concept of double-consciousness, the experience of constantly monitoring oneself through the eyes of the dominant white group that is everpresent in Black life (DuBois, 1897), we can see that the status quo itself is an anti-Blackness that cannot be countered through avoidance and silence, and that that very evasion is one of the most destructive facets of whiteness. Furthermore, no one is truly not racist, but merely varying degrees of successful at countering racism in themselves and in their society.
Harris’s (1993) conceptualization of whiteness as property remains relevant in any discussion of white behavior, and I would argue that good white parents are stuck in the unenviable position of continuing to perform the fiction of non-racism while defending the ideological territory of whiteness from interlopers. The solution to this conundrum is often what Zamudio and Rios (2006) term liberal racism, in which all claim to support racial equality, but nonethless make choices that reify racial discrepancies. They wrote, “This official break with blatant racism has allowed white America to disconnect itself with this country’s racial history” (p. 487). Good white parents may or may not be “liberal” in the traditional sense (i.e., voting for Democratic politicians), but they nonetheless disavow explicit racism and as such are set apart from the oppression that, somehow, continues to exist. Good white parents are clear to avoid using racial slurs and will teach their children that everyone is equal, but, as Milner (2008) notes, racial discrepancies will not abate so long as progress is not in the best interest of white indivuals and whiteness itself. Accordingly, the choices of good white parents are meant to uphold whiteness rather than to challenge its power, and two of the most impactful of these choices are where these parents raise their families and where they send their children to school.
Good White Parents, Sundown Towns, and Good Schools
Good white parents would never state that they were eager to be separated from racialized families, but rather than fighting against these visible discrepancies, they instead would choose to move to and send their children to schools in locations that a have a past and present history of racial exclusion. The idealized version of American homeownership includes the possession of a white picket fence, and though that particular style is now rather archaic, the fact that a stark, visible barrier is part of the image is rather apt, considering the ways that whiteness has used real estate and residence to maintain its hegemony. Sundown towns — so called because Black individuals and families, though allowed to pass through or be employed, were supposed to depart before dark, lest they face dire consequences — were prevalent across the United States, a backlash to the migration that followed emancipation (Loewen, 2005). Though the national narrative suggests that the American South was the only dangerous place for Black lives, the discomfiting aspect of sundown towns is that they actually proliferated far from the former Confederacy, with official (and unofficial) ordinances against Black residences seen in almost every state, up to and including the early 21st century. Many sundown towns arose in response to the growing racialized population of urban centers, and what Loewen classified as sundown suburbs can be found outside of cities as disparate as Detroit (e.g., Grosse Point, MI), Washington, DC (e.g., Chevy Chase, MD), and, most distressingly for me given my own location, New York (e.g., Levittown, NY, and Darien, CT, which has a rather astounding recent history of blatant racism).
Why do people move to suburbs? Is it an avowed hatred of racialized groups? No. As Loewen (2005) wrote, “First, it seemed the proper way to bring up children, and second, it both showed and secured social status” (p. 119). In other words, it is what good white parents do if they can afford to. Not every white parent lives in the suburbs, surely, and not every suburb that once legally barred Black families is still a sundown town, though in most such cases, the population remains extraordinarily homogenous, as demographic shifts are slow, and the people who genuinely cherished the visible whiteness are often still present and powerful. Nevertheless, even in other contexts, the long-term effects of residential redlining have persisted long past any explicit legal segregation (Appel & Nickerson, 2015), leading to a present day where racially-mixed locales remain the exception. Accordingly, the aforementioned local schools to which these parents send their children are often deeply homogenous, but nonetheless often seen as desirable or good.
What is a good school? For our purposes, I define it as a school where a child is likely to be both safe and successful, where a student will survive so that they may thrive. We will focus on safety in this section, as it is a curious issue in American schools, what with the persistence of shootings over the past few decades, a disturbing anomaly among economically powerful nations (Rowhani-Rahbar & Moe, 2019). As a consequence of our justifiable fear of these catastrophes, one aspect of schooling we have come to accept is the over-policing of Black and brown students. Starting in the 1990s, our educational institutions were filled with metal detectors and people kindly referred to as “school resource officers” (SROs), police in all but title. The presence of SROs does not automatically lead to a higher rate of arrests overall, but does lead to a sharp increase for the vague, undefined transgression of “disorderly conduct” (Theriot, 2009), a supposed crime that depends on SRO discretion. With Black students disproportionately classified as disabled (Erevelles & Minear, 2010; Voulgarides, 2018) and subsequently ostracized and punished (Shalaby, 2017), it is no wonder Morris (2016) reframes what are commonly referred to as “dropouts” as students who have been pushed out of school.
Annamma (2018) classifies this confluence of events as the school-to-prison nexus; indeed, many such schools are already prisons for the students whose families cannot afford to move them elsewhere, and this has a direct, if usually unmentioned, connection to the choices made by good white parents, be it the pursuit of good schools, the purchase (and inheritance) of redlined homes, or the historical maintenance of sundown ordinances. Additionally, while suburban students engage in the security theater of memorizing exit paths, school shootings continue largely unabated, interrupted only by Covid-19. In other words, although white students are hardly more protected from violence than they were before the proliferation of SROs and other forms of school policing, but in order to make their parents feel safer, particular students are made considerably less safe, an anti-Black result designed to defend whiteness from an imaginary danger. White parents reading this may object to this supposition, especially if they have taken the first steps towards examining racism and its real impacts on Black students. Indeed, the protests of 2020 have featured plenty of white parents, albeit in occasionally counterproductive ways. Unfortunately, however, as a different danger has disrupted traditional school openings, many good white parents, though vocally supportive of Black lives, have fallen back into age-old patterns of exclusion.
Woke White Parents and Pandemic Pods
Good white parents are “woke” now, by which I mean they have a larger vocabulary with which to describe racial oppression and are not completely bound by color-evasiveness. The national discourse has evolved to the point where the competitive altruism now includes actually reading books about race and declaring oneself anti-racist rather than simply not racist. Instead of relegating all racism to individual bad acts, more seem to understand that the country and the world have a systemic problem of white supremacy. Despite the inevitable clumsiness involved in this belated history lesson, it is unequivocally a positive development for more people to become aware of the reality of racism generally, and anti-Blackness specifically, especially given that, unlike school shootings, state violence against racialized people has not at all been interrupted by Covid-19, the catastrophic response to which has, not coincidentally, disproportionately harmed Black and brown people (Tai et al., 2020). Even in my own current neighborhood, with a population evenly mixed between white and Asian families — but with very few Black families, aside from mine — small protests and marches have been held, a show of activism from an unfriendly area filled with glass high-rises. For those of us well-versed in racially-authentic American history and the scholarly literature and theory on racism and whiteness, much of what I have shared in this essay may be old news, but for millions of now-woke white parents, these are new actions, and I would have been happy to unreservedly cheer for this development if I had not been told about the pandemic pods.
Pandemic pods, sometimes called “learning pods” or “microschools,” are as varied as they are new. For some families, a tutor is hired to supplement their school’s remote learning, which is a similar type of inequity to external test preparation courses. For some families, in the least unequal manifestation, a childcare co-op is formed with neighbors; the only inequity here is that if many of the parents in a location are frontline workers or otherwise unavailable, this arrangement is not possible. In the most egregious development, though, some affluent (and predominantly, but not exclusively, white) parents are pulling their children out of local systems entirely and paying tens of thousands of dollars for newly-created schools with small, socially-distant, in-person, full-time instruction. The potential damage from this is clear, as the districts are likely to see additional budget cuts, the students in the pods will widen their opportunity gap from others, and, most importantly, depending on a given system’s plan, other children have been forced to return to their schools, exposing them, their teachers, and their families to greater risk from the pandemic that has already caused disproportionate harm.
There are two issues worth resolving at this point. First, it is entirely possible that families wealthy enough to afford this particular type of pod are not what I have described as “good” or “woke” in the first place; a few may be among the minority to admit to racist views, in which case there is no contradiction between their choices and their worldview. With the pod development ongoing, studies correlating support for anti-racist ideals and the forming of pandemic pods will not be possible for some time, and the data, if it were eventually found, might yet be messy. Additionally, some of the parents forming pods have argued that these pods allow for smaller class sizes and thus allow the students with the greatest need to receive support in school buildings, though this seems to me a disingenuous excuse, for the implication — that their own children actually need less support — would suggest that special pandemic pods would not need to be created. In other words, their children cannot simultaneously be in great need and not.
Despite my focus on these two racial groups, this is not a black and white issue (wordplay!), and the complexity is part of the difficulty of addressing these potential inequities. Nevertheless, the fact that pandemic pods are varied in both manifestation and potential harm does not mean these parents are not worth addressing directly and that educators should not be alarmed by their rapid development. As educators — and, for some readers, as white parents — we should be uncomfortable with pandemic pods and the historical lineage they represent.
I would argue that, since the prevailing discourse on race was recently the support of Black lives, making choices that, unintentionally or not, have the strong possibility of having a deleterious impact on Black students contradicts the supportive lawn signs and the purchasing of race books. There is a stark hypocrisy embedded in this behavior, the same sort of superficial struggle that has long been at the heart of the good white parent ideology, even if the vocabulary has been updated to wokeness. Whiteness might have become more adept at hiding its true interests behind a veneer of warmth, but when good white parents fear that their children may not be as safe and successful as possible, they still choose to protect themselves and their families at the expense of endangering Black students. This may be unfortunately predictable, but I do not believe it is inevitable. I believe that good white parents can be better, can truly live up to the ideals they espouse and the slogans they chant, and can help ensure that Black students will be as safe and successful as their own children.
Conclusion: Becoming Just Good Parents
Whiteness, as an ideology, cares only about preserving its own property and power. To uphold it, even indirectly, is anathema to supporting broader humanity, unless one truly believes that we only need to care about the people directly in front of us. If we believe we are only responsible for a small circle, then we cannot claim that Black lives matter, as we will remain ensconced in a status quo that is hostile to Blackness. I myself am not a good white parent, or a white parent at all, but I have known enough white parents to know that many truly would like to care for others in some fashion, yet the demands of whiteness hold many back, even for white parents who are also educators. This is not say white parents do not have the agency to make better choices, but my entire point here has been that many may not understand how something as seemingly racially-neutral as moving to a quiet suburb may contribute to the brutal way Black and brown children are treated in distant schools. White parents can make better choices, and if Black students are going to be as safe as their white counterparts, these parents are going to have to start doing so. Here are some choices that white parents can make so that they are no longer good white parents, but just good parents, caretakers of broader humanity in need. White parents have immense cultural capital if they work as a collective unit, and it is imperative that they turn their power against the whiteness they have long cherished and protected.
Most likely, be it a town, a suburb, or an urban neighborhood, there is an ugly racial history where you have chosen to live. Redlining may still be included in the paperwork homeowners sign upon arrival, and sundown ordinances may still be informally enforced. The history can and must be found, shared, exposed, and taught. This will, undoubtedly, unsettle your neighbors who are presumably unaware, but no progress can be made without a full and honest reckoning with history, and particularly a history tied directly to one’s life and location. Ideally, this would lead to commemoration and a change in the way that property is sold and marketed; a predominantly white area will not become diverse overnight, but the aim is for these locations to become welcoming and genuinely safe for Black and brown families in the long-term. Additionally, we academic types often have the standing to challenge orthodoxy in the locations we have chosen to live, and it is imperative we use our own cultural capital to dismantle the exclusion of our chosen spaces.
Speaking of safety, whether they are referred to as SROs or something else entirely, these school police merely provide emotional comfort for distant families and constant danger for Black and brown students. As the Advancement Project wrote (2018) in an extensive report calling for police-free schools, “Safety does not exist when Black and brown young people are forced to interact with a system of policing that views them as a threat and not as students” (p. 11). These practices were created to assuage the fears of white parents, and it will take the collective action of the same white parents to curtail their presence and power. As educators, we must use our expertise to push against carceral education practices, including any harsh mask-enforcement punishments that have arisen, which are likely to be disproportionately applied to young Black and brown children. Funding currently set aside for feckless over-policing should be transferred to the genuine needs of students and families, and white parents can and should be visible and vocal advocates for these necessary changes.
The aforementioned funding should be used for different forms of support, depending on the needs of the students in a given district. Especially during a time of remote learning (but even after the fact), one instantly productive option would be to fund an increase in broadband access, and even if districts are hesitant to decrease the presence of and funding for SROs, parents and educators can raise money for these specific practical needs that would provide support for other students and families.
There are many other possible options — any truly anti-racist educational system would, at the least, completely rethink its approach to standardized testing (Stewart & Haynes, 2015) — but these are a few useful choices that would require effort, coordination, and money, and might make these same white parents uncomfortable as they challenge the whiteness at the center of their lives and their childrens’ education. As scholars, we also need to promote literature that does not center white authors and white epistemology, and to take steps to cite racialized scholars in our own work. Especially if we are most comfortable in our realm of educational literature, we need to become well-versed in theories of racism and whiteness, particularly the work of Black authors, and engage in uncomfortable reflection and discussion on the oppressive system in which we are all complicit.
Although it is understandable if we hope to return to the comfort of the status quo, maybe it is finally time we refused to accept the norms we have always upheld and forged a new path forward for the students who deserve the support they have been denied. No silver bullet is on the horizon, and our schools will likely remain unequal and oppressive for far longer than is fair to our racialized learners. My son will enter this system before too long, and I desperately hope he and all the children who look like him can avoid what Williams (1987) refers to as the spirit murder I myself experienced during my own education. I do wish we did not need the support of white parents, but we do, and so I hope, after reading this, a few more can make the choice to no longer be satisfied with their roles as good white parents. I hope that we scholars, especially those of you who are white parents, can use our public platforms to educate about the legacy of sundown towns, the connection between whiteness and good schools, and the way that pandemic pods will likely prove to have caused more damage to students who have already endured more than their fair share. Ultimately, I hope that white parents can rise to the responsibility of becoming just good parents, parents who use the power and influence they have been handed to prove that Black students — and Black lives — really do matter.
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