More white parents are striving toward explicit antiracist parenting. I see this in the posts about child-appropriate antiracism literature and media saturating my local parents’ Facebook group, the rise in demand for children’s books about racism and white privilege, and growing interest in psychology research on the appropriate age and frequency to discuss race with children. Teaching your kids that racism exists, that you and they benefit from white privilege, and that BIPOC have been systemically oppressed is a good step forward, but it is insufficient for your kids to know how to be antiracists.
In the branch of philosophy known as epistemology, the study of knowledge, theorists distinguish knowledge-that from knowledge-how. Originally introduced by Gilbert Ryle in 1949, the specifics of this distinction have been long debated. Still, a nonfancy version of it is useful for figuring out what antiracist parenting actually requires.
We have knowledge-that when we know the steps to accomplish something. We have knowledge-how when we have the ability to accomplish it. Watching ukulele tutorials on YouTube gives me knowledge-that. If I want to know how to play the ukulele, stopping there is insufficient. To know how to play the ukulele, I must have the ability to actually play it — getting a ukulele, learning the chords, and practicing. It doesn’t matter if I can tell someone the chords for certain songs. If I never acquire a ukulele or practice, I do not know how to play the ukulele no matter how many tutorials I watch.
The sudden interest that some white parents have in antiracist parenting will fall short of producing knowledge-how to be antiracist. Teaching kids about racism and emphasizing positive portrayals of people of color in their books is like poring over ukulele tutorial videos without a ukulele in hand. It produces knowledge-that people of color are equal in moral standing and ought to be treated as nothing less. To develop knowledge-how to treat people with equal moral standing, the enrichment of your bookshelves must be matched by an earnest effort to model antiracist behavior in front of your kids. Here lies the problem — our schools and neighborhoods are likely too white to do this.
I live in Upper Montclair, NJ, a neighborhood lacking socioeconomic diversity. If my toddler attends these schools for the rest of her life, she will attend socioeconomically and racially segregated schools, which means we face a serious barrier to antiracist parenting. Kids may learn that antiracism is a thing, but without more people of color in their daily interactions, they will not learn how to be antiracist.
In fact, my state of New Jersey is currently the defendant in a segregation lawsuit by a coalition of local parents and social-justice groups like the Latino Action Network, NAACP New Jersey Conference, and others. As this case continues to its discovery phase, parents here and elsewhere must ask themselves difficult questions about the little slices of society we’re rooted in: How much are we willing to confront our own privilege in the pursuit of antiracism?
Until our school districts are representative of our society, we will continue to miss out on opportunities to pass on knowledge-how to be antiracist. We will miss out on knowing people of color as peers who learn with us in our classrooms, walk with us in our hallways, and play with us in our playgrounds. We will miss opportunities to get to know individuals as people first and model our regard for them as moral equals. Anything less than cultivating a welcome space in our schools, where much of our kids’ time is spent, will fall short.
As the news cycle moves on, parents who are as committed to antiracism as they say they are must advocate for change. One way to start is to organize an antiracism parenting discussion group at your children’s school or in your district (some schools are doing this virtually like The Gordon School in Rhode Island). Use online resources to learn about lingering segregation in the United States. Lobby for redrawing school districts and dismantling residency requirements for school attendance. Learn about the unique challenges that students of color face when they finally get access to these resources. Giving your kids knowledge-how to be antiracist takes a lot of sacrifice and effort beyond diversifying your reading material. Opening our school districts is a start.