White Parents, White Fear

This is the fifth email in a series about waking up, as a white mom, to progressive-variety racism in the the public school system in Berkeley, California. To read the last post, click here. To start from the beginning of the series, click here

If there is anything I know about white, educated, progressive parents, it’s that we want to do the right thing. We want to do right by our kids, and we want to participate in solutions to larger issues ailing our community and our world.

Personally, I know a fair bit about progressive white parents. In addition to being a progressive white parent, at the time of my awakening to progressive-variety racism, I had spent five years working as a parent educator.

My clientele was (mostly) white and affluent enough to be able to pay for a parenting class or for individual coaching. Parents came to me with a wide variety of presenting issues: sleep struggles, tantrums, defiance, sibling rivalry, and sometimes…. total family meltdown.

Whatever the presenting issue seemed to be, what it often came down to was FEAR. Fear on the part of the parent, that is. Fear… and a jumble of related unresolved emotions and triggers, sometimes inherited, that together were clogging up the family system. This, and related: a marked lack of capacity to build and sustain a warm connected relationship with children through life’s various ups and downs, together resulted in every shade of family difficulty.

I came to this work because I needed it myself. While I had spent my twenties and early 30’s working in the non-profit sector helping communities re-orient to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable young people in their care…. When at 35 I became a mother, I discovered that BEing the primary person responsible for attending to the needs of a vulnerable young person was something I was ill-equipped for.

When my baby was only three months old—and too fitful to settle into sleep or to nurse, and crying inconsolably—after trying everything else, I had the good fortune of finding my way into a Parenting by Connection class. In addition to helping me develop the tools and skills to support my child through her struggles, the class taught a peer listening practice for parents, and provided a network of fellow parents for practicing listening partnerships.

Slowly, bit by bit, my fear, grief and insecurities began to loosen their hold on me, and my baby began to settle down. I stayed in the classes for several years, and by the time my child was 4, I was certified to teach other parents the Parenting by Connection listening practices.

By the time my child was nine, in fourth grade, and opening my eyes to racism in my progressive school district, I had spent most of her life listening to and working with hundreds of (mostly) white parents as they, too, contended with what parenting stirred up in them.

So, when it comes to white progressive parents, I was deeply familiar with the range of our feelings and our fears—and how these played out in our families. I was also familiar with what it looked like, and felt like, when fear began to resolve: leading to more ease, more joy, and the ability to stay connected–to our kids and to everyone—even when life got really tough.

What I had not yet done was examine white parenthood through the lens of race. This has been an exploration more painful, and ultimately hopeful, than any undertaking in my life so far.

At nine years old, what my daughter opened my eyes to, and what crystalized further over the next number of years, was how white parent fear operates in our schools and becomes codified in the systems and structures of the Berkeley Unified School District.

Failing to make the connection between our own white parent fear and the racial disparities in our district, means that even when we say we want to dismantle racism, we are working against ourselves and we are working against racial equity. This is because our white culture not help us process fear and pain. Instead, our white culture gives us tools to manage our fear, and we cling to these tools as a habitual way of life—keeping ourselves suspended above our fear, or racing ahead of it–as we do everything we do, even as we purport to work for racial equity.

In my next post, I will share with you the article that led me to see the problematic tools in my own tool belt which I have relied on my whole life to manage my fear. The author calls these tools, The Attributes of White Supremacy Culture.