Editor’s Note: Jennifer Harvey is a professor of religion at Drake University. She is the author of “Raising White Kids: Bringing up Children in a Racially Unjust America” and “Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, 2nd ed.” The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
I can’t remember what particular conversation triggered it, but I realized a couple of years ago that I needed to get specific with my young children. I needed to dispel their stark and static notions of “law and order” and to tell them their civil rights movement heroes were lawbreakers. In addition to making racial justice an explicit family value in our home, I had a responsibility to actively challenge racism – in this case, by countering ideas like “criminals are bad because they break the law” and “police are good because they stop bad guys.”
I’m still reeling from the reports coming out of Kenosha, Wisconsin, this week, and I can hardly stand to think about a 17-year-old holding an assault rifle, let alone allegedly firing on other human beings. As a mother of two young White children – neither of whom is a boy – images of Kyle Rittenhouse, who has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide in the killings of Anthony M. Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, conjure some of my worst fears and griefs about our nation’s history and current struggles.
An attorney for Rittenhouse has said he was acting in self defense, but parents on my social media feeds (and elsewhere) are still struggling to process why a young man would take to the streets with a long gun. These parents are trying to process someone who has been accused of the unimaginable – and, understandably, to avoid having to imagine something like this happening in their own families.
They can’t turn away and just say “not my kid, that would never happen” – and neither can I. To do so would be to turn away from the concerns that law enforcement and watchdog groups are raising about the rise in vigilante violence. It is to turn away from the widespread vulnerability of American youth to radical thought and action. Turning away also risks missing an urgent question – one that is far bigger and far more important than one incident in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
For parents of White children trying to make sense of what’s happening in America right now, this is the most important question to ask: How do we actively support White children and youth in becoming antiracist? One of the answers is by talking to them about what’s going on in places like in Kenosha.
Which brings me back to those civil rights heroes. How we frame protests challenging police violence against Black people, is critically important to helping White children develop morally attuned understandings in a nation where “law and order” has a long history of being used against Black communities and to quell activism for racial justice.
Rosa Parks broke the law. And Martin Luther King, Jr., along with countless others, went to jail. I remind my children of this when they talk about bad people getting arrested and locked up.
We can also, of course, teach our children about the philosophies of non-violence that fueled the courageous movement. But as we do, we must make clear to them that racism itself – the preexisting condition that has sparked all the protests unfurling in our nation right now – is itself a form of deadly violence. Racism in health care settings, in policing, in education and in the workplace – and everywhere and anywhere else – has toxic and in many cases well-documented effects that eviscerate the lives and happiness of Black people; researchers and scholars have called for racism itself to be designated as a public health crisis.
We can also teach them that there were rigorous debates among civil rights leaders about how effective non-violence could be; it was a powerful statement made by civil rights luminaries, but it wasn’t the only way of thinking. To know the history of Black protest in America should be to know about the names and lives of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis too, and to know that Rosa Parks – while she never endorsed violence – also refused to pass judgment on Black Americans who revolted in Detroit in 1967.
This is about understanding the complex realities of our nation’s history and grappling with the truth that simple explanations about who is good and who is not simply don’t exist. And the more we look for the easy categories of good and bad, the more we’ll fail to see the reality right in front of us, which is that youth vulnerable to radicalization live in nearly every community in America. Engaging in such complex discussions about US history has nothing to do with taking a side on the right way to protest. Instead it dispels the narrative that “law and order” is always good and those “breaking the law” by doing things like being out past curfew or refusing to yield public space are always bad.
White children need to be invited to notice which people around them are recognized as people who deserve protection – and which ones are rarely framed in this way.
So now is the time to be explicit. Before the killings, Rittenhouse told reporters why he was there patrolling the street. “People are getting injured and our job is to protect this business,” he said. “Part of my job also is to protect people. If someone is hurt, I’m running into harm’s way.”
Can our children understand why Rittenhouse, a teenager carrying an AR-15-style rifle, was allowed to walk away from the scene of his alleged crime, past police cars, and return to his home in Illinois, while Jacob Blake was Tasered, shot seven times in the back, left paralyzed and still, until Friday, was handcuffed to his hospital bed while fighting for his life? We do not have enough details to answer that question with certainty, indeed police have offered only some information, but we cannot turn away from our moral obligation to keep asking it.
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The specific conversations we have and how we have them looks different with children and youth of different ages and temperaments. But, however they look, our job as parents, teachers and caregivers is to walk with all of our children during this terribly difficult time. And, as we do, to pay particular attention to what we are doing to support White youth in becoming the engaged citizens who can be ready and able participants in the work of creating the truly racially just, multi-racial democracy we all need.