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Rich, white communities across the United States have issues talking about, understanding, and confronting issues of race, particularly when speaking with children.
That in a nutshell was the message of Mississippi State University professor and sociologist Margaret Hagerman, who spoke to a crowd of about a hundred people of all ages at The Country School on Dec. 2—mostly Madison and Guilford families—about her work studying the ways affluent, overwhelmingly white towns or neighborhoods confront, or fail to confront, their racism and privilege in a systematically unfair society.
Hagerman’s talk and Q&A session was a collaboration between Madison and Guilford public schools, as well as The Country School, a private Pre-K through 8 school in Madison.
In his opening remarks, The Country School Head of School John D. Fixx said he thought the event was the first of its kind—all three local schools sponsoring it together. Guilford Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Freeman and Madison Superintendent of Schools Tom Scarice also attended.
Hagerman is the author of the 2018 book White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, and much of her talk focused on what she had learned as she studied the way rich, white Americans communicated ideas of racism and race to their children, both in how and what they talked about, as well as in their actions.
Both Guilford and Madison are about 90 percent white, according to census data.
Hagerman discovered, she said, that the white communities she studied for two years all had significant problems dealing with race, and in different ways, all perpetuated racism, racist ideas, and inequalities to their children—even in places where parents and schools were openly progressive and anti-racist.
“Although these parents are in some ways working to combat racism, they’re also reinforcing the very inequality they hope to challenge in many of their day-to-day behaviors and activities,” Hagerman said.
Hagerman said she documented three different neighborhoods, one suburban and almost entirely segregated, another city community of academics and political moderates with a private school, and a third “unapologetically” anti-racist neighborhood with a more diverse public school system.
Hagerman said one of the most important, though not surprising, findings of her work was that white kids are absolutely aware of race and privilege, whether or not adults are willing to speak to them about it.
“Many of the parents in [the suburban neighborhood] told me their kids did not even notice someone’s race,” Hagerman said. “In fact, some of them would say to me, ‘Oh, you should interview my colleague at work, they’re black, they’ll have more to say to you about this. My kids won’t have anything to say about this.’ That, in and of itself, was really rich data.”
It was also entirely untrue, Hagerman showed. She spoke of observing these suburban white children struggling with even relatively straightforward questions about race when their parents weren’t around—things like whether a celebrity was black or white or what defines race. Often, they settled on incorrect and harmful ideas, she said, based on white supremacist ideas carried in media or spread in other ways.
“These kids...had so many questions about race, and they had so many anxieties about race,” Hagerman said.
In the more progressive communities where race was covered in school curriculum and openly discussed by parents, Hagerman said, children were much more able to process and confront these ideas. But she said even here, these white families were using their privilege and power to feed into unjust systems, and allowing their children to justify these individual advantages built on racists systems.
She described how parents would muscle their way into the better schools or lobby for their children to get into higher-level classes with better teachers. Students, when asked about their schools, would often attribute their attendance in the higher-level environments to their own achievement or ambition, instead of as a product of their family’s privileges.
Hagerman detailed a conversation she had with a boy named Aaron who, despite a professed belief that education should be equal for everyone, was hesitant about moving from a private middle school to a public high school.
“As a ‘special student,’ Aaron believes he should attend a better school than almost all other kids,” Hagerman said. “Underlying this contradiction between abstract values of fairness and then personal interest, is of course, the race and class composition of these schools. And although Aaron does not outright tell me that he does not want to go to school with black and brown kids, he does tell me that going to school with ‘other kids’ will present undesirable challenges.”
These sorts of ideas are communicated in subtle ways by parents and even in progressive public schools in how achievement is talked about or treated, Hagerman said, and also appears when parents fail to acknowledge the privilege of their own whiteness. Allowing students to live in an environment where intelligence and academic success is associated with whiteness begets racist ideas and beliefs, Hagerman said.
Hagerman noted that she didn’t have all the answers, both from an individual parenting perspective or from a structural perspective. She did, however, recommend more parents have direct, age-appropriate conversations with children of any age that specifically address racism, instead of using vague terms about “meanness” or “hurting feelings.”
Questions from attendees focused on these more practical, everyday interactions to address racism. Madison Youth & Families Director Scott Cochran said he has heard from young people that there is more “hateful” language used in their peer groups, and emphasized the need for peer leadership. Other residents shared their experiences of trying to navigate their own issues with race and having conversations in Madison and Guilford.
Hagerman acknowledged that her book and her work presented a lot of problems that did not have quick or easy answers, and validated the effort she had seen here and in other communities around the country. Near the end of her talks, she showed a slide with excerpts from The Country School’s, Madison Public Schools’, and Guilford Public Schools’ mission statements as examples of the kind of attitude needed to begin addressing these systemic issues.
“You’re on your way there, at least those of you that are the school leaders,” Hagerman said. “And I just want to encourage you all to just continue to think about this. I don’t have all the answers, but I hope that my comments tonight can help you ask some new questions.”
For more information on Hagerman and her work, visit www.margarethagerman.com.