Professor and author, Dr. Margaret Hagerman, discusses her new book – White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America. Dr. Hagerman conducted an ethnography of a community in the mid-west. She spent two years living in a community and interviewing white, wealthy families and their middle school aged children on their ideas about race, education, privilege, etc.
We discuss her work, and what it tells us about the importance of the types of environments in which we raise our kids.
The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.
This episode was produced by Andrew Lefkowits.
Audio editing and mixing by Andrew Lefkowits.
Music by Kevin Casey.
Andrew: Welcome to the integrated schools podcast. I'm Andrew from Denver…
Courtney: and I'm Courtney from L. A
Andrew: Episode three Hagerman and the White Kids. We’ve Got a great interview with sociologist and author Maggie Hagerman about her book White Kids Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America.
Courtney: Andrew, I am super excited about this. And if you are listening before November 13th 2018 join us for a conversation about this book with the Integrated Schools Book Club. You can find a link to our online video conference-y book clubs at our website, integratedschools.org.
Andrew: And get the book. It's so good.
Courtney: It’s so good.
Andrew: I really I love this idea of, Ah, the racial context we create for our kids as they grow up. I think her book really highlights how important the spaces we put our kids in are to the ways that they come to understand race.
Courtney: Yeah, and how we can say one thing to our kids and our choices say and say much louder, something quite quite different oftentimes.
Andrew: Totally! We hope you enjoy listening to this conversation as much as we enjoyed having it. Let us know @integrated schools on Twitter, Integrated Schools on Facebook or email us [email protected]
Courtney: OK, on with the show!
Andrew: We're thrilled to be here today with Dr. Margaret Hagerman, whose Assistant Professor of sociology at Mississippi State University and the author of an awesome new book called “White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege In Racially Divided America.
Thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. Hagerman: Thank you for having me.
Andrew: We just want to know if you could just give us really sort of a brief overview of what your research is and how you went about it and a little bit about why you care about this.
Dr. Hagerman: Sure, So I'm a sociologist. I focus on the areas of racial socialization and really um looking at youth perspectives on inequality. And, um, you know, I came to this specific project because when I was in graduate school, I was doing all kinds of research on how it is that families of color and particularly African American families are communicating ideas about race and racism to their children. Specifically with the intention of helping prepare their children, to live in a racist society and to navigate potential future, you know, acts of discrimination, racism and so forth.
And so as I was reading that research, I became really sort of curious about what goes on in white families and in particular, what are the messages that white parents are communicating to their children about racism, privilege, inequality in America?
I think in a broader - from a broader perspective. You know, I grew up in a white suburban community that was very close to a city that was much, much less white. Um I don't remember that actual demographics, but I do remember as a child being very curious about the differences between crossing over this literally this lake, that separated these two communities. And then noticing that the racial y’know makeup of the community was very different.
So I do think that some of my own experiences in childhood and questions that I had growing up sort of inform, you know, my interest in how it is that kids today are thinking about all this. So, you know, there's a lot more to the story, but I think that kind of issue a sense.
Courtney: Can you tell us a little bit about, just to kind of give our listeners a lay of the land - how you went about your research for this book?
Dr. Hagerman: Sure. So this is an ethnography. Just, you know, I think it's important to note that when social scientists give white people racial attitudes surveys - trying to figure out what they think about race. Oftentimes, scholars find that white people will either skip the questions about race or they'll click the “I don't know” option. Sort of what’s called “survey non response”.
And so because I knew about that reality, I thought that it would be important to try to use a more qualitative methodological approach to studying what goes on in white communities, white spaces, white families.
And so I embedded myself into this community.
This is what ethnographers typically do. And I spent about two years in this community. I moved here. I lived here and I conducted both interviews with 36 children, um they were all in middle school when I did the initial study. And then also with their parents. And then I conducted observations of these families in their everyday lives.
This included things like family parties and, you know, activities after school. But also I, you know, provided child care for some of these kids and so I drove them to soccer practice and went to their various events at the school and so forth. So I really tried to put myself in spaces that these white families were living and then try to understand from their perspective, you know why they were making the decisions they're making. And then why the kids were thinking the way that they were about racism and inequality.
Courtney: I think that one of the main takeaways of your work is essentially that you can talk all you want about race and racism. But what you're really communicating your kids is through the kinds of worlds that you create and, you know, kind of curate for them. Can you kind of elaborate on that a little bit?
Dr. Hagerman: Sure. So I talk about that as sort of actions speak louder than words. And, you know, I've noticed that in the aftermath of racist hate crimes, for example, I often see some blog posts and op-ed’s and other types of writing about the importance of talking to white kids about racism.
Um y’know, “we need to talk to white kids”, “talk to your white kids”, etcetera. And while I think that that idea is really important, What I found in my study is that actually what parents say to their kids, I think often matters less, at least for the families of my study than what they were doing and how they were setting up their child social environment. And so, you know, choices that parents were making about where to live, where to send their kids to school, where to travel, even things like which friendships they would encourage their children to have, or even to discourage their children to have.
You know, the list goes on and on.
But, but all of these things, I argue, construct a racial context of childhood. And that means that children are then living in this context or the social environment, and they're interpreting what's going on around them; they're interacting with other people and they’re making observations of the world as they go, you know, through their everyday life.
Andrew: And those things that are really driving their future understanding our current understanding of race and race relations in the country rather than sort of what their parents might hope by having a conversation with them. they take away.
Dr. Hagerman: Right. So, you know, I found some some striking patterns in my data. And so I think that's what's interesting about my book is that I have the parents voices and sort of the parents thought you know their thoughts about why they made the decisions that they did to set up their kids’ lives, you know, in different ways. But then I also have the children's perspectives. And so I sort of tie that together and document how, and describe how - because of the choices these parents are making, these children then come to different conclusions about race and racism.
And so, you know, my ultimate goal is to really understand why kids are coming up with the ideas that they are and, you know, and actually looking at, you know what kids actually think about these topics. What I found is that yeah, the choices that parents are making and how they choose to set up the everyday lives of their children that that's how these ideas about race are being developed by children themselves.
You know, kids, are not simply repeating the ideas that their parents tell them. Certainly, parents are shaping what their kids think in my research, but they're not determining it and actually I think what, what plays so much more powerful role is actually that social environment that the kids living in.
Courtney: We talk a lot about this idea of, you know, the difference between being “non racist” or not racist and being “anti racist”. And and the question comes up repeatedly. Can you raise an anti racist white kid… you know, when you're attending only white segregated schools?
Dr. Hagerman: Yes, so that's a really interesting question. I think that if someone is sending their child to a school that's predominantly or in some cases exclusively white, then they ought to, you know, be aware that that's likely communicating ideas about race to their children. And I think that, you know, part of the work, the work that parents can participate in in terms of raising antiracist children. I certainly think it extends beyond simply the choices that people make about schools. I guess I guess my answer is that I think that the choices parents make about schools play a major role. But I think that there's also a lot of other factors that matter.
Andrew: I guess the fact that these parents are making choices about this strikes me as an acknowledgment of privilege. But lots of people don't get to make a choice about the type of environment that theory their kids in. You talk a lot in the book about the “conundrum of privilege”. Can you maybe, just y’know elaborate on that a little bit and some examples of that,
Dr. Hagerman: Sure. So I should point out that the families in my study were all upper middle class or affluent. And the reason that I decided to study, you know, families that had both racial privilege and economic privilege is because I wanted to look at families when faced with all the decisions, right?
Like they don't have the limits that many other families have in terms of, you know, the finances. When, when faced with, sort of all the choices what are the choices that parents make?
And how does race kind of play out?
Or how does race inform um some of those decisions?
And so that I think is an important point to acknowledge about the book as a whole.
And so when you're faced with all these different choices, you know when you live in a society in which we have this sort of idea that being a good parent means securing as many advantages for your own child as you can. You know that at times can conflict with maybe some of these more abstract values of fairness or equal opportunity or even racial justice. And so you know, the conundrum of privilege, as you mentioned and as I talk about it, is really trying to get at this conundrum that, quite honestly, many of the parents you know shared their anxieties and concerns about with Me.
On the one hand, they want to be a good parent, give their kids all of the things. But on the other hand, they recognize that by doing so, they're actually contradicting the very values that they're trying to communicate to their to their child about things like equality.
Courtney: I'd love to hear some examples.
Dr. Hagerman: So I think one of the most powerful examples was a family that had opted into the public schools. And I say “opt” because again they have options. And they, you know, they talked a lot about the importance of their child going to a school that had, you know, had representation from different racial groups, class groups, like disability, abilities, you know, and they really valued this public school.
But then something really race that's happening to school. And, you know, there was a lot of racial turmoil and fighting, and so as a result, the parents decided to move their child to a different school. And that different school was a private school that was kind of labelled itself is like a social justice school. But it was very white.
And so, you know, I talked to this one father about you know, that conundrum. He was like, “I want to support public schools. But my daughter is really upset by the racism at the school. So I'm going to move her mid semester to this private school, that's very expensive, and I have the resources to do that. So I'm going to do that”.
And, you know, in the book, I sort of think about and talk about like what message is that sending that girl, you know? Like I totally understand on the one hand, from parenting perspective.
But it's also, on the other hand, that that little girl is learning that when things get too bad, you could give up. Or that as a white person, you can walk away from racism when it's too much for you to handle.
And certainly, you know, that's not the experience of people of color in this country. So that's one example. There are other examples about, you know, the choices people are making about you know concerned about the academics at the school.
That was kind of interesting thing for me to do is to ask parents why they opted out of a public school and then to actually look at the data on that school. So some of the parents told me that they couldn't possibly send their child to the school because the academics were not strong enough and instead the option for this other school. But then, when I compared all these metrics like a ACT scores all the graduation rates and college admissions, all that. In some cases the public schools actually better. So you know, I think that there's a lot going on. It's very complex and nuanced, but those are some examples,
Courtney: And I think what's partly interested. I mean, there's a lot that's interesting, but one of the pieces in this that I I kind of want you to elaborate on too is with this “conundrum of privilege” and this paradox, parents want to be a good parent by getting the “best” for their kids. And I think hidden in the word “good” and “best” are all kinds of assumptions and biases. And so I was wondering if you wanted to talk a bit about how “good” and “best” have played out in your research?
Dr. Hagerman: Absolutely! So, I think a lot about this idea of being a “good” parent and raising a “good” kid and living in a “good” neighborhood and going to a “good” school.
And I think you could substitute “best” in there also.
And it is certainly, yeah. I mean, we know from the amazing research by one of my colleagues, Heather Beth Johnson, that finds that whiter schools are thought of as better schools. And this is across the board. Members of different racial groups keep articulate this point in some research, at least.
And I think that that's because there is in some cases, you know there are more resources if you're looking at things like y’know... I was talking to someone who was doing a fundraiser so they could have a new playground at their school because the school didn't have enough money to have a playground, right? So in some ways, when you have, you know the way that we fund our public schools, certainly there are some public schools that have a lot more resources than others. And I think that you can look at how race right map onto that.
But I don't think financial resources are the only thing that determines whether a school is good or not. I mean, certainly there are all kinds of schools that are good that don't have, you know, tons of affluence or tons of wealth.
And I think that we could rethink what it means to be a good parent or or go to a good school if we start to acknowledge that there are so many other important aspects of raising children, or you know, of educating children, like having kids know how to interact with each other and in teaching children about power and inequality and the fact that we live in a diverse democracy and that you know, we should be thoughtful about the history of different groups and how that shapes the present and and on and on.
So, yeah, I absolutely think that part of the problem is these ultimately racist notions of what a “good” school is. And I agree that we breathe it in. It's in the air... sort of the sort of the structural nature of white supremacy. But yeah, I think it absolutely needs to rethink what it means to be a good parent; go to a “good” school; live in a good neighborhood.
Andrew: I think about this a lot as well.
What do you want to get from your kid's education?
We get the question a lot at Integrated Schools. We get ?? “I don't want my kid to be a guinea pig or “I don't want to sacrifice my kid on the, you know, my altar of social justice”.
What does your research show about what a kid would get out of the sort of quote unquote “sacrifice” of not going to the, what we would otherwise call the “best” school?
Dr. Hagerman: Sure!
So there's one child in my book named Charlotte - and these, of course, are all pseudonyms.
But you know, her parents not only opt into the public school, but they also resist the tracking and the processes of segregation that happen within the public school.
So you know, her parents are very concerned about the fact that, yes, we go to an integrated school. But then when you look at the AP classes, you know it's all a bunch of white kids. And so they purposefully encouraged her to take a take of a range of different classes, to take some AP classes and to take some other classes that were, you know, in different tracks. And this is because they did not believe in the logic of tracking.
And, quite frankly, there's lots of research that supports that idea.
You know, it was interesting because I went back and re-interview these kids when they were in high school.
And so I went and spoke to Charlotte, You know, again a couple years after I initially met her. And there had been this horrific police shooting - murder of a black teenager in this community - child, in this community. And I was talking with her about it and unlike some of her peers that we're going - had gone to these private schools, you know, she was able to talk in really concrete terms ‘bout what had happened; she was joining with her friends and peers of color - specifically her black peers to engage in walking out of the school and and sort of articulating her own positions.
She made this really powerful statement to me about the importance of standing in the back. They had a march, and she talked about standing in the back of that protest march so that she wasn't trying to take over the march as a white person from her black peers.
And I was just, like, really struck by how thoughtful she was being about her own whiteness, her own positionality. But then also, you know, she she has learned so much by going to this school and having these experiences that I think are quite different than many kids in her position.
So I really, you know, again, it's not like there's ever a perfect situation. I mean, she also received all kinds of other privileges outside of school that sort of undermine to some extent some of the work their parents were trying to do to challenge inequality. But I was really struck by that, and I believe that she has probably gone on to college. I haven't gone back and re interviewed them yet But I imagine that she, you know, is in a very different position in her college classrooms than certainly some of the students that I teach in college who don't who don't know the basic history of racism in America.
So I think that's an example of the benefit of not only going to the integrated school but having you know a situation in which the segregation within the school is also being challenged.
Courtney: I love that you're your book, really points out this - the, kind of within school segregation, and that's something we we talk about a lot.
But I want to pick up on what you were saying in this example about these kind of extracurricular things. So a lot of the Integrated Schools parents talk about, you know, enrolling their kids and integrating schools. And many of these schools are under resourced. Don't sort of have these good school things about them that some of the school's you're talking about do.
But one of the refrains that people will say is “our white and privilege kids will be okay” because we can go to the museum on Saturday. We might not all be able to go to Mozambique, but we can go to the children's museum on Saturday.
We can fill in the gaps with the extracurricular stuff, and that's sort of a way that that parents can make this choice to go to one of these under resourced and global majority schools. And your book kind of blows that up in a sense, like that stuff's not free, either. These extra particular things don't come without a cost to what you know we might be trying to do here in fighting against racism and structural oppression, et cetera.
Dr. Hagerman: Sure! So I think it's perhaps helpful to use a sociological lens and think about how some of the parents do that you may be talking about. They're trying to navigate structural inequality at the individual level, and I think that's really difficult. And I think it's difficult to know - and this is what the parents are are sort of expressing to me. It's difficult to know how to do that. It's difficult to know what kinds of choices to make, because ultimately we're again living in a fundamentally unequal society.
And so until that unequal society becomes more equal at a structural level, I don't think that there's any clear cut answer. I don't think there's any even right way necessarily to move forward. I do think that off course, when you bring your child to the museum on the weekend, you potentially are conferring a type of advantage to them because then when they have to, you know, write an essay later on about I don't know whatever topic you learned about the museum, they have something extra to draw upon.
But again, I don't really know the best way for parents to navigate that. And as you said I’m very clear that I am not trying to tell parents, what to do in terms of parenting?
But I do think that we could be collectively more creative about ways to challenge some of the inequality in our local communities. So is that museum available for everybody to go to? You know, that would be one question.
Or, you know, are ways to engage in volunteer work where you're not teaching children who are in the position of privilege, that they're there to save the people who are in the marginalized position?
And again, I don't have a clear cut answer as to how that should happen.
But I think that people - especially white parents in positions of economic privilege, they ought to be thinking about that and sort of challenging this assumption that just by doing volunteer work that’s somehow going to make their kid you good citizen, right? I think it was complicated.
Andrew: Yeah, I think um, one of the things that sort of kept coming up to me and reading the book was… I think you refer to the research around it a couple of times, of like the types of multi racial environment that actually lead to greater empathy and decreased bias. They’re like equal power relationships.
I forget exactly how you sort of define them.
But I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit more about, like what those situations look like that are actually likely to decrease rather than increase perceived stereotypes and bias.
Dr. Hagerman: Yeah, so there's a whole area of social psychological research. It's actually, it's a longstanding sort of debate in the field about this idea of “Contact Theory”.
So if people come into contact people that are different than them, will that reduce prejudice and bias? You know, some scholars argue that that it can, but that there are these certain conditions that must be in place. And so one of the important conditions, there's there's a couple of them.
Certainly one of the most important ones is “equal status”, you know, contact. So that you can’t have a situation in which the teacher tells one student that they are the leader of the group, right? And then, and they happen to be the white person, right, or the white student. And then the kids that are black or brown are also in the group. But they're not the leader, right?
That's not equal status contact.
And so the contact has to be in a way where the power dynamic dynamics are reduced or or y’know as much as possible.
There needs to be a shared common goal.
There needs to be authority figures that support that goal. And there's all these different things in place.
So certainly there were a few kids in the study. There's one in particular who was at a playground and met some kids who were black at the playground. And he is so funny because he tells me that the reason that he became friends of them is because he likes to jump off things, and these guys like to jump off things too. And so they met each other because they were jumping off the playground equipment or whatever.
But I think that's like, actually really powerful moment, right, that because he was at that playground in an equal status situation where they're playing on a playground or whatever. That that that's what lead to them having a friendship that, to my knowledge, continues to this day. And the friendship that meant that later, when they were in middle school and the teachers were disproportionately, you know, targeting the black students for breaking rules that all the students were breaking, like…
There was this one rule about having your, you know, the hood on your sweatshirt up over your head. And a lot of the kids told me in this particular school that the teachers would would always call up the black kids that when they had their hoods up, that they would let the white kids have their hoods of all the time.
So when this gets back to his friend, he's very upset and outspoken about it and talks to his parents about it, whereas other kids, they're just like, yeah, I guess that's bad, but whatever.
So you know, I think that these meaningful relationships and friendships, you know, given that they're forming under these conditions of equal status and so forth, I think that they can be very powerful.
Andrew: Y’know we talk a lot about “the playground” being sort of the space where a lot of this work should be done and the role of - especially of white families y’know moving into global majority schools, that obviously there's a desire there for kids to develop those sorts of relationships. And if the school is doing a good job of creating the environment for that than that, one of the benefits that you know would come from a school like that.
But there's also often a challenge for parents in building similar types of relationships. So one of the things we often see with schools is an influx of white families who want to take the school over or change the school or make the school quote unquote better. Um, it would seem like a good place to start to avoid that would be in building more meaningful relationships with families that are at school that have been in school for a while.
Dr. Hagerman: Yeah, you know, it's interesting.
So because I was doing an ethnography, I was able to go, you know, I went to to lots of private spaces in terms of people's homes and country, country clubs and so forth. But I also went to some, like big public meetings and other things happened in the community. And I observed this dynamic of, you know, these well intentioned white people, you know, coming into a space and trying to dominate, trying to being charged.
I think that that's a challenge.
And certainly there's some great research, um Lynn Posey Maddox is a colleague of mine and she has a great - some great research on PTA’s, about the dynamic that you're describing exactly. Of, you know, white parents saying: “Okay, well, I'm gonna option in this school. But now I need to, like, you know, take over the PTA”.
And so, yeah, I think building relationships,
I think, honestly, I mean, I feel like it's also kind of a basic concept of like, white people, like listening and sitting down and letting you know other people have positions of leadership and are not letting them have, but just, you know, being in a situation in which you know, you're not constantly pushing to be the loudest voice in the room.
Also pushing to not try to be like the best white person in the room. There's also some dynamics of that in this sort of performative anti racism that doesn't get anyone anywhere. So, you know, I think that a lot of these dynamics again, I think they're very complicated and very nuanced. I'm I don't think that there's one sort of like solution for all these scenarios, But I just think in general, if white folks are truly committed to, you know, challenging racism, that means that they need to be quiet sometimes. And they need to listen and to stop putting themselves in the position of power.
Courtney: I Love Lynn Posey Maddox's book. We've, we've used that a lot in the past, and we recommend that to people all the time. It's really, really important.
This idea of how white parents are showing up is very heavy for us. It's kind of what we're trying to, you know, work on and you know, the equal relationships and equal status is very, very important and also incredibly tricky, right?
And it's tricky because some people are showing up with a lot more power. And the white and privileged families are showing up with more power, and they might have the number of the superintendent on their speed dial.
Or, you know, or their school board member is a neighbor, you know...
Or they know how to write big grants...
Or there’s y’know access to all of these things that white and privilege parents have.
And so when you're showing up with these good intentions and you have access to power so often, you know one of the things that we hear is that people want to choose a global majority school so that they can quote, “use their privilege” to support the school. And, you know, in a lot of ways, I think that that feels very meaningful, right, because it's acknowledging that there's this power dynamic or differences in access and power and that those aren't necessarily deserved or earned, but that they exist nonetheless.
But this the phrase “using my privilege” has been really sitting heavy on me lately, and I know I've probably said it as well, but I guess my problem with this idea is that it's it always starts with I. I want to use my privilege and I don't know if a reframing of this as like I don't know, “you use my privilege to support this school” sort of makes maybe a little bit more sense.
Dr. Hagerman: I mean, I think the first thing that comes to mind based on what you just said is you know, they say that we can use this privilege; we can use the resources that you know I bring, but we can also use the resource is that you bring right?
Everyone is bringing resources and different types of capital, whether that be knowledge of how you know some aspect of the community works or whether that be the superintendent's phone number, right?
We all bring something to the table. And I think it's a matter of not trying to set up hierarchies about what types of assets that - or capital that we bring is more important, right?
I think recognizing that everyone has something to offer and truly trying to set up, and I'm not saying it's easy to do, but you know what practical sense, but trying to, trying to work towards finding ways to, respect and appreciate and value everyone's contributions and then collectively trying to come into the best decisions about how we can use, you know, these various forms of capital to advance the goal that would benefit the most children at the school rather than one segment of the children to school.
Because I do think that if you have the number of the superintendent and there's a problem with the school and collectively people are like, “Yeah, we need to do something about this”, you know that then that is a that's a form of… that's a resource right that can be used.
It's just who gets to decide when that gets used, how it gets used and for whom, right? So there's there’s, there are all kinds of questions of power that are that are part of that.
Andrew: I I love that. I think one of the moms on the PTA at my daughter's school has mentioned this a few times, but it just seems like in the same way we need to redefine our version of what a “good” school is. We probably need to redefine what we think of as capital as you know, social or political capital that people bring to the school and we have a very white centric view of what capital means.
But if you actually have a community in a school that is working to support the school, they're all sorts of things that each individual could be bringing to the table. You have to find a way to make people feel comfortable showing up in that space and sharing those things and bringing nothing to the table.
You have to value those things in order for them to be willing to share those things, and then you have to figure out, I think, like you said, how, how does the collective group go about leveraging all of those things to improve the school for everybody?
Courtney: Yeah and I think my problem with the “use your privilege” piece or “use my privilege” piece is is that it is erasing. You know, these other resources that families are bringing, you know, or sort of shadowing those things.
Dr. Hagerman: The other thing is, I'm not sure if you guys have ever spoken to Amanda Lewis or John Diamond. You know, I think in their book, ‘Despite the Best Intentions”, I think that you could really see how this is playing out. I mean, I think it's exactly what we're talking about. The study that they did on a on a school that has some some of these patterns of, you know, white parents kind of dominating.
And the problem is too, that people might not even be aware of the kinds of dynamics that are actually going on at the school if they're only focused on using my privilege, right?
So I'm thinking about the structural problems at the school, like the way that that disciplinary actions are distributed; or the ways that you know teachers are giving certain kids more makeup tests or extra credit. Or, you know, the parents are calling the school and harassing the teachers to give their kids, you know, bonus points.
All of these dynamics that are happening, which is kind of what some of the things that are in that are in “Despite the Best Intentions”, you know. I think that in order to challenge these patterns within the schools, parents need to know what's going on, and you can't know what's going on if you're not valuing everyone's voice and everyone's contributions.
So I think even trying to challenge the structural problems requires this sort of recognition of each other's forms of capital.
Andrew: Yeah. You know, it's not just that some parents are calling, but because the types of parents who usually call are the white parents, the white kids, even if their parents aren't calling, are benefiting from that - those expectations. Teachers think, well, this is the kind of kid whose parents would call. So I may as well give them the good grade now. Or not send them to the office for this or whatever.
Courtney: Or automatically enroll their kid in the honors class.
Andrew: Yeah, right, right. I mean, right, it's another… it's another structural inequity that people are trying to deal with on an individual level.
Courtney: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the idea of meritocracy, because I think about it all the time. And it's one of those sort of running themes through your book, and I guess, to take liberties with summarizing a book to its author. It seems like the kids in the very white segregated, you know, part of this community tend to have a much more cemented belief in a meritocracy, - that we get what we earn. And I know that there's a relationship, too, with color blindness. But this meritocracy part is I think really critical and something we don't talk about enough.
Dr. Hagerman: Sure. So the idea of meritocracy or, you know, oftentimes people think of it as like the “American dream” is you know, you work hard and you succeed. And that's you know, people are rich because they work hard, are poor because they're lazy.
And obviously, then race gets mapped onto that as well.
And so that's sort of, this logic, or what sociologists would call an ideology sort of like taking for granted common sense understanding of how the world works that is used often to justify forms of inequality. So rather than acknowledging the racial wealth gap; or the ways in which discrimination works; or ways that certain groups are experiencing different forms of violence from the from the state, for example. You know it's not about any of that. It's about the fact people don't work hard.
And so what I found in the community of families and their children in particular, who lived - is predominantly white. They had very little understanding of these structural dynamics, these structural components of ultimately white supremacy.
And so they also lacked in my opinion, at least based on what I observed, a solid understanding of the history of racism in America. And if you don't understand, as young person the historical barriers, for example, that groups of racially marginalized communities have faced then meritocracy makes a lot of sense to you, right?
I mean, you're like, OK, well, you know, if everyone's equal and some people are rich, some people are poor it must be because of these individual level, you know, successes or failures that are related to hard work.
And so part of my project is really trying to understand why the kids think the way that they think about race. And I think for these children they have never been taught otherwise. They've never had any opportunity to really - one of the moms there is telling me she's using “The Help”, the movie “The Help” to teach her kid about racism.
And you know, that movie has been widely criticized by historians as being not only inaccurate but, you know, centering this white woman and all that. So, and the message of that film, as a white savior film is “look, racism is over, you know, it used to be really bad, but now It's fine”.
And that was exactly what this what this um child articulated to me. It is what her mother wanted her to think too. So, certainly some of the kids challenge their parents on this. And I don't want to paint a picture like kids are just, you know, mimicking their parents. But for kids like that, meritocracy explains inequality, right? It explains why we have, you know, the “haves” and the “have nots”. And it's not about structural reasons. It's about individual failure, ultimately,
Andrew: That’s great! I think about a handful of times through the course of the book where it seemed like somebody was trying to sort of do the right thing, have a viewpoint that acknowledges structural racism or in trying to share that with their kid, but then also sort of follows it up with something that undermines that in some way.
I think I think William’s dad who trying to teach his kid the right message while reinforcing the wrong message. And I think a lot about sort of the many decades, maybe centuries of work that it's taken to get us to the level of racial animosity that we have. It's not something that we could ever hope to fix immediately. But one of the things that I struggle with that I know Courtney struggled with is like is it better for that guy to - or the dad who takes the stem class to the inner city school like… is it better to do that than not do that at all?
Do we get any credit for progress?
Or does that sort of let people off the hook for the other ways that they're supporting structural racism and doesn't encourage them to keep fighting?
Dr. Hagerman: Yeah, I mean, that's a really big question.
You know, in the examples, like the dad who you know, witnesses some racism on the soccer field with another team, and stands up to that in front of the kids, and is modeling what it's like, what it means to do that, especially as a white father. You know, a man who's also affluent, you know, kind of embodies all these intersecting forms of privilege, you know, that's really important.
I was really struck, though by his immediate then turn to talking about “well, y’know why aren’t the black dads here?”, something like that. So I guess this goes back to my statement earlier about, you know, I don't think that there’s really ever, like, kind of, kind of, like you just said, This is - people try to navigate inequality and I'm not trying to let anybody off the hook. But I do think that, you know, the parents are kind of inconsistent at times, you know. They'll do some things that seem really great, and then other times they’ll do things that are undermining those efforts. And so, yeah, I tried to pull out those inconsistencies because I think it's important to show that there's no such thing as this, like, you know, “best white person” kind of in the room. I'm, you know, at all times, I'm always doing everything right because I think that that is a foolish way to think about things, you know. We live in a society structured by race, and so it's a constant negotiation of you know how to behave and how to act at the individual level that will try to challenge these structural inequalities. So again, I don't know that I have a really good answer. But I do think that I certainly wouldn't discourage parents from trying. I just think that the work doesn't end when you decided to send your kitchen integrated school or when you decided to coach an integrated soccer team. The work continues and his constant. And that's just the reality, from my perspective at least.
Andrew: Right! So an acknowledgement that you're probably not doing it right. I think about the like, you know, white fragility that too much acknowledging that you're not doing it right and white people tend to feel uncomfortable and feel a right to not feel uncomfortable. And so then sort of check out from it. I don't know - to me I think about the parents that I see who are most engaged in this work either grew up in diverse environment, and sort of had some of this experience in their lives or had a very opposite experience and want to sort of push back against that.
Courtney: I'm gonna jump in hear. The parents at Integrated Schools either are kind of know how to be uncomfortable, cause that's was their background, right? Or they don't value comfort above all else.
Courtney: Is that what you're saying?
Andrew: Yeah, to me, it seems like we have to acknowledge the ways that we're falling short, but also acknowledged that trying is better than not trying because our kids are going to do it a lot better than we do. And their kids are going to do it better than they do. And this is not a - this is a generational problem, not a problem that we're gonna fix, you know, with a couple of self help books by next week.
Courtney: And you you talk about this Maggie at the end of your book, kind of the worry that parents are just gonna throw up their hands and say, “ well, if I can't do this right, why bother?”
Dr. Hagerman: Look, the reality is that parents who are raising black and brown children don't have the luxury of giving up. They don't have the luxury of saying, “you know what? It's too much. I can't deal with this. This is so comfortable.”
And so you know, I think that white parents cannot give up because it's difficult. And I talk in the book about sort of white people, sort of shifting their own ways of thinking and being willing to have these honest, um y’know confrontations with race - being willing to make mistakes and admit that you're not always right, um you know? And and sort of understanding that the col - and I’ll just read it:
“the potential collective benefits of challenging forms of racism in private white spaces ultimately outweigh any perceived personal or emotional costs.”
And so, you know, I'm kind of getting at this thing like a lot of the parents in my book would witness moments of explicit racism in their home, even with their, you know, grandfather at Thanksgiving was one example. But they don't do anything about it in the privacy of their own home. And they think, “Oh, well, this is just grandpa being grandpa. I'm just gonna leave it alone. This isn't like in public”, you know, and so forth. And “I don't want to cause a scene. I don't want him to be mad”. And I'm sort of saying, like - look, this is an example of the importance of changing how white people are talking to each other about race and being able to understand that there's a larger goal here.
And I just ultimately think that, you know, I see this a lot when I teach. I teach classes on race and racism. Um and I've taught at a number of different universities, different parts of the country. But, you know, I'm really trying to work with the students, you know, to sort of be willing to be challenged on something and not completely - it's a, “white fragility” is a great concept, right? Like not completely break down when they say something and another student is like: “Look, that's offensive to me and here's why.” You know, like that's one important moment, I think.
Not that it's the job of people of color to teach white people how to not be racist. But, you know, if white people can't even think about y’know - have even the smallest amount of racial stress, I think, is how a Robin DiAngelo puts it. You know, like if they can't even experience the smallest amount of stress without freaking out it’s like, well, then where is that gonna lead us?
I don't know.
I think people just need to think about larger dynamics, and I understand in the moment people might feel upset and emotional, but, you know, there's larger goals.
Courtney: You know, you went back to these kids four years later. Can you just give us some examples? You talked - you talked earlier about the student who was protesting and standing at the back of the protest, who had really kind of thought so much more deeply having been in an integrated space. But was there a trend to these kids experiences and how they interacted with race?
Dr. Hagerman: Yes. So, and I don't have a huge sample, right? So I can't make generalizations. But for these kids, I think that their ideas about race became more cemented as they transition from middle childhood to adolescence or early adolescence later adolescence, depending on how you wanna, you know, look at it.
And I think that their ideas also became more polarized from one another. It's very difficult for me to know if that's because of a developmental aspect or if it was because of the time which they were growing up. And I think it's probably a combination, but maybe even more the latter.
Certainly the past two years in America there's been sort of an increased public dialogue about race and debate about race, Um, and certainly things like y’know more attention being put on two things that have always existed, like police violence, for example, as well as the fact that we had, you know, the first black president. You know, there are lots of things that occurred during these kids childhoods.
But, you know, I think like even talking about Black Lives Matter with these kids. It was interesting how, like, remarkably different that these kids felt about this and there was nobody that was really in the middle. It was like some kids were very squarely like, “Yeah, Black lives matter and this is why we need to, you know, join with our friends and protests”. And the other kids that were saying, you know, really shocking things, like “oh the reasons the black kids get shot, you know, is because they did something bad, you know, they messed up”.
And so it was just really remarkable to see that these are kids that are living largely in the same metropolitan area. But as I said in - earlier on, you know, their parents have set up their lives in ways that are so different that they have almost different childhoods in a way, despite the fact that they're white, affluent, living in the same place, you know, doing the same kinds of things, like playing soccer, you know, all the things.
Andrew: Yeah, I wonder if because, because we are y’know - this is Integrated Schools and one of the goals is getting people to think more about the choices they make around school. I’m just wondering, sort of going back and visiting families later, looking at the effects that the schools had I guest, you touched on this a little bit. But if you had any sort of - I know you try not to tell parents what to do but advice around… if people do have a choice and they can use that privilege to choose what sort of school they send their kids to, what's the impact of choosing an integrated school versus a privilege segregated school?
Dr. Hagerman: Yes, so the way that my book can sort of extend the great work that you guys are doing at Integrated Schools is that my book is focusing on how white kids are learning about inequality and racism and privilege. And so while I think there are lots of reasons that parents should support integrated schools. Um, and should support de-tracking measures within schools that claim to be integrated. I think that there's also this component of the ways that you know, to put it in scholarly terms the ways that ideologies get reproduce or, to put it in more basic terms, how racism gets reproduced.
And so I think we spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of desegregation along a number of different lines, and I think that where my book kind of fits in is look - this is also, this issue is also shaping the way that the newest generation of white people is thinking about race in America. And you know, if it's not just about the unequal distribution of resources or the ways that certain schools are perceived or you know.
It's beyond that.
It’s also about literally, what kind of ideas do you want your children to form about the world.
And I don't I don't believe after spending two years with these families in a very, you know, intimate, intense kind of way that just talking about the importance of fairness and equal opportunity is enough.
I think that parents need to model that, and they need to provide opportunities for their children to learn something different than the racial status quo. I mean, you don't have to work to teach children to learn the racial status quo right? That that's the dominant way of thinking. I think if you want to be brave and challenged that, then it means, you know, doing things like embracing integrated schools.
Andrew: She is so great Courtney. What did you think about that?
Courtney: You know? Uh, yeah, she's so great.
I spent so much time after recording that interview, thinking about what she was saying about valuing the resources that all people have to offer.
I mean, yes, absolutely right?
And it just feels so obvious, right?
But when we're so focused on, you know, quote, leveraging our privilege, it's just incredibly easy to sideline that. And and it's a framing that makes all the difference.
And so I really, I was really grateful to hear her talking about that.
Andrew: Yeah, Yeah, she's great.
I was, the thing that sort of kept coming back to me was this idea of like, um, individuals trying to navigate structural inequities. Y’know, your individual choices can really only do so much against the systemic issues we're facing.
But if you don't do those things, it has, like a really meaningful impact on your kids and how they come to understand the world.
Courtney: Yeah, right. But then also, while we can't do all the things to, you know, mitigate these big structural pieces our individual choices, and actions are kind of everything. And in, you know, there's all these ways that we can't escape the structural also.
So it's messy, and it's there's no, like, perfect good way to do that, right? Do any of this that, like, deals with all of these things all at once? And I think that's really hard for us white people who kind of want, like the, you know, step by step, “good person” manual.
Andrew: Totally. You know, I do. I do take hope from the fact that that the choices that we do make really make a difference for our kids. And, you know, we're not gonna solve racism next week. Um, but but there are things that we can actually do to set up our kids to do better than we did. And y’know hopefully their kids do better than them.
And then maybe we can sort of dig out of this hole.
Courtney: Yeah. Yeah, I think that's right.
You know, we either start or we don't start, right?
And so Yeah.
So I think now we need to make those choices right.
And talk about them, right? Like talking about them in our social circle also cuz… we have to change the narrative. That's just kind of the beginning.
Andrew: Definitely! Huge, thanks to Dr Hagerman for sharing her work, um, for being all around awesome.
And, as always, thanks to Kevin Casey for a music.
Courtney: Yes. please get in touch and let us know what you thought @integratedschools on Twitter, Integrated Schools on Facebook or [email protected]
See you next time.