Photo by USAG- Humphreys, Flickr CC

All parents want the best for their children, but what happens when the best for their own child means disadvantaging many more? In an article recently published in The Atlantic, sociologist Margaret Hagerman shares the story behind her new book, White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America. She spent two years interviewing and observing upper-middle-class suburban white families in a midwestern city in the United States with one goal: to find out how white children learn about race. Hagerman spent a significant amount of time with 36 children between the ages of 10 and 13, and analyzed how homework, games, and conversations with friends and family members influenced their interpretations of race. Hagerman says,

“One of the things I was really struck by was how frequently some of these children used the phrase That’s racist or You’re racist. They were using this word in contexts that had nothing to do with race: They were playing chess, and they would talk about what color chess pieces they wanted to have, and then one of them would say, “Oh, that’s racist”—so things that had to do with colors, but also sometimes just out of the blue, instead of saying, “That’s stupid.” These kids have taken this phrase, That’s racist, and inverted it in a way such that it’s become meaningless.”

Hagerman also observed affluent parents calling schools to demand the best teachers in certain topics and pulling their students out of a public school to enroll them in a private one after a “racist incident.” These actions serve as reinforcing agents, propagating the idea that “your own child is the most important thing”a belief that Hagerman thinks should be reconsidered by all.

“When affluent white parents are making these decisions about parenting, they could consider in some way at least how their decisions will affect not only their kid, but other kids. This might mean a parent votes for policies that would lead to the best possible outcome for as many kids as possible, but might be less advantageous for their own child…I don’t have any grand answer, but I think people could think in bigger ways about what it means to care about one another and what it means to actually have a society that cares about kids.”