Margaret Hagerman* puts a new spin on how we race by exploring the development of racial attitudes among affluent white midwestern tweens. Hagerman interviewed children from families in three different neighborhoods in the same midwestern metropolitan area, each with varying degrees of wealth (though all families are affluent) and diversity. She interviews not only the children, but also the parents, with the goal of illustrating how children formulate ideas about race. Rather than adopting their parents’s notions of race uncritically, children engage with the world around them, perhaps sooner than we think they do. Hagerman also does a little work to show that parents are often teaching more about race than they think they do.
This was a slower read than it really ought to have been, but I chalk that up to my personal quirks. Hagerman’s writing is clear and concise. However, I alternated between feeling like she was belaboring the obvious and being appalled at the thoughts people were willing to say out loud. The former is really an unfair criticism: the book reads like an ethnography and part of the work of a social scientist is to make explicit those things we “understand” implicitly. Without putting it into words, we have no place to begin to evaluate whether we are all having the same conversation. (I suspect we often are not.)
There were moments I found the book enormously frustrating. An early chapter focuses in on how the parents in her study chose which neighborhood for their families. No one will be surprised to hear that the perceived quality of the local schools was the primary driver. A number of parents in the whitest, most affluent community, mention that they would not have lived in the more diverse communities because those public schools were not up to par with what their children needed. Hagerman doesn’t let them get away with this: the “challenges” of the local public schools are not based entirely in reality, but more on stereotypes and established gossip. Very few families took the time to actually explore the schools they rejected out of hand.
She also skewers the parents in the more diverse communities who talk a good game about wanting their kids to be exposed to diversity, but who fail to consider what this truly looks like. She challenges the advantage of schools where the diversity is primarily racial, and not socioeconomic. She also questions the value of exposure to those of other races where the power imbalance is in favor of the white families: if the only African Americans your child interacts with are those at the homeless shelter, are the children learning that African Americans are largely homeless and in need of assistance?
…privileged white parents face a conundrum: they risk becoming either opportunity hoarders or white saviors.
It’s a giant game of “gotcha” that there’s no way to win.
There’s so much that Hagerman tackles here. How claims of “that’s racist” are used so frequently as a punchline and out of context that children struggle to identify racism (and to take it seriously). The many ways in which “color-blind” parenting is a sham. The ways in which parents are complicit in institutional racism in schools under the guise of “gifted” programs. The anecdotes are overwhelming and damning, and sometimes just a little bit ridiculous.
On another afternoon, Carly , her younger sister, and a friend discuss the famous musician Rihanna. The girls disagree about what race the celebrity is, one believing that Rihanna is black “or at least a mix” while the other believes that Rihanna is white and is just wearing a lot of bronzer make-up to look tan. … Carly really wants Rihanna to be “white with bronzer” like her, rather than black.
Throughout the book, I repeatedly asked myself, “Who is this book for?” I cannot imagine white families who aspire to “color-blindness” picking up this volume. If it’s for antiracist and/or progressive parents, then there are no feel-good remedies here. This book actually pairs nicely with the Richard Reeves’s Dream Hoarders which I reviewed last year: these are the case studies about how affluent families protect their privilege.
I’d also like to add that, for as much as Hagerman calls out the progressive parents in the book for the ways in which they unintentionally reinforce the Otherness of African Americans–and make no mistake, Hagerman is primarily concerned with African Americans; Latinxs and Asian-Americans get little to no mention–the book does the same. Hagerman does not spend a great deal of time interrogating how the children construct their white identities except that it exists as “normal” against African Americans. She does not explore the children’s concept of themselves beyond being considered “exceptional”, and she does not make explicit whether the children link whiteness with exceptionalism even unconsciously.
Judging by one of the anecdotes in the story, I assume the bulk of her interviews took place somewhere in the middle of Obama’s two terms as president. I wonder whether she would find a shift if she revisited this same population now during Trump’s presidency. Perhaps, and perhaps not.
*Not to be confused, as I did repeatedly, with Maggie Haberman of the NYT. Yikes.
I received a complimentary copy of this book via NetGalley in order to facilitate this review.