A sociologist examines how affluent white children think about race.
Hagerman (Sociology/Mississippi State Univ.) spent two years immersed with 30 privileged white Midwestern families to produce this timely ethnographic study. “Race shapes the lives of everyone in the United States,” writes the author, “whether people believe this to be true or not.” Her assertion is borne out in these interviews with 36 children (ages 10-13) and their parents, who “design” their kids’ social environments (neighborhoods, schools, etc.), shaping their interactions with and attitudes toward other races. She finds that these children “think about race and class inequality differently” depending on family experiences and daily interactions. Hagerman’s writing is scholarly and sometimes stodgy, but she provides revealing portraits: The Schultz parents think that “if ‘they’ could behave exactly like ‘us,’ we would welcome them”; Victoria and Ryan Chablis believe “current racial inequalities are the fault of people of color”; and the “well-meaning” Norbrooks, who keep their children in public school, “fail to acknowledge inequality and racism…[and] are unintentionally complicit in the reproduction of it.” Children, generally racially aware, often think for themselves: “Sometimes my mom is racist and tries to pretend like she isn’t,” says one 12-year-old girl. Yet while critical of racial inequality, the kids “believe they are better and more deserving than everyone else.” Hagerman is especially good on the “conundrum of privilege.” These families often want diversity but “choose to opt out of diverse spaces,” giving children the benefits of their wealth with all-white dance lessons and vacations. The ironies abound: “While some parents of black children are teaching their kids how to navigate racism to stay alive, some parents of white children are teaching their kids that race no longer matters in the United States.” The author concludes that white parents can fight racism “by rejecting the idea that their own child is more innocent and special and deserving,” but individual choices may not matter much “as long as structural inequality persists.”
A complex and nuanced academic book.