How to talk to your kids about white privilege
This interview is from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner and author of A Kids Book About White Privilege, Ben Sand. It has been edited for clarity.
What is white privilege?
Well, you know, Matthew, when I look at my arm, it's kind of pinkish, reddish, beige—and yet when people talk about what color I am, they would say the word “white.” And a long time ago, grownups decided to create labels for people and they used colors of people's skin. And it just so happens that, for white people in particular, that's a group of people that over time in the history of the United States have had unearned privileges or unearned advantages, like they've had a headstart in a race. And so white privilege is this combination of trying to understand “What does it mean to be white?” and “How do we investigate these unearned advantages?”
It’s a topic that a lot of grownups are still working out because, I think, it’s not something that was acknowledged when they were kids. Speaking from my own experience, it definitely wasn’t something that was brought up in my home. And when you’ve gone your whole life understanding the world one way and then someone introduces new information that causes you to think about the world differently, it can be a bit disorienting.
Ben’s book has caused a lot of grownups to ask a lot of questions.
One of the things that's been so interesting about publishing this book, A Kids Book About White Privilege has been [that] there are two groups of people. One is a group of people who are reading the book and enjoying the content and recognize that this isn't about any sort of shame or guilt. We're not talking about those kinds of things with kids.
And then there's another group of people, Matthew. Those are the people who haven't read the book who think that even talking about white privilege is a terrible idea. And so we've gotten a lot of negative feedback from some people that think that this is a bad idea to talk to kids about their ethnicity or the color of their skin. And of course, I think that's silly.
The word “privilege” literally means: a special right or advantage. And the catch is that privilege is given to a particular person or group, but others do not receive it. For example, if you are the right age and have earned your driver's license, you get the privilege of being able to legally drive a vehicle on a public road. If you are not old enough or have not earned your license, you do not have that privilege.
So when we talk about white privilege, we are talking about advantages granted to people with white skin solely because of the color of their skin.
So when we imagine the idea of privilege and investigate these unearned advantages that white people have had over time, sometimes those can be really small things and sometimes they can be really big.
So for me, as an example of someone who is white, I am given oftentimes the benefit of the doubt that strangers might smile at me when I walk down the street or I might get invited to places that other people don't.
Sometimes it also can manifest in the kinds of jobs that people can get or the advantages that some people assume based off the color of someone's skin. And when I think about privilege in particular for white people, there's also times where it shows up in ways that we don't even think about because we're white; like when you go to the grocery store and buy a bandaid, the flesh colored band aid oftentimes looks like a white person.
And so it sometimes can be things that are subtle in the way that we walk and engage the world. And sometimes it's even in the way that people think about products on the market and all of those things add up to a series of unearned advantages that white people have benefited from for a long time.
So, the color of your skin may give you unearned advantages in some spaces. Likewise, we can say the opposite: the color of your skin can be a disadvantage in some spaces because of systemic racism and racial bias. We talk a lot about this in the episode with Jordan Thierry, author of A Kids Book About Systemic Racism.
The thing about white privilege is just because you have it, it doesn't make you bad; or just because you have it, it doesn't mean that you've had an easy life.
And it also means that if you have it, you are going to be in the days ahead, given an opportunity to decide what to do with it. Some people might use those unearned advantages to lift themselves above others. And what we're investigating with this book is, how do we understand our white privilege and use it for good?
To understand where Ben is now and how he came to view the world and his role in it, we have to go back a few years.
I am a city kid. I've always grown up in this city and grown up in diverse environments. And I always knew even when I didn't have any words, that my experience as a white person was different than my friends, or even some of my family. But it wasn't until I was after graduating from college, I sat in a room with a group of black leaders who shared the history of our country from a white perspective, and the history of our country from the perspective of people of color.
And it was in that real deep investigation where it really hit me: that the white experience has created these systems of advantage that are based on race. And I really felt excited that I had some new language to understand it, embarrassed that white people have done so many damaging things over our history, and also empowered to imagine how I could be a different kind of leader as a white person.
We are all born into different and unique environments and experiences. And until you spend time in other places and trying other experiences, it can be hard to spot the unearned advantages Ben’s talked about. But they are there. In all places. Making it easier for some to succeed. And much harder for others.
So I grew up without a dad and I grew up really poor with no money. And I really had to spend a lot of my life trying to figure out how to make it on my own. And even with those challenges, I still can see so many examples of how I had unearned advantages that people of color did not have. And so just because you're white, it doesn't mean that your life is easy. My life growing up as a child was very hard.
And so it's not just about what's easy and what's hard. It's about how we've created this world that we live in and how that world has created distance between what white people experience in the world and what people of color do. And I really want to encourage white kids to be the change.
Before we go, I want to leave you with two very simple ways you can be that change. We can all help to be that change for one another, regardless of the color of our skin or the religion we practice, the relationships we share or the amount of money our family has. But especially if the body or circumstances you were born into give you privilege, these change-making suggestions are for you.
So I often will talk to kids about and ask them to think of all of the leaders in their life. And, in a way that is really not consistent with who actually lives in the world, I often hear kids tell me that the leaders in their life, whether that's a principal or a teacher or their parents boss, that those people are usually white.
And one of the things that we talk about is how important it is that, if you are white and you have some unearned advantages, or you are in a position of power, that now more than ever is a really important time to think about how do you give up that power to serve people of color who over time have felt discriminated against by white people.
This is a very courageous act and we're encouraging kids and their parents to consider operating from a place of humility and generosity to use the privilege that they have to serve other people.
Each week on A Kids Book About: The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. This week we have Ben Sand, the author of A Kids Book About White Privilege.