White People Must Contribute to Racial Healing

As a pediatrician and a white mother of three white daughters, I have strived to educate myself about the challenges facing women, and I have discussed these issues openly with my three daughters. But, like so many other white parents, I did not give the same level of attention to the issue of racism in ourselves especially, and in our world generally.

Never once would I have described myself as racist. It wasn’t until one of my daughters, who has been actively committed to the fight for racial equality for years, encouraged us to look critically at ourselves and our society, that I began to see the infiltration of insidious racism in how we all live. With this new awareness, I have turned my thoughts to how to discuss these issues with my younger daughter, and how to help the parents of my patients do the same. Because when I, or we — specifically white people — behave or talk as if racism has nothing to do with us, we aren’t just proving ourselves deeply and stubbornly ignorant about the continued realities of structural racism and the legacies of violence and discrimination, we condone the violence. We collude in the suffering.

While we should have been having these conversations with our children from the beginning, now is a critical moment to get started. Another crucial part of this conversation, crucial to me as a medical practitioner, is the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 has killed over 100,000 people in this country, but people of color have suffered and died disproportionately. Importantly, that is not because they didn’t shelter in place fast enough or wash their hands well enough. It is because they lived with lower quality housing, and limited access to healthcare, food, and air long before the virus arrived. And they have lived in fear of police brutality for centuries. It is pervasive, it is unequivocal, and it is consistent.

In the wake of the atrocities, as recently as Friday, (June 12th) in Atlanta, our nation’s history of police brutality may finally be beginning to be examined with the outrage and determination that it deserves. But for many of us who are white, we have engaged with these issues only from afar and without any sense of complicit responsibility.

Instead, we must follow the lead of families of color, who address these issues head on with their children early and often out of necessity. Racism informs their experiences daily.

In her seminal research and writing on this topic, Beverly Daniel Tatum has written extensively about the ways in which the unjust structure of racial hierarchy in American society is normalized and transmitted to children from birth (Tatum 2003). Importantly, she distinguishes racial bias from racism: while racial bias is prejudice on the basis of race, racism is a system of oppression that results from a combination of prejudice and power. In other words, racism is prejudice that is structurally supported by those in power. Unlike bias, only certain races are subject to oppressive structures and practices as a result of that bias. Racism has created structures and practices that deny equity and justice to people of color.

For young people to understand that the effects of racism are not the fault of people of color, we must start early, and stay consistent in our actions and our words. Fostering the positive development of every child’s racial identity must be paired with opportunities for young children to learn where and how injustice and inequality operate in our society.

Over the next few weeks, we will be using this platform, not only to reevaluate our internal structures and practices, but also to engage with the healing work we all must undertake with ourselves, our families, and our children. We will be focusing on child development and how white families can take proactive steps to acknowledge, unpack, and dismantle systemic racism in our schools and our communities. Sustainable wellness mandates this effort.