Confronting White bias: Bringing my research to my parenting

Rich Milnerby guest blogger Richard Milner, Ph.D

As an African-American, middle-class professor of urban education, I am constantly bridging my research with my parenting responsibilities, reflecting on discourse and actions I take with my children as I attempt to help them build strong racial identities.

As I was growing up, my parents talked directly and explicitly about matters of diversity with my siblings and me—namely, we talked about race. During the early years, conversations were more superficial. For instance, I was known to interrupt adults during conversations when they used language like “the Black man” or “the White woman.” I queried: “What Black man?” or “What White woman?” Later, as I grew older, the conversations grew more intense. For instance, we talked about my impressions of a high school teacher, who, I felt, was teaching solely to the White population of students in our class.

I once witnessed a group of five pre-school students (one Black male, three White males, and one White female) playing together in a classroom. As I watched, the preschool teacher told “Jamal,” the Black student:

“You are too loud. Let’s use our indoor voice, please.” Soon, she turned again to the five youngsters, but again focused her words on only one: “Jamal, you are too loud. I’m going to have to ask you to take a seat if you keep it up.”

I was stunned. What I observed was a group of five students yelling and not using their “indoor” voices. Yet, what this teacher heard was one student, Jamal. I wondered what this singling out did for and to Jamal’s self-concept, voice, and identity.

In light of the questions I grapple with in my professional work, my dilemma as a parent is straightforward:

How do I advocate for my five-year-old twin daughters and foster and cultivate their identities as Black girls? I want them to be proud of their African-American heritage and develop an identity that embraces their language, history, gender, hair, ancestry, and cultural roots in general.

One day, I promised my daughters to take them to the pool. As we changed into our swimsuits, they shared that they wanted me to take their hair down from their braided ponytails so that they could, in their words…

…wear our hair like our friends at school.”

In essence, they were asking for their hair to be worn like that of their White friends. To be clear, my wife and I read bedtime stories to our daughters about the beauty of my daughter’s hair and skin, encouraging them to love it and themselves, and we regularly comment to them on how beautiful (and indeed intelligent) they are. But on this day, they wanted hair like their White friends’.

In this moment, I responded, explaining that I would not change their hair. My daughters did not fuss about it; they moved on grabbing their goggles as we rushed out the door. But although they seemed to move forward without lingering on the issue, it provided a profound opportunity for me to reflect:

How do I respond to this and similar situations in ways that are instructive and also developmentally appropriate?

Another evening, as I read a bedtime story, one of my daughters whispered that a White classmates had told her that she is “Black” and that it was “a secret.”

“Yes, you are Black, and it is not a secret. Your skin color is exactly the color it should be,” I replied.

Parents play a critical role in providing young people with what they need to understand the many nuances, historically and contemporarily, which shape our diverse society. As a parent and an academic, I don’t think of diversity awareness or consciousness as a destination. Learning about the self, another, and the self in relation to others requires that we consistently engage in processes of introspective learning—this is a process I am committed to in both my family and professional roles.


Richard Milner IV is the Helen Faison professor of urban education as well as the director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh in the university’s school of education and editor-in-chief of the journal, Urban Education. He is author of Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2010) and Rac(e)ing to class: Confronting poverty and race in schools and classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2015). He is co-editor of the Handbook of Urban Education (Routledge, 2014).

Excerpts from this post were originally published in EdWeek and Harvard Education Publishing Group.

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