Their most common questions were about how to ensure that their children had “more Black experiences,” and how to handle people who made them feel uncomfortable about having a child of a different race. Often they wanted advice about hair care.
If Millner couldn’t answer, she directed the mothers to someone who could. “They’re mothers,” she reasons. “They’re in charge of something that is really special and delicate and hard, which is raising Black children in America.”
Raising children to thrive in a society that judges them — sometimes harshly and, in extreme cases, fatally — because of skin color is hard regardless of your ethnicity. Black parents understand because they’ve been through it. White parents, who are often unaware of the privilege afforded them because of skin color, have a bigger challenge: they are preparing their children for something they’ve never experienced and never will.
There is no one path to successful child rearing, but when it comes to White parents raising Black or mixed-race children, there is consensus on two points. One is that expecting your white privilege to benefit your children is not only unrealistic, it can be dangerous. When your children are with a White parent, they’ll be treated one way. When they’re alone or with other people of color, they’re likely to be treated another.
The other point is that it’s important to connect with Black or mixed-race people who can help you understand what your child is going to experience and can, as Millner says, “make your children understand the fire they’re about to walk through.”
Liza Frolkis didn’t have to look far for those connections. The single White mother of 4-year-old Micah, who is biracial, Frolkis has a network in her hometown of Milwaukee that includes Black women friends, parenting experts, and her son’s father’s family. Micah spends part of each week with his paternal grandmother and dad, who have also taken him to California and Florida to visit relatives.
When Micah was a baby, his grandmother began bringing him to church choir practice. For Frolkis, who is Jewish, that took getting used to, “but it’s an important cultural space in Black America,” she says. “What I am doing is making sure he has a strong connection with his Black family and that he has lots of time with them. That’s the best thing that a White person raising a Black child in America can do — make sure they are connected to their family.”
Alisa Dalia, who is biracial, was raised by a White couple who had 10 biological children and adopted eight children of color. Growing up in a White community in rural Virginia, Dalia, now 20, said it helped “having siblings who looked like me.” She also had an open adoption. “I think having contact with my biological family has helped me with finding my identity,” she says.
Not all of Alisa’s adopted siblings were comfortable growing up in a White world. The experience had a profound impact on the entire family; a number of her White siblings adopted children of color when they married and started families. One of those siblings, Erin, 40, had one daughter before adopting four children. That’s not all she’s doing differently from her parents.
“I made sure that I had a really good group of people of color around me,” says Erin, who recently moved from Connecticut to South Carolina. “Half the time I look around and my daughter and I are the only White people in the crowd. We’ve got a lot of good friends of color and I know my kids are pretty well balanced. My goal is for them to know how to navigate in both worlds, and how to function in both worlds. That was really important to me because I feel like my siblings had a really hard time with that.”
Among the lessons Erin learned growing up is that “if you don’t expand your world, you’re not going to fix the problems that are going on in the United States right now. So many White people are so nice and they don’t openly hate, but they live in their white privilege, and they don’t look around them, and they don’t understand what they’re doing when they just live in their world.”
Los Angeles-born activist, podcaster, and author Trina Greene Brown wasn’t prepared for the display of white privilege she witnessed at a retreat for adoptive parents where she was giving a talk a few years ago: a White mother grabbed someone else’s Black child and marched him to his parents because she’d thought he’d bullied her youngster. To Brown, the interaction between the children had looked innocent, which made the mother’s reaction more troubling.
“She was leveraging her privilege for the sake of her child, but doing it in a way that criminalized another Black child,” Brown says. “Leveraging privilege in this way can cause harm.”
That harm manifests itself in multiple ways, not the least of which is that white privilege won’t protect a Black child from racism. Parents who think so are reinforcing white supremacy, Brown says, adding that the only solution to white supremacy is to end it.
Ian Walls, who is biracial, learned the hard way 10 years ago that his mother’s white privilege wouldn’t protect him. Now 23, he and his mother were at their neighborhood Walgreens in Milwaukee when they got separated. Seeing him alone, store employees ordered him to leave. They didn’t tell him why — he thinks they thought he was older than he was, and was loitering.
“That was shocking for me,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I can’t. I’m here with my mom,’ and for a second, they almost didn’t believe me. We had to walk around and find my mom, and they ended up leaving me alone.”
The incident led to one of many times that Walls and his parents talked about race. He says he feels they did a good job raising him to be aware, talking to him about “the dangers of being Black around the police,” which was easier for his father, who is Black.
One thing Walls wishes his parents had done differently was to teach him to care for his hair. “My dad was bald and my mom didn’t know much about hair,” he says. As a child, he wore it short. Now that he’s growing it out, he says, he feels clueless. “It sounds like a small, minute thing about race, and it’s affecting me more and more.”
Overall, though, Walls is grateful to his parents. Although he grew up in a White neighborhood, he went to public schools, where most of his classmates and friends were people of color. He had relationships with both sides of his family. His mother, a public librarian, brought home books with Black characters — a challenge given that there weren’t many.
There are slightly more now, in part due to people like Millner. A best-selling author, Millner has an imprint, Denene Millner Books, at Simon & Schuster, where she publishes books “that celebrate the humanity of Black children.”
“Integrating your children’s bookshelves is a huge, huge deal, because they need to be able to see themselves in the books they read and the stories being told to them and the storytelling that appeals to their imagination,” Millner says. “They need to understand that they are human beings, that their skin is not some kind of trigger warning for a cop to go nuts. The way you show them that is by putting them into diverse situations and making sure your home is full of diversity. It’s not just about having a Black kid over for dinner once a week; it’s about how you incorporate Blackness and culture and Black people as humans in your home and in your child’s life, every step of the way.”