The Moral Theater of Social Justice Parenting

I didn’t know what to make of the dolls. There were a half-dozen Black Barbies, Bratz and more arranged neatly on a windowsill. My wife and I were moving to coastal Maine, and as we walked through an open house, the toys in the child’s room bothered me in a way that wasn’t rational but visceral. I couldn’t escape the feeling that in this ritzy corner of New England, these were not only a child’s playthings but also props in her parents’ moral theater, an attempt to compensate for the homogeneous whiteness of their upwardly mobile suburb.

This cynicism was probably unfair. As my wife very reasonably reminded me, they were just toys. But as a Black guy who tends to have little patience for the performative signaling of rich white progressives, the dolls felt like yet another eye-roll-worthy gesture. And this irritation was no doubt related to my own anxiety that a similar fate awaited me: filling a playroom with multiracial toys and books in a desperate attempt to introduce diversity into a place that has everything except people with different skin tones. Now that I have a child on the way, this anxiety has real stakes. As Thomas Chatterton Williams has observed, perhaps nothing helps one see the tortuous logic of race in America like the prospect of raising a biracial child.

Some of the first studies to examine racism in childhood development in the late 19th century focused on how children view dolls positively or negatively based on the toy’s skin color. As the historian Ibram X. Kendi has noted, so-called doll tests played a prominent role in Brown v. Board of Education as evidence of segregation’s ills. More contemporary research has shown that infants can develop racial preferences by 3 months and biases by 6 months, and that anti-Black sentiments continue to ossify in early childhood.

The question, of course, is what to do with this information.

A growing cadre of antiracism-parenting gurus have attempted to provide an answer. While so-called gentle parenting approaches have received plenty of media attention — and scrutiny — as of late, considerably less attention has been paid to another popular trend that we might call “social justice parenting”: a set of emerging parenting philosophies that see children as dangerously permeable to prejudice and that insist that antiracism counterprogramming must begin in the cradle.

Social justice parenting starts from evidence-based foundations. But as with other offshoots of antiracism, it has increasingly devolved into a self-help program for wealthy white progressives. The discourse has become a grab bag — and, one suspects, a cash grab — where serious research mingles with New Age sloganeering and self-care practices designed to soothe the troubled souls of guilty liberals.

While the summer of racial reckoning in 2020 led to a glut of antiracism books, workshops and speaker events, in recent years the focus has been less on the corporation and more on the cradle. Dr. Kendi, contemporary antiracism’s embattled chief architect, has increasingly turned his attention to children, producing an antiracism parenting guide, children’s books and a graphic novel for teenagers. Last year, Britt Hawthorne’s “Raising Antiracist Children” also became a surprise best seller.

The genre only continues to balloon. Books with titles like “Social Justice Parenting,” “Woke Parenting: Raising Intersectional Feminist, Empathic, Engaged, and Generally Non-Shitty Kids” and “Rainbow Parenting: Your Guide to Raising Queer Kids and Their Allies” now jockey with gentle-parenting guides for pride of place in the parenting sections of chichi bookstores. They all promise to teach parents how to raise justice-oriented children.

While my own mother had to scour central Pennsylvania in the early 1990s for children’s books with multiracial characters today, progressive parents of all races mostly have it better. Diverse children’s books and toys are more common and easier to find — there are even dedicated search engines devoted to this task — and Black history and holidays like Juneteenth are widely (if imperfectly) celebrated by the public.

Yet I can’t help also feeling that as American culture has become more racially progressive, it’s become more pathological about race. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of social justice parenting.

The Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that children are “gentle, quiet characters” who possess an “early innocence” that must be shielded from society’s corruptions. It is this same prelapsarian belief in the innocence of infancy that animates social justice parenting. Dr. Kendi leans on research that shows that prejudice is not innate but learned. To protect children from becoming racists, he argues, it is important to talk to them about race and racism early. He also asserts that we must racially “childproof” — which is to say, diversify — our children’s books and toys as well as our friend groups.

The big-picture guidance offered by him and others often makes a good deal of sense. The problem is that the guidance doesn’t stop there: Social justice parenting gurus also tend to espouse strange and at times unsettling beliefs that encourage children of all races to become obsessed with Blackness and to view whiteness as a kind of cultural cancer.

A common theme across many antiracism parenting books is the importance of teaching your child to identify micro-gradations in skin tone and hair texture. In “Raising Antiracist Children,” Ms. Hawthorne recommends that parents acculturate children to recognize and label the many distinct colors of Black and brown skin, offering a typology like “red clay brown” and “pinecone brown.” She calls this phenotype introduction and provides helpful instructions for teaching children racial phenotypes by having them make “skin-tone play dough.”

As an academic with expertise in the history of science, I am struck by just how much overlap there is between social justice parenting’s fixation on phenotypes and that found in 19th- and early-20th-century race science, lending credence to John McWhorter’s observation that antiracism might be better understood as a kind of “neoracism” that peddles new forms of race essentialism under the guise of liberation.

For decades, Black Americans fought against not just legal discrimination and state violence but also persistent exoticism within American culture. There are elements of social justice parenting and its “skin-tone play dough” that feel to me like a 21st-century version of blaxploitation — another cultural effulgence that occupied a fuzzy boundary between genuinely celebrating Blackness and fueling fetishistic white obsessions with racial difference. It’s this same ambiguity that gripped me at that open house as I wondered whether a tidy row of Black dolls were antiracism teaching tools, racial curios or somehow both at once.

After reading hundreds of pages of social justice parenting advice, I’m struck by the unmistakable feeling that these books were not written for me or my family. As these experts themselves sometimes admit, their target audience is affluent white moms, not light-skinned Black dads who grew up working-class and are trying to figure out how to raise an even lighter-skinned son. That book has yet to be written.

So until then I’ll buy some Black toys and some white ones. I’ll explain that people come in different colors and that they’re not always treated the same. I’ll try not to be weird about it. In the absence of an alternative, I’ll settle for doing my best.

Tyler Austin Harper is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College.

Source images by fcafotodigital and S847/Getty Images

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