Greg and Sarah live in a predominantly white neighborhood and send their children to a predominantly white private school. “I don’t want to believe we are hypocrites,” Greg tells me. “But if we say diversity is important to us, but then we didn’t stick around in the place that was diverse, maybe we are?” He looks at Sarah. “I dunno,” he continues, “I guess we made decisions based on other things that were more important. But what does that say about us then?”
For two years I conducted research with 30 affluent white parents and their kids in a Midwestern metropolitan area. Over and over I heard comments like Greg’s reflecting a deep ambivalence: As progressive parents, is their primary responsibility to advance societal values — fairness, equal opportunity and social justice — or to give their children all the advantages in life that their resources can provide?
More often than not, values lost out.
Parents I interviewed felt conflicted about using their social status to advocate for their kids to have the “best” math teacher, because they knew other kids would be stuck with the “bad” math teacher. They registered the unfairness in leveraging their exclusive social networks to get their teenagers coveted summer internships when they knew disadvantaged kids were the ones who truly needed such opportunities. They felt guilty when they protectively removed their children from explicitly racist and contentious situations because they understood that kids of color cannot escape racism whenever they please. Still, those were the choices they made.