In May, 2020, George Floyd, an unarmed Black American, was murdered in broad daylight by now-imprisoned former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, while three of his colleagues looked on, doing nothing to stop it. These three officers were convicted in February, 2022 by the unanimous vote of a federal jury for denying Mr. Floyd his constitutional rights by failing to intervene. Their silence and inaction contributed to Floyd’s death.

Inaction in response to systemic racism reveals the Whiteness Pandemic. Whiteness, here, refers not to skin color—after all, not all the convicted officers were White—but to the culture of Whiteness characterized by colorblindness, silence, passivity, and fragility around race. The central pathogens of the Whiteness Pandemic are color-evasiveness (avoidance or denial of race) and power-evasiveness (denial of racial oppression), which are passed on intergenerationally, especially in White families.

The Whiteness Pandemic Spreads Early In Life

The intergenerational transmission of the Whiteness Pandemic in families helps to explain why U.S. racism is so intractable. Color-evasiveness and power-evasiveness are especially common in the racial socialization approach of White U.S. parents and they also characterize the less advanced phase of Dr. Janet Helms’s White Racial Identity Development theory—which we call WRID for short. WRID’s two phases are:

  • Phase 1: White individuals in this phase show obliviousness, denial, avoidance, or ambivalence about race and racism, and/or bias against racial groups.
  • Phase 2: White individuals in this phrase seek to abandon racism, including White privilege, and show antiracist desires and/or actions to dismantle systemic racism and promote racial equity.

Our study investigated WRID and racial socialization among 392 non-Hispanic White mothers in the Minneapolis metro area within 1 month of Mr. Floyd’s murder, an event that no Minnesotan could have been unaware of due to the significant community unrest and ubiquitous media coverage. How would White parents respond personally? Would Mr. Floyd’s murder in their own city be enough to get them to talk with their children about racism and antiracism?

Using an online survey about parenting and children’s media exposure, we asked mothers if there were any current events impacting their families at the time of the study—knowing, of course, that the main current event was Floyd’s murder. Most other research on this topic asks White parents directly about their race-related attitudes or practices, but our study had a unique design where parents could respond freely, without our bringing up race-related issues ourselves. Thus, we could interpret what parents said (or didn’t say) about Floyd’s murder as meaningful indicators of their racial identity and racial socialization approach in parenting.

A multi-racial team analyzed mothers’ open-ended responses to determine whether they were in WRID Phase 1 or 2 according to their personal beliefs and commitments regarding racism and antiracism. A second independent team thematically analyzed mothers’ responses for their racial socialization approach, meaning their parenting beliefs/values, attitudes, practices, and emotions regarding how they included or didn’t include race in parenting their children. Without naming race directly, the survey also asked about mothers’ orientation towards multiculturalism, their desire to protect their ethnic group, and their psychological distress. Racial socialization themes that emerged were sorted according to Mothers’ WRID Phase.

Racial Silence, And More

We found that the majority of White mothers were racially silent (53%), making no mention of Mr. Floyd’s murder nor any community events that followed, signaling that the murder had no impact of their families. Their racial silence was meaningful, because these mothers also had significantly lower multiculturalism scores and lower psychological distress than their peers. The apathy evident in their racial silence immediately following Floyd’s murder in their own city may have served as a coping mechanism to lower race-related distress.

Among the 47% of White mothers who did mention Floyd, his murder, or subsequent community events, nearly two-thirds (30% of the total sample) were categorized into WRID Phase 1 (less advanced) and only 17% of the total sample evidenced WRID Phase 2 (more advanced). Moreover, mothers with more advanced White racial identity differed from those with less advanced White racial identity in their racial socialization approach as parents:

  • They held parenting beliefs and values that were more color- and power-conscious—for example, they believed in acknowledging systemic racism and White privilege to their children and supported BLM in their homes.
  • They used active and purposeful racial socialization practices in parenting, such as utilizing family media to discuss Floyd’s murder and racial injustice with children and arranging family visits to George Floyd Square.
  • They demonstrated a more effective coping style, showing agency and balanced emotions, such as communicating hope to their children alongside moral outrage, and managing the added parenting demands of COVID-19 plus Floyd’s murder with gratitude versus exasperation.

These findings were corroborated by other results: mothers in WRID Phase 2 had higher multiculturalism scores and lower ethnic group protectiveness scores than did Phase 1 mothers.

In sum, our study demonstrated the insidious intergenerational transmission of the Whiteness Pandemic, which was not slowed by close proximity to a high-profile race-related police murder.

This study is the first to establish the association between White parents’ White Racial Identity and their racial socialization approach. To best combat the Whiteness Pandemic, family-level antiracism interventions for White families should be two-pronged. White parents need courageous parenting support for having race-based parent-child conversations. However, this may not be enough. White parents also need WRID support to further develop White identities that abandon covert forms of racism and racial privilege in favor of a lifelong commitment to self-reflection and action.

For Further Reading (and Watching)

Ferguson, G. M., Eales, L., Gillespie, S., & Leneman, K. (2021). The Whiteness pandemic behind the racism pandemic: Familial Whiteness socialization in Minneapolis following #GeorgeFloyd’s murder. American Psychologist.

Helms, J. E. (2017). The challenge of making Whiteness visible: Reactions to four Whiteness articles. The Counseling Psychologist, 45(5), 717–726.

Loyd, A. B., & Gaither, S. E. (2018). Racial/ethnic socialization for White youth: What we know and future directions. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 59, 54–64.

Neville, H. A., Awad, G. H., Brooks, J. E., Flores, M. P., & Bluemel, J. (2013). Color-blind racial ideology theory, training, and measurement implications in psychology. American Psychologist, 68(6), 455–466.

Whiteness Pandemic webpage provides practical resources for parents (and other caregivers) of White children to foster their own WRID and engage in courageous parenting

Gail Ferguson is an Associate Professor in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota where she directs the Culture and Family Life Lab. Her research and intervention integrate developmental psychology, cross-cultural psychology, and clinical psychology focusing on the cultural socialization of children and adolescents by parents and media in modern globalizing societies.