Thoughts On Being The White Father Of A Black Son
This article is written by a white elder of a southern evangelical church.
I am the father of an awesome 8-year-old Ethiopian boy. I love him more than anything and he is my son. For those who know a lot of Ethiopians, his facial features are a dead giveaway to his ethnicity, but to most who encounter him, he is just a normal, lanky, happy-go-lucky black kid. I know that everyone that knows us, even distantly, loves my son. They love his amazing adoption story, his love of baseball and his never-ending and boundless energy. I am so thankful for the deep love he gets to experience from so many people – many of whom have loved him since the day they saw a picture of our new son.
But here is a question I would like each of my friends to consider this week: Think about me disappearing from your life for a while. Pretend that you don’t see a post or a picture of my son for a long time and that we don’t see each other in person either. And now I want you to think about walking down a sidewalk by yourself in the nearest city at any time of day. Now picture that a tall black man, 18-20 years old, is walking toward you on that sidewalk. Now how do you feel walking down that sidewalk? What is going through your head? Are you nervous? Are you a little fearful? Are you wondering about the possible motives of this black man walking past you? Now think about if that tall 18-20 year old man was white. Do you feel the exact same fears? Have the same questions? Or is it different? Are there even small variations in the way that you feel in these two scenarios?
In 10 years, my son will be a tall 18-year old black man.
I don’t pose this question to bring about shame or judgement. I ask it because I have learned from my very own heart that I think differently about the above scenarios depending on whether it is a black man or a white man approaching me. Yes, me. The father of a black son, a son whom I love more than anything, struggles with this.
The sidewalk scenario above is just a small taste of what my son will surely encounter once he is not just a funny and happy 8-year-old boy attached to my hip all the time. And while the sidewalk will surely be frustrating and annoying to him, other scenarios that rise from these exact same heart prejudices have the potential to alter the course of his life forever. Or, as we have seen in the last 36 hours, his life could be ended because of them.
Here is the deal, regardless of your politics, your statistics, your own personal experience, your awesome justification arguments or your upbringing: This stuff is real for men and women of color. And many white people know it is real because we know our own hearts. This is not an issue that is going to go away with political solutions, protests or heartfelt social media posts. It is personal. It is our own hearts and the prejudices we allow to linger, no matter how slight, no matter how much they feel justifiable and no matter how much we believe that we have successfully hidden them.
My fellows Anglos, we have work to do. We need to actually get to know our brothers and sisters of color better. We need to pursue those relationships and we need to see the world through their eyes. It doesn’t mean that our own lives are not important, but we need to see how even the smallest or most deeply hidden heart prejudices we all carry ultimately contribute to the larger and systemic issues that create the kind of tragedies we have seen in the last two days. The world is made up of us. Whether on a sidewalk, behind a desk, behind a storefront or behind a badge, the stuff in our hearts makes its way into all aspects of how people of color experience life. We all have something we can do.
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Original photo by Stig Nygarad licensed under Creative Commons.