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One white father’s attempts to address racism

February 17, 2015

One white father’s attempts to address racism

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Talking to my kids is getting harder. Like all families, we have communication habits in our home, some healthy and others not.

My wife, Lori, and I work at practicing and maintaining healthy communication with each other and our kids, Zoe and Adam. It is often difficult, maddening at times, and because it enhances our personal and family well-being, we keep at it.

But it turns out, that’s the easy part. As our kids’ age, the topics Lori and I talk about with them are increasingly complex.

Stranger danger was one of the early — and ongoing — difficult conversations, along with the death of family members.

Still ahead: pedophiles, drugs and alcohol, cyber- stalking, safe sex, sexual assault, and driving — at night, distracted and under the influence — to name a few.

These are the difficult conversations facing all parents. But it is the recent tragic events in Ferguson, New York, Chicago and elsewhere — and the national dialog they have sparked — that have made me realize that those who parent boys of color have always been burdened by another difficult conversation — “the race talk.”

For generations, these parents have told their boys that others will be afraid of them and accuse them of wrongdoing, simply because they are black — or brown. These parents have coached and disciplined their boys to ensure that they take extra precaution to stay out of harms way.

As parents of a white boy, we have the luxury of not having this difficult conversation.

Unlike a black peer, our son probably will not be viewed as a threat when wearing Nike shoes and a hooded sweatshirt, profiled for shoplifting, or “randomly” pulled over while driving. Women will not necessarily shift their purses to the other side of their bodies when they see him approaching, nor will pedestrians cross the street to assume a safer distance. Chances are, parents of teenage girls will not worry about having him showing up at their doorstep.

And so I have been asking myself, in order to be part of the solution — to father in a way that helps eliminate racism — “What is the race talk that needs to happen in our home?”

I believe this conversation must start by understanding the subtle and pervasive privileges I have been afforded because I am white.

No one has ever accused me of being accepted to a college, awarded a scholarship, hired for a job, or granted a promotion because a racial quota had to be met. Rather, it has been assumed that I earned each of these.

I have never been racially profiled and accused of a crime. I have never been denied a housing lease or an opportunity to buy a home in a certain neighborhood because of my race.

As a student, I was taught that white people are better than people of color — because nearly all of the books I was given to study were filled with great thinkers and leaders that were almost always white.

While being entertained by movies I was led to believe that nearly all heroes are white, rarely black or brown — those are the colors of villains.

So, in our home, the race talk starts by acknowledging the privileges our family experiences because we are white. This perspective helps serve as a reminder of the plight of others, and that we have choices about how to help eliminate the conditions that perpetuate racism, starting with ourselves.

I acknowledge that I am late in joining many others who have been engaging in these conversations for a very long time. But now, as a father, I want to help create a future where all parents are having honest conversations about race, and where parents of color and those who parent children of color no longer need to have “the race talk.”

John Engel is a father, husband, organizational consultant and the coordinator of the Healthy Men and Boys Network of western Massachusetts. He can be reached through his website, www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

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