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Race talk, for white parents

June 24, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, June 24, 2020

I remember the first time I used the “N” word. I was 5, maybe 6, living in the suburbs of Chicago, in the early 1970s.

I hurled the word at my best friend, George, who was white, telling him his new pair of boots were “N” stompers. While I didn’t fully understand the meaning of what I said, I was demonstrating the ease with which racism is learned by young children. The blunt force of my words ignited a screaming match between us, before George tearfully ran inside and I walked down the alley that connected our homes, feeling confused, as I recall. When I walked in the door, my mother was on the phone with George’s mother, though I don’t recall what, if anything, happened next.

I remember another time I used the “N” word. I was in fifth grade and with a sense of pride I huddled with my friends in the classroom, and with lowered voice told a painfully racist joke, one I had heard in our kitchen, while my father and his close friend were drinking beer and laughing.

I don’t recall speaking the “N” word after fifth grade, though perhaps I did. But I’m certain, despite my growing understanding that the word was hateful and inappropriate, that I did not confront my white peers or any adults when they used the word. Neither did I speak out or take action the many times I directly and indirectly witnessed racism.

In eighth grade, I remember receiving a phone call from two school friends, it was after dinner, cold and dark outside. They wanted me to meet them at the convenience store, a block from my home. When I arrived, they gave me a wrapped Christmas present, inside was a T-shirt with some nice phrase, which I don’t recall, printed on the front. Maria, who was African American, thanked me for being her lab partner in our science class, then apologized that they had not simply come to my home, explaining that she did not know if she would be welcome. I didn’t understand her concern at the time, but remember making the connection when sometime later I was told, by my father, “Don’t you ever bring a ‘N’ girl home,” a demand I suspect he received as a teenager.

In ninth grade, I remember sitting on the gymnasium bleachers at the high school I attended. Our Wild Cats were hosting an out-of-town team in a varsity basketball game. Every player on our team was white and every player on the other team was Black. Near the end of the game, an older boy from our town, who had been sitting with us and had left, returned, his breath smelling of alcohol, his hands cold and bloodied, a tire iron stuffed in his green army fatigue jacket. He bragged, and the newspaper later confirmed, that he had smashed every window in the school bus that would soon drive the opposing team 50 miles back to their school on the south side of Chicago, that late winter night.

In college, one evening after dinner, returning to our apartment after our evening meal, our roommate, who was a native of Sierra Leone, Africa – and Black – was the subject of racial slurs shouted by local teens from a passing car.

After college, as a community organizer for the Boy Scouts in many sections of Chicago’s southwest side, an African American family had their porch fire bombed the first night they slept in their new home, in a predominately white neighborhood. In a separate incident, police officers picked up two Black teens who were merely walking along a busy street at night; after detaining them, the officers forced them out of the car in the middle of an all-white neighborhood. A gang of teens was waiting, leaving the Black boys so badly beaten that they were transported to the hospital by ambulance.

Throughout the country, we have recently been reminded that silence is compliance, when it comes to racism. We – as white people – often take comfort in the belief that we are not racist, pointing to the fact that we don’t use the “N” word, tell racist jokes, smash windows, burn porches, or beat Black teenagers. But we also don’t speak up, at least not enough – maybe never – about the persistent racism that lives within our families, circle of friends, workplaces and communities, and the ways in which our individual and collective silence perpetuates racism.

We all have racial bias, it’s part of the human condition. Researchers have demonstrated that this begins around age 4 or 5, about the age when I spoke my first racist words.  So as Father’s Day approached this year, our nation erupting and deeply divided in an ongoing racism pandemic, I inwardly searched, wondering how – as a father – I can meaningfully contribute to the dismantling of racism. After watching the video of George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer, and then a video of his 6-year-old daughter, Gianna, speaking about how she misses her father, I found myself wondering what I would say to Gianna – as a wite person, as a father – about her father’s death and about white people.

Then I realized that the more important question is: What will I say to my daughter Zoe and son Adam, about George – not George Floyd, though we discussed his death too – but about my friend, and the hurtful words I said to him.

To start the conversation, my wife, Lori, and I circled around our kitchen table with Zoe and Adam and watched a video titled, “Black Parents Explain How to Deal with the Police,” which is available on YouTube. The 5-minute video makes it clear that the “race talk” Black parents have with their children – about surviving while being black – is a painful experience white parents are spared.

Later, I told Zoe and Adam about my friend, the racism I have witnessed, the ways my words and actions have been racist, and the ways I remained silent – as a child and adult. Releasing those closely guarded secrets, and the shame buried deep within, allows me to be more honest – with myself, family and community – about ways that I have been part of the problem and about how I, too, can be a more intentional part of the solution. I believe this is the kind of “race talk” that all white fathers and mothers must have, as first steps on the long road to ending racism. And I believe that as white parents, it’s our duty to make this part of George Floyd’s legacy and the living legacy of his daughter Gianna.

Resources for white parents: 

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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