I’m writing the first draft of this on my phone, typing one-handed while breastfeeding my son in the middle of the night. The room is dark, save for the little glow of constellations on the ceiling, reflected from his stuffed turtle star lamp. He is barely 3 months old — still tiny enough to fit in my arms, his head in my hand. I can see his small chest rise up and down with each breath, and the overwhelming love I feel threatens to nearly break me.
As a professor, my job is basically to put things into words — whether I’m teaching or writing — but the love I have for this tiny human defies language. Late at night, during these quiet times, I think a lot about the future, and I have many worries for him. I will, as people tell me, be worried for the rest of my life now. There are small worries, like if he’s getting enough milk to grow and why he’s crying when I can’t figure out if he’s in pain or tired or hungry. And there are big worries: will he suffer from a devastating illness or be ostracized if he has special needs or is gay or transgender. But in general, I don’t worry that he will be killed by police while playing in a park. In front of a store. While walking home with Skittles. While driving. With his hands up. Because my son is white.
I am new at the motherhood thing, but not at the teaching thing, not at talking about race with fellow white people. It’s my job, and I think I do it fairly well. But now I am raising a white son, who will one day become a white man, who will have the power and the privilege that society has bestowed on him and those like him for generations.
I don’t have to have “the talk” with him like black parents have to have at troublingly young ages. But I do have to talk to him about race. Today, while they are fearful to send their babies out into the world — even if those babies are now adults — white parents and children can take walks, go swimming, go to the library and take public transit as if it were any other day.
“I don’t worry that [my son] will be killed by police while playing in a park. In front of a store. While walking home with Skittles. While driving. With his hands up. Because my son is white.”
I can’t ignore it because ignoring it perpetuates the problem. It’s why white college students can say they learned more in 15 weeks in my class on diversity and oppression than in their previous 15 years of life. Does this mean their parents did a “bad” job raising them? Of course not. This is not a mom-bashing article. It simply means that there is clearly room for improvement. The evidence is in the continued murders of black men and women at the hands of white men, be they police or not.
In an effort to do something, though this too will not be enough, I am writing to those in my new sphere of belonging: mothers of white sons. If you read about allyship (or, as Black Girl Dangerous Mia Mackenzie writes and I prefer: “currently operating in solidarity with”), you know that one way to “operate in solidarity with” the #BlackLivesMatter movement and other ongoing struggles for racial justice is to speak to other white people.
The irony here is that I am not saying anything new. I am saying what people of color have been saying for centuries. But research (and experience) shows that white people are more open to being challenged in these ways when it’s done by other white people. (In fact, some well-known white speakers make thousands of dollars going around and talking about other people’s pain.)
Mothers (and fathers) of white sons, it’s on us. We have to stop pretending this isn’t happening or merely shaking our heads and saying that it’s so sad but that we feel helpless. It’s not enough. Of course, there are anti-racist white men out there (I married one!), but we cannot leave it to happenstance or to some transformative experience later in life. I don’t claim to know all the answers, and I am still learning, but I know that waiting for all the answers will be too late. It’s on us. What can we do?
“Mothers (and fathers) of white sons, it’s on us. We have to stop pretending this isn’t happening.”
We must move beyond guilt and discomfort.
Guilt is a stifling emotion, and too many white people get mired in feeling guilty that they are part of a racist system. But guilt has gotten us nowhere. Look around. Guilt feeds the system of white supremacy because white people are able to bemoan how hard it is to talk about racism, that it makes us uncomfortable. As parents, though, we do things daily that make us feel uncomfortable or guilty. Writing about “mom guilt” is a surefire way to get a lot of blog hits. Of course, I’m not saying it’s good to feel guilty about other things either. But if we live with, struggle through, and manage that guilt — whether it be for working, for staying at home, for wanting time to ourselves, for not making “healthy” enough dinners, for giving the kids too much “screen time” — then why can’t we push past this guilt?
Don’t be afraid to talk about it.
As Dr. Brittany Cooper writes: “White people should recognize that the best way to be good allies is to go work among their own people (white people) to create more allies. Too frequently, white allies think we are asking them to come into our communities to affirm our account of racist acts and structures. What we are really asking is for them to 1) affirm that account boldly among other white people; and 2) use their privilege to confront racial injustices when they see them happening, whether in the grocery store or the boardroom.”
“Just because we wish racism didn’t exist doesn’t mean race doesn’t.”
This means in your house, as well. Police brutality and continued murdering of black and brown people is a race problem and a gender problem, and the intersections of the two — embodied daily in our sons — are within our power to influence. It means modeling for our sons that it’s okay to talk about race. Don’t rely on colorblind ideologies or myths that say it doesn’t matter what race someone is. Yes, it seems nice to say to children, but it denies people of color’s everyday lived experiences to pretend that race doesn’t exist. Just because we wish racism didn’t exist doesn’t mean race doesn’t. White people have created race (and racism) to maintain and sustain their power over centuries. We can’t undo that by pretending otherwise. Here’s the truth: being “colorblind” is racist. There are better ways to talk about race with your child than saying it doesn’t matter if a person is white or black or purple (side note: there are no purple people).
There are no more excuses not to learn.
We must educate ourselves about what’s happening in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and elsewhere, about the history of white supremacy and the legacy of that supremacy in our world today. White supremacy is not just robes and hoods, not just segregated lunch counters and water fountains. It lives on in our schools, neighborhoods, and courts, in our policing and incarceration. It’s not a question of whether or not we “can” do something. It’s a matter of “have to.”
People are dying. As Dr. Bettina Love says, those who refuse to honor the lives of youth of color in school are “spirit murderers.” Do not let your sons become those people. They can be better than those people. They can teach those people, just as we can teach them. Just as we must teach them. The caveat here is that you cannot rely on people of color to “explain” racism to you. It’s your job to learn; it’s not their job to teach you, to risk re-traumatizing themselves to tell you about their fears and experiences. Read books. Read blogs. Talk to other white friends who are active in the fight for racial justice. If you don’t have some of those friends, find some, in person or virtually. I’ll be your first one if you can’t find another.
“White supremacy is not just robes and hoods, not just segregated lunch counters and water fountains. It lives on in our schools, neighborhoods, and courts, in our policing and incarceration.”
Evaluate — and adapt — the narratives our sons hear.
What books does your son read? What games and television shows does he consume? Who are the characters in those narratives, and how do they reinforce or counter dominant narratives about who has power, who is smart, who is worthy and valuable? It’s not enough to say that there’s no alternative media. It exists and it’s on us to find it and use it! Mothers might think it easier to do counter discriminatory narratives when making sure their sons do not believe in strict gender roles. Moms write and read about this a lot. Raising a son to be a feminist is surely no easy task in this world of toxic masculinity, but raising a son to be a critical, anti-racist feminist who understands how both his gender and his race give him privileges is even more important.
How any mother — any human! — cannot be moved to act after watching the video of Alton Sterling’s son collapsing in tears during a press conference about his father’s murder is beyond me. Or how we can hear the soft little voice of a 4-year old who watched Philandro Castile’s be killed, echoing in the video recorded by his girlfriend and not be so outraged that it’s impossible to go about our daily lives as if nothing has happened. There are a “million moms” against gun violence; why not also against police brutality and racism? Our silence is continued violence.
But here’s the thing: it shouldn’t matter that Alton Sterling was someone’s father before his death reduced him to a hashtag. That Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice were someone’s sons. That Ryneshia McBride and Sandra Bland were someone’s daughters. They were — they are — someone. Period. It’s on us to make sure that our sons never forget that.
If you’d like to read more about what White “allies” can do in the wake of racial injustice, see this list of curated resources, originally developed for #MSUTeachIn in August 2015.