I write you this letter many years before your birth. Though I have no idea really if you’ll ever be born. I have yet to know who your mother is or where life will lead, but I wanted to write to you either way.
What I am about to tell you may be difficult to hear. In fact, you might not want to know it or even understand it. It may be that you need to return to this letter again and again, to really get what I’m talking about. And that’s ok.
Here we go . . .
My sweet, you are a racist.
The hard thing about telling you this is that you may think that you are a bad person for being a racist. You have by now probably learned that being racist is bad, that you shouldn’t comment on people’s race, or make racist jokes, or think of yourself as better than others.
I tell you this not to shame you or make you feel bad. I see in you such natural and incredible love for others, such sweet caring, such kindness, and such curiosity.
So know that I don’t love you any less, or think you worse for being a racist.
I too after all am a racist as are probably most of the people we know. My father was a racist and his father before him. Even a generation or two back this becomes more and more obvious, but it’s increasing subtlety does not change the truth of our racism.
And though being a racist isn’t exactly your fault. It can be your responsibility if you choose.
You might be wondering what I mean by calling you a racist.
A racist is simply someone who consciously or unconsciously participates in a system that favors one ‘superior or dominant’ race over another. And you and I have participated in this system our whole lives.
I grew up in a place that was called ‘sheltered’. We often referred to that town as being in a bubble, the ‘Brentwood bubble’ we called it. And for a long time, I thought that what was on the outside of that bubble was life and real experience, but I have come to see that what was REALLY on the outside of that bubble was people of color.
Now it’s not your grandfather’s and grandmother’s fault that I grew up in this place, they chose a place with the best possible schools. The school I went to had test scores as high as any private school in the state of Tennessee. In fact, my high school was once listed in the top 100 schools in the country.
The problem is that in this country at the time I grew up (and likely still in the time you’re growing up) going to a ‘good school’ also meant going to a ‘white school’ (though because I’m white I get to avoid that tag altogether.) I could simply call it a good school.
Though coded inside this phrase ‘good school’ for most people saying my school was good or that my town was ‘sheltered’ also communicated that my school was ‘white,’ located in the suburbs (which are mostly white) and led by a staff of excellent teachers (which you’d be correct in assuming were also mostly white.)
The impact of this was that I grew up mostly around white people and lived in a very white world.
Yes, there were people of color in my school. I even participated in a diversity club called project understanding. I tried to grasp and fully get the whiteness of my circumstances more than most people. But it didn’t really have much impact.
Despite those efforts small and large I still developed and absorbed the culture of subtle white supremacy that surrounded me.
White spaces were better, safer, and more elite. And I came to believe the myths of meritocracy and individualism that hid from me the distinct and pervasive privilege I’ve enjoyed my whole life.
When a violent crime happened on campus my senior year, many in my school were scared and I can still remember how we were surprised that it had ‘happened here.’ Which I realize now was also a code for being surprised that it had happened in such a ‘white place’.
Had a stabbing occurred in a school in the middle of Nashville or at school with a large population of students of color I doubt anyone in my school would have batted an eye. More telling is that I doubt I would have batted an eye.
I hope that in raising you I’ve done a better job of talking with you about race.
I hope I have encouraged us to live in a place where you have friends of color and have encouraged you to maintain those friendships. But even if I have been a paragon of racial diversity and understanding in raising you I no doubt have failed to overcome the strong social and cultural messages about race that are everywhere.
You have still grown up in a world in part little different than the world I grew up in.
Most of the images you’ve seen on TV and the movies are of white people. The books you’ve read have been largely about a white experience of the world. And I have no doubt that because of your intelligence and kindness you dream of having a life of joy and success which in our society is primarily about being in white spaces.
I’m not foolish enough to believe we live in a post-racial world or that the problems of racism will be solved before or even long after your birth.
Even though you are still young and have done so little, even if your mother and I have done more than most other parents, it still is likely not enough. Certainly not enough to exclude or exempt you from the system of privilege and preference that has oppressed and held down people of color for centuries.
And that’s perhaps the hardest thing about this news.
Because I want to blame myself or offer you a simple way to escape the burden of racism you bear. But I cannot.
Simply by being raised by a white father who himself was raised inside a system of racism means that you inherit this burden from me. It’s almost as if I had a genetic condition that I’ve passed onto you.
I say almost because I am certainly not free from fault.
I have on the gross level, laughed and told racist jokes, moved away from people of color out fear or anxiety, considered myself entitled because of my intelligence which really was a way of hiding the entitlement I felt for being white.
In fact, I’m sure there are racist and privileged thoughts and actions I’m not even aware of that I have participated in or perpetrated in my life. And I’m sure I will continue to think and say things that are subtly racist (though I’m committed to working on this)
On a subtle level, I’ve done very little to address racism in our country or our world.
I have mostly chosen to live in white spaces, talk to white people, make white friends. My chosen religion (Buddhism) and my chosen profession (coaching) are both overwhelmingly white in this country.
I did these things not thinking it had anything to do with my whiteness, but it’s clear to me now that that was at least one of the factors.
I enjoyed being in places where people were ‘like me’ and that really means that I enjoyed being around people who were white or that acted ‘white.’ And as a result, I have a personal culture that is built largely around this whiteness.
I am sure I have passed this onto you. And all of my attempts to change this or talk about this with you, while being full of goodwill and good intentions have not been enough.
You have inherited from me and from the world a system of racism, one in which if you do nothing will simply and likely continue. And again this is not your fault. I see in you so much hope and possibility for the world.
Yet you are a racist. As am I.
As are your grandparents and great grandparents and great-great-grandparents and further back almost as far as our history can see.
My hope is that you will feel the grief of this, that you will feel the weight of being a racist that I was able to avoid for so much of my life and that you will begin to work to resolve racism in your own life and in the world around you.
My hope is that you will see racism as a personal responsibility and something you can work to change rather than throwing up your hands in cynicism and resignation like so many people you and I both know.
Perhaps ending racism won’t be the major project of your life. It certainly hasn’t been the major project of my life, but even if it’s something we only keep in mind (a fact that is in and of itself a shining example of our privilege) I hope you take it seriously and work to change things.
It is not your fault that you are a racist. As J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University, explained, “Racism is a structure, not an event.”
You are not a racist because of something you did or said or because of something that made you a bad person.
You are a racist because you have been born into a racist society and have both consciously and unconsciously participated in that system. I offer you this letter not to shame you, but so you can see what I for so many years did not. What I will likely forget about at some point after writing this letter to you and have to remember again.
In some ways, it’s so easy to forget that I’m white or that I have privilege or that I’m a racist. Our whole society is built around keeping this context a secret. (Not that this gives me or you a pass, I assure it does not, and if you were born a person of color you would be unable to ignore the racism that surrounds you every day. ) I simply admit that I will forget. I will benefit from privilege I do not see and I will pass this on to you.
My hope is that you will learn a bit more than I did, work a little bit harder than I did, and deconstruct a little bit more of this structure than I did in my life. Because racism is not the responsibility of people of color.
It is my responsibility and yours.
We are hurting people.
We have hurt them and will continue to hurt them.
And all we have to do is nothing.
All we have to do is forget and ignore and pretend, which are the easiest things to do.
So I implore you to remember, to notice, to work, not from fear of being a racist, but from the deeply felt, embodied understanding that you simply are one. And my hope is that from that understanding you can move forward from love to slowly change the world that you and I both love.
Your Future Father