Just a few weeks ago, your firstborn child, a little boy, entered your life. These days, you are sleep-deprived and don’t know where your old life went. But as soon as you held him, the shape of his body and the feel of his skin became as familiar to you as your own. As he continues to grow, you’ll marvel that you can love so much, and you’ll wonder how you lived this long without him.
Perhaps no time in your life, or mine, has been as chaotic and uncertain as these days in which we currently live, but you can be assured that your child was welcomed by all into this world. Like you, he will be a child of privilege: he’ll be White, male, middle-class. He’ll receive the best education you can give him. No one will fear him or hate him simply because of his skin color. He’ll be expected to make a difference in the world.
You too were born such a child. Your father and I did the best we could to provide for you and teach you. We allowed you to explore, to play, to imagine. We encouraged you to be generous, to help others. We never had to caution you, as parents of children of color must do, that the world outside our home would be harsh and judgmental.
If your child were a child of color, you’d be thinking now about what you might teach him that would save his life—how to live in a White world. How to stay alive in a White world. You, son, have a different responsibility to your White child— to teach him to be non-racist, to do all you can to help him not be part of a system that has held back so many for so long.
I wish I’d shown you more about the world outside your protected home, talked with you more about those who are different from you, helped you see this world with more wide-open eyes, your arms open to all. If I could do it again, I’d do it better. I did what I knew to do then, but now I know so much more.
Here are some things I encourage you to do to raise your child to embrace all people:
Help him understand that White is only a color. It does not make him better, smarter, more handsome, more capable, more generous, more kind, or more right than others with brown and black skin. His voice does not raise him above those who speak with different accents and different words.
Teach him through your own life how to treat all people with respect and fairness. Help him to understand we’re all in this thing called life together, each of us struggling to make our own way.
Help him to follow his heart. Help his heart to be large and loving. Give him the courage to face change, to do justice, to speak out against wrongdoing.
Teach him to embrace all people, all lifestyles, all languages. His life will be so much richer if it is a tapestry of many shapes and colors.
Teach him to listen to others. Help him learn that listening is the key to learning and learning is the first step toward understanding.
Listen to him. Encourage him to share his thoughts and feelings, ideas, dreams, disappointments. Share with him your own. You will learn a lot from him.
Help him to understand the system that has worked for his family has failed many people. He can help change the system so it will work for everyone. Be by his side as he takes big steps.
Encourage him to question. The status quo might not be right. The history books, popular opinion, politicians might not be right. Show him how to ask the hard questions by asking them yourself.
I raised you to be the best person you could be, but color is not something we talked much about. I made mistakes; I still make them. But my heart is true, and even though I come from an era of much ignorance, I am still learning. You yourself continue to teach me. Your son, and sons and daughters everywhere, I believe will teach us all.
Barbara Presnell lives and writes in Lexington and teaches in Charlotte.