Editor’s Note: Brendan Kiely is an author of four novels and most recently the nonfiction book, “The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
When our son was born, he was crying, but he was also an eerie blue: our birthing team wanted him brought to the warming station only a few moments after he was born. I hovered over him and babbled on about how much I loved him and how much I wanted to be there for him in his life. The doctor turned to me and said, “Keep talking with him. It’s helping.”
I didn’t know what was wrong, but as I spoke to him, he cried back – we were communicating with each other. He turned to me, twisted his tiny torso, reached out and grabbed hold of my pinky finger. And as we spoke together in this way, his skin warmed from that frightening blue to the color of a heart in a stained-glass window filled with light.
Nearly two and a half years later, he is still reaching for me, he is still listening for me – though now it is much different. He is observing me; he is watching how I react to the world, and he is mimicking me. He is learning from me in everything I say.
He is also inheriting from me a heritage and a racial identity, and I will tell him about his parents’ Irish and German heritages, but also, since we live in America, how he will be seen as, identified as and grow up as “White.”
And when his observations become questions, and someday he asks me, “What does it mean to be ‘White?’” it makes me wonder, what am I communicating to him? How am I, as a White parent, discussing race with my White child?
Questions without answers still must be asked
I certainly don’t have all the answers to these questions. But what’s also clear is how vital it is for me to prioritize them now so that we have a foundation for this conversation as it evolves – which it will.
He is a toddler now, and how we communicate about race will change over the years, but making discussions about race, racism and privilege as fundamental and habitual as those we have about compassion, empathy and community seems imperative.
When we are given a language for equity and justice, we can act with more care and commitment in the work toward it with those who have been doing it for so long already. It’s why it’s absolutely critical that, as White parents of a White child, we must talk about our White privilege as a family as often as we can about how it plays a role in our lives.
Many of my friends who are Black, Indigenous, East or South Asian, or Latinx, have shared with me the conversations they had with their parents and their own children about their racial identities and how to navigate the impacts of racism in their lives with as much of a clear-eyed understanding as possible.
My parents and I talked about racism, too, yes, but only as it related to other people, as if it was a story about other people and it played no role in my own life. We never spoke directly about our own racial identity, about “being White.”
And maybe that was part of the problem. If we talked about what it “meant to be White” we would have to talk about White privilege, which is racism’s specific impact on my life. While many people who are not White experience the personal pain and disenfranchisement of racism, White people like me benefit both directly and indirectly from this advantage woven so deeply into our society. And this is what I need to talk about with my son.
How did being White as a 12-year old affect my being hired as a model for magazine ads because, as the casting director said, “I looked like the All-American boy?” How did my being White as a 17-year-old affect my interactions with law enforcement, when I broke the law more than once but was immediately given the benefit of the doubt and told to “go home, be safe and keep my friends safe?”
What are the long-term, intergenerational impacts of my White grandfather’s access to education and home loans through the GI Bill, that friends of mine who are not White and whose grandfathers fought in the same war did not have access to because of racism?
Because while the bill itself may not have included specific language of exclusion by race, racist practices by many VA officials, real estate agents and college admissions administrators in the implementation of the bill’s benefits were deeply exclusionary by race, unfairly privileging White veterans with access to opportunities of upward mobility and the chance to pass subsequent financial and educational opportunities on to future generations.
Where the discomfort comes from
My wife who, like me, identifies as White, and I want to raise a child who will value and prioritize efforts to dismantle racism in his community, and to do so we need to be just as specific as families of color are about the relationship between his own racial identity and how racism affects his community. In our case, that means we need to speak with our son about the impact his own White privilege will have on his life and the lives of others around him.
I am the first to admit that I’m not used to talking about my racial identity as a White person. I think many White parents are in a similar situation. I want to talk to my son about race and racism – but if I don’t also talk to him about White privilege, I fear I’m ignoring a big part of the conversation about racism, especially for him and me.
Part of talking about racism with my son is about how White privilege impacts his life. We need to speak about it clearly and honestly, at whatever level he’s able to process and comprehend depending on his age, so that we can help him better understand how he can more effectively take part in the undoing of the inequities that privilege and racism creates.
It is difficult, partly because there aren’t many models out there for White families, but one way I can begin to have these conversations about race, racism and White privilege with my son is to tell the stories of my life and be specific about how my racial identity played a role in each of those stories.
I won’t always get it right. That’s OK
Part of the way my son and I communicate with each other is what he sees me doing, too – or not doing. And this is the kind of communication that I think is so vital to begin while he is still a toddler.
Because, eventually, no matter how much I talk to him about systemic racism, interpersonal racism, the legacies of colonialism and White privilege – no matter what language I use when we talk about it – it will only register as lip service if he doesn’t also see me acting in a way that tries in some way to face the reality of that injustice. And this is something I can start trying to communicate to him through my actions today.
In order for him to witness it, I have to try to model it: whether that’s listening to people who know a lot more about racism and privilege than I do, or acknowledging my privilege when I’m speaking with others, or putting it to use to work against racial injustice in my community. If I don’t do it, how do I expect him to believe that working against racial injustice is a value of mine and one I want him to uphold as well?
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Of course, it is also inevitable that as he listens to and watches me, my son will witness me fail, too. He will hear me stumble through uncomfortable conversations and see me make mistakes when I try to address a racial injustice in our community.
But I hope those failures will be part of our conversation, too – he and I learning together from my mistakes so that both he and I can do better the next time as we try to live with these values in the fronts of our minds.
While he is young, my son is still twisting toward me, crying to me, communicating with me and although I may not have the answers to his questions about why the world is the way it is, I promise him, just as I did in the first moments of his life, that I will keep talking with him, and showing up, so that going forward he and I can act in the way that meets our values together.