Father’s Day, White Dads, and Conversations about Race

Father’s Day is a special occasion reserved for recognizing and celebrating the invaluable role that dads play in the lives of their children.

Beyond providing financial support, fathers can significantly contribute to their children’s personal and social development through the support and unconditional love they give their children.

More specifically, a crucial aspect of parenting is preparing children to thrive in a complex, fast-changing, and diverse society. Fathers want their children to be successful, good humans, and to make the world a better place in whatever job, career, or profession they choose. But fathers’ responsibility goes beyond encouraging individual success and extends to promoting harmony and understanding among people of different walks of life, including ethnicity, race, religion, country of origin, place of birth, gender, gender identity, etc.

One of the fundamental but often neglected areas where fathers can make a difference in the lives of their children is by guiding them on issues related to race, inequality, and social justice.

This Father’s Day, as some men reflect on their role in their children’s lives, it’s important to consider how they can and should talk to their children about race-related issues that impact their lives.

Although the burden of teaching children to understand the evil impact of racism on their wellbeing has fallen to non-White parents, this hasn’t been the case for white parents. If we are socializing children to live and contribute to a socially fair society. It is equally essential for white fathers and other caregivers to engage in conversations about race and white privilege with their children from an early age and model appropriate behavior.

White fathers like myself have a unique opportunity and responsibility to shape our white children’s attitudes and behaviors towards others. We can teach them that all human beings, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, are valued and deserve respect. We must teach them that diversity is a precious gift that needs to be nurtured and promoted. We must teach them the importance of getting along with people from all backgrounds and standing up when they see something that is wrong, unfair, or unjust. This discussion goes beyond emphasizing social justice, equality, tolerance, and diversity; it is about actively teaching our children about the history and reality of racism in the United States and elsewhere. It includes having conversations about the myths of meritocracy, the way structural racism undergirds everything, and about how whites might inadvertently perpetuate it if we are not conscious and aware of it.

Living in Washington, DC, a part of the country where the majority of school children are non-white, my children found themselves in the minority. When my son was about 12 years old I encountered a situation where he played a game of cops and robbers (with real looking guns) in the neighborhood with an African-American friend. They took turns being cops and robbers and chasing each other. An innocent game between boys brought into sharp relief what my son could get away with that his friend wouldn’t. I felt a negative visceral reaction about the optics of the situation, fearing that a passing police officer might misinterpret their play, potentially leading to dire consequences.

This situation, and many others, further compelled me to have open conversations about white privilege and racial and ethnic differences with him and his sister and the challenges faced by marginalized communities. We all have the power to dismantle the racism that we see around. But if we do not talk about how and why, we might be indirectly contributing to the problem.

Some of these talks included my experiences growing up in Canada, a country unlike the United States, that attempts to celebrate its vertical mosaic (believing that diversity is the nation’s strength) rather than the melting pot approach that the United States has become.

Multiculturalism in Canada does not mean that Canadians approach to racial and ethnic diversity is perfect. Growing up in Toronto I remember witnessing numerous instances of racial bullying against Pakistani and Asian classmates and continued during my cab driving years. Living in Montreal I recalled how the police (and lots of members of Quebec society) were hostile and racist toward the French speaking Haitian community who lived among their midst. And working in out west in Lethbridge, Alberta I recalled the never relenting racism towards First Nations people who were marginalized both socially and economically.

I shared these experiences with my children, highlighting the importance of acknowledging and confronting racism and reflecting about how we are in some unknown ways contributing to it. It’s not simply seeing this debilitating social problem as one that exists between one or more individuals, but is also found in the realms of institutions like schools, and work places.

We need to have conversations about race and injustice, not just once, or when we see or experience it (e.g., like the oft heard “learning opportunity” approach), but on a continuous basis. In other words, we can’t simply be reactive, but we must be proactive as well. Giving up power and privilege is not easy.

It’s important for fathers to explicitly express their commitment to being anti-racist and their support for social justice, racial, and ethnic equality. However, merely making declarations is not enough; we must lead by example. Anti-racist values should be integrated into our daily lives and reflected in our words, actions, interactions, and school curricula (those campaigning against so-called Critical Race Theory taught in educational settings take note). By modeling these principles, we can effectively impart them to our children.

It is essential for fathers to challenge stereotypes that perpetuate racism and understand and be reflective about how we benefit from systems of oppression. We all have the power and agency to dismantle racism. Fathers have a unique role in this space.

We must also recognize situations where racial and ethnic discrimination may be a factor in how grown-ups, particularly those in positions of authority (e.g., teachers, store clerks, security officers, police officers, etc.), hold racist attitudes and engage in prejudicial actions. By encouraging our children to critically examine societal norms and expectations, we can empower them to stand up against racism when they witness or experience it.

In teaching our children about racism, it is crucial to emphasize the significance of standing up against it not because we tell them to, but because it is the right thing to do.

By fostering their sense of justice and empathy, fathers can empower their children to be active allies in the fight against racism. We should encourage them to speak out against racism, recognize their own privilege, work to dismantle systemic racism, support marginalized communities, and work towards creating a more inclusive society.

This includes:

1. Helping children identify instances of racial profiling and teaching them how to best interact with people in positions of authority using their privilege. This typically involves acting respectfully, remaining calm, complying with instructions, and seeking legal representation if necessary.

2. Outlining how systemic racism and discrimination exist and how they can negatively affect outcomes in employment, education, economic opportunities, and the criminal justice system.

3. Identify white privilege, what does it mean? How does it look like? Who benefits from it? Where does it come from?

4. Encouraging children to understand stereotypes and biases, and empowering them to develop resistance, embrace their cultural identity with pride, and excel in spite of societal expectations.

5. Emphasizing the importance of self-care, self-respect, and mental health.

6. Value, appreciate, and honor the humanity in everyone no matter where they come from or who they are.

7. Help them to understand the atrocities committed during slavery, the horrors of that time, and implications for how we treat each other today. We must never forget what that evil system of oppression did to enslave people and the consequences of not reckoning with it.

As white fathers, we have a responsibility to raise socially conscious and anti-racist children. By engaging in open and honest conversations about race, challenging biases, and teaching empathy and understanding, we can better equip our children with the tools to navigate a diverse world.

This Father’s Day, let’s recognize the importance of addressing race-related issues with our children and commit to fostering a more equitable and inclusive society together.

photo credit
Title: Son exploring the world
Photographer: Ante Hamersmit