White lies we tell our children

ColinStokes - Gulnara Niaz headshotby guest blogger Colin Stokes

I was driving my family through a part of Boston we don’t usually traffic, and I heard my ten-year-old daughter from the back seat:

“Why do so many Black people live in this neighborhood?”

I was getting used to tough questions coming out of nowhere, as my daughter’s intellectual capacities were blossoming, and she was finding me among the go-to sources of knowledge. This is usually really fun for a pedantic dad like me, though it has its challenges. I am called upon to explain electricity a lot, and I am basically making things up.

But the questions occasionally break my heart. This year she destroyed her own faith in Santa Claus, for instance. It was really tough for her: she loved believing in magic. Living in a world where gifts came from totally unexplainable places is, frankly, awesome. Knowing that the stuff you asked for arrived because your parents paid for it is bit of a let-down.

This question from the backseat hit me especially hard, since it reminded me of my own disillusionment. I was raised by White, liberal parents, so I understood that there was racism and it was bad. But I don’t think I internalized the structural, systemic, invisible oppressions all around me until well into adulthood. Even then, it remains somewhat abstract—as an able-bodied, cisgendered, straight, White male with wealth, I benefit from all of them.

Still, in the last year or so, the difference between my privileged family and millions of others in my own country has been harder for me to miss. As I looked out the car window at the Dorchester men and women running their errands, I thought of the accounts I’ve read by parents of Black children of the talks they have to give to their ten-year-old sons, about how to behave outside at night, what to wear, what to do if you see a police car or a person in uniform, to avoid serious, life-impacting trouble.

I do not have to tell my daughter a thing about how to dress or behave or interact with police. She and her White, blue-eyed brother can honestly do pretty much whatever they want—play with toy guns, wear hoods, play loud music from the car, forget to signal a turn, and they will be ignored or waved at.

And yet we have witnessed all of these behaviors lead to death when a person with dark skin does them.

And that’s just the most visible injustice. The facts are that, in my country, the distribution of wealth, income, educational attainment, health, imprisonment, representation in entertainment and business leadership, and on and on overwhelmingly favor White people, including me. Including my son and, to a growing extent, my daughter.

What I’ve learned has been hard for me to wrap my brain around. In a way, my daughter and I have both belatedly learned that magic isn’t real, after being lied to about it for years. Part of the tradition of privileged people is to make the presents look like they just appeared when in fact they were bought and paid for. Even today, my kids are being taught the same story I grew up learning about Columbus and the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving—a story that sounds more like a fairy tale the more I learn. Later, they’ll be taught that the story of America’s progress to equality has been a gentle arc bending towards Obama and the post-racial present.

This is a history and culture written to make people like us feel good. But I think I have a responsibility to raise two White children on the truth about privilege. That there is no Santa Claus, and we didn’t get our privilege because were good this year. We got it because we inherited it, along with our skin color.

In the car, I had only a moment to think.

“Well honey,” I said, “I don’t know enough about why. But I have been reading some things, and I am learning that White people didn’t want Black people to live near them, or have much money, so they didn’t let them buy houses except in certain parts of the city.”

That was the end of the conversation.

I felt the enormity of the conversations that remained. How am I supposed to do my parenting job of building my kids’ self-esteem and cultivating their optimism and confidence, while at the same time cluing them in to the invisible advantages that they can’t help but receive? I don’t even know what my own responsibility as a privileged man is—how am I supposed to explain it to a fifth grader?

But that’s what I have to do, I think. I have to make sure that a culture beyond the White narrative is a part of my children’s lives. I have to respond to movies and books (and simplified history lessons) in a way that reminds them that we aren’t the whole universe, or even its center. After all, American history is also full of brave heroes who have tried to show the world the truth. These are the radicals and prophets, the movement builders and the protestors.

Maybe they point the way to a small revolutionary victory that White parents can strive for. Don’t draw a curtain around your children to protect their privilege. Pull it back, and show them how the world is depending on them to change it.

A version of this story was previously delivered at TEDxBeaconStreet.


Colin is a Brookline father and husband with a career in non-profit communications and marketing. For the last 10 years he has worked with leadership of education organizations on storytelling, branding, messaging, employee engagement, and inclusion. Before children, Colin was a professional actor in Boston and New York, appearing in Shakespeare and musicals as well as momentarily on a couple of Law and Order franchises. His previous TEDxBeaconStreet talks explore the role stories play in identity and have been viewed more than 6 million times. He blogs at colinstokes.blogspot.com and tweets @stokescolin.

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