When we found out that we were having our first child, I did what most soon-to-be fathers do: I planned out his whole life. I imagined how I would teach him to throw a baseball, catch a football and play the piano. I planned to give him the life I never had. One that was full of opportunities, with little concern for money or social status. But I was confronted by a stark reality that hadn’t occurred to me: My son is black. That means that he is already set to have a life I never had. The color of his skin will have more effect on his life than I could even fathom. I’m a white male from northern Minnesota. What do I know about being black? That is terrifying. How do I teach him to make his way in a world that I, as an adult, only slightly understand?
I’m already worrying about the day my son comes home from school and tells me that a kid in his class called him a racist name. How do I respond to that? How do I protect his innocence? Obviously, I will have to rely on my wife — who is African-American — to help answer these questions, but that isn’t good enough for me. While other parents are worried about the content of the TV shows their kids see or when to discuss the birds and the bees, my wife and I also have to wrestle with teaching our son how to interact with security and police officers, what racial profiling is, and how to dress and act so he is not considered “a threat.” That’s “the talk” we’re preparing to have … and it’s one of many. Still, I will worry every time he leaves the house because his safety is not guaranteed — just like it wasn’t guaranteed for Jamar Clark in Minneapolis; Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., or Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
Race is a difficult topic to discuss. It makes us uncomfortable. We don’t want to offend or seem close-minded. We all need to be challenged in order to learn. Isn’t that how we grow? I have had to educate myself on what it means to be black in America. While there is no way I can fully understand how that feels, at least I can help prepare my son for his reality. He’s going to come of age in a world that is full of terror: terrorists abroad, terror attacks at home and the terror that he might be shot by a police officer. I’ve never experienced the kinds of profiling or interactions with police that confront people of color, but at least I can try to understand, and so should you.
Education and dialogue are the keys to understanding. We can choose to get mad when protesters inconvenience our lives, or we can choose to educate ourselves on why they are protesting in the first place. Think about the last time you took a moment to even contemplate the struggles of race in our country. It has been a primary focus of nearly every media outlet for the past two years, but the majority of America still isn’t listening. We only listen when our own lives are affected in some way.
Yes … it turns out that my son will have the life I never had. I’ve come to terms with that, and I hope that I can prepare him for it. There’s a long road ahead for us, filled with countless iterations and variations of “the talk.” This isn’t just a discussion for the parents of black children; it’s one that everyone should be having. I implore you to teach your kids that some people are treated differently in our society. Teach them to stand up for the basic human rights of all. Teach them that we are all humans and shouldn’t discriminate against people based on the color of their skin, the religion they practice, the person they love or simply because they are “different.” Teach them about the beauty of diversity and they will come to love it as much as I have. Teach them now, because ignorance is not an excuse.
Dalton Johnson, of Washington, D.C., is a national security consultant. He is a native of Duluth.