I met my daughter when she was three. Her mother and I had begun dating. Indeed, our first date involved taking Ella to the park. Her mother, who had finally accepted she wasn’t going to marry, had adopted Ella from Ethiopia when Ella was six months old. She took on the daunting task of raising a black daughter as a single white mother. Then, as my wife likes to say, “I walked through the door.” Within weeks, Ella was calling me Dad and six months later, her mother and I married.
I remember telling my wife that one of the gifts I brought to our marriage was my experience in raising five children, three of whom were daughters. I assumed being Ella’s father would be a piece of cake. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I soon realized I was a bumbling idiot when it came to raising a black daughter and that, unless I began a crash course on racism and white privilege, I had the potential to do tremendous damage to the psyche of my black daughter. Together, my wife and I committed to learning all we could about the experiences and perspectives of people of color, especially from parents of color.
One of our early struggles was in accepting our inability to escape our racial prejudices. As Ella’s parents, we quickly saw the ways white people interacted with her from a racial bias. It took us longer to realize their affliction was our own. We too were hopelessly prone to acting out of those biases and our love for Ella did not negate this propensity. Like all white American adults, we were racist.
Since I know many white people find this assertion offensive, let me be crystal clear about what I mean and don’t mean by saying “all white American adults are racist.” I do not mean that all white Americans adults are bad people. Indeed, in my experience, many white people are genuinely interested in addressing the racism in themselves and in our society. When I say “all white American adults are racist,” I am reluctantly acknowledging that all white Americans adults have been raised in a segregated and racially unequal society where they have had the power to act on and reinforce their prejudices with little accountability. Much of this racism is so subtle that we, who are white, cannot see it.
For example, recently one of my daughter’s white teachers called my wife to report that Ella was being disrespectful and disruptive in class. As any responsible white parent would do, we accepted her teacher’s description of Ella’s behavior as accurate, made Ella write a note of apology and temporarily took away some of her privileges as punishment. We did not ask Ella if she thought the teacher’s description of her behavior was fair.
That was racist behavior on our part.
We should have known better. While it was certainly possible that Ella’s behavior was disrespectful, we had read enough about racial dynamics to know that – at about Ella’s age – the assertiveness and independence of young black women often comes under attack. They are no longer cute. As women of color, they are becoming threatening. White society has very definite expectations about their behavior and often tries to enforce them. Instead of reserving judgment until we more fully understood any possible racial bias on the teacher’s part, we did what white parents with white children can do – we assumed the teacher’s perspective was unbiased.
As it turned out, when we later discussed this situation with Ella, she acknowledged her behavior had been disrespectful. However, this does not excuse our racism. Ella is going to spend the rest of her life having white people treat her differently because of the color of her skin. She does not need her parents uncritically justifying and supporting her mistreatment, always assuming that the perspective of the white person in the interaction is unbiased.
Acknowledging our own racism is only part of our responsibility as Ella’s parents. We must also prepare our daughter for a world where all white American adults are racist. Every single white American adult that she will encounter in life will have some conscious or unconscious bias about her because of the color of her skin. This is true of the “good” white people as well as the “bad” white people. This is true even of those who love her the most – her white parents.
Inevitably, Ella will become aware of this reality. Soon, like all teenagers, she will become adept at identifying our parental hypocrisies. If we want our relationship to our daughter to be rich and deep, we need to make certain that when we say or do things out of our racism, she can understand our behavior as systemic. Our racism is not an intentional act of disrespect. When she begins to call out our racism, we don’t want her to see our racism as evidence of some deeper animosity toward her. She can freely and openly challenge us. Why? Because we are already convinced of our biases and want to address them.
The second reason we must prepare our daughter for a world where all white American adults are racist is for her self-protection. If she had been raised by black parents, she would have learned this maxim in countless ways – through observation, through story, through experience and through training. She would know that she must always assume racial bias on the part of white people. She cannot afford the assumption that the police officer who has pulled her over will treat her with respect and equity. To do so put’s her life at risk.
This knowledge is especially important as a child raised by white parents. We have been able to shield Ella from much of the racism most children of color encounter from their earliest years. She has been raised around white friends and family that have treated her with affection and acceptance. In so doing, we have created false expectations. Reminding her that all white American adults are racist is vital as we send her into the world.
In retrospect, I wish I’d taught this to my white children as well. Instead, I reinforced the false dichotomy of “racist equals bad” and “non-racist equals good.” In so doing, I made it more difficult for my white children to see, acknowledge and address their racial biases. Indeed, it is white people operating out of this assumption who are most likely to inadvertently misjudge and mistreat my black daughter. Overt racism is broadly censored in our society. It is the systemic and subtle racism of “good” white people that actually has the most power to adversely impact her life.
Ironically, when it comes to racism, there will soon be a role reversal in our relationship with our daughter. We have been the teacher and she has been the student. As she becomes an adult and fully experiences what it means to be a black woman in America, she will have much to teach us. Though we expect some of those lessons to be painful, we couldn’t ask for a better person to teach them. While all white American adults are racist, we also want her to know that some white American adults are willing to listen and learn. We cannot completely eliminate our racial biases, but we can demonstrate the proper response to such self-awareness. You vigilantly work to diminish and mitigate the impact of your biases on the world.