White Dad, Black Son and Raising Kids in a “Colorblind” World

Teaching how to create a more just world is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.

By Terry Keleher Dec 22, 2010

"Whose baby is that?" "Is that your child?" 

Shortly after my adopted newborn son arrived, whenever we were out in public, we drew frequent stares and questions from strangers. Though we live in a racially diverse neighborhood, I didn’t expect the sight of a middle-aged white man carrying an African American infant peering out from a colorful chest-worn sling to be such an attention grabber. 

When white people looked at us, they often seemed curious about the nature of our relationship, but few would ask questions. The unspoken code of etiquette was feigned "colorblindness," trying not to notice racial difference. Some genuinely expressed how cute my son was, while others over-emphasized the point, as if to prove their racial tolerance. Some tried to touch my son’s hair, perhaps feeling more license to explore a seemingly exotic feature. I’d quickly reposition my son out of their reach.

Black adults and children were more direct, questioning whose kid this was and where I got him. Though often abrupt, they seemed sincere in looking out for this child as one of their own. Viewing me with suspicion is justifiable when you look at the big picture, where even well intentioned white people still don’t have the best track record for effectively dealing with privilege, cultural differences or persistent inequality. 

As an educator by profession–and one who leads trainings about racial justice–I approach these interactions as "teachable moments." They’re also "learnable moments" for me, for each has its own nuances needing skillful navigation. Instead of taking offense to intrusive questions or avoiding difficult conversations, I try to embrace them with patience and openness. I make exceptions when someone’s downright rude, but that’s rare. Sometimes I get things right, but often, I figure out later what I wish I would’ve said.

Whatever the racial composition of your family, we are all living in a highly racialized society. Parenting amidst a growing pretense of post-racialism poses new challenges that require new consciousness and skills.

For years, I deliberated over my options for creating a family. I knew the choice of an open transracial adoption of a newborn black child by a single, gay, white dad would involve daily and lifelong learning. Since I wasn’t making choices about just my own life, my concerns provided plenty of fodder for sleepless nights. My hope was, and still is, that we’d find a way through the challenges, all the more wiser and perhaps even closer. I plunged into parenthood, fully embracing the steep learning curve ahead, but still so unprepared.

As a white person traveling solo, I can go about my business mostly unconscious, unnoticed and uninterrupted. With my son in the same places, a lot changes. I can only begin to imagine him, as a black youth or grown man, traveling these very places on his own. He’s sure to encounter a whole different set of reactions with pedestrians, shopkeepers, teachers, prospective employers, landlords or police officers. These seemingly mundane interactions are connected to a web of cultural stereotypes, media images, biased institutions and unfair laws.

The way he’ll need to respond will be different than the way I choose to respond. And we have to stay in sync when we’re together. My white skin gets me over in ways his dark skin will not. I’m given the benefit of the doubt that I’m a normal upright citizen doing the right thing. I carry my racial privilege in all routine matters, regardless of how anti-racist or racist I may be. My son won’t be given such a pass and he’ll need to be prepared.

As my son nears seven years of age, the public interactions are changing. On our last airline trip, a security agent upon noticing our racial difference, looked my son directly in the eye while pointing at me, and asked him, "Who is this man?" Fortunately, my son didn’t joke back, as he’s quite capable of doing. I realized I hadn’t prepared him enough for airport scrutiny, where he could easily be racially profiled. 

Last year, as a kindergartener at the local public school, when my son took another child’s show-and-tell toy and hid it in his locker, he was sent to the principal’s office with a formal disciplinary referral for stealing. It landed him an in-school detention and a call home from the principal. I never imagined I’d have to discuss with school personnel the absurdity of applying zero tolerance policies to 5 year olds. 

As the parent of a black child and member of a "conspicuous family," race will always be a conscious part of our daily lives. But being conscious about racism shouldn’t be limited to families of color or mixed-race families, just as being unconscious about racism shouldn’t be a luxury for so many white families. 

By all key indicators–economics, health, education, and more–the average white family fares better than the average family of color because of past and continuing bias. Yet, we downplay the disparities and dally with the delusion of a "colorblind" and "post-race" society. Racism won’t disappear because of wishful thinking or blind magic. Replicating this denial in our homes and families only perpetuates the inequities.

Instead of colorblind parenting, where we try to protect our kids from racism by pretending it doesn’t exist, we need to embrace racially conscientious parenting, where we prepare our children and ourselves to deal with reality so we can change it. It means choosing to become consciously and actively part of the solution instead of unconsciously and passively part of the problem. Parents have a particularly influential role to play in shaping the awareness and abilities of our children and in breaking down the barriers and bias of our neighborhood institutions, from schools and businesses to government agencies and social services.

Racially conscientious parenting involves awareness and action, commitment and courage, patience and persistence. These are all transferable traits we hone in other aspects of parenting. Racism insidiously replicates itself, but as parents, we are well positioned to be on the frontline of change. If we keep our eyes on the prize–racial equity for all–we can start at home, then work outward in our communities to build real and lasting change. Teaching, by example, how to create a more just world is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.