Race: A White Father’s Reflection

To follow up on our discussion of race last month (see here and here), I want to share an essay in the Boston Globe written by a very old friend of mine, Michael Fitzgerald.  Mike, who is white, is married to a black woman and they have two teenage sons.   He says things I have heard countless black fathers say, but he adds his own poignant perspective.    Here are a few passages:  I urge you to read the whole thing.

Nearly a decade ago, I wrote an article in this space about how being the white father of black children didn’t seem to mean much in 21st-century America. … I probably thought they would be able to pick being black or white or something entirely different. That was naive.

Still, when I look at them, I just see my boys. I need to know better. … Other people see them as black. That means they are subject to a different set of stereotypes and social rules than I. That’s true even in progressive Cambridge, where we live.

 

I’ll never be a black dad. But I do share some things with black fathers across the country: pride. And fear….I have an inkling of just how sheltered white dads can be. White dads can be angry about the killing of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, because why wouldn’t we be? But dads of white sons don’t get the phone call Trayvon Martin’s father got. White sons don’t get shot because of the way they look. 

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  • Brian Martin

    I am white. I have never experienced racism firsthand. I have seen racism, and I have seen incredible acts of kindness in my work. What I don’t see a lot of is people willing to engage in real conversation. Conversation that asks why. Why do people hate? Why do they fear? Is fear reasonable? Is it as reasonable for me as a white person to feel more fear or apprehension when I am approached on the street by a group of young males who are Hispanic or African American in appearance and are dressed in a manner that appears thuggish as it is for an African American male to feel fear or apprehension if approached by white police officers? Is it reasonable to view African American strangers in my neighborhood in mostly white Fargo ND with suspicion in the weeks following a home invasion where residents of an apartment were pistol whipped by an African American male who was not caught, and then within the next week there were two people killed by an African American male all withing 4 blocks of my home? ( I am blessed to live in an area that is relatively free of violent crime for the most part, so these incidents stand out) Is it racist for an African American lady I worked with in the local homeless shelter to tell me that she told her kids to stay away from the other African American people at the homeless shelter because she was tired of them assuming that her boys were selling drugs? Is it racist of me to expect that parents where ever they are, should raise their kids to know right from wrong? That being angry does not equal the acceptance of violence or hate? That burning stuff and destroying stuff is not understandable?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Brian,

      I am not going to try to answer your questions directly—in particular a simple “yes” or “no” would miss the point. But I do want to unpack your questions by asking some questions in return.

      1) What does it mean to look “thuggish”? A hoodie? saggy clothes? urban fashions?

      2) I recently moved out of a mixed race neighborhood that is, I think, now white minority. If someone in the neighborhood was murdered by a white person, would it be reasonable fo me to view all white people entering the neighborhood with suspicion?

      3) A few years ago, a group of white, upper-middle-class fraternity pledges from Trinity traveled to Yale and were caught vandalizing the library in one of the residential colleges. Should I be worried that their parents were not teaching them right from wrong?

      4) When white fans of various sports teams rioted after their teams won, what was your reaction?

      These are pointed questions, but they get to the heart of the problem about your call for a “real conversation”. What does that mean? Who gets to set the terms of discussion? What is the frame of reference around this conversation going to be?

      • brian martin

        David,
        My questions where rhetorical and your response is exactly at the heart of things. We have to question our responses to things. I is easy to question and criticize others, but more of us need to question our own responses. Ultimately real conversations would be about us as well as the other, with each of us examining where we come from and learning where others come from.

        • Brian Martin

          David,
          To further respond and actually answer your questions
          1. Yup. dressed like the bangers I used to work with.
          2. No. No more than it is for me to view all black people entering my neighborhood with suspicion.
          3. Hell yes.
          4. What a bunch of thugs. (asshats….insert your favorite pejorative term)

  • Thales

    David,

    Thanks for the link to the interesting article. My thoughts:

    1. I’m going to get on my soapbox again, but I just have to repeat that racism is such a grave evil and it is such a source of pain, that caution has to be used, due to the danger of people and incidents being labeled unjustly as “racist” (which I consider calumny of the person unjustly accused) and the danger of stoking the fires of revenge/misunderstanding/anger for no good cause. So it frustrates me to see claims such as the one that Trayvon Martin was shot because he looked black — no, he was shot by a Hispanic man after Trayvon physically attacked the other man; there was no racism there (which doesn’t negate the fact that the whole event was still deeply tragic and sad.) There are legitimate instances of racism and unfair racial prejudice — so it’s frustrating to see illegitimate examples used.

    2. Interesting that the one episode of black teen – white cop that the author has personal knowledge of is entirely positive. As for the store clerk episode, maybe it was unfair racial prejudice (though the note that his son is 6’2 and doesn’t look like a teen is curious) — but I’ve experienced similar events as I’ve previously described on the blog.

    3. The most fascinating aspect of the essay is in the first section of the essay and is probably being missed by most people — but it deserves the greatest attention. It’s the astonishing description (astonishing, at least to me) that his kids and his kids’ social circle subscribe to the juvenile and immature stereotype that having a wholesome family life (without screens at the dining table) or attempts to raise a responsible student or citizen (like requirements to do homework or to clean up after themselves) is acting “white” — and that this is “not a compliment.” Astonishing. So the kids and the friends dismiss a parent’s attempts to have standards, and they appear (in some at least small way) to not recognize these standards as being worthwhile, instead dismissing them all as being “white”? The reason why his kids and his kids’ friends have this point of view is, in my opinion, the more fascinating topic that I would have liked to have seen discussed.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thales,

      you have climbed on this particular soapbox before; I let it pass then but I want to challenge it now. The confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin cannot be reduced to “a hispanic shot a black man after the black man attacked him.” In the complex web of racial identities in the US, George Zimmerman is hispanic, but he is also white, or at least shares in whiteness in certain contexts. (Remember, race is not an intrinsic quality, it is a social construct.) Further, what Zimmerman “saw” that night was, I believe, shaped by racial stereotypes that the white community has of blacks: he did not “see” a skinny teenager with his hoodie up from the rain but a threatening black “thug”. So yes, this whole incident was tinged with racism because it was carried out on the racialized stage of American culture.

      As for your second point: I think you are misreading it, or at least reading a whole lot more into this than the sparse details warrant. Michael Fitzgerald does not identify the race of his sons’ friends: how would you interpret this incident if they were white? Even if they were black (or some combination of white and black) I suspect that all of them are middle class suburban kids (as the author notes, they live in Cambridge, MA). So, for the most part, I suspect, as the author notes, most of the parents involved are typical middle-class suburban parents: white or black they may indulge their children more than was acceptable in previous generations, but generally expect them to behave. And, like all teenagers, these kids rebel, or at least push back. Michael’s sons respond by playing with racial stereotypes: his “strict” parental discipline is because he is “white”. In other words, they are mocking him by invoking a well worn media trope. (The whole notion of “acting white” has gained traction in the media, but scholarship on it is mixed. There is a surprisingly good summary on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acting_white.)

      Here in my new home in the South, there is a curious phenomenon that I have seen but do not know the extent of: middle class white teens and 20 somethings pretending that they are “rednecks”—lower class whites. They drive pick up trucks, play their radios loud, drink cheap beer, and generally conform to various classist stereotypes. I think this is a different expression of the same thing being written about: rebellious teenagers using socially promoted stereotypes to get back at their parents and to try to define themselves. But no one goes around worrying about the failures of middle class parents, or worrying that these kids do not see middle class values as “worthwhile.”

  • Thales

    David,

    You’d like a conversation about the Martin-Zimmerman tragedy? Okay, I’m up for it. :) Please realize that a problem with the Martin-Zimmerman event is that many people jumped to conclusions before having all the facts. Today, we don’t have perfect knowledge of all facts and all circumstances now (and we never will), but we do have more facts now than we did at the time when the story first happened. Also, I’ll repeat something I’ve said before: Racism is a grave, grave evil, and it has to be taken seriously. And false accusations of racism are not only slanderous (and gravely evil when done intentionally) but severely detrimental to the common good, because false accusations tend to perpetuate and contribute to hatred, distrust, and revenge. That’s why I’m so sensitive to these matters.

    You say The confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin cannot be reduced to “a hispanic shot a black man after the black man attacked him.”

    Fair enough — these situations are far more complicated than my summary. But understand that what I said was in response was to Fitzgerald’s summary of the Martin-Zimmerman confrontation: namely, that a black man got shot because of the way he looked. I respectfully submit that the confrontation cannot be reduced to Fitzgerald’s statement. I happen to think that my summary is more closer to the truth than Fitzgerald’s. As a first point, Martin got shot during the physical altercation, and the best evidence we have appears to show that the physical nature of altercation was initiated by Martin and not Z, and there’s no reason to think that Z would have shot his gun if there was no physical altercation with Martin. But set that issue aside, because it’s more important to look at the how and why the whole event started, as it was obviously started by Z who began following Martin. Why did Z start the whole sequence of events?

    After looking at all the facts that I’ve been able to find, I’ve come to the conclusion that Z was not racist against black people and that his initial actions towards Martin were not motivated by racism. Here are my facts:

    -Z came from a highly-racially-diverse upbringing, household, friend group, school classmates, etc., containing many black people
    -he had black relatives
    -he had black friends throughout his life
    -he went into business with a black friend, opening up an insurance office
    -growing up, there were black people regularly in his household and at his family meals
    -he took a black girl to the prom
    -he tutored black children
    -he once took a public stand against the police, in support of a black homeless man who had been beaten up by the white son of a police officer
    -he was a big supporter of President Obama’s election, and liked the notion of a black, multi-racial president
    -Z’s black friends and neighbors say that he is not racist.

    (This is an interesting article, of many that are out there, that discusses some of these facts: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/25/us-usa-florida-shooting-zimmerman-idUSBRE83O18H20120425 )

    Now Z is far from perfect. He had flaws, the biggest one being that he probably inappropriately fell too much into the I’m-a-neighbor-watch-cop mentality. But it’s important to understand where Z’s mind was on the night of the incident. In the weeks and months preceding the incident, there had been many burglaries and breakins in the neighborhood, including of Z himself and people he was close to. It was such a problem that the neighborhood had started a watch program, and they had designated Z the “head” of the watch program. He did a lot of patrolling of the neighborhood, and exerted great effort to try and stop the crimes from happening. He had a long history of calling the police to report anything and everything. Z probably was an over-the-top busybody who called the police too often. But it’s important to acknowledge this characteristic of Z, as it gives some potential explanation as to what Z was thinking that night. (Also interesting to note that my cursory review of earlier phone police phone calls showed at least 1 instance of Z reporting on a white suspect who was driving erratically. So Z wasn’t just targeting blacks — he reported on everyone.)

    Then there is the transcript of the police phone call. Reading the transcript, Z first says that there is a “real suspicious guy”, “looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” There is no mention of race. The dispatcher asks whether M is white, black, or Hispanic. Z. says “he looks black” in response. Only later, when M is walking toward Z, Z says unprompted “He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male.”

    I realize that this is my interpretation, but it looks to me like the natural reading of the transcript is that Z did not know M’s race when Z began tracking M, and that Z only knew that M was black when M turned toward Z (at which point, Z without prompting tells the dispatcher that M is a black male, which tends to show that that is the time when Z himself confirms that M is black.) So it looks to me that Z’s reason for beginning to track M is that he saw a person in a hoodie, in the rain, walking around, looking at windows, being “suspicious” or looking like he was “on drugs”, all before knowing M’s race.

    In sum, I see no evidence that Z is a racist against blacks.

    Now, David, 2 questions for you:
    1. You say that Z “is also white, or at least shares in whiteness in certain contexts.” What evidence do you have for that? I’ve provided my evidence that Z had a broad exposure and involvement with blacks in his life. In addition, we know that Z was bilingual in Spanish and had an identification with his Hispanic culture. What is your evidence that Z “shared in whiteness”, or identified with “white culture”, or shared the “white social construct” (or however you’d like to put it)?

    2. You also say ” this whole incident was tinged with racism.” Please don’t parse the language—be direct. Are you saying that you think Z is racist against blacks, or at least, that on the night of the incident, Z acted with racism against Martin ? What are your reasons for saying so?

    Looking forward to your responses. As this post is long enough, I’m going to do another one to address the second issue of your comment (the “whiteness” issue).

  • Thales

    David,

    Now let’s move to the second issue of Fitzgerald’s anecdote of his kids calling him “white” and not as a compliment.

    Michael Fitzgerald does not identify the race of his sons’ friends: how would you interpret this incident if they were white? Even if they were black (or some combination of white and black) I suspect that all of them are middle class suburban kids

    My interpretation of this incident would have no change if the friends were all white or middle class kids. I wasn’t thinking at all about their race or economic level of the friends, and it would have no effect on my impressions of the article. I mentioned their friends or “social circle” because the incident talks about the sons using this “white” comment to and around their friends (when being told to put away screens and clean up after themselves.) Also this attitude or quirk of the sons didn’t just originate with the sons — it had to have come from or be supported by their social circle and/or come from the cultural influences that their social group is taking in. This attitude is being used by the sons with their friends, and the entire social circle appears to be recognizing it, even if the attitude is only a joke. The races or economics of the friends are irrelevant to me — I still find the attitude to be curious.

    I get that all teens push back against their parents–even in loving relationships, and I get that this “white” comment in this particular case is almost certainly a product of this fact. Teens have forever pushed back against parents who are trying to raise them with certain standards. I did too. But consider the labels that are usually used: “Oh, Dad, you’re a dork/a nerd/a prude/old-fashioned/etc.” I’ve got no reason to think that the sons aren’t using “white” in a similar fashion and may even be using the term in a joking fashion or even as a term of endearment. But that doesn’t change the fact that “white/black” is of a different category from “dork/nerd” (at least to my mind). Why? Because it is racial.

    We’ve been talking and talking about the evils of racism and unjust racial stereotypes, and about how to combat such evils. We’ve been talking about how to try to develop empathy for someone of another race, and how to avoid seeing the other person as “other”. And here is an instance of “othering” based on race. It doesn’t matter that this racial “othering” might be only done as a joke between people who love each other — doesn’t this type of behavior strike you at least as potentially negative? Imagine other scenarios besides the family scenario: a black student gets frustrated, not with his father who he loves, but with the school principal and rejects the principal’s attempt at correction as “being white”? Wouldn’t that racial stereotyping bother you? It bothers me more than if the student got frustrated and rejected the principal as being a “prude” and a “dork”. Or suppose if the black teen gets admonished by a white police officer, and responsively rejects the officer as “white”? Wouldn’t that racial stereotyping bother you?

    You say, other words, they are mocking him by invoking a well worn media trope. Yes, but shouldn’t we be rejecting that trope, or at least not shrugging it off indifferently? If we were trying to have a culture without racism, wouldn’t that be better achieved if white-black stereotyping and “othering” never happens, even between people who are lovingly mocking each other?

    Again, I get that in this particular case, the racial stereotyping was a mocking event between people who are close. But isn’t it a stereotyping that we generally want to avoid in pretty much any other circumstance? Your Wikipedia article on “acting white” seems to confirm my point. It says that generally “acting white” is used to ridicule peers for engaging in behaviors perceived to be characteristic of whites. Don’t we want a culture where ridicule between races is minimized as much as possible? It just seems to me that even “loving ridicule” between races, at the very least, potentially contributes to a culture where it is easier to denigrate or “otherize” someone of another race based on their race.

    In addition, though the Fitzgerald sons might not be truly denigrating or rejecting wholesome behavior as “white” (because they’re instead engaged in loving mocking), based on your Wikipedia article, some black students do denigrate and reject responsible behavior (like doing well in school) as “white” behavior and are thus discouraged from such wholesome behavior. Isn’t that a problem? Shouldn’t we want these kids to be corrected in their mistaken thinking?

    I don’t understand your point about middle class white teens pretending that they are rednecks. Are they “otherizing” someone? I don’t see it. Sounds like they’re just rebelling against their parents by engaging in redneck behavior. And even if they’re “otherizing” someone, is there a white-black component? I don’t see it. It’s the white-black otherization that is of greatest concern in our country, not otherization between stuck-up city folks and country “hicks”, or of Italians and Irish, or whatever (though these are prejudices and failures to empathize, also). Finally, you say “no one goes around worrying about the failures of middle class parents, or worrying that these kids do not see middle class values as “worthwhile.”” Not sure why you say that, because I sure worry about that, and I’ve seen plenty of articles/books concerned with the general breakdown of traditional family life, rise of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, etc., in non-black populations.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thales, thanks for the two long comments. I will respond, but the semester is starting and my time is not my own for a bit. So a beg your patience and forbearance while I get my new job under control!

  • Thales

    David,
    I understand if you’re busy and can’t respond – no problem. But I’m still truly interested in hearing whether you think George Zimmerman is a racist, and for what reasons.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Thales, sorry, things are crazy and every time I sit down to think about an answer to you, I get distracted. I promise you an answer. As teaser, if you go back and look, I don’t believe I ever called George Zimmerman a racist: I said the situation was filled with racism. I want to draw this distinction out carefully.

      • Thales

        David,

        I appreciate your willingness to have a conversation — I know life gets busy and you’ve got much better things to do than blog with an anonymous commenter. So thank you.

        Yes, I know you didn’t call George Z. a racist. But I think a less-careful listener might think you said that, so I look forward to exploring your perspective and better understanding the nuances of your position. I hope you can be more clear and direct with your language — “the incident was tinged with racism” is not going to cut it. We’re not talking about an incident with many people, many motivations, many impressions, etc., and making a generalized observation. We’re talking about one single person with one single set of impressions and motivations: George Z.

        Let me concede also that the question “is George Z a racist or not?” is not accurate for our conversation because it is too broad. (I grant that someone could not be a racist generally, and yet still act in a racist manner in a specific instance.) It seems to me that the more accurate question for our conversation is “did George Z. act in a racist manner on that specific day with Trayvon M. or not?”. I say “no” and I’m wondering whether you will answer “yes” and for what reason. (Of course, maybe you think my phrasing of the question is not accurate — if so, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on that too.)

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          Thanks for your patience, Thales… these are all good questions and I think we will disagree, but spelling it out carefully will probably reveal some areas of agreement as well. I am waiting on a response now from a colleague who studies these issues professionally.