In the 1982 film, Gandhi, a Hindu man approaches Gandhi as he is fasting for an end to the violence between Muslims and Hindus. The man, obviously distraught and tormented, tells Gandhi he is going to hell for the gruesome murder of a Muslim child in retaliation for the murder of his own young son. Gandhi tells the man that there is a way out of hell—a kind of fatherly reparation: he must adopt a child orphaned by the violence and raise him as his own. Then, Gandhi clarifies that the child must be a Muslim and the Hindu man must raise him as a Muslim! It is arguably the most powerful moment in the film as the man, overcome by the power of Gandhi’s counsel, collapses at Gandhi’s bedside in his grief and gratitude.
In 2020, in response to another gruesome murder, this one on the streets of Minneapolis, the counsel that many white people are seeking, in so many words, is “a way out of hell.” With the recognition that for over 400 years, African Americans have been abducted, enslaved, whipped, hung, beaten, raped, exploited, underpaid, dispossessed, impoverished, incarcerated, shot, or choked—all by white people—many of us who are white are seeing in 2020, perhaps for the first time or with new clarity, the systemic racism that has made the lives of so many black people harsh and bitter. We who are white simply must recognize and respond to the awful burden of our history. With God’s grace, it can be done.
Seen through the lens of the headlines, Father’s Day 2020 affords an opportunity for white men like myself to navigate the question of what good fathering (or, in my case, grandfathering) looks like, going forward.
It seems to me that the best of fathering, traditionally, has been described with terms like tenderness, encouragement, support, nurture and presence. It’s hard to argue with that. But if there is a criticism to be made, it is that the “tenderness” and “presence” brought to bear in the care of our children is not necessarily extended beyond them. However much we might genuinely love our daughters and sons, if that love does not articulate breadth and inclusivity and resist its opposite, it can well lead to preference and exclusion, and much worse. Read Matthew 5:43-48.
Here’s the opportunity I see: those of us who are white can draw a line in the sand and simply insist that another generation will not be born and fathered (or mothered) without the determined effort to raise our children to be utterly intolerant of white supremacy and the structures it has successfully embedded up to now.
Here are six touchstones for “Fathering While White” in 2020 and beyond:
- Raise kids to know their history. Read to them every day if you can. Sometimes, read to them stories that speak to the historical racism that has been a big part of this country’s history. Children seem to pick up quickly that all of us, black or white, are precious in God’s sight. Narratives that speak to harmony, the gift of diversity, and resisting violence are important for children to hear. You could call this religious education 101. Happily, there is a growing collection of books that do this, and for all ages.
- Raise kids in a way that affords them lots of opportunities to have friends that are different than them. Plain speak: make sure your white kids have black friends. Friendships with African Americans are not the only thing that needs to be done in white families, but it gives our anti-racism efforts some added heart. Just as important: make sure your children see you with your black friends. No, this is not a show; it is about modeling mature human interaction.
- On the topic of modeling, remember, Dad, that you are one of your child’s most important teachers. As important as your words are, your actions are even more instructive. Remember Jesus’ observation of knowing a tree by its fruit. The point? Your kids need to see you engaged. Whether it’s participating in a townhall meeting, a demonstration or an economic development project, what you do with your time in the name of racial justice will have enormous instructive impact.
- As a subcategory of #3, model to your children your appreciation of black leadership, past and present. Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the important work he did AND be sure your children know that you know the African American women and men in your town or city who are making a difference. First, of course, you have to discover them, if you don’t know them already. This might require some deliberate effort; make the effort.
- While it is hard to know the future of the 21st century workplace after Covid 19, most fathers will be working in some capacity. Here again, it is critical that children understand why it is important to you for your workplace to be diverse, that it reflects the commitment to equality and equity in its hiring practices, promotions, and leadership.
- Finally, in the spirit of reparations, it is important for most white men in 2020 in the United States of America to recognize that we benefitted financially from the exploitation of people of color. It is time for us to repay that debt. As theologian Walter Brueggemann says so concisely, “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.” We must find ways to communicate to our children that we are committed to supporting businesses owned by African Americans, schools attended by African Americans, housing policy and investment that benefit African Americans. Encouraging our children to be just and generous must be on the front burner of what it means to be good father.
In conclusion, these six pieces of advice are every bit as much a challenge to me as they might be to you. Full disclosure: I am not a practitioner of all this counsel (yet). I am writing this publicly as way of prompting a conversation and prompting personal accountability. I regret that I did not do more of this as a father, but my past omissions and blindnesses must not be an obstruction to imagining a brighter future and ways to be a father in 2020 and beyond that embraces the best for our children, the best for all children, indeed the best for all people. I am not sure what faith means apart from this.