A White Father’s Reflection on Raising Black Sons in America

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Sean Dean
06/12/20

Growing up in a home with military parents you learn pretty quickly that authority is to be obeyed, and questioning it is something to be done with great trepidation. As such I am an obsessive rule follower.

I am also a White, male, highly educated, straight, Protestant Christian. The only thing that could give me more privilege would be if I were also rich. 

Nothing has brought this into focus more than adopting and raising our three Black sons.

It was a short leap for us to go from young couple to young couple adopting a foster kid. The route to becoming licensed was not easy, but once it was done we were ready — or at least we thought we were.

There’s this incredibly weird thing you do when you’re getting licensed to foster-adopt: you have to describe the child you want. It feels odd to say something like “I want a white baby girl with no health issues” (incidentally this is the most common request). Our requests were something like any race, boy, under 5, no severe health issues. 

Black children are overrepresented in the foster system. That is to say that while Black people make up about 13 percent of the population of the US, they make up about 25 percent of the kids in the system. There is a discussion to be had here, but that’s for another day.

With so many people wanting their White baby girl, a Black boy entering the system has a lower possibility of being successfully placed than White children or Black girls. When we said we’d take — or even desired — a Black boy the die was cast that we would become a transracial family. And so it was the March after we were licensed as foster parents when Jamil came to visit us for the first time. We knew beyond the shadow of a doubt he was our boy.  Our life as a family composed of races began. A few years later when Jahlil and Jaycee joined us our big, messy, lovely, transracial family was complete. 

Both my wife and I knew there would be differences about raising Black boys, but I don’t think we realized how much.

It’s the little things like hair products or skincare regimens that most often highlight the differences between my boys and me. It’s tempting to allow those little things to be the only differences between us. Then something like George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery or Manuel Ellis happens that shakes me out of my made-up utopia where white and black live together peaceably. 

I’m shaken back into the reality that I need to teach my kids how to interact with authorities who, in spite of everything I learned growing up, may not have their best interests in mind. 

I am forced to remember that even though my kids live under the umbrella of my privilege, once they step away from that umbrella they are just another group of Black kids that any racist with a gun could hunt down. 

This is where the real differences come into play. All my father had to do was teach me trust authority. I need to teach my kids to respect and be skeptical of authority.  Soon I will have “the talk” with the older boys. No, not that talk. The talk where I tell them that if an officer stops them they need to keep their hands visible all the time. Don’t make any sudden moves. Look the officer in the eye. Speak gently and call him “sir” or her “ma’am.” Is this overkill? I hope so, but you can’t be too careful when your kid’s actual lives are on the line. 

Denial and terror are not productive ways to live. While it is necessary that we teach our kids how to survive in a society that is objectively dangerous for them, it is also important that we live with the hope of a better tomorrow. Studies have shown that when people in difficult situations can imagine a positive outcome they are more likely to survive their current situation. For us, that looks like attending a multiracial church that is welcoming of all people, encouraging our kids to reach for their dreams, teaching them about their history and culture, and loving our neighbors.