I am white. My son is black.
I will never know what it’s like to be a black man in America. And that makes me sad because it means I can never fully empathize and appreciate what it’s like to be my son. I am white, and my (youngest) son is black.
And yet, while I do not know what it’s like to be a black man in America, I do know what it’s like to be the father of a black man in America.
My experience cannot compare to the exponential challenges likely faced by black fathers, but as fathers, we do at least share one common challenge: We know what it’s like to have to raise a son to understand that every time he steps outside the door there is additional risk simply because of the color of his skin.
As an average white, middle-class male, I don’t have to play the same lottery my son does — the lottery where there’s always the chance he will draw the short straw just once and end up facing someone in a position of power who possesses an angry, racial bias and the pre-disposition to physically express their anger and hatred toward a skin color. That is my greatest fear as his father.
But in the midst of my concern for his well-being, I have also tried to teach him a delicate balance: Trust the system, but also be wary. As a black male, there is always the very real possibility that he will encounter racism from within the system. Although I have always felt conflicted about teaching him this reality, it is the on-going reality for his life, as it is for every black male in America. And that also saddens me because this is not a reality that any parent should ever have to teach their children, no matter their race or culture.
It shouldn’t be this way, America. We have come so far — yet we still have so far to go.
In May, I watched the coverage of the SpaceX launch where a trio of commentators — a white female reporter, flanked by a black female SpaceX employee, and a black male NASA employee — were simply overwhelmed with joy at the accomplishment of American ingenuity and cooperation that was just witnessed.
When they talked excitedly about what we can achieve when we work together for a common purpose, it was clear they wanted the event to call for the greater good and higher ideals of a nation.
Yet, we still have so far to go. That same coverage also featured images of violent protests and George Floyd’s final moments. There are the battle lines of left versus right. Our country continues to demonstrate seething anger, disdain, and outright hatred toward the other side — whether it’s racial, political, religious, or economic.
Enough is enough. We need reconciliation. We need to fully commit, over the long haul, to ensuring our systems equitably equip everyone to succeed at the levels they are capable of.
We need to build on the firm foundations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his profound, practical, and empathetic wisdom. In this moment, we need to remember — and fully apply in our own lives — Dr. King’s words that “All men (and women) are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
It is time for America to become more fully and completely, the ideal of “what we ought to be” — together and collectively. The battle of racism, hate, and implicit and explicit oppression is a battle that has been fought for too long. There is simply no reason that our collective humanity cannot once and for all evolve beyond the continued strife and divisions that we ourselves allow to exist.
I want this for my own black son and my white sons. I want this for my black daughter and my white daughters. I want this for every parent’s sons and daughters of every race. As I often tell my own multiracial family, “We are all one family.”
While that might sound trite or flippant, I’d actually challenge us to think about that for just a minute. Think about what it would mean, if we all actually viewed our national and global community and each other in that way. And while that doesn’t absolve the need to still address past wrongs and injustice — maybe it opens the door to doing just that.
Jeff Keenan ’83, former supply chain strategic initiatives program manager at Adobe Systems, is now consulting with start-ups, social impact enterprises, and global development non-profits. Jeff is the father of six and is the co-author of Our Day to End Poverty: 24 Ways You Can Make a Difference.