Being a White Dad on MLK Day – Jeremy Austill

The evening had an
unremarkable beginning. Our family (my wife, my 6 year old son and 5 year old
daughter) had dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Texas Roadhouse. After
completing our boots and country music accompanied meal, we drove across the
street to Target. It was a couple of hours spent firmly entrenched in my
Caucasian comfort zone. Little did I know, as we made our way through town to
our home, a conversation would take place in my truck that would challenge my
poise. My son, who has now spent a year and a half in our local public school
system, was well aware he did not have school Monday because it is a
holiday…MLK Day.

When the subject was
broached and the questions started, my muscles tensed and my eyes darted
between the road and the rearview mirror to catch a glimpse of his countenance.
There was no turning back. Pieces of his innocence were on the verge of eroding
away into a quickly fading childhood. Parenthood has many challenges. I am well
versed in sleep deprivation, tantrums, a lack of privacy, and a Lego brick
under foot. However, a pervasive tension in our home is our deep desire to
protect our children’s innocence while simultaneously avoiding the stigma of
having “sheltered” kids. We want them to be wise and capable of maneuvering in
the culture of the world, yet one of the beauties of children is their
wide-eyed hope. The more they venture from the friendly confines of our home
into the earth, the more I can see their eyes being opened not only to wonder
but also the ills of society.

 My son had heard of Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. at school but it was clear his teachers were cautious in
their presentation of the material because his understanding was extremely
lacking in substance. I appreciate this. I am deficient in my ability to teach
my kids to read, write and do math, but I am glad I was the one responsible for
filling in some of the blanks on this particular subject. With some trepidation,
I waded into the uncomfortable waters. I am quite sure African American parents
are forced to traverse these sorrowful paths very early in life, but to this
point in their life experiences, my kids are completely oblivious to racism.
How do I explain to my precious babies that MLK Day is part memorial, part
celebration, dedicated to the life of a man who gave himself for the cause of
justice? More specifically, I am conscripted, much to my dismay, to explain how
there was a time in our nation’s history in which those with brown skin(***)
were treated unfairly. People with brown skin were treated unfairly by people
whose skin hue matches that of my children. The tension was rising again.

I understand we find
ourselves, over the last 12-24 months in America, immersed in difficult
questions concerning racism. Within the depths of those questions it is clear
some use the word racism to manipulate and further their agenda. Equally
disturbing are those who seek to diminish and dismiss the reality of racism
because it doesn’t fit their narrative. Nonetheless, in my truck this was not a
matter of Fox News watchers in contrast with CNN viewers. This was about the
little boys in my son’s class who have brown skin. This was about how
heartbreaking it would be for them to be treated unfairly because of their
beautiful pigment…how absurd…how nonsensical. My 6 year old son and 5 year old
daughter do not know or comprehend racism. On one hand, it was a relief to have
it affirmed they have been raised in a “white home” but harbor no glaring prejudice.
I am well aware of my deficiencies as a dad, and it seems since the day my son
was born he has repeatedly assisted me in becoming acquainted with my
weaknesses as a man. He has revealed my impatience, anger, selfishness and many
other sins. Thankfully on this night, my sweet kids didn’t reveal something I
had always hoped was not prevalent in my soul.

On that dark night we talked
about the greatness of a man who stood for justice, hope and possibility. We
talked about the beauty, value, capability and similarity of all races. The conversation
was not long. Truthfully, I wanted it to be over as quickly as possible. I
comprehend this was an invaluable teaching moment, but I would be disingenuous
if I didn’t confess my utter discomfort with the entire experience. I can
unflinchingly preach to hundreds, but these moments incite more uncertainty
than any public speaking scenario.

Before I could escape the
conversation and divert their attention elsewhere, the kids asked how Dr. King
died. Did he just get really old daddy? No, a man killed him because he hated
him for his skin color and his dream. They wanted to know more but I didn’t
have the heart to tell them he was murdered in Memphis, a city 35 miles from my
hometown that we love dearly. That fact would have brought racism and hate a
little too close to home. This was close enough for one night. I pray I handled
the moment well. I pray I gave them enough information to give them perspective
but not so much that they lost something precious. I hope our talk opened their
hearts more wide to love, justice and hope and closed the door on the
heartbreak of prejudice. Today I live in my hopes…that under my care and in my
home are healers of what ails the earth and not perpetuators of its brokenness.
I am a white dad. I don’t feel the need to apologize for my race (nor should
anyone else for that matter) nor do I feel I fit the generalizations some would
perpetuate. I am a white dad. I am determined my children WILL see the color of
skin…and find all shades beautiful and worthy of love, and fairness. I am a
dad. I hope I am doing this right.

 ***Brown Skin is the way my kids identify someone who
has a different shade of flesh. It is pure and innocent and a trait that seems
to have no bearing on their ideas about a person. It seems to intrigue them. If
this phrasing offends, please know the intent is one of child like innocence
and an utter lack of cynicism.

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