To My White, Male Child
As the biological forces of manhood knock on your door, I hope you know that I feel so privileged to be your father. I feel great joy, but also some genuine fear.
I do fear that you will fall prey to the functional belief that you are better than others because you are white and male, whether consciously or not. For white males in America, this ignorance comes very easily and in dense concentrations. It reinforces a herd mentality that tramples. You could go your whole life steeped in this ignorance and be successful among people who look and think like you. But you will be building the estate of your life in a vast ghetto of sameness.
Being white and male affords you unearned and unjustified rewards you can leverage for your own benefit. Or you can take the road less traveled. You can use your privilege to empower others who do not benefit from these attributes. This path will require awareness, humility, and willingness. It is work worth doing and the difficulty pales in comparison to the burden others carry who are neither white nor male.
Consider this: Eight people own HALF the world’s wealth, son. Eight. Eight men have more wealth than 3,750,000,000 people who live on only a few dollars or less a day. Six of the eight are white, American men.
However they acquired it or whatever they choose to do with it, white men are in a position to continue to perpetuate this historical concentration of wealth and power for their own kind or they can use it to bring people unlike them into more secure and influential stations in this world. Understand that many people don’t want to lift others up because it feels to them like being forced down out of their rightful position — that they are losing something when they give. This is what we call a scarcity mentality and it is a key reason so much of human history is written in blood. It assumes ownership of the world instead of stewardship. The illusion of ownership is a symptom of the terminally near-sighted.
Son, you may never be wealthy and powerful, but you will always be white and male. And you will always be a steward. A manager of gifts, opportunities and resources. Let me tell you more of what this means.
Imagine, if you can, being black…
If you were black, you might walk into a room of white people and be instantly aware of how you may or may not be perceived, not just because you are unknown or unproven, but simply because of the color of your skin. There’s a good chance you would feel like the minority you are — and feel the weight of the majority’s eyes and evaluations. Your black friends can tell you far more about how they walk through the world. But know that it is a different world than you can even imagine. Listen to them intently. Question yourself. Be compassionate. And be indignant on their behalf.
Along with the Rev. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I want you to read “The Negro Walks on Eggshells,” a short article by Shirley Scott. (It was part of a project that won a Pulitzer prize in 1964.) Here’s a quote:
Imagine, if you can, your skin not white but black….You will soon discover that the most annoying fact of color is the ambiguity of the role you play in life. You don’t feel different, yet you are treated differently. You can’t justify the treatment accorded you, but you must live and cope with white justification.
Ask your black friends and neighbors if they still feel this way and how often.
Imagine, if you can, being a woman…
If you were a woman, there’s always a chance you would walk into a room of men concerned that your voice may not be heard, your opinions will not be taken seriously and your physical appearance will be perceived as the single most important thing about you.
Due to the ongoing abuse and mistreatment of women in our world, deep vulnerability would be an all-too-familiar feeling. Your mother can tell you more about how she walks through the world — its boardrooms and dimly-lit parking lots. Listen to her. Talk to a diversity of women about feminism and women’s issues. Don’t be threatened. And listen to your sister as she begins to step into a different world than you will experience, though your paths may be parallel. Ask her how she experiences the same spaces you occupy and obstacles you encounter.
You should know that some people say they are sick and tired of white men being cast as the enemy. Of course, these are white men saying this. But they are confused if they think we lose our value by humbly ascribing more value to others. They have confused humility with poverty and empathy with weakness because we white males cannot understand the poverty of spirit that non-white people and women have endured.
The power we were afforded by white men who came before us should become the power to right their wrongs. If we don’t use this power in this way, we will use it in other ways. It’s like energy that doesn’t dissipate, but simply takes another form. What form will it take in you?
Listen: Some people will tell you we should all be humble and contend for equality and mutuality in the world, but they can’t really tell you why. They may point to some intangible expectation that all hominids should be treated equally. But why? They may proclaim we are all under some moral obligation since we share this planet and its resources. But whose authority? Just respectfully disagree. This sort of moral vacuum is what allows some people — the majority, the wealthy, or the powerful — to dictate terms or to sway understanding for other people. If moral authority is located in people, then anyone gets to decide what’s right, who’s valuable, and why.
Your mother and I will continue to teach you that the essential dignity of human beings comes from above, not from within. It is imparted in creation, not inherent in ambulatory lumps of cell tissue. Either the God of Heaven wisely and lovingly created humanity and founded our essential dignity in his own work and ways or we have no cogent and defensible argument for compassion and empathy.
Jesus is our “why.” And Jesus was Dr. King’s ultimate “why.”
Jesus, the invisible God made visible, came into our world through the womb of a teenage peasant. He was a middle-eastern Jewish peasant in a rural village among the working poor in Roman-occupied Galilee. As he gained influence, he brought dignity to women, the poor, the disabled, the sick, cultural illegitimates like the Samaritans, and other outcasts. He even sought out tax-collectors whose exploitation of the common man put them in the margins. He cared about the reconciliation of wrongdoers. He cared about repentance, forgiveness and transformation, not simply validation.
In his most famous sermon in the Gospel of Matthew (ch. 5), Jesus comforted those suffering most in this hellish world with the promise that they will inherit the kingdom. The tables will be turned. Overturned.
I hope you will live your life with an eye on the tables you occupy and set as a white man. I hope you will know which ones to upend and when. I hope and pray you will live your life with character like a feast you labor over to welcome any and all to your table, and especially those who are apt to hunger and thirst for the justice they have been denied in this life — treatment you take for granted.
God made you a white male. You can’t change that, nor should you. But you can redeem it by being a blessing. If the word character is rooted in the idea of an imprint on a coin, then this is how you will bear upon your life the imprint of the one true Human. Be white and male for his glory (not yours) and the good of others. All others.