My son Khalil is two-and-a-half years old and he has had a Terrible-Two summer. One for the record books. He’s been hitting any and everyone and throwing toys like he’s getting paid to do so. Actually, it’s all been happening, gradually worsening, since November—since before he turned two.
I know his look now before he acts out. It’s usually after some toy or object doesn’t operate the way he expects it to, or, God forbid, if I tell him, ‘no.’ His face frowns like he ate something sour, and then he raises one of his flailing arms to strike whatever is in sight. “Hit, hit,” he’ll say, and if he’s really into it, he’ll say, “Hit, kick, hit, kick.” There’s nothing cute about it, but I figure it could be worse. He could be a biter.
My wife has been saying we have to do something. I thought she was just being hard on him, but then, in late June, on the verge of Khalil starting preschool in August, she said, “He can’t be the only black boy in his class and hit another kid.”
I’m white; my wife is black. For most of the year, we live and work in the Philippines. We haven’t crossed paths with too many black people in Manila—and, my wife is right. Khalil will be the only black boy in his preschool class. I hadn’t once thought of that though. That there might be more complexities to the issue of an innocent toddler—a black boy—who can’t keep his hands to himself.
I’d wager most parents—fathers, in particular—with my same skin tone would feel as I did. Ah, he’s just a child. He doesn’t understand how to control his emotions. He doesn’t even know he’s having “emotions.” It’s just a phase.
Perhaps this is a stepping stone for where privilege stretches into the world for a toddling boy. A white boy who hits, throws, and screams is just being a three-year-old, but a black boy? I’m not sure of the outcome, but the fear and dread in my wife’s tone was enough to tell me there is absolutely more to it than I could have ever fathomed.
I am my father’s third and last born child—the only boy. He is forty-four years my senior. He comes from Pine Apple, Alabama, where his parents were sharecroppers. He graduated high school from a class of ten. His parents had no money for him to go to college, but his only want in the world was just that. He signed on to the Air Force and served six years—just on the cusp of both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, never being deported to either. His heart was set on the GI Bill, and he took great advantage of it, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college and then going on to earn a PhD in Chemistry. He has several patents to his name—none of which I know the details.
Dad worked as a soil scientist for the state and federal government for over twenty-five years and retired in the mid 80s to establish, run, and operate a tree farm nursery in southwest Virginia. Over the last few years he’s since donated the 150-plus acres to a local school district to be an educational farm—the first of its kind in the state of Virginia. This is one of his greatest achievements.
I reap the benefits of his success. I was born to parents with a stable income and rich educational experiences. Growing up, I knew I was going to college; the idea had been ingrained early. It was just a matter of where. Not furthering my education was never an option. Dad battles dementia now, and while he has enough stories to write his own book, one of his stories stands out to me far and away from the others. It’s the time he hitchhiked with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Before I go on, I want to be clear that I wasn’t raised by a “woke” father. He was never on the sit-in side of the fence. As far as I know, he never attended any type of protest against unjust judiciary or governmental decisions. He never boycotted an event or service or restaurant to speak out against racism. He voted Reagan, Bush, Dole, Bush, and so on.
Growing up, I’d also heard him use the N-word on several occasions. Once, when I was maybe seven or eight—my parents divorced by then—sitting on the deep brown carpet in his living room watching television, Dad was lodging walnuts, one by one, just below the pivot of the steel nutcracker, cracking the shells and sharing the meat with me and my sister.
“You know what they call a walnut, don’t you?” he said.
I gave him a look that said, no, what?
“A nigger’s toe,” he said laughing.
I went back to the television. I didn’t know what that word really meant. I knew he was making a joke because of the way he laughed, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t get any of it then.
Dad might not recall that happening, but it did. I wonder what makes a thing stick in a kid’s mind. I wonder what memories Khalil will have of the things I say and do? I’d be naïve to think they will all be merry. At one point in my life, I thought for sure my father was a racist. That he thought his race was superior to others. With where he lived, however—very small rural Appalachia town—I’m not sure it even mattered to the world. When my wife and I got married, Dad said my wife was family, and family came first and that was final. He said he didn’t care what the “folks in town might think.” I took that to mean he was showing his love, and while I don’t think my father is a racist, I do wonder how someone can show love and be a racist. How a system of racial inequality can perpetuate this thinking and sentiment.
I’ve never confronted Dad about the language I heard him use when I was a young boy. Rather, I’ve convinced myself that him using those words had, in part, something to do with his generation, the time in which he was an impressionable young man in Pine Apple, Alabama. One cannot help to whom they are born and when.
Here’s that story about MLK:
Dad was born in ’35. After he joined the Air Force, he was stationed somewhere in Texas. Back then, he didn’t have money for a car, and to save on the bus fare, he preferred to hitchhike. He doesn’t recall if he was going to base or returning home, but he recalls one time—it must have been some time between ’54 and ’55 he says—that a black man pulled to the roadside to pick him up.
This was unusual because, as Dad says, back then black folks just didn’t have cars like that. Was it a Chrysler? A Lincoln? A Packard? He doesn’t recall exactly. What I picture is something out of Hollywood—a long, shiny car with deep bucket seats, those long two-lane highways lined by thick Pine forests, green shrubbery, and the occasional Union 76 gas station.
Dad says he got in the front seat. He was in uniform. He said the driver—a black man—was in a clean and neat suit. Dad said they didn’t talk much, but when they did, the man kept on about equal rights for the Negroes. Dad says it wasn’t until a few days later when he realized who the man was. He saw him—the same black man—on the television—with the same voice, but with a more fierce and heightened tone, preaching about freedom and injustice and liberty for all.
Somewhere around third grade, I was sitting with him in his blue Dodge Ram work van that smelled like antifreeze and was full of too-heavy toolboxes, storage bins of nails and nuts and bolts, and pairs of worn-out work gloves that made me tired just to look at. It was late afternoon and we were in the parking lot of my elementary school waiting for some event to begin. Dad’s modus operandi is to be annoyingly early for everything, so there we were, at least an hour early, sitting in the van, waiting.
Every morning, I bused 45 minutes to Hunter Elementary, which was the quote, unquote “best” magnet school in Wake County. I lived in West Raleigh with Mom, where there was a strawberry farm about a mile from our house. Hunter Elementary was smack dab in the middle of downtown Raleigh in Chavis Heights, the oldest public housing community in the state. This was circa 1986.
Sometime that week—or maybe even that day—there was an incident with a black boy in my class named Robert. I don’t recall what exactly transpired, but Robert was always in trouble. We weren’t friends really. I kept my distance. I knew I couldn’t get in trouble. Ever. Dad’s tone told me as much. When the teacher reprimanded Robert on this particular day, he ran out of the class and just left school. That was the rumor anyway. This was unthinkable in my world and hit my third-grade brain hard. First of all, I wouldn’t know where to run once I got to the edge of the street sidewalk. Beyond that, it was all foreign territory. Young Robert, my classmate, skipped lunch, P.E., and art class all together and ran straight home, into the abyss of Chavis Heights that surrounded my top-notch magnet school.
In Dad’s van that afternoon I thought about Robert. I looked at the clean, front yard of Hunter Elementary and then to the surrounding neighborhood: the messy yards and sagging porches, the metal-gated front doors that slammed bang. That’s where Robert was, where he lived, within all that wild movement and noise and jive on the streets that looked and sounded like chaos and danger and rap music and crack cocaine—
“I’m so glad I’m not black,” I said to Dad.
I remember that exact moment like it was yesterday. I’m so glad I’m not black. That’s my first memory of when I realized and verbalized, interestingly enough, I wasn’t black. Not that I was white, but that I wasn’t black. I wasn’t a part of this “other” group. I was something more clearly; I was white. I’m ashamed of this moment and memory, but it is mine and it is real. How do I explain this to my son and daughter, my wife, to the world? I have no idea. I’m not sure how Dad responded or if he did.
Last year my wife and I purchased a home in Long Beach, California, her hometown. It is located in the coveted 90808 Long Beach zip code area. We’ve worked hard to save money and are proud of our home. It isn’t on the Westside where my wife grew up. It’s at the edge of upscale Bixby Knolls, just a few blocks away from Lakewood Village. Lakewood, a neighborhood of Long Beach, has a population of just under 10,000, a majority of whom are white, and all through the streets of Lakewood there are signs that read: “Lakewood Village: Times Change but Values Remain the Same.”
A lot of white people live by slogans like these. There’s subtext in these words that cannot be ignored. Is “times change” meant to be literal or figurative? Which values exactly? Can we be more specific? I can’t help but wonder if that’s a sign that says something more. Something to the “other.”
I must say, however, Lakewood has the best parks and playgrounds. We happened by a few, just by accident, and our son absolutely loves one park in particular that we call the Airplane park. That’s not its official name, but at the entrance there is an actual US Marine Corps jet fighter plane rising high in the air. Below it there is a memorial, commemorating the Veterans from Lakewood who served in Vietnam.
Our terrible two-year-old is a perfect boy at the Airplane Park. The huge sand box with the fire truck play-land is his favorite. No hitting, no throwing, just sand and laughing and joy and cheddar cheese Goldfish and Capri Suns.
One day we went to find, in the yard adjacent to the playground, lines of beach, picnic, and camping chairs unfolded and, strangely, unguarded. They’d been left there and no one was around. These were set out by Lakewood residents in preparation, we learned later after asking another patron at the park, for that evening’s summer series concert.
We quickly found a calendar online. That night was country music. I would have preferred something else—anything—but it was our only summer night to check out the vibe of our neighborhood park as we were to depart for the Philippines again soon. It turned out to be a fun evening. Well organized, not too loud, smiling and happy families, food trucks, enough safe space for Khalil to play. There was even some diversity in the crowd—not much, but some. Before the last song, the singer, a white female, calls to the crowd: “let me ask you something, are you a Country Nation?”
I hadn’t heard “Country Nation” used in this context before. My annoying Red Sox fan friends on Facebook post pics of the Red Sox Nation slogan. There’s also Yankee Nation and Laker Nation. Any sporting team and “Nation” seems to fit. Seems to be appropriate. It’s a call to unite others who believe in the same team.
I can’t help but dwell on the subtext of semantics.
Are you a Country Nation? It’s complicated.
I’ve never heard of Classical Nation or Rock and Roll Nation or Pop Nation. I’ve heard the term Hip-Hop Nation though, several times. In this context, it’s a call to unite the fans of Hip-Hop, which, as a musical genre, is rooted in groups and bands and individuals who stood to fight the power with one fist in the air and the other on a turntable. It’s a genre of music rooted in the African Diaspora and Jazz and Blues and the Harlem Renaissance and social justice. Hip-Hop continues to provide a voice to many of the voiceless, which is, as I see it, one of the subtext meanings of the term “Hip-Hop Nation.”
I can’t help but wonder about the singer’s call to the Country Nation. Country music has roots in white folk music, Celtic fiddle tunes and English ballads, Cowboy songs. What is it exactly that the Country Nation stands for?
I can’t help but wonder how Country Nation might be a call to counter, to top, the inferior “other” Hip-Hop Nation. The crowd hooted and hollered and some called back, “Hell yeah we are!”
I mention this to my wife. She thinks I’m overreacting.
A black man was killed in one of the pristine Lakewood parks a little over a year ago.
57-year-old Fred Taft—a hard-working family man, husband, father, and grandfather – was attending a family reunion, and he was shot in the back of the head at gunpoint in the park’s public restroom. It’s been called a hate crime by many, but police are reluctant to call it that since there is no suspect as yet. There are witnesses who saw a white gunman who, as they put it, evaded the scene by casually running through neighborhood streets in Lakewood. Other witnesses said he drove away in a white Prius. The shooter, a white gunman, has never been identified. Fred Taft’s murder remains a mystery.
Growing up, I didn’t know anyone in prison. I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone in prison. I also never knew of anyone who was shot, been shot at, or involved in a gun altercation, but I had many friends who hunted and killed animals during the respective hunting seasons. The closest I ever got to guns was venison jerky.
The same can’t be said for my wife’s family, and Taft’s unsolved murder isn’t an anomaly either. My wife’s cousin was shot almost a year ago. He was at a friend’s house in Carson, enjoying the SoCal evening when some deranged lunatic with a gun started firing through the neighborhood. He’s lucky to be alive.
On a Sunday morning in December, while still on Christmas holiday in the US, he texted and asked for a ride to church. When we arrived to his apartment complex, he was waiting inside the entrance lobby. He was wearing casual jeans, a light blue sweater cardigan, and walked with a cane. In the car, I asked him how he’s doing. He said, “I’m good, man, I just get a little tired after a while.” He still had the staples in his stomach from where the doctor operated. This past July, he told me the fourth was a struggle—all the fireworks and pops and screams and yells brought back some tough memories for him.
“Lakewood Village: Times Change but Values Remain the Same.”
So that’s two black men shot without receiving justice and there are many, many more. Many, many more. I can’t help but think about how if these two black men who were shot were white then justice would have certainly been served.
And that’s part of my white privilege: knowing that justice will be served for me, forever and always.
There is a fluid and on-going conversation that my wife and I have about all of this.
My wife is the breadwinner of our family. She holds higher degrees and holds much more power in the workplace than I.
She tells me of how, as a black woman, even in her position of power, she is constantly considering her words and gestures when surrounded by her white—often male—counterparts, colleagues, and supervisors so not to be thought of as the Angry Black Woman in the room. She tells me of how she moves and walks and works with caution, always, to depict to the world a more accurate picture of her race.
That is her reality, one far from mine. When I walk, I do not have to think about my race. She tells me she figures a majority of black Americans knows someone or knows of someone in prison.
When I help Khalil dress, he still struggles with his shirt sometimes, and I’ll say “hands up,” in a playful voice, I think the part that usually comes after this for a black boy is “don’t shoot.” It’s another slogan in the world.
This is not my reality, but it is my son’s.
My father wrote a book.
It’s called A Philen Heirloom, and it recounts the history of our family name and heritage back to the American Revolutionary War. He published it many years ago, putting in countless hours to the project along with a cousin of his in Texas. It was only this past summer that I began to look at it closely.
I am a descendant of Peter Philen, who fought as a Hessian soldier for the Colonies, and was later granted so much land he couldn’t walk it all in a day. He farmed and owned several slaves—as the book details. One slave, a Negro man, he purchased for three dollars. This is the page by which I am most shook:
My ancestors owned slaves.
This past summer was the first time my wife saw A Philen Heirloom. I pointed out the page with the scanned copy of the original document that showed the record of all he owned. She wasn’t appalled or angry. She smiled and said the book was an amazing accomplishment. It sits on display on our bookshelf, just below Peter Souza’s Obama: An Intimate Portrait.
What I know about my white male privilege: when I walk into a room full of strangers, I carry a sureness that I don’t necessarily feel, rather it is something innate. I carry an unwavering and carefree confidence that I never truly earned, but inherited by way of race and gender. I assume that I will be viewed, perhaps subconsciously, perhaps consciously, as some superior living, breathing entity in the room—either because of background, language, etiquette, education, money, power—it all bleeds white. I assume that at some point I will be sought after for advice perhaps because I have never been shot at, or because I grew up never knowing anyone in prison.
I know that my white male privilege is free and unearned, that I have reaped it from centuries of acts I did not commit and decisions I did not make, but, no matter, it is mine. I know that I do not have to fear anything or anyone, because as I am a white male there is always a way.
I know that I only have to entertain conversations about power and privilege when I want, and perhaps this is the greatest feat of white male privilege: people of color cannot escape race, cannot evade conversations about race and power, cannot ignore it, while we, white men, can. We don’t have to engage in conversations about race. We only engage if—and when—we want.
Times have changed, but power constructs have barely budged. I know all of this and yet I don’t know what to do with it all.
I feel as helpless as a confused toddler.
The hardest part of this Summer has been getting Khalil to sleep at night.
Before he entered this Terrible-Two phase, he was genuinely happy to go to sleep, even by himself, with little prompting. My wife and I would read him a few books, tuck him in, and kiss him goodnight. Easy peasy.
This Summer he figured out how to climb out of his crib so I took off the railings. This summer he learned that screaming at the top of his lungs would get our attention. My wife nurses our three-month-old daughter, so I always get Khalil duty. It’s a process. Settling him down, laying him in his bed, covering him with his favorite blanket, turning off the lights, patting his chest where in the darkness my black son’s heart beats just like mine.
There’s one thing my white privilege does not save me from: worrying about how the world will treat my black son.
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Mitchell Haindfield