by Barry Kerr
I recently had an opportunity to spend some quality time with my daughter’s new boyfriend. It was my first time getting to know him, and I quickly worked through the obligatory steps a father typically takes to assess a young man’s worthiness for his daughter’s love. He was passing with flying colors, so it became easy for both of us to relax into deeper, more meaningful exchanges. And actually, come to think of it, being able to do so raised my esteem for him even more.
My daughter is mixed race. Her mother was a war refugee from Laos; I’m a midwestern suburban white guy. The new boyfriend is also of mixed heritage; New England white and immigrant Latino. And though his mixed lineage is not as visibly apparent, it does give him and my daughter some common ground of experience and understanding. I like that.
So, of course, at some point we began to discuss the topic of racial and social injustice in our society, personally and systemically. Much of what he offered was familiar ground to me.
He explained that he had learned how assimilation into “white” society tends to alienate non-white people, especially children, from their own culture and inner sense of self. This leaves one with an inability to fully express ones authentic truth from deep within one’s self-knowing. In particular, the English language (and probably all Latin based languages) inherently requires one’s mind to think in ways alien to many cultures, categorizing and boxing life and experiences into compartments of relative values and absolute truths and thus splintering and fragmenting ones’ own inner sense of wholeness, and in addition, creating a paradigm of aggressiveness, especially toward other cultures and races.
This reminded me of my own experiences as a young man with Native Americans, who tended to put more value on the systemic connections and relations between all of creation and who allowed and valued silences within a discussion, silences long enough to let words land inside the heart as well as the mind. It also reminded me of my former Laotian in-laws, who seemed to be much more at ease than my white brethren with the paradoxes, complexities and polarities inherent to human life.
It became apparent that this young man of mixed blood had struggled with what to do about the “white heterosexual man” part of himself. Does it inform his vision and dominate his choices and actions? Does even asking the question tend to buy into the process of fragmentation? How does he choose to be in the world?
When I asked him how a white bread, heterosexual man like me can make a positive difference in the whole scheme of these racial and social dynamics of inequity, he offered some pretty sage advice. And it was clear that he strived to apply this advice to his own “white man” self. Here it is:
- Speak up less, listen more and listen more effectively.
- Be willing, in any situation, to consider that I might be wrong about something or I may have something to learn.
- Especially when in positions of authority or leadership, be authentic, vulnerable and transparent.
Though I’ve learned to adopt these ideas into my consciousness for many reasons, I’m grateful to my daughter’s boyfriend for helping me understand how vitally important they are in the context of social injustice in America. This will broaden my awareness and sharpen my resolve.
I chose to be born into this life, at this time, on this planet. I chose, this time, to do so as a white man of privilege. There must be a good reason. There always is.