What Do I Tell My Sons?
The question was out of my mouth before I thought about it. As soon as I expressed it, I realized how stupid it was. Here I was, asking two racialized mothers, “What do I tell my sons?” As the words were uttered, the realization came that this was the question they asked every day of their lives.
I was attending the weekly worship at the General Council Offices in Etobicoke. It was Black History Month, and the speaker was a Black queer preacher. His words were powerful as he spoke of the racism he had experienced both in church and in society. His challenge to those gathered was raw and pointed: White privilege must end. I sat there as a privileged White woman and sought to understand his message. And my heart broke.
I was in a vulnerable state that day. My beloved father had died just a few weeks before. He was a generous man who challenged racism because he had known racism as a young Ukrainian boy growing up on the prairies. He never used racial slurs or told jokes based on racial bias; he challenged anyone who sought to exclude others because of their race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation. He taught me to be a feminist before I even knew what that word meant. And so, on that day, listening to the preacher at Church House, the words came to me as an attack on my White father, and on my two White sons. I know that this was not the preacher’s intent; he had every right to challenge the systemic racism that exists in our church and our society.
Yet, with a mother’s heart, a daughter’s heart, I cried out, “What do I tell my sons?” And it was aimed at two racialized mothers—who I am grateful to call friends and who received my question with gentleness and responded with integrity. They began to tell me their stories. Of their sons being told that they wouldn’t make it to university, even though they were at the top of their class. Of the names their children were called. Of searches at customs when they travelled to and from Canada. Of wondering if their sons would come home alive from the store. In their stories, I heard how they had to answer that question each and every day, “What do I tell my sons?”
I understand how privileged I was to be able to ask that question out of a context where my sons, because of their skin colour, were relatively safe and highly advantaged. Perhaps the question was not so stupid after all, though it revealed naïveté and insensitivity on my part. As a privileged White mother, I do need to ask and answer the question, “What do I tell my White sons?”
I tell my sons to never forget that they, too, come from a culture that was once ridiculed and excluded in society as “dumb Ukrainians,” and while their White skin and lack of an accent now allows them great privilege in our society, it was not always so. I tell them to listen carefully to the stories of those from various cultures, races, genders, and sexual orientations, to believe those stories and to respond in ways that challenge every kind of bias. I tell them to look for the systemic bias within our society and our church. I tell them to not be comfortable with how things are, but, like their maternal grandfather, to dare to live in a way that does not accept or support the status quo of White privilege. I tell my sons that the Christian faith was co-opted by White power and that Jesus would never have accepted such exclusion and denigration of others.
I apologize to my friends. My question was an insult to them and their experiences. Yet, through the grace-filled workings of the Spirit, that question has been transformed. My heart now breaks with all the parents who have to ask, in fear and frustration, each and every day, “What do I tell my children who may be attacked, excluded, ignored, or killed today because they are racialized by this society?”