Posted on October 19, 2021

What I Owe My Son on Race

Brendan Kiely, CNN, October 14, 2021

When our son was born, he was crying {snip}


Nearly two and a half years later, he is still reaching for me, he is still listening for me — though now it is much different. He is observing me; he is watching how I react to the world, and he is mimicking me. He is learning from me in everything I say.

He is also inheriting from me a heritage and a racial identity, and I will tell him about his parents’ Irish and German heritages, but also, since we live in America, how he will be seen as, identified as and grow up as “White.”

And when his observations become questions, and someday he asks me, “What does it mean to be ‘White?'” it makes me wonder, what am I communicating to him? How am I, as a White parent, discussing race with my White child?


Many of my friends who are Black, Indigenous, East or South Asian, or Latinx, have shared with me the conversations they had with their parents and their own children about their racial identities and how to navigate the impacts of racism in their lives with as much of a clear-eyed understanding as possible.

My parents and I talked about racism, too, yes, but only as it related to other people, as if it was a story about other people and it played no role in my own life. We never spoke directly about our own racial identity, about “being White.”

And maybe that was part of the problem. If we talked about what it “meant to be White” we would have to talk about White privilege, which is racism’s specific impact on my life. While many people who are not White experience the personal pain and disenfranchisement of racism, White people like me benefit both directly and indirectly from this advantage woven so deeply into our society. And this is what I need to talk about with my son.

How did being White as a 12-year old affect my being hired as a model for magazine ads because, as the casting director said, “I looked like the All-American boy?” How did my being White as a 17-year-old affect my interactions with law enforcement, when I broke the law more than once but was immediately given the benefit of the doubt and told to “go home, be safe and keep my friends safe?”

What are the long-term, intergenerational impacts of my White grandfather’s access to education and home loans through the GI Bill, that friends of mine who are not White and whose grandfathers fought in the same war did not have access to because of racism?

Because while the bill itself may not have included specific language of exclusion by race, racist practices by many VA officials, real estate agents and college admissions administrators in the implementation of the bill’s benefits were deeply exclusionary by race, unfairly privileging White veterans with access to opportunities of upward mobility and the chance to pass subsequent financial and educational opportunities on to future generations.


My wife who, like me, identifies as White, and I want to raise a child who will value and prioritize efforts to dismantle racism in his community, and to do so we need to be just as specific as families of color are about the relationship between his own racial identity and how racism affects his community. In our case, that means we need to speak with our son about the impact his own White privilege will have on his life and the lives of others around him.


Part of talking about racism with my son is about how White privilege impacts his life. We need to speak about it clearly and honestly, at whatever level he’s able to process and comprehend depending on his age, so that we can help him better understand how he can more effectively take part in the undoing of the inequities that privilege and racism creates.