When I look at my job as their mom, I know that one of the most important things I can do is raise white men who will fight for a better world for everyone.
It was a quiet March afternoon when my phone rang and the name of my kids’ school flashed across my screen. I was a little surprised because no one had been feeling sick lately, and that’s usually why the school calls. But this time when I picked up, it was the principal, not the secretary, which was my first clue that this wasn’t an ordinary “someone is sick” call. I steeled myself, and when the first words out of her mouth were, “the kids are fine,” I knew that my son had done something wrong.
I don’t get those calls about him very often, but he is a typical 8-year old, known to make some ill-advised choices. In this particular instance, he’d said something mean to a girl in his class. The principal handled it really well and said that my son was rather contrite about the whole thing, but I was already gearing up for the lecture. There’s little that gets me riled up like acting disrespectful or unkind toward someone else.
When my husband and I sat down to talk with him that night, we talked about respect, sure. We reminded him that other people deserve respect and kindness, and that trying to be funny at someone else’s expense is not OK. But then we had another conversation, one we have more and more these days, about how he has to be particularly aware of how he uses his words and treats other people, because as a white boy who will become a white man, there’s an opportunity to be had. The world will teach him that he doesn’t owe anyone anything. He’ll hear that men should be strong and powerful, that tears are a sign of weakness; he’ll learn that his opinions, insights, and ideas are more valuable than anyone else’s. He’ll be told that the people demanding equal opportunity are looking for special treatment, and just haven’t worked hard enough. But he doesn’t have to believe those lies, and he can choose to fight back against them.
We talked about power and how his many privileges will lend him advantages that others don’t get. It will give him a voice considered more influential than others, but with that voice, he will also be given a responsibility. I told him that if he uses it well—if he chooses to question his privileges— he could change the world.
He tilted his head, took in my words, and then said, “I can change the world?! That’s awesome!”
I don’t think it’s uncommon for parents to want to inspire their children to make the world a better place. And it’s natural for children to believe that they can do big and important things, so these conversations flow pretty easily in our house. But what I’ve noticed is that we’re often talking about empowering our children to change the world for them, for their children, their grandchildren.
I think we can do better than that.
In the eight years since I had my oldest son, I’ve learned so much about feminism and social justice, about privilege and oppression. Most parents will teach their children that everyone is equal and deserving of kindness and respect, but that’s not enough. Teaching my kids about interpersonal relationships can’t begin and end with kindness, generosity and respect. I have to help them understand their privilege, and how they can use it not to make their lives better, but to fight back against oppression. And because of his privileges, he’ll have a unique opportunity to support and amplify the voices of oppressed people, to work toward acting as an ally.
There are countless brilliant, inspiring activists who are from marginalized groups – who have been telling us their stories of oppression, who have been fighting forever. It’s long past time for people of privilege to help shoulder the hard work of fighting oppression. It’s our responsibility to stand up and fight with them, to press for equal rights and opportunity. It’s our job to amplify their voices and their stories in our communities. White men in particular need to stop shying away from difficult conversations, and to push back against a world that has always benefited them to the detriment of everyone else. We have to commit to being true allies, and we have to teach our kids to be true allies as well.
When I talk to my boys about changing the world, I want to tell them to change the world, not for their benefit, but because it’s the right thing to do. I want them to see the ways in which their privilege gives them advantages that no one else has, and then use that privilege to ensure that everyone—regardless of race, gender expression, sexuality, or ability—has access to the same opportunities that they do.
It won’t be easy, and it probably won’t come without cost. This is about more than being kind and respectful to people; it’s demanding that same treatment from the government, the police, schools, and workplaces. They might lose relationships because of it; they might even lose jobs. But I also know that we can count ourselves lucky if that is all they lose. There are too many families who have lost much more than that.
Regardless of the challenges that my sons will face in life, they won’t ever have to worry that they didn’t get a job because of their name or their skin color. They won’t fear for their lives when they’re pulled over by a police officer. They won’t have to fight to have their opinions heard, or their voices recognized. There won’t be any profession or field that is considered out of reach for them.
For their entire lives, my boys will have the benefit of being white men. So, it’s my job to help them discover how to take that benefit and make it useful for others.
What does that look like? Right now, it looks like creating awareness. We have age-appropriate conversations about power and oppression. I buy books that feature characters from marginalized groups; my oldest son loves to read, and sometimes, books can open our minds and hearts in ways nothing else can. We model kindness, generosity, and respect for all people, all the time. There is no tolerance for aggression or physical violence of any kind. We make sure to give our boys space to feel sad and scared; we never want them to think that the only valid emotion for men is anger.
Eventually, I hope that my sons will learn the importance of solidarity work and use their privileges to fight back against the oppression that so many people face. I hope they will have the courage to ask a woman being harassed if she is OK. If they witness a black man being pulled over by a police officer, I hope they will stand nearby, watching, and maybe recording the interaction. I hope they will fight for equal pay for equal work. I hope they will use their voices to oppose bigotry in all its forms, recognizing that unfair as it is, their words will likely be held in higher esteem, and they’ll have less to lose by speaking up. I hope they will know that we cannot continue to demand that marginalized people fight these battles; that we need to do the work ourselves, and support others in that work.
I want my boys to be safe. I want them to find work that fulfills them. I want them to love and be loved. I want them to experience the world and have the life they dream of. But I don’t want that at the expense of everyone around them, and I recognize that all those things will be inherently easier for my boys than so many other people.
So, when I look at my job as their mom, I know that one of the most important things I can do is raise white men who will fight for a better world for everyone.
A better, more equitable world for all is a better world.
So, yes, my boy, you can indeed change the world.
I can’t wait to watch.
Lindsay Smith believes that stories might just change the world. Her writing tackles issues around feminism, social justice, and parenting, and sometimes the intersection of all three. She is also a freelance editor and self-published novelist. Learn more about her work and writing on her website, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.