Critical Lessons & Educational Change

Racism explained to my father

Dan Cutler

December 2010


After finishing Racism Explained to My Daughter by Tahar Ben Jelloun, I began to think about what I would say about racism to my child. What messages and reflections would I want to pass along to the next generation? The problem is, I don’t have any children; and, unless there is some biological miracle that allows two men to have a baby together, then I am guessing that my partner Brian and I will remain childless. However, I really want to write to someone about racism…but to whom?

I then began to think about what if my parents had written me a letter about racism. What would it have said?  But then again, I guess I already know.  Although they never wrote me a letter, they raised me and, whether intentionally or not, they passed along messages about race and racism.  It is only at this point in my life that I can look back and pull it all together to see what my parents had to say. To see what exactly their letter to me would have said.

A few weeks ago I was thinking about the holidays and all the family drama that can come with it.  I have heard many of my friends, classmates, and co-workers talk about how difficult it can be to go home and deal with their family.  From questions about relationships and marriage to children and careers, there can be many uncomfortable conversations lying in wait at family gatherings.  Additionally, classmates have talked about how difficult it is to be a social justice advocate at home with family members who may be a little racist and who make oppressive comments.

It was a combination of the holiday season and wanting to write about racism to someone that helped me to realize that who I wanted to write a letter to was my father.  Although a man of few words, he communicated volumes to me over the years about race and racism.  Some of his messages I disagree with and I decided to take this letter as an opportunity to respond to what he taught me.  I hope that this letter will be an opportunity for me to teach him a little bit about racism.

The Letter

Dear Dad,

I wanted to start by saying thank you for all the support, guidance, and love you have shown to me over the years.  I am sure it wasn’t always easy for you, being a high school football star, Vietnam war veteran, and an all around “man’s man” while your son would rather make Barbie clothes or sing and dance to the soundtrack of Mary Poppins rather than watch the Chicago Bears or play catch in the backyard.  However, through my entire life, you have always loved and supported all of me in everything I did and wanted to be. You have taught me so much and have helped me realize so many of my hopes and dreams – and for all of these things I wanted to say thank you.  It is only later in life that I realized that I also have things that I want to teach to you – and one of them is racism.

Dad, I think you, like most Americans, think of racism as the “N” word, the Klu Klux Klan, lynching, or outright hatred and violence directed towards a racial group.  You are right; that is racism and I know you already know about this aspect of racism.  The problem is that racism is so much more than that.  Racism is tricky and many times invisible.  Racism is subtle, insidious, and can be hidden in your unconscious or hidden in plain sight.  Racism is embedded into our everyday lives and because we have lived it for so long, we have come to think of it as normal or “just the way things are.”  It is this kind of racism that I want to teach you about.  It is this racism that I don’t think you recognize and it’s this racism that you and I often argue about.

At some point in my college career I heard or read an analogy of racism involving a marathon.  I found it a good way to understand racism, so I hope it helps illustrate my points.  I have adjusted and embellished the analogy to make it my own, so I hope you find it useful.  There are 2 men who have to run a marathon – John and Jake.  John has a trainer to help him get ready for the marathon, a state-of-the-art facility to train in, the best running shoes money can buy, and access to books and videos about how to best run a marathon.  John also has a map of the race route and has practiced running it numerous times in the weeks before the marathon. Jake, on the other hand, has been locked in a room and never allowed outside to run. All of Jake’s shoes were taken away before the marathon; he has no running equipment and isn’t told the route of the marathon.  The day of the marathon, John walks outside of his house and waits at the end of his driveway – that’s where the starting line is.  Jake has to run for 2 hours to even get to the starting line since no one will drive him and he doesn’t have a car of his own.  Both men are now standing at the starting line ready to go.  The spectators to the marathon, which you, Dad, are one, are watching these two men (who look about the same) at the starting line and the spectators think it’s a fair race and the best runner will win.  Can it really be a fair marathon when one runner had to run 2 hours to even get to the starting line to compete in the marathon?  Can it be fair when one was trained how to run marathons while the other was never even allowed outside to run?  Can it be fair when one knows the route of the marathon and the other doesn’t?

My point is that this analogy demonstrates the aspects of racism that I don’t think you see or understand.  Dad, your whole life you have been a spectator at the marathon watching these two men about to race and you think it’s a fair race. You haven’t seen or don’t understand all of what has happened in the past that led up to the marathon. What’s worse is that you (and most white people) won’t or can’t even see that the marathon isn’t fair, and instead say things like: “Jake must be stupid; he didn’t even buy shoes for the race” or “Its Jake’s fault that he didn’t train hard enough for the marathon.”  And, if someone were to give Jake a pair of shoes at the starting line, you would remark that THAT was unfair since John had to provide his own shoes!  If you haven’t already guessed, Jake represents people of color and John represents white people.  Just think about this analogy as you read the rest of this letter.

When I was 14, I remember being mad about how old our VCR was and I made a comment (I am sure it was snotty – I was 14 after all) about how old and crappy the VCR was and that my friends had newer, better VCRs.  I remember that you got upset and told me that it was the best you could afford and that I should be thankful.  I seem to remember you giving me a short lecture/rant about how you worked for everything you had, that you didn’t come from a wealthy family, you didn’t get any breaks or free rides, and that basically – you succeeded in life all on your own.  The problem is that that is just not true.  Yes, you are a hard worker and yes, you didn’t come from a wealthy family, but saying you succeeded in life all on your own just isn’t true.  That’s like Neil Armstrong saying he made it to the moon all on his own.  I think NASA, a rocket ship, a few hundred scientists, and President Kennedy had a little something to do with it as well.  Dad, I know you think you did it all on your own, but you didn’t.

Because you are white you have been given privileges and extra advantages that people of color didn’t have.   Yes, you may not have asked for them, but that’s not the point…you still had them.  Because your grandparent’s grandparents were white, they went to school and were educated…and since then every generation in our family has gone to school and was educated.  Growing up, you knew you would go to college because your mother went to college and expected both of her children to go.  Your ancestors were allowed to own land, own houses, own property – all of which was a form of family wealth which they passed on to the next generation and so on and so on.  Your parent’s helped you with money when you needed it and when they died they left you money and their property.  Your grandparent’s grandparents voted and helped pick politicians, voted on laws, and had a say in what happened in this country.  Dad, you have a long history of cumulative wealth, advantages, education, and support.  That’s not what I would classify as “all on your own.”

On the flip side, people of color haven’t had any of this.  By law, they weren’t allowed to have an education, own property, vote, etc.  Later, when these laws were changed, people of color were still oppressed.  They were segregated in schools that had inadequate funding, supplies, and under qualified teachers.  The lending practices of banks and the real estate industry kept people of color segregated in poor areas and made it difficult to own property.  Their experience is completely different than yours and for you to say “you did it on your own” is a huge fallacy.  People in the past made laws and decisions that gave you advantages to get to where you are now (and where I am now) and at the same time disadvantaged people of color.

Switching gears to a different example, do you ever wonder why in movies or on television that the villain, the thug, the criminal, or the bad guy is usually a person of color?  Have you ever even noticed this?  Yes, you can argue that there are people of color who do bad things, but there are just as many if not more white people who do bad things.  Why isn’t that being depicted in a proportional manner in the popular media?  Also, think about the fact that someone (a casting agent) looked through hundreds of actors for each role and decided that the person of color fit the role of criminal best.  Dad, what does that mean to you?  How do you make sense of that?  Or, let’s talk about the news!  Next time you are watching the news, keep track of how many negative and positive stories they do and who they are doing them about.  Then remember that some news producer made a decision about which stories get aired and which ones don’t get aired.   Both of these examples are a way for me to demonstrate that things in our everyday life that we may not think about are reinforcing stereotypes and racism and effect the way we think and behave.

Let’s stick with the popular media for a minute.  Think about the last time you watched a television show (one of those crime drama shows you are always watching) where the criminal was a person of color.  It probably was the last episode you watched.  Now, what was your reaction?  I am guessing that your reaction at seeing a person of color portrayed as a criminal on television was that it made sense, it was normal, that it was no surprise, or that you had no reaction.  Why is that?  How have you and I been conditioned as white people to almost expect people of color to be the criminal?  I am guessing that you would have been surprised if it had been a white person who was the criminal.  Your reaction would have probably been something like “I didn’t see that coming.”  Why is that?

Dad, I could go on and on about racism, but I won’t.  I am not writing to you to make you feel guilty or upset you.  I write this letter out of love with the hopes that you can become more aware of the ways racism is around you and the ways you participate in racism, whether intentionally or not.  I believe that if we want to end racism and make this world equal for all, then white people need to stop walking through life oblivious to the racism and oppression of others and the privileges white people receive.  I work every day with college students to help them to understand racism and if I can do this work with strangers, why not do this with my family?  I hope this letter helped you see what I see and that it makes you think a little.

Love always,



Jelloun, T. B. (1999). Racism explained to my daughter. New York: New Press.