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What do I tell my son about race?

  • Mark Williams is an African-American father of a 6-year-old boy
  • He writes about how the Zimmerman case has sparked a conversation with his family
What do I tell my son about race?

Watch Nancy Grace live from Sanford, Florida, tonight at 8 p.m. as she sums up the day’s events in the Zimmerman trial. HLN & will cover the Zimmerman verdict live.

Editor’s note: The George Zimmerman trial has sparked a national conversation about race. Mark Williams was interviewed by HLN Evening Express about his experiences as an African-American man and a father of six-year-old Isaiah in 21st century America.

Growing up in a single female-headed household in Grand Rapids, Michigan as a latch-key kid, only child, and African-American male, I remember telling myself that things would be different for my children. I didn’t want my children to have the challenges that I did growing up under those circumstances.

I remember telling one of my high school teachers that I wanted to get married, have two children of my own and adopt two children after finishing college. During my K-12 matriculation, I attended school with whites, who also identified themselves as German, Polish, Jewish and Dutch, as well as other African-Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Koreans and Vietnamese students. Some of our neighborhoods also reflected this diverse composition. My mother’s major support system for me consisted of my grand uncle and his German wife.

I never thought much about race until I went to college. Race didn’t seem to matter in Grand Rapids. Biracial children and interracial dating and marriage were not uncommon.

This is not to say that racism didn’t exist in Grand Rapids. I think I saw incidences of racism as isolated since it was not uncommon to see blacks, whites and other ethnic groups interacting on a daily basis (my youthfulness may have also played a part).

After moving to Atlanta, Georgia, in the late ‘80s to attend Morehouse College, experiencing a still much racially segregated South, and reflecting on my experiences in Grand Rapids, I realized that race was an issue and that racism was prevalent.

In February of 2007, my son was born. I thought about all the things parents need to do to provide for their children, to protect them, and to prepare them for life. I was ready to provide food, water, clothing, shelter, love, guidance, protection, etc. 

However, I was unsure about how to prepare him from racism. What do I say to him about racism? At what age is it appropriate to discuss racism with him? How do I teach him what racism looks like?

I am still unsure as to when to have the conversations and how to approach these topics. We are supposed to encourage our kids and not discourage them. Having conversations about racism seems discouraging.

It is sad to think that I would have to have a conversation about racism in this new millennium with my son. During my son’s six years, we have seen two black head coaches compete for an NFL title and a black president elected and re-elected. 

We have also seen people reveal their true feelings toward a black man in the White House. Much has been made about the fact that a young black man -- Trayvon Martin -- was killed while carrying some candy, a canned drink and wearing a hoodie. 

Do I tell my son that he can be president but he can’t wear a hoodie when it’s cold outside? Are we to teach our sons that they should not dress a certain way because they could be seen as criminal? Why is it that we have to teach our sons to look mainstream? Why can’t others teach their kids not to judge a black kid by his clothes while they’re teaching them not to judge a book by its cover? 

As black parents, we have to protect our sons from racism by advocating on their behalf. But, at some point, our sons will have to face racism on their own.

My son is becoming more inquisitive as he matures; however, he has yet to ask me a question about race or describe his friends in terms of race or color. Do I wait for him or do I initiate the conversations about race?

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