A Message for the White People


Photo: “Clayton-Jackson-McGhie-memorial-Duluth-Minnesota” by Carol M. Highsmith – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


The teens found a photo of their classmate and made some changes to it.

The classmate is a young black man.

They drew a noose around his neck and added the words “Gotta hang ‘em all” and shared the edited photo on social media.

When this story hit the news in Duluth, Minnesota, last week, our city of 86,000 reeled. The act itself was hateful—but for it to happen in a city that is still coming to terms with the day in 1920 when six black circus workers were wrongly accused of raping a white girl, a day when a mob lynched three of those innocent men on a corner downtown, well, it made people wince. In an effort to acknowledge that terrible day, to publicly commemorate the city’s darkest moment, a memorial was erected on that corner in 2003. Since then, citizens have been able to point to the memorial with a feeling of “That’s how it was. But never again. We aren’t like that now.”

Heartbreakingly, as the altered photo of a high school boy demonstrates, that’s not how it was. From fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma using a racist chant to the police shootings of unarmed black men, we are like that now.

In response to the photo circulating on social media, the school district issued a statement that it was “taking appropriate action.”

Is there such a thing? Can any action in response to this bald, awful hatred be considered appropriate? Shock, maybe. Tears. Nausea. Anger. But those are reactions, not actions. Those are emotional responses to something horrible; in contrast, action implies intent, reason, forward movement.

So the school district will take action by applying policy. Consequences are one way to effect change. However, because what happened in our small city last week grew out of matters of the heart and mind—because racism is an infinitely human problem—we also need to engage in grassroots, person-to-person education. Particularly with our children, we need to convey our values not just through policy and not simply through parental example. We need to talk to them, explicitly and clearly.

To be honest, I hadn’t fully realized how necessary such talks are before last week when our good friends, Anne and Jenna*, sent out a plea from their family to their larger community. Anne and Jenna have been together for more than fifteen years, having moved from dating to falling in love to a commitment ceremony to a legal marriage a few years ago, when the state of Minnesota changed its laws. During the course of their relationship, they have bought houses, taken trips, become godmothers to my kids, changed careers, and adopted two children of their own. While Anne and Jenna are white, their ten-year-old son, Robbie, is black. The birth mother of their daughter, four-year-old Sadie, is Native-American.

Due to the realities of their family, these beloved friends have to wade through the world very deliberately. While all parents want to raise their children to greet life with open hearts, Robbie and Sadie—and all children of color in the United States—also have to learn to live defensively.

That is wrong.

Spurred on by the altered photo of the boy (at the high school where Anne teaches), Jenna sent out the following message—a call for action:

I am sending this email to you because we care about you and your family, and we hope that feeling is mutual on some level. Know that as I write this, I don’t mean to offend or presume (tho’ to be honest I am getting beyond caring about that because this is too too important.). My request: please teach or talk to your kids about what it’s like for kids like ours to grow up in this world–what it’s like for kids of color to grow up in this world. In the United States, skin color does matter. You may feel or say that “I don’t see color.” But much of American society does.

Please teach them that we walk around stores now with Robbie and watch OTHER people stare at him and wonder if they are thinking he will do something wrong. Teach them that Robbie, at 10 years old, feels these stares too, and that shakes a person’s confidence and sense of self. Please talk to your kids about the fact that we teach Robbie he has to be MORE polite and MORE respectful than any of his white peers because he could get hurt, badly, if he’s not. Teach them that we talk to Robbie every few weeks about the police. Right now, Robbie doesn’t like police and he says “Police shoot black people.” At age 10, he knows this is unfair and unjust. Ten-year-old white kids don’t have to carry this burden; no child should. Please tell your kids that we teach Robbie not to wear his hoody and to act polite and happy even if he doesn’t feel that way.

Please talk to your kids about Native American history and the stereotypes of Indians. Teach your kids what white people in this country did with the boarding schools, almost destroying a culture and how those stereotypes are so prevalent still today.

Please teach your kids or help them recognize that while they don’t HAVE to think about any of this, many other kids have to deal with it every single day. What a privilege for white kids not to have to carry this burden.

Please know I am not being overly sensitive or trying to be overly dramatic. You may already have these conversations in your household and if so, thank you. If not, please do or call us or talk to us. We are doing our damnedest to make this world feel less difficult for our kiddos, but gosh would it be great to know there are other white kids, peers, friends that will stand by their sides and have our kids’ and other kids’ backs.

Thank you for caring about our family. Thank you for reading this. Thank your for being part of our community.


Suggested Resources:

Beverly Tatum “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”
Anton Treuer “Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians but Were
Afraid to Ask”
Peggy Macintosh https://www.isr.umich.edu/home/diversity/resources/white-privilege.pdf

Get Home Safely: Video: https://vimeo.com/116706870


*Names have been changed

**I did have a conversation with my fourteen-year-old about all of this last night. That’ll be in my next blog post.







8 responses to “A Message for the White People”

  1. Deborah Avatar

    This is brilliant. I applaud Anne and Jenna’s courage – and yes, it does take that to address people you know and like with something that is potentially so sensitive – and the way they have put forth the case of educating everyone, especially the young. I don’t remember talking like this to my kids, although we did discuss racism. This is hard-hitting and respectful – a fine line to walk. Man oh man that family has their work cut out for them…

  2. Deborah Avatar

    Oh and this is an excellent read, from what I’ve heard. It’s on my list.

    1. Jocelyn Avatar

      Putting it on my list, too. Thanks, Deborah.

  3. jenny_o Avatar

    “Particularly with our children, we need to convey our values not just through policy and not simply through parental example. We need to talk to them, explicitly and clearly.” Yes. Direct discussion can make the difference when peer pressure or shyness or lack of forethought might lead otherwise “good” kids to make wrong choices. Teach your kids how to stand up for what’s right, so they have the tools when the moment arises.

    I get Joanne’s point, too – that the message is unlikely to reach the hardcore racists who are perpetuating the problem by bringing their children up to think like them, and electing leaders who think like them. But we have to do what we can, where we can, in our homes and social circles, with our kids and grandkids and friends and co-workers.

  4. Meg Avatar

    This is some of the hardest work of parenting, I think. Not teaching our children our values of fairness, justice and compassion, but teaching them about Unfairness, Injustice and Hate, and then how to live in such a way that they help eliminate it. Living in the Cleveland area, we have had lots and lots of discussions about this topic and will continue to.

  5. Friko Avatar

    We have four mixed race children in our immediate family, two adopted and two grandchildren. If anyone attacked one of them I’d move heaven and earth that the attacker paid for their crime. Because a crime it is and I wish your friends and the grandmother of the boy whose picture was defaced every success in their efforts to make this world a better place.

    Tolerance is still not a given in our society.

  6. alexandra Avatar

    Necessary work, THANK YOU.

  7. Bijoux Avatar

    We had an awful incident here, where some teen boys tricked a classmate who has autism into doing the ALS ice bucket challenge, only they used urine and other nastiness. Honestly, WTF is wrong with people? I know it’s not PC to blame the parents, but seriously? They are learning these attitudes from someone.

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