An Open Letter to the White Fathers of Black Daughters

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Photo courtesy of the author

I have been drafting this letter since I was ten. I am twenty and tonight is the first night I will write these words outside of me. I don’t know what they will look like here. Honestly, I am scared to see them uncoiled and still damp from the sweaty palms that have enclosed them for a decade. I am so accustomed to holding fistfuls of aching, rambunctious words around you, Dad. More than anything, I wish you would ask me to open my hands, and actually listen to what you see, what I say, what you hear.

But that is not how we work, is it? I give you the words you don’t know how to ask for. We know all our scripted prompts for loving cautiously. We are used to trafficking in glass blown conversations. I will not, I cannot, do this with you anymore. I love you too much for this, so listen.

Dad, you are a white man. I know this might come as a shock because people do not tell you this too often. You are not approached on the street, in the movies, at the workplace, and ordered to explain your race so strangers can “read” you properly and treat you accordingly. You have both the privilege and the curse of living in the unmarked, white blind spot of the American racial imaginary. If you have enjoyed living there, departing only to return comfortably home to White every night, I’m afraid you have a problem.

Me. I am your problem.

I am the brown-bodied child with the boisterous curls who colored your mother’s whitewashed scrapbooks and inspired obnoxious inquiries about our relationship and your paternity whenever we were out together.

I am the “ethnically ambiguous” woman who strategically reads Gayatri Spivak in your kitchen while you bob along to James Taylor and bake batches of blueberry scones. I patiently wait for your questions, longing for the flurried attentiveness I was once greeted with when I read Nancy Drew, Little Women, and all the other innocuously white narratives that populated my childhood.

I am your problem, Dad. You are the white father of a black daughter. You are accountable to a life that is squarely outside of the jurisdiction of the whiteness that swaddles you. I should be the problem that won’t let you come home white and blissfully unaware, but somehow this is not the case. Somehow, you feel like a white man first and my dad second. You asymmetrically toggle between the two, coming into focus as one only to obscure the other.

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I have always known you were white, Dad, at least on a descriptive level. I did not see you as a “white heterosexual male” with all the privilege this historically and institutionally connotes until your whiteness started hurting me.

Do you remember the first time I went to a black hair salon? I had been begging Mom to take me because I knew that the black women there could wrangle curls and kinks into lustrous, silky sheets. Black salons were in the business of making black hair beautiful. I remember thinking, at twelve years old, that my transformation would be even more successful because I was already halfway to “beautiful”; I was half white, right?

You came to pick me up at the salon, even though I begged Mom to come instead. You showed up early and came inside, even though I explicitly told you not to. They were not finished and you made a fuss. You demanded that we leave mid-metamorphosis, half straight, half curly. I ushered you out the front door, with my head to the ground, determined not to be the weak, temperamental, easily excitable halfie. I couldn’t let these “real” black women see me cry as I apologized to them for allowing a white man into their sacred space. It was theirs, not mine. You were mine, you were a white man, and I was a liability.

We drove home listening to a Spanish radio station, drowning the magnitude of our silence in a language neither one of us speaks, even though your mother’s, my grandmother’s, maiden name is Garcia. She married an Irish-German man and did not allow her children to touch her name. I had to find it for myself. Garcia was not given to me, I had to fight for it.

That was the first night you became a white man to me, Dad. Sitting beside you, hair undone, body stolen from a black rite of passage, I felt shame. I felt like a black girl to your white man and for a moment, race eclipsed us and we fell out of kinship, slipping from father and daughter into strangers.

Dad, since then you have flickered. You are swallowed by whiteness and become racially inaccessible to me the moment my race comes to the fore. When I become Black Girl you become White Man and we are not each other’s anymore.

In fifth grade, Josh Michaelson told me that he only liked white girls. Dad, I wanted to ask you if you left Mom because she was black. According to Josh Michaelson, white men did not think black women were beautiful. I watched you date white woman after white woman, marry a white woman and have a white baby. I wanted to ask you if you felt safer with them, like they were the real deal, and we were just practice.

When our bodies were assaulted with disapproving stares in New Orleans as we walked down the street together, I wanted to ask you if you ever wished we were the same race so we wouldn’t have eyes lingering on us everywhere. I felt ashamed that we could not give each other anonymity and privacy.

When I was fifteen and followed home by a black man who repeatedly called me a “high-yellow whore” and proceeded to sexually harass me for blocks, I walked in the front door crying and told you my phone had been stolen. I didn’t want to watch your face when I said the words “high yellow” and they did not even register as a racial epithet to you.

I could not ask you these questions and share these experiences with you, Dad, because you were implicated as a white man, I was implicated as a black girl, and I felt like we could not speak from these places. If we did, I thought we would stay there, mired in race, and become unrecognizable as father and daughter. I could not risk losing the ability to claim you as my person.

Dad, I know this is hard to hear, so please bear with me. You are the Dad who stayed up late on school nights with me and baked pie while we listened to Tracy Chapman and I talked incessantly about books you have never read. You are the Dad who cries every Christmas Eve when you drive us back to Mom’s house at midnight. I will always stay in the car with you a little longer, hold your hands, and assure you that you are loved and that nothing about our family is broken, even if I don’t know that I believe this.

You are the Dad who went to Pride parades before you knew I was queer and obnoxiously pointed out adorable “LGBTQ” couples once you knew I was. When I walked down the stairs with my girlfriend before prom, you took so many photos I had to ask you to tone it down. Before we left, you hugged me and said, “I cannot believe you have a girlfriend and everything now. I feel like you don’t need me anymore.” You told me that she was “something special,” and I was so grateful that you saw that and you were happy for me. You made me feel like having a girlfriend was not a detour or a departure from growing up the “right” way.

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Dad, there is an abundance of goodness in our relationship. This is undeniable. You are a good man, and a good father, but all this good cannot continue to make up for the race we cannot touch. I am so tired of slipping into black and out of daughter whenever race is evoked. I need for you to meet me as your daughter, as your daughter of color, all at once. We cannot keep evacuating our bodies to love each other. We cannot simply ignore the way our bodies are policed and politicized as antithetical, irreconcilably raced when we stand side by side.

I wish we could have collaboratively prepared for the day when I saw you as a white man for the first time and wondered what that made me. What does it mean to come from whiteness into a brown body? We have allowed whiteness to become an unmarked specter, Dad.

My whiteness is a gossamer ghost that haunts me, lightening my skin, softening my curls, coursing through me wordless and unaccountable for its actions. An acquaintance asked me once, upon finding out that I was half white, what it felt like to have a colonized body. I was speechless. I wanted to stand up for white and call it loving. My white could not be “colonizing,” but I did not know what else to call it, really. I wish you had taught me another word for white.

Dad, when you decided to have children with a black woman, what did you imagine your role would be in nurturing these children’s racial identity and self confidence? I think you expected Mom to be solely responsible for transmitting race to us because she was the black parent. What could you, the white parent, contribute, right? What could you have done?

You could have checked your own whiteness. You could have acknowledged that you were the husband of a black woman and the father of mixed children and considered the implications of this. You loved a black woman and helped make black children; your relationship with us should have made your home of invisible whiteness impossible to inhabit. If you don’t live there anymore, Dad, I would like to know. I have been given no indication that you have left.

You could have talked to me about race, Dad. You should have been part of the conversations I had with Mom about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. If you thought your presence would have been an imposition, you were wrong. I interpreted your absence as a sign that you had nothing to say and no stakes in these issues. I needed to hear you speak to learn how to speak about my race. You are not unmarked and the whiteness you gave me is not either, even if we operate as if it is. I would not be writing this letter if this were true.

Where do we go from here? I am sure that is what you want to know, because you are a fixer. Talk to me, Dad. Read this letter and do not expect me to start the conversation. Come to me. It is your turn. Go.

 

24 Comments
  1. Very thoughtful. My black son is 1.5 yrs old now. I figure I have about 6 more years to figure some of this out. For instance, who will instruct him on how to interact with the police? I’ve considered making this part of a larger conversation, giving context first on the ‘war on black men’ and our plea bargain to prison system. Then perhaps with the support of some black adult friends we could get into the practical advice on interactions with police officers and the unique risks involved.

    1. Sean, I appreciated this letter too as the white father of a 21 year old black daughter and a 17 year old black son. Please don’t think you have time to figure this out later. Those race conversations need to happen naturally as soon as he can talk. At 1.5 yrs he is already aware of racial differences. Make sure you are always addressing HIS needs in what you talk about. You need to find someone else to talk about YOUR feelings about race. You need to get information you need from your black friends about what life is like as a black man, and he can listen to their points of view later, but YOU are the only father he has. Good luck, it’s the most rewarding and terrifying ride.

      1. Also, read black scholarship. Start with the Souls of Black Folk on double consciousness by W.E.B. Du Bois. Do not only or primarily rely on your black friends to explain “blackness”. The burden is not theirs either.

    2. Please follow me on Twitter and come visit my site, HypheNation (www.hyphenatednation.com). I’m just building now but it’s been in the works for a while. As the biracial, often identified as Black, daughter of a German-Jewish mother and Black father, my mission for most of my life has been helping foster these conversations so that kids have a safe place to grow up. I still don’t know if I could write this letter to my own mom, though. But I continue to collect resources to make it easier for the whole family to serve as a support system for each other, especially when it comes to racial identity, especially especially for the White parent who often doesn’t realize that they HAVE a racial identity, or need to now.

  2. I just want to clarify and confirm that my decision to publish such a personal letter to my father was a choice that I made after years of deliberation. Before even dreaming of publishing this, I knew that I would have to send it to my Dad and begin a dialogue that might be very difficult for both of us. I sent it to him, we are beginning to talk, heal, and hurt with each other, and he was absolutely supportive of me publishing this piece. I love my family dearly and would never publish something so personal without discussing it with them. I am grateful, now, that people are using this letter to open up difficult conversations in their own families. If there was anything I desired from publishing this article, it was the possibility that maybe my words would help someone else find their own strength to have a vulnerable conversation with their parents about interracial family dynamics. I am beginning to embark on that very personal journey and I am sending so much love to everyone else who is attempting to do the same.

    1. Thank you for publishing this. I’m going to send it to my brother (white man married to a black woman). He and my sister-in-law don’t have kids yet, but it’s good food for thought.

    2. this is really well written and i’m sure it wasn’t easy. as a black woman, my heart is broken every time i see a young woman of mixed heritage being raised by her white mother who has no clue what she’s doing without her black father and/or his family to guide her. though this is about your father, i think it’s the same issue that hopefully can help many families understand what their struggles are/will be, and how they can work to make things better for their kids. that’s what we all want as parents, no matter what color we are. and we’ve all been hurt by the things that no one wants to talk about or address. you’ve helped a lot of little black girls with this piece as i’m sure there are white fathers of black children who appreciate your words as much as i do..

    3. I cannot thank you enough for actually putting the words from thought to print, as I’m sure so many of us have tried. I’m trying to do it for everyone else, but I doubt I could do it to my own family so bluntly. I’d love to connect, and if you would, to have you write some or otherwise combine missions over at HypheNation (www.hyphenatednation.com)

  3. Oh my god, there are literally tears streaming down my face. This resonates with me so hard. Thank you, so much, for sharing something so personal, and in your courageousness giving me the words I never could have formed on my own.

  4. From the bottom of my soul I thank you.
    As the white parent of a black child I fear everything you’ve written, which makes me seap. That I’ll make every same mistake, or keep the same silences. I cannot thank you enough for your inspirational courage and openness. Pardon me while I leave work early to talk to my son.

  5. Thank you for writing this, I am a white mother to three black girls – we have been talking about race ever since they started speaking, but to hear your words opens so many more dimensions for me. I will read more, I will talk more to my black friends and I will write more. And of coure I will share your post. With Love

  6. Amazing, Touching, Inspiring…. Thank you so much for this letter, it is powerful and very real. You have opened your heart to us and to your family, good for you. Here’s to you and your Father finding the common ground necessary to move on and enjoy your lives. Bless You. 🙂

  7. That is a beautiful letter there Ms. Henry. I married a Thai woman 33 years ago, we have a son who is now 29. When we came back to US we ended up living on the Navajo Reservation – we were both Navajo civil servants. I’m pretty dark for a white guy and my wife is middling dark for a Thai. Our son grew up on the rez and was pretty much one of the gang. He would bring home his drawings from school – when the teachers asked him to draw his family he colored everyone brown with black hair. Even his older, blond, blue-eyed half sister. He got a pretty good start in life. When he went away to college he started hangin with the Asian kids as well as the Natives and is sort of set up with a nice Vietnamese woman. My wife and I moved back into the white world a couple years ago. We tried Idaho but couldn’t take getting “the treatment” so we moved on to Portland. Things are a lot cooler here. What I learned from all this is if a woman of color has a child for you, you are pledged to her clan and her blood. You can’t drag your family back into your world. You have to adapt to theirs or find a place that’s safe for them, where they can thrive.

  8. Wow…. this was so deeply moving, I found myself crying while reading it. I’m a white woman in a loving relationship with a black man, and we’ve had to talk about some of the challenges our (at this point) hypothetical children may face based on their mixed racial identity… my own parents have not been very supportive of our relationship, which is a reflection of the privilege that whiteness carries in our society – because they want “the best” for me and for their grandchildren, which is clearly linked to race and class differences. Our conversations can be incredibly painful and heartbreaking. I suppose that I find some hope in the fact that the vast majority of my friends are deeply committed to talking about race and privilege and addressing issues of inequity, and that our group is very diverse and composed of many mixed-race couples. But when I leave my little bubble of great people in Detroit, I realize how rare that is, and how so many folks (like my own family) get very uncomfortable even acknowledging these issues without feeling personally offended and shutting down… thank you for writing this. It must have been really difficult to do so, but I think what you put forward is so powerful and true, and I’m glad to hear that you were able to share it with your Dad and begin the process of healing…

  9. Kelsey you are an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your journey so eloquently. I’m sure that it will open the doors to healing for you and others you will never meet. My daughters are half black and I am half white. Our family is incredibly diverse. But we still struggle to communicate the nuances that surround race and how it effects our experiences. Those who were blessed with white privilege are called upon to listen with an open heart and a closed mouth if we are ever truly going to heal this great divide. Thank you again for sharing your vulnerability.

  10. While I respect and appreciate your post, it makes me sad. I am a black woman who married a white man and I now two bisexual teenagers. One being a girl. Interracial marriage is not this difficult. I fear your post is instilling more fear then necessary into interracial couples. Your white father did absolutely nothing wrong in being white. Even if he had sat down to discuss black issues with you, he couldn’t have taught you anything, he’s white. Your identity as a black woman should have come from your mom not your dad. I am so thankful my kids LOVE and EMBRACE both their whiteness and blackness. I’ve taught them to love themselves and they understand they are more than their color. I brought my kids into a loving marriage with two people who loved each other. It wasn’t a home of “a black mother and white father”. I would be so heartbroken if my daughter wrote a letter like this. Thankfully she doesn’t see her dad as a “white man”, but as “her daddy”. I sure hope you find the healing you need .

    1. Thank you. Behavior and identity are two different things. Relationships are created and sustained by behavior, not identity. There are all kinds of reasons for a child to resent, or love, a parent, but identity isn’t one of them. You can like or dislike someone for what they did, but not for the way you label them. This is basic, basic stuff. If you like the taste of green eggs and ham, don’t worry about the color. If you’re 20 years old and mad at your dad, it probably has something to do with what he did rather than his complexion.

      1. But throughout the whole article she is describing his behavior, what he did or did not do…like literally every paragraph lists instances of behavior. Your comment suggests that you did not read the article very carefully.

    2. Unless you actually are a racist, what person would be blind to the challenges of black people in this country? Its America so I can’t fathom a mixed couple never discussed race and made decisions about how to educate and prepare their kids. What parent wouldn’t think about their child’s life challenges in a historically racist country with their child being mixed race? As a white mother, I can educate and prepare my kids for some of the prejudices and discriminations that will come their way even though I’m not black. I tell my kids the world will see them as black. I tell them anyone that has a problem with them because they are black are racist. I tell them there are a lot of racist in this world- even some they might not suspect. The onus is on me to educate and build up my children as much as it is on my husband. If he passed tomorrow, would they be lost forever? No. Read, watch, meet, visit. Educate yourself so you can educate your children- you’re their first teacher. Just FYI, I teach mostly black children and many times I am the first person to discuss racism, accurate history and black pride with them. That being said, I don’t know what was going on in that household that this daughter had to write this kind of letter. She can say she’s gay but not that a grown man was sexually harassing her? SMH. Racial issues aside, any man would mangle or at least attempt to mangle another man for messing with is teenage daughter as far as I know. And I’m hoping dad loved her mixed chick hair and didn’t want her thinking “white is right” and that she needed it to be straightened cause that DOES NOT have to be a right of passage.

  11. Thank you for this heart-deep telling of your own truth. You had me holding my breath through the entire article. Praying for the mending of your relationship with your father.

  12. very clearly if you are making the effort that many don’t my heart isn’t breaking for your children. you should probably re-read what i wrote. i happen to know several white moms who get it but my experience has been that most do not. second, the fact that you think you actually can raise children of color “without color” shows that you missed a lot of what this woman was talking about in her letter. you sound a little angry and i have no idea why. i think it best to defer to those of use who have lived as people of color, and being married to a black man certainly doesn’t count. good luck to you in your “colorless world” that is devoid of reality. smh.

  13. I am in a different situation, but I think you might still provide me some guidance. I am not a parent, but a pastor. In my congregation there is a family in which the parents are both white and the oldest daughter, who is adopted, is black. Both town and church are small with almost no other people of color in it. She is just entering her teen years. For your experience what issues might we need to be prepared for where being forewarned would help either us in the church or her parents to be forearmed for issues that may arise that we might not be expecting?

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