I’ve been thinking a lot about counterfactuals lately.
The term might not be familiar to you, but you probably use counterfactuals all the time. When you wonder what your life would be like if you’d chosen a different school or job, you’re relying on counterfactual thinking. When you consider how history might have changed if Martin Luther King Jr. had not been shot or if the United States had never gone to war with Vietnam, you‘re relying on counterfactual thinking. Whenever you think about something that is not the case and then explore how that change-in-fact might have altered other things that we know to be true, you are relying on counterfactual thinking.
We philosophers love to rely on counterfactuals. We love to use them to test our own and others’ intuitions. We even use them to define terms and complex concepts.
A few months ago, after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a friend of mine posted a message on Facebook asking other white parents what sorts of things they say to their teenagers before they go out at night. He asked if one of the things they say is to “not get shot by the police.” And, of course, people who didn’t quite get what he was asking jumped at the chance to point out all the reasonable, terrified, justified warnings they give to their sons and daughters, regardless of their skin color.
White parents worry about their kids too. Why make this issue one about race?
But that wasn’t the point. My friend wasn’t asking if they worried about their kids. That wasn’t the point at all.
I do wonder if his question might have been better put as a counterfactual conditional: as a sort of exercise in logic and empathy.
Consider the question, reframed: if your teenage son or daughter were non-white, especially if they were a black son or daughter living in the United States, would you have the exact same fears you do now when your children go out at night? Would you have the same level of fear? Would you give them the same advice about their interactions with the police? Would you worry about what would happen if someone saw them running down the street, or if someone noticed them talking loudly with their friends? Can you really say that “If it were the case that my son or daughter were a person of color, nothing about my advice or fears or worries would change?”
I have three white sons. Three white boys who will grow up into three white men. Their whiteness and their maleness will confer mountains of unearned privilege upon them as they move and speak and think and learn in this world.
I don’t want them to wear their white privilege like a burden. Recognizing privilege is not about guilt. It is not about shaming.
It is about justice.
I want my three white sons to know their privilege as a reminder: as a memento of the work they can do to ensure that when there is injustice, they must seek justice, and when there is pain, they must seek compassion.
Wherever they go, their privilege goes too. And I want them to see it. I want them to see how much it gives them, and how much it takes away from others, and to remedy that systemic unfairness as they grow into white men.
I saw this privilege in action when I was a kid. White boys cashed in on their privilege without even realizing it existed, without knowing that it was a thing they had that others didn’t.
White boys rode their trucks through country roads, baseball bats smashing mailboxes to splinters. White boys vandalized the school principal’s house. White boys vandalized their school building and lived long lives in which they could laugh about the fact that their acid graffiti still appeared on the brick wall of their high school whenever it rained. White boys bought drugs, did drugs, sold drugs, but they were always described as good kids–not as non-angels, but as good kids who made bad decisions.
White boys stole Swisher Sweets and gum from the convenience store. White boys used fake IDs to buy cheap beer from the liquor drive through. White boys staged an elaborate kidnapping prank that resulted in multiple calls to the police. Yet they were good kids, maybe a few bad kids, but no one got shot.
White boys and their white girlfriends berated and heckled the police, resisting arrest in the middle of their beer-soaked college streets, and they not only lived they also laughed to tell about it.
White boys set fire to cars. White boys lit couches, left them blazing in front of their frat houses. White boys threw beer bottles at police officers. White boys shouted, “Fuck you, pigs!” White boys were silly college boys, making stupid mistakes, just stupid mistakes, but they were never defined by these mistakes, and they never defined their friends by these mistakes.
White boys never had to answer for why yet another white boy had taken a gun into school and massacred a group of children. White boys never had to answer for why yet another white serial killer or white wife-murderer or white pedophile had been arrested, had become part of yet another sensationalized news story. Their violence wasn’t about their whiteness, it was about them.
White boys were always good kids, mistake-makers, young, stupid, wrong, penitent, nostalgic reminders of our lost and reckless and wild youth.
I want my white boys to be more than that. I want them to be better than that.
And I want them to know that their brown friends deserve better too.
The grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson has incited so many varied responses that I can begin to count or describe them. We have access to the documents that the grand jury saw. We have access to photos of Darren Wilson, and responses from Michael Brown’s parents, and video of a prosecutor almost smugly describing how he did not get the indictment his office was seeking.
I do not know for certain if Michael Brown attacked Darren Wilson with as much ferocity as Wilson claims. I do not know if Darren Wilson acted out of fear for his life or from racial motivations.
But I know the situation might have been different if Michael Brown were a white boy. He might still be with us today.
And the situation in its entirety requires a moral response. As a parent of three white boys, I think it demands a moral response.
Imagination and creativity are just as important to morality as are logic and reason and truth. That’s why I think that exploring race and privilege and parenting counterfactually is its own act of moral kindness. It’s at the very precipice of justice. It does not change much, but it is the beginning of change.
Because when I think counterfactually about my white boys and their privilege, when I imagine how it might operate in my own life, when I let it really seep into my bones, when I think about what my life would be like and what their lives would be like if my white sons were black, I feel plenty of worry and anxiety and anger, and it’s nowhere near the worry and anxiety and anger that parents of actual non-white children feel, and if anyone refuses to see that this worry and anxiety and anger are not only real but also justified, then they are hiding in a muddled mess of willful ignorance.
Please consider donating to the Ferguson, Missouri library. They are doing lots of good for lots of people.
See if your town is hosting a local event in response to the events in Ferguson. I’ll be at the one in Columbus, Ohio with my three white sons.