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Monday, June 17, 2024

Fatherhood in Black and white

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Almost nine years ago, Franklin Oliver, who is Black, and his young son, who is white, were pulled over by police as he drove through an unfamiliar, predominately white area.

His son, Jacob Sipes-Salter, also known as Jake, repeatedly asked why they were being questioned by law enforcement.

Then just 8 years of age, Jake, didn’t understand why his father was viewed with suspicion, or why he was pulled over and harassed.

“That to me was the worst,” recalled Oliver, who offered the incident as one of the many unfortunate racial situations he and his son have experienced.

“I’ve always tried really hard not to lie to him but I couldn’t figure out what to say. I didn’t know how to fix it but I didn’t want him to be afraid. I thought, ‘I am a parent and I need to have control over the situation, but I don’t.’”

Oliver said things have also become problematic when he felt convinced someone was going to dial 911 because they assumed he was holding a white child hostage.

“There were multiple times that happened,” confessed Oliver. “I would notice people intensely following us just to make sure there was no trouble. It wasn’t one of those situations where you would assume something was automatically wrong; the only thing wrong was our skin colors didn’t match.”

Oliver has been in Sipes-Salter’s life since the age of 3. Within a few years, he married his mother, Rachael.

“When he was a kid, it was pretty scary times,” added Oliver. “We have different last names and as a kid he didn’t have an ID. Yes, he could say his address, which matched but people were still suspicious.”

Now a junior at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, Sipes-Salter, 17, said he has been informed on cultural and worldly events through his parents.

And although he and Oliver do not face as many discriminatory practices as when he was a child, he still notices a disturbing pattern when the two are dining at restaurants.

“They always ask for separate checks at restaurants, no matter what. It’s always ‘are we all on separate checks?’ or ‘how many checks are we having today?’ even places we’ve been multiple times,” said Sipes-Salter.

In a 498 word blog post written by Oliver titled “Ferguson and Jake” dated November 30, 2014, the first sentence reads, “Today, I’m glad my son is white.”

NPR host and special correspondent Michele Norris, who has a segment called “The Race Card Project” picked up the blog post.

Since then, Oliver, a social studies teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit, has participated in numerous community conversations about race, including one discussion on racial profiling held at Heartland Unitarian Universalist Church in Carmel, Ind. where more than 75 percent of participants were white.

The blog post was written days after the Grand Jury ruled no indictment against white Police officer Darren Wilson after he shot and killed unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown. When the dramatic incidents in Ferguson unfolded, Oliver said his reaction was similar to other events he has dealt with in the past.

“’Again?’ was all I could think because it seemed really clear Michael Brown didn’t need to die. The bottom line was, this guy wasn’t armed and I’d never really thought about it before then but, wow I’m really happy Jacob is white,” he said.

Oliver expressed his distrust in the police and how he doesn’t have the fear most African-American parents have.

“I don’t think I have to worry as much that someone is going to decide that he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, or he’s walking in the street and needs to be shot eight times,” he noted.

“All those fears that parents have, that’s a big one I don’t have. It felt like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders but I didn’t know I’d been carrying that weight.”

The ruling happened simultaneously as Oliver began teaching the era of the 1960s to his class of students who were majority white.

Students at his school are required to take a class on religion as well as another on social justice, said Sipes-Salter who also mentioned a week’s curriculum consisted of topics on race and the police.

“A lot of kids in my class say they’ve never thought about race,” said Sipes-Salter. “But it’s been something circulating through my home for years.”

Oliver added that the family talks about serious, real-world issues often.

“Some of that is about race, some of that is about economics or who we are as a country. Jake’s favorite phrase is ‘Everything has to be a discussion.’ A lot of it is negative but I’m very optimistic because I’m convinced his generation is paying attention in a way mine had not,” he said.

Many students at school have no idea Oliver and Sipes-Salter are father and son unless they are direct students or close to the family. Once they learn, it doesn’t seem to bother them, said the two.

Oliver’s blog post reads “We’re jarring at the bank when the teller needs ‘help from a manager’ to authorize Jake cashing a birthday check from a grandparent. We’ve been jarring at the mall, convenience store, park or any of the other dozen times I wondered if someone were ready to put out an Amber Alert, fearing for Jake’s safety because he was with me.”

Although the pair has now encountered numerous unfortunate and painful situations, their bond remains close.

They spoke about humorous inside jokes, playfully bickering over which radio stations to listen to during their 45-minute commute to school, among other things.

“It’s not fair what cops do to people of color,” mentioned Jake. “If I’m in dire need of something, the police aren’t the first people I want to call.”

Oliver said he never thought having a son who was white would occur, but he’s “fortunate that Jake is a wonderful young man.”

For more information about Oliver’s work, see Theracecardproject.com/tag/franklin-oliver.

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