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What Do I Tell My Kids About That Racist Relative?

Advice from a chief diversity officer, a former racist and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

“Oh, it’s kind of dark on that side of town,” is just a single example of the varying degrees of racism I ran into during a family gathering over the holidays. That’s some of my family members’ not-so-subtle code for a neighborhood being primarily black, hence the reason why we couldn’t see a movie in that area past dusk. And, by the way, that’s just about the mildest stuff I heard them say.

Before I had a kid, I’d just try to ignore this stuff. I knew I could never expect to change the minds of the bigoted older generations in my family. But now that I have a daughter, part of me feels like I need to do something about this so that she doesn’t think bigotry is okay because Uncle Charlie said it.

I’m not quite sure what I should be doing, though. Should I call out Uncle Charlie and tell him to knock it off? Is it worth making all of Christmas dinner uncomfortable, especially when I know Uncle Charlie isn’t going to have some revelation about racial equality at age 75? Even if I’m supposed to speak up, what if I chicken out (which I most likely will)? Is it enough to talk to my daughter later and explain why these views are abhorrent? If so, how do I start that conversation?

Basically: What do I tell my kids about their racist relatives?

The Expert Advice

Mary Bonderoff, Chief Diversity Officer of SUNY Morrisville: If you’re headed to a family event and you know that you’re going to encounter racist attitudes and language, you can have a conversation with your children beforehand and let them know that they may hear things that are inappropriate. This should be one of many conversations you have with your children about race. After all, they’re seeing stuff in school and online, and if we’re not intentional and we’re not talking about these issues, it leads to a situation where none of us are comfortable talking about race.

When it comes to being at the dinner table with family and you’re confronted with racism, I believe that in our political climate today, our silence means that we agree. That’s how people will perceive silence, and remember, your kids are always watching, so you should take into account what you want to model for them. Sure, you may want to consider if this is worth your time, but I feel it’s at least important for a parent to say, “I don’t agree.” You can add to that, that you don’t wish to discuss the issue any further, but simply saying, “I don’t agree,” and then moving on will at least model for your children that these issues are important.

Afterwards, the conversation with your child can be about how there will be things that we disagree with within our family. You can say something like, “I don’t know if you heard so-and-so say this, but…,” then you state that you don’t agree. You can also add that we still care deeply for that person and they care for us, but that you disagree on this and then explain why.

That’s why I also think self-work is really important. By that I mean, if we don’t understand the issues of racism and the systemic issues of race, it’s hard to have any conversations about it. So if we want to be thoughtful and to speak our truth and to educate our children, we have to do self-work. You can do that by reading and also having books for your children to read about these issues. You should also unpack your own bias and know yourself, as well as know the history of these issues.

By having a consistent message and educating your children, perhaps they will be able to speak up about race and diversity, For me, some of the proudest moments I’ve had as a mother was when I saw my own children address these issues.

Maria Dismondy, author of Chocolate Milk, Por Favor: Celebrating Diversity with Empathy: Kids need to understand what diversity means, and books can do that in a lovely way. Diversity isn’t just about skin color; it can be about disability, gender and so many other things, so I think children’s books are a great way to approach the topic in an age-appropriate way. Also, we all don’t live in a diverse community, so it’s important for parents in those places to let their children know that even though they live in this community, that the world is super cool with all of these different kinds of people in it.

That’s why, for me, it’s important to write books with diversity in them. I used to be a teacher, and I work in a very diverse community, and when I started writing, I wanted children to see more than talking frogs and dancing dinosaurs in books. I wanted them to see actual kids in stories and to see different skin colors and abilities so that they can connect themselves to the kid in that book. For me, the big thing I’m trying to communicate is empathy, and I think that’s what will help us to improve our world.

Charles Dew, Southern History Professor at Williams College in Massachusetts and author of The Making of a Racist: I grew up in the Jim Crow culture of the South where racial segregation was the norm. My parents were both educated people, but both of them shared the white supremacist attitudes of that place and time. I also absorbed that racist culture through what I consider to be osmosis. I witnessed how grown-ups behaved and how they talked about African-Americans and the racial etiquette that existed — like, for example, you never shook hands, you never used the titles “mister” or “missus.” There was just a whole series of racial customs that I picked up and followed and along with that, I obtained the attitudes of white supremacy.

I didn’t begin to get out from under that until I came north to college, where I had an African-American classmate. That was the beginning of a process that occurred slowly over a period of four years. Looking back, I find it hard to fathom why it took so long, but all I can say is that when you’re part of a culture, it has pretty deep hooks in you.

When my children were born we were in a more academic community in Massachusetts, and they didn’t grow up in an environment with those attitudes towards race. Instead, they picked up from my wife and me the notion that everybody was equal and distinctions based on color were loathsome.

As a professor and keynote speaker, I’ve talked to a lot of people about my transformation, and I say that you cannot remain silent in the face of racism. You have to challenge it, as uncomfortable as it may be. I don’t think silence is an option in the culture today. There’s a lot of stuff going on right now that’s bad — there’s nativism, xenophobia and many other things, and it’s incumbent upon those of us who are opposed to those views to challenge them, even if it’s within your own family.

I once got an email from a student who asked me what they should do about a racist grandfather. I thought about it, and recommended to her to frame it like this: “Grandfather, you know I love you, but…” and go on to say how their comments hurt you because you have friends and classmates who are African American and that they’re wonderful people.

After you make your views known, and the person knows that you find those views offensive, they’ll be reluctant to give expression to those views in your presence, unless they just want to be combative. You may also come to a place where you just agree to disagree on this topic, which is essentially what I had to do with my father. After he and I had a blow up, we both came to a sort of truce where he didn’t bring it up again and I didn’t bring it up again and we were able to sustain the relationship by essentially not talking about this issue. After all, I wasn’t going to change him, and he wasn’t going to change me.

Ultimately, the goal is to make that person think about what they’re saying. Since I’m an educator, it’s always important to educate people, even if it’s socially awkward. I admit it’s hard and that it can ruffle feathers, but I believe that we’re in a place and time where the feathers have to be ruffled.

Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: When people are confronted with racism, it’s really about role modeling. By speaking up against racism, you’re role modeling that for your children. Even with something simple like saying to a relative, “Hey, in our family, we don’t talk that way, so I would appreciate you not saying that in front of my children.” Otherwise, it’s confusing for the child to be confronted with that and then have you not say anything.  

It’s hard, though. We were raised to respect our elders and to not be confrontational with our family, so if in the moment you don’t say anything, you’d still want to have that conversation with your child afterwards. You’ll want to say something like, “Grandpa was saying some things last night and he’s my dad and I don’t feel like I can say anything to him, but I want you to know that I didn’t like what he was saying. I would never say that, and I wouldn’t want you to say that.” You also want to express how that whatever was said could hurt someone’s feelings and explain why it was wrong to say.

While it’s important to speak up, even if you let things slide in the moment due to discomfort or whatever other reason, your child took that in, so the issue needs to be addressed.

CJ, father of one: One day my son, who was eight or ten at the time, asked me if calling someone a “dirty Mexican” was bad. I asked where he heard that, and he told me his great grandma, who babysat my son, had said it to someone. I said, “What do you think?” and he said he thought it sounded bad. I asked why and he said, “It’s just mean.” I said I agreed, and then he said, “So, why did she say it?”

I told him that some people don’t like anyone that doesn’t look like them, but that, scientifically, there’s no more difference between me and a Latin person than there is between a calico and a tabby cat. Our skin looks different, but inside, where it really matters, we’re almost exactly the same and our brains are the same.

I told him that people like to make a big deal about where their ancestors came from — Europe, Mexico, Asia, whatever — but all our ancestors actually came from Africa. We all have ancient family that lived in Africa. Our skin, hair and bodies adapted to life in cold places or medium places or even hotter places, but those differences are all just like cat fur. Cool, interesting, special, but really not that important compared to our brains and how we treat each other.

I asked if it made sense. He said mostly — he said he had lots of friends with lots of skin colors, and I said, “Exactly.” He asked, “So does that make great grandma bad?” I said, “It makes her like a lot of people. She thinks a bad thing. She also thinks some nice things. She loves you, which is a nice thing.” I told him I didn’t feel like it was my place to tell him how to feel about her, and that part of growing up is deciding how we feel about people who say and do things we don’t like, and how we’re going to treat them.

“But,” I said, “I’m not going to put up with it in my home. If she says something like that in my home, I will correct her. If she doesn’t like it, she can leave. And if she talks that way in her home when I am there, I will speak up, and leave if she asks me to. That’s my choice, which is easier to make when you’re an adult. But you have a right to tell her you don’t agree, and you don’t like it when she says things like that. If she gets mad, you can let me know and we will deal with it. But that’s your choice. No one wants their great grandma to be mad at them. I get it.”

I continued that, “What really matters to me, and what makes me proud, is that you don’t like it when you hear that stuff. I grew up with a lot of Latin friends and neighbors and we did all the same things that you and your friends do — including fight and make fun of each other. But that wasn’t because we had different skin, it was because we were kids and kids are morons. It sounds like it’s the same for you. Don’t ever forget it, and don’t let people like great grandma change it. You’re a good guy. Keep it up.”