How do you respond if someone is blatantly racist in front of your kids?

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I wanted to share with you this [now gone] post from “Ask Moxie” — the topic is powerful and uncomfortable, and definitely needs to be addressed…

A (Chinese-American) mother was out with her two kiddos and confronted with blatantly racist comments directed at her:

We were having a picnic by a river — my kids (ages two and four) and I were feeding ducks along the bank, where some several other families were having picnics and had rigged low-fi equipment for fishing or catching crayfish or whatever. I’m talking about twine held down by some rocks and a pack of ham next to it, not actual fancy fishing equipment.

A little girl who probably didn’t quite see what we were doing got nervous that we were messing with her stuff, and told her mom. This woman came up to me and said, accusingly, “You know it’s really rude to touch other people’s stuff without asking.” I was kind of shocked by her tone, and explained that we weren’t actually touching her things — just picking up bread that we had dropped. She said, still accusatory, “Well, my daughter wouldn’t lie to me.” Essentially cutting off the conversation.

No asking her daughter if anything had actually been disturbed. No asking me, a grown-up who was there the entire time, what had happened. I was about to walk away when she made a comment to her husband loud enough for us to hear: “That Chinese American woman… which is just the worst kind.” I just COULD NOT BELIEVE MY EARS. My kids were there, sensing the tension, and I thought, “Really? Did she just make a racist comment in front of my kids AND her own kids? About what was just a misunderstanding?”

What would you do if you were in that situation? Have you been in that situation?

Comments on How do you respond if someone is blatantly racist in front of your kids?

  1. This one’s tough. My daughter & I live in a city where a fraction of a percentage of the population is Asian, and we’re in that fraction. I’ve never been blatantly discriminated against or spoken ill of due to my race, but there are the usual stereotypes, the fetishizing, etc. I always figured I’d tell her that stereotyping is what people do before they get to know someone, and it’s not a very good thing to do because talking to other people and trying to relate to them is a much better way to learn about others than stereotyping them.

    A side note: a study came out concerning the average age parents discuss race with their children. For black families, the average age was three. For white families, the average age was thirteen. This, despite the fact that children deduct things about race early on. For me, it’s an unavoidable topic because my daughter has two white grandparents, a Jewish grandparent, and a first-gen Filipina grandparent. I do think that healthy discourse early on is a good preventative measure against developing harmful prejudices about race.

    But what would I do if someone was blatantly racist to us in front of her? Probably tell her that whoever it was missed out on a f-king awesome opportunity to meet and learn from new people, and to not feel bad about it because it’s not like she’s ever going to miss out on that opportunity with others.

    • I’ve heard that too and it’s appalling. I didn’t have my first serious conversation about race with my oldest until he was 5 but in my defense he’s on the spectrum and wasn’t speaking in complete sentences until 4. It was kind of surreal because the first thing I discovered was that he really didn’t see race. Our neighborhood and school are very integrated (and his birthday parties look like a United colors of benneton ad) but when I started talking about different skin colors he looked at me like I was crazy. I wasn’t until I started talking about specific friends and how they had different shades of brown skin that he started to get it.

      My daughter’s completely the opposite btw; very observant and very social. By 4 she could tell you the hair, skin, and, and eye color of her friends, sometimes in comparison to each other and herself.

  2. I am so sorry a family had to experience that, and I can’t imagine having to deal with such. My husband is second-generation, 3/8ths Chinese and looks distinctly “ethnic” (as I like to call him), and there’s a fair chance that our children will look some flavor of “ethnic” as well. I would hope my response in this situation would be distinctly positive and affirming my for children and less in retribution to dumb, silly people in public. I really wouldn’t know what to say to a two- or four-year-old, but a six-year-old (maybe?) I hope I would say something like, “You know what, Scooter? It’s awesome being Chinese American. Your grandmother does Tai Chi in Hong Kong every morning and your dad has just the softest, prettiest hair, *and* we get to eat hamburgers and play baseball like every other family in America.” I can’t fight every person that says hurtful things to the ones I love, but I can let them know I’m on their side, and they’re wonderful and lovely whatever their physical attributes.

  3. My family is mixed-raced, but we all look completely Anglo. My husband is Mexican American in the same way that I am Italian American, historically and culturally we are each our one main thing, with a whole bunch of other stuff mixed in. We experience racism, mostly, where we are presumed to be 100% part of the “us” talking about the “them.” A lot of the “Wow, those Mexican folk really can …” hits our ears and it’s just one of those, “Um, hello?!?” moments. What we have done when our daughter has been around to witness it all is to talk to her honestly and immediately, and if possible to address it with the person who said whatever nasty thing they said.

    Some of the big things that have seemed to sink in with her have been:
    * Some people are mean, and their meanness usually comes from fear
    * Some people have learned to say mean things because it makes them feel like they belong to their group of friends better if they do
    * Everyone has good parts and bad parts, nobody is just one thing in their life and we can’t judge people based on their one or two most obvious features

    We are very fortunate to live in a fairly frank community where conversations about race can happen without the PC police storming in and shutting it all down. It has made it easier for us to help our kiddo navigate new experiences because she has the opportunity to ask questions of other kids and adults without shame. For example, she has recently asked me about the differences between our straight hair and the super curly hair of one of her black friends (the only people she’s known with really curly hair have been black, so to her those two features are linked). When our families were together for dinner recently my daughter was able to ask the other girl’s mom, “If my head hair and arm hair is straight, and your head hair is curly is your arm hair curly too?” Nobody got mad, or embarrassed, or shushed her, rather she was given an answer that appeared to please her and she was able to ask a couple follow up questions as well.

    As young children grow their brains learn to categorize and group based on similarities or separate based on differences; black/white, short/tall, skinny/fat. We work in our family to reinforce that no one is better than another, and we try to watch ourselves closely when it comes to jokes and self deprecating humor that might strengthen a stereotype, as those seem to be the easiest places to say things we don’t really mean and add to what is already a problem in the world around us.

  4. As someone who is also non-confrotational, I would have tried to explain to the children afterward many of the points that were made already – some people are mean to be mean and it’s usually from fear. Comments from strangers can hurt, but ultimately have no measure in what you’re worth to you. Rise above it all, most of the time it’s not worth the fight.

    I grew up as a portion of the only white family in the neighborhood. I got beat up in school for being white. This area was settled when this portion of the country was still Mexico, and the population is still largely people of Mexican descent. Despite the hell the neighbors threw my mother’s way despite the fact that she had spent five years living in Mexico and speaks fluent Spanish, she would still drag my brother and I outside every fall to see the yearly Catholic church celebration march by our home. She’s never been Catholic, but instilled in us that everyone is human and if we want to understand people and love people, it’s important to know where they come from.

  5. Ugh. One of my son’s primary caregivers (a family member) is amazing, sweet, loving, wonderful, attentive and brutally racist. We are a mixed-race family. My husband is Chinese-Canadian and I am a “cracker-ass-cracker” (as my husband affectionately calls me via our favourite comedian, Chris Rock). Through exposure to my husband and my husband’s family, I can see the pre-conceived notions starting to break down, thankfully. I haven’t been put into a situation (yet!) where I had to ask anyone to not use offensive language in front of my son but I’m sure the day will come. I’m happy I read this article so that I will have some phrases in my arsenal.
    I feel for the woman who was put in this situation, in front of her kids. Not only did she suffer from the actual comment but then she had to agonize over her decision about how she dealt with it.

  6. I am white looking 1/2 Mexican (pale with freckles with dark hair) with two daughters one black and one half black and half white and a white son the kids are very close in age and I’m a younger mom. My wife and I were at a restaurant with some friends and of course the kiddos all had to use the potty at the same time. So I lined up the kiddos and to them to the restroom. As we passed a table I over heard one woman say “That’s what I was telling you about” rather loudly and looking in our direction. I tried to shrug it off as the kids hadn’t noticed and I wasn’t 100% sure what she was talking about but I had a bad feeling from it. After we were done in the restroom and heading back we passed their table again and another woman said “Can’t keep her legs closed wonder what color the next mutt will be?” I was shocked and appalled but the kids were so luckily oblivious they just sat back down to eat. We’ve discussed how much we love and how grateful we are to be their parents (they’re all adopted) and how the differences in our coloring and features doesn’t define who we are. I truly felt like we wouldn’t be living in the kind of racist world I grew up in. In a world where my elder stepsister said “But you don’t look like a beaner?” and not one family member said anything.

  7. If you’re okay with confrontation, I suggest a Socratic approach: ask questions. “Did you just say that Chinese Americans are ‘the worst kind’? The worst kind of what? Do you feel it is acceptable to make racist comments in front of my child and yours?” If you do something like this, your kid will probably remember what a steely-eyed badass you are for the rest of her life.

    If you’re not comfortable with that kind of confrontation, you can talk to your kid later. I did this when my uncle made some racist comments in front of me and my younger cousin. I didn’t know what to say in the moment, but I talked to my cousin later and said, “I thought it was important for you to hear someone in the family say that those words are not okay and I don’t share that hateful attitude.”

  8. *sigh* People can be so mean. If your kids inquire about the situation explain so that they can understand, but not be reproachful. If they didn’t notice or don’t ask, let them be. You only get to be happily innocent for such a short time. Why make it even shorter?

  9. Racism happen to white people: I am a Greek/Swedish living in the USA getting plenty of “go back home you ****”, overlooked for jobs because I have a green card “stealing” jobs from locals.. It is shocking how much people feel they can say and get away with in front of my 18 month old daughter even more so because I am white but because I have a European accent.
    I am 100℅ sympathetic to you for this and for what it is worth, confrontation doesn’t help. I naturally tend to speak up for myself a lot and then I get even more abuse with weird looks from people around me for causing a scene. You can only hope to effect your kids and those around you and hope you raise human beings that will too effect people around them. I wrote a blog on discrimination and how it feels, if you are interested I can post a link,not sure it is allowed.

  10. LOVED re-reading this post on the first days of Trump´s presidency, I´ll probably use this A LOT during his term (and unfortuntely, NOT ONLY for RACIAL matters)… as mom I thought this as a GREAT post to revisit….

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