I have a complicated family issue. I am the mom of a two-year-old boy. My mother and my stepfather are separated, but my son still spends time with my stepfather, his grandfather for all intents and purposes, as well as my half-sister. They are generous, mostly kind people with a big flaw- they’re racist. Not quietly racist, but vocally. I am seriously concerned about what my son will learn from them. I don’t want to take away what little family he has, especially since he absolutely loves them and they love him. But there is no arguing with them about their terrible beliefs and very little I can do to keep them quiet, except threatening to keep my son away. And I have no control when I’m not around. I’m not a confrontational person; in fact, just the idea of confronting someone gives me tremendous anxiety. But I’m terrified of the kinds of things my son could internalize. I know that people are generally a mix of good and bad, and I can’t protect him from these kinds of views forever, but their influence is so strong because of his attachment to them that I worry they will have a strong impact. I was raised partly by my mom and step-dad and partly by my grandparents (who were also not terribly enlightened about race, but not vocal about it), so I wonder why his ideas never took root with me and I wonder if my influence, and other more enlightened family members, will counterbalance this bad influence, or if I will have to do something more drastic.
Dear Concerned Mom –
What a tough situation. As someone who is not too excited about confrontational situations you are staring down a tough decision fueled by at least 3 sets of different emotions. First, that intense and often overwhelming urge to protect your child. Instead of protecting him from the dangers of running out into traffic, you must protect him from a moral and character threat. Second, the feeling of love and loyalty to your family, whom you care about despite their flaws. And third, the feeling of fear of contamination and powerlessness. It is totally reasonable to feel all three and feel stuck.
The question whether you should you keep your son from the racist family members or run the risk of him “catching” racism from exposure to their racist comments has a few assumptions that need unpacking. Yes, kids are sponges. They mimic what they see and here. But unlike catching a virus, racism isn’t contagious or you would be one yourself. You are your child’s greatest influence in these formative years and you can inoculate him from hateful thoughts towards people of color. You’ll just have a little more work cut out for you then say, another mother with a non-racist family. The truth is, you’ll be ahead of the game in some respects. According to NutureShock a problem with white parents is their reluctance to talk about race issues with their children. Often it is due to their desire to be political correct or appear unbiased when it comes to race which translates into not talking about it at all. With all their good intentions, they inadvertently teach their child that it is a taboo subject and kids don’t get the education they could use. And just like any sensitive subject, if your kids don’t learn it from you, they’ll learn it somewhere else. You are your child’s first and best educator.
My advice would be to teach your son (in age appropriate ways) about racism, race in America, and his role as a person who can include and unite people. Then let him figure out what he thinks about his extended family’s view on race relations as it comes up. Help prepare him for this. I predict that a kid born in the 2010’s will not have much of a problem accepting people of all races and backgrounds, and may likely teach his family members born in a previous century about a few things.
I hope this is helpful. You got this mom.
Here are some fantastic articles that might be helpful.
p.s. the guy in the above picture is not a racist – as far as we know. He’s just a guy who was willing to be in some stock photos. That’s the risk he ran, I guess.