Dear Dr. Debbie,
Our extended family includes four generations who get together several times each year. I’ve learned to expect “backward” thinking from one elderly relative in particular (now in her eighties), but now that my children are old enough to understand her racist comments, how do I explain this behavior to them? Should I confront the older adult? I certainly don’t wish to cause a family rift.
Don’t miss last week’s column Making Apologies Meaningful — Good Parenting
The dismantling of racism requires continued, intentional, rational efforts. The process moves more quickly when those in positions of power, including parents, expose, challenge, and take action to change the status quo. So, please don’t keep quiet. It will probably be easier to speak with your children, though, than to the speaker of the racist comments. If this relative is the matriarch of the family, it may take the intervention of someone for whom she has the utmost respect, and whom she regards as an authority figure. I’m guessing this isn’t you.
Have a conversation with your children – on the way home from the family get together if possible – about what racism is. Explain that the world is comprised of individuals who are similar and different in many ways. Use examples that are meaningful to them. For example, people range from shorter to taller. Some people are early risers and other people like to stay up late. Some people are always outside and others prefer being inside. And most people have things they like to do inside as well as things they like to do outside, etc., etc., etc. Skin color is like this. A person’s skin may be darker or lighter or any shade in between. “Racism” is deciding that someone is good or bad, worthy or unworthy, just because of skin color. This makes as much sense as deciding that someone is good or bad based on whether she wears glasses.
For preschool-aged children, keep the discussion concrete and relevant to their life experience. (Unless your child has a close friend of a different religion, save the conversation about religious differences for ages five and up.) A young child will easily understand that someone they already know and like, despite some observable difference, is nonetheless competent and likable.
Suggest that this particular relative doesn’t understand this or she wouldn’t have made a racist comment. Racism is believing that one color (or culture, or religious belief), is better than all others. Give specific examples of racism you have seen and how it has hurt. Thankfully many examples that were once commonplace have since been rectified. Schools didn’t have the books and supplies the students needed. Adults were kept from voting for the people they wanted to hold office. A family couldn’t move into the neighborhood they wanted to live in. A baby couldn’t get the treatment he needed to be healthy. A person with training and experience didn’t get hired for a job she would have performed well at, or didn’t get paid as much as someone of a different skin color (or culture, or religious belief).
Likewise, show how race didn’t matter because other characteristics about a person were more relevant. Give an example or two of a professional whose race is different from yours – an eye doctor, a postal carrier, a teacher – but whose services have benefitted the family. And tell how a certain friend is your friend – because she is fun to be with, generous, accepting, loyal – and just happens to be of a different race.
You can still try to spare your children from this lady’s controversial (to say the least) views. Would there be someone outside the family – a religious authority figure, perhaps – who could bring this senior individual up-to-date? If not, do your best to steer conversations with her in other directions. If that can’t be done, continue to untangle the children’s impressions afterward.
It may seem impossible, and as you say, risky, to try to change the thinking of an octogenarian, however you certainly can have an important influence on your children’s views of race.
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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.