We were at a family outing on a brisk fall day. My kids were laughing and giggling with my relative’s kids, and I was finally sitting down to relax when I felt a timid tap on my shoulder. I looked over to find my niece close to tears. “Auntie, can I talk to you for a minute?” My stomach dropped as I nodded and ushered her on a walk around the yard for some privacy. When I assured her that she could tell me anything she said, “Is your husband’s mom racist?”
I tried to remain calm and simply ask a few questions as I stumbled for the right answer. But was there a right answer? How much was too much information for an 11-year-old? Would she understand the differences between racism and colorism and the prejudices of the older generations in our majority white family? I wasn’t sure.
All I knew for certain was that someone made my niece feel uncomfortable and othered, and that was not OK. It was something that I had experienced time and time again growing up in a white family as a Woman of Color, but it was something I never wanted my children to experience, and I was honestly caught by surprise by the whole situation.
Still, I needed to do something. No matter how uncomfortable I was, here was a little girl I loved, a little Black girl who felt like someone was being aggressive and racist toward her. She not only needed to be advocated for, but her feelings also needed to be validated. So as she explained what happened, I assured her that I believed her and that I would talk to my mother-in-law (who had since left the party) and apologized profusely for what had happened.
It’s been weeks since this incident, and I am happy to report that I was able to talk to my mother-in-law and my niece. I gave my mother-in-law a chance to say her piece, but we came to a resolution where I felt the child would be protected.
I know that conversations about race are difficult in the best of times and chaotic in the worst. But despite how hard they can be, they are necessary, regardless of whether your child is white, Black, or a Person of Color. Here are a few expert-backed ways to react when a family member is racist around your child.
1. Address it in the moment
“There are a few ways to address racism by a family member,” said Farzana Nayani, diversity, equity, and inclusion specialist and author of the book Raising Multiracial Children: Tools for Nurturing Identity in a Racialized World. “If the incident is done in front of your child, it is important to address it in the moment or interrupt it so the child understands that it is not permissible,” she said.
“In hierarchical cultures, have an elder discuss it with them, or if not, you can address it yourself. The emotional effort needs to be weighed in a cost-benefit analysis for how much you want to put into this relationship. A lot of families tend to not talk to family members with racist views or have limited contact,” Nayani said.
2. Create space and take your children away from the situation as soon as possible
Depending on the family member and their temperament, you may find that you need to get physical space so your children do not overhear prejudiced remarks or commentary that that relative is making. But if that family member is receptive, a firm “please do not speak that way around my children” may do the trick.
…taking space away from them can help reinforce that their behavior is not okay with you, and you are not going to allow it around your family.
Now, I know there are a lot of great family members who are “stuck in their ways.” If they want to speak and act that way in their own home, by themselves or even with other consenting adults, fine. But when they making racist remarks around your children and family after you have already politely asked them not to, take some physical space.
Every family’s living situation is different, but taking space away from them can help reinforce that their behavior is not OK with you and that you are not going to allow it around your family. If you live with a relative who is set in their ways, try going to the park, a friend’s house, or even on a walk. The more often you get away and the more consistent you are, the more likely they will begin to see how serious you are about these boundaries.
3. Focus on the children and set firm boundaries
In a time when Black and Brown people are subjected to systemic racial issues in America, it is important to start with teaching our children how to react and prepare for these situations.
“With my own children, I teach them what is going on and what we say to other people. And sometimes those are two different things,” Nayani said. “I have conscious conversations with them on how to show up in a public space and make sure they are protected. I think to some extent that most BIPOC families have that type of conversation with their children about physical safety, with authority, and I think that translates with this same racist talk. I think it is actually more important because the child needs to make healthy choices when you are not around, and we need to help build their self-esteem so they understand what is acceptable and what isn’t,” she said.
While this may seem obvious to some, especially BIPOC parents who were raised in a family of color, parents (like me) in multiracial families may need this gentle reminder to start these conversations with our children despite what others say or do not say.
Whether you are white or a Person of Color, setting a boundary for not allowing prejudices around your children is perfectly reasonable. When creating your boundaries, it is important to make sure that they are easy enough to remember and, most importantly, that you will follow through with consequences if they are not followed.
A few good examples of boundaries to set are:
- You are not allowed with my children alone.
- If you start to say prejudiced things around my children, I will end the visit immediately.
- If you continue to disregard my rules and talk negatively about them around my children, we will not be seeing each other until you can respect my boundaries.
So, for example, after the situation with my mother-in-law, we discussed boundaries on what was and wasn’t appropriate conversation around children and why we felt strongly about it. She did not have to agree with my husband and my position, but she did have to respect our boundaries on how to act around children in my family’s home. She had the choice to stay home or come and knew that she would not be welcome anymore if she said anything that was construed as racist.
4. Get help from an ally in your family
To be honest, I really wasn’t looking forward to another potential huge argument with my mother-in-law, but with my spouse’s support, it didn’t turn into one. We were luckily on the same page because I had shared with him what had happened with my niece. Since he knew how his mother could be, he completely agreed that this situation needed to be addressed promptly. While my husband is also Latino, our sons are the first multiracial children in our immediate family. We both wanted to make sure the entire family understood that we did not want anyone in our family to feel uncomfortable. Whether she meant harm or not, a child was hurt by what my mother-in-law said.
“If it is online, on posts or in public, it can escalate. I have seen other people intervene as an ally on behalf of someone. If they have the same identity or are in a privileged position, that can work best, rather than a marginalized person who has to do the emotional labor,” Nayani said.
I know some people may think it is best to cut out racist people from their lives, and for some or even many, that is the best option. But for others, especially People of Color in majority white families, that isn’t always an easy option.
After talking things over with my husband, we were able to come up with a game plan where we listed what we wanted, our boundaries, and what would happen if they refused to listen or kept “forgetting.” Together, we addressed them in a neutral setting. The conversation was not perfect, but we made sure to be firm and not argumentative.
My family took a long time to understand race and racism and how it affected me growing up and even now, and I am thankful that we worked together to grow. However, I also realize that my children need to be protected from microaggressions and prejudices that they may hear from family members who still have a lot of work to do, which is why it is essential to prepare for handling these situations.