Dear Gentle Butch,
My oldest son has become an unapologetic racist. He has opined that black and Hispanic people are unintelligent, destructive, and without self control. He has told me and my husband that we’re naïve and can’t face facts we don’t like. His comments on these subjects have ranged from dispassionate observations to mean-spirited jokes. But, despite what he’s said to us, he seems to function at a diverse high school without incident.
I’m not completely sure where all this has come from. His beliefs don’t seem to be based in any kind of larger right-wing perspective. His girlfriend is Jewish and we have several gay family friends that he’s still quite fond of.
I grew up in a very white bread, religious world. So did my husband. We both wanted to raise our children in a different environment. We made an effort to settle in a multicultural city, live in a diverse neighborhood, and send our children to schools where people aren’t all the same. Almost from the moment our son was born, we tried to teach him that prejudice, of any kind, was wrong.
If any other relative or acquaintance expressed some of the views my son has, I wouldn’t have anything to do with them. But I can’t bring myself to pull away from him the way I would anyone else. We had him young and he was our only child for a long time. The three of us were once very close.
His views have created a big rift between us and put a significant strain on our household. My husband and I have made it clear to him that we don’t want racist statements in our home. And there has been a tacit agreement between us not to bring up issues that might lead to disagreement. I will admit that my son is better at adhering to it than I am. We’ve had several bad arguments. The last one got very nasty and we didn’t talk for a few days afterwards.
In almost every other way, he’s a good son and a good person. He works hard in school, stays out of trouble, and—when I returned to full-time employment—accepted greater responsibility for our three younger children lovingly and without complaint. His brother and sisters adore him. Sadly, I worry about the influence he might be having on them.
In some ways, I feel like this is karma. The arguments I’ve had with him remind me of the ones I had with my parents when I stopped being religious. This worries me because, eventually, my parents and I completely stopped communicating with one another.
My husband has told me that I need to stop “picking fights” with our son. He feels our time to mold him his passed (he’ll be leaving for college next year) and we have to behave accordingly. He says the best thing we can do is avoid talking about certain subjects and hope that our son changes his mind about them. I sense that he’s right and that this is really our only option. But, at the same time, I still feel like I should be doing more. Is my husband correct or is there some other effort I can make?
Of course you aren’t going to cut your kid off. Come on. But you can fight his racism with every ounce of your strength. White supremacy is a hell of a drug, and you need to fight like hell to help get your son out of its clutches — and to keep your younger kids away from it as much as you can.
But first you have to get very uncomfortable. And remain so. And I’m getting very uncomfortable myself, because I am going to say awkward things.
Ready? Your son is probably right that you are somewhat naïve, at least if I’m right about what you mean about your upbringing. When you say “white bread,” do you mean “white?” As in: you grew up in a totally white town somewhere outside of the Twin Cities? You grew up never speaking to or interacting with any black or Latinx people at all as a child? That you probably remember the first time you met a black person?
Is it fair to say that your son has grown up with far more experience with black and Lantinx people than you have, even living where you are as adults, and thus sees you as pie-in-the-sky white liberals who have no on-the-ground experience?
I think facing up to the idea that perhaps you ARE somewhat naïve can help this situation. (Also, all teenagers think their parents are naïve, and fighting that is just a waste of time and breath.)
Ask yourself: am I horrified because he is thinking wrong thoughts? Did I just teach him “prejudice of any kind is bad” and end it there? Have I thought through and presented to him and my other kids what racism IS?
I’m not here to make excuses for your son’s racism, but even if he’s had lots of experience with black and brown people in school, what he might not have seen is how the system treated him and his classmates differently. Did he see kids he thought were lazy because they were disconnected and disenfranchised (or just plain hungry) in class but never learned about the specific, extremely purposeful systemic reasons they might feel disconnected? Does he know about redlining and food deserts and the racism of school funding models?
I think what a lot of white kids fail to realize, unless someone sits down and explicitly teaches them this, is the following: racism isn’t how a certain person FEELS about certain other people. Racism is a supremacist system that we white people set up from the very start of our country to keep the vast majority of the resources, comforts, rights, and power in the hands of a few. We as a country have continued to enforce and reinforce this in overt ways such as police violence and a completely horrifying (and economically disastrous to the future of our country) immigration policy, and in quiet and unseen ways such as making entire companies, schools, public spaces, and governmental entities only comfortable for white people.
So if you brought him up just saying: “don’t be racist,” and since our schools in Minneapolis don’t actually teach about redlining and the reservation system and Indian boarding schools and the Dakota 39 and our hideous policies and practices in exploiting migrant workers for sugar beets and the reason why we built 94 with an awfully strange route to destroy a row of black businesses and divide African-American and Jewish communities in North Minneapolis while conveniently destroying a multi-racial neighborhood in St. Paul with a strong black community in one fell swoop — kids just hear: ‘prejudice is bad because we are all the same and it is bad,’ and they look around themselves and see that white people sure do seem to be doing well for absolutely no reason they can see, well then why wouldn’t they draw racist conclusions?
I’m not saying all of this to make you tear your hair and feel bad about yourself. I’m saying all of this because you said you have younger children.
While I don’t think it’s too late for anyone to learn, I especially don’t think it’s too late for your young kids to learn. Teach them some of this racist history. Help them to see the system of white supremacy for what it is, instead of just telling them prejudice is wrong.
As for your son, and for your husband: when it comes to race, too many white people tacitly agree not to bring up certain topics. I know your spouse believes it’s too late to ‘mold him,’ but that is two kinds of bullshit: 1. It was too late to mold your son after you finished knitting him together in your womb. I know some of us THINK we have molded our kids into some shape, but really all we can do is try to educate them, rain down love on them, and keep our hands and feet clear. They are people, not clay. 2. You never stop teaching your children, and they never stop teaching you.
And one thing you can still teach your son is this: that you will NOT avoid topics to make a racist more comfortable. That until he either gets himself educated or keeps his mouth shut in your house and around your other children, he is going to be very, very, VERY uncomfortable.
And in doing so, you teach your other kids: we do not remain silent in the face of racism. We do not help other white people feel comfortable in voicing their hateful bullshit, even if they’re family.
Especially if they’re family.
So if your husband doesn’t like it he should get some ear plugs and go play video games or something. (I’m pretty annoyed with him, in case you haven’t picked up on this. He should care about this, too.)
Now. As for karma.
Western people often see karma as, basically, God’s judgement. Kind of like, yanno, a conservative Christian might see the world. And that’s how you seem to be talking about it. It’s not a thing. It isn’t. Knock it off.
But you’re right in one way: these arguments seem reminiscent of the ones you had with your mother. She thought she was fighting for your soul too, I imagine.
Here’s where I feel like they are similar, and why I mentioned your possible naiveté, at the risk of not being terribly Gentle: if you were just telling your children what to think and how to behave based on the idea that prejudice is “wrong,” it could be reminiscent of the idea of sin: racism is a sin, end of story.
It also possibly has the same urgency as those with your mother: our country is on a razor’s edge right now, with our Bigot-in-Chief. The stakes are so, so high.
Shifting the conversation to information on our nation’s white supremacist history, with specific examples, (within earshot of the younger kids) allowing him to draw his own conclusions? That’s breaking the cycle.
24 thoughts on “How do I handle my unapologetically racist son?”
Thanks for writing this. I have a similar situation but he’s more aggressive, Trump supporter, and I know where he learned it. His father and I are divorced, some of this is the reason. So in my case I feel like I am not heard because he still is close to his father. Although, I recently found that there are some topics we can find common ground, so I try to educate from there. For instance, he retained what I taught about indigenous people, now I use the facts about how Trump abuses them to show the facts. He is stubborn and takes a while to figure himself out. I did challenge his 5yo daughter who thought it was mind blowing that I NB didn’t like guns or gun shots, not aloud iny house. She loved my ‘medicine music’ – it’s so hard sometimes but I pray for them every day and try to speak facts. I could restrain myself either… I agree, we never stop teaching them.
One of the things you wrote was, “…racism isn’t how a certain person FEELS about certain other people. Racism is a supremacist system that we white people set up from the very start of our country to keep the vast majority of the resources, comforts, rights, and power in the hands of a few.”
Institutional racism is a subset and a major contributing factor to racism as a whole. However, I’m concerned that asserting that it’s the only type/ flavor/ expression of racism ignores a large psychological component. A lot of people hold racist views not for economic reasons but because it makes them feel better. That’s what contributed to the idea of Good Masters who Cared for Their Slave because the poor benighted creatures were unable to care for themselves. If you believe that others are inherently Lesser, then it makes it okay to do horrible things because They don’t feel pain/ aren’t as intelligent/ don’t love their spouses and children the way that We do.
To come back around, I agree 100% with absolutely everything you said about how White Folks have rigged the system and backed it up with violence to keep others down. I just think it’s important to differentiate between systemic/institutional racism and individual racism, which does exist and needs to be addressed as well.
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Great point; thank you!
I agree that individual racism exists, but it exists to reinforce systemic racism. However, systemic racism’s ultimate power lies in staying hidden; it wants some part of its individuals to be called out on individual racism, giving them the label of racist, while others get to be non-racist. If an individual racist is front stage, non-racists are the audience, and systemic racism gets to remain backstage, directing and manipulating everything.
As you’ve said, a lot of people hold racist view because it makes them feel better, but why? Why does having racist views make the racist feel better? What are we saying about how we make ourselves feel better? What other benefits do racists receive in addition to making themselves feel better, that reinforce their racist views?
The absolutely crazy thing about systemic racism is that it does not only require individual racists; it Also requires non-racists, people who are in denial or are blind to the ways they participate in a racist system. Individual racism can be a byproduct of growing up as a non-racist in a racist system and vice versa. And individual racism can be the result of festering individual racism as well as non-racism festering in itself.
Learning the psychology of systemic racism is important because systemic racism is a living, breathing thing. Making the connection between individual racism, non-racist, and systemic racism is crucial, uncomfortable, and an every-breath-intentional decision. This is anti-racism.
These are good points; if you would do some individual research on why using the words ‘crazy’ and ‘blind to’ are unintentionally disablist I’d really appreciate it!
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Yup. She also needs to talk about *bigotry*, why it’s wrong, and how it robs people of their rights to self-determination when wielded by people in social power.
Incredible response, missing one important point: white suprematist groups who target teenage boys online. She needs to be aware of this possible source for his dangerous ides. A quick google search will turn up several credible sources for how to deal with this if it’s happening in your home.
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Especially with younger sisters (and a brother he is an example for)–As well as the racism to worry about, a lot of them are grabbing boys through the gonads by leading with misogyny. Locker room talk he is probably less likely to be obviously saying in front of his mother. Nothing helps convince a boy racism is good than explaining that feminism is why he can’t rape drunk girls who clearly deserve it/are asking for it, or something like that.
I just stumbled upon this post randomly and, well I’m glad I did. Overall, like your response, especially the part about it being problematic to just agree to not discuss these topics. I just wanted to suggest that rather than shutting down the comments made by their son, this person should ask him why he thinks this way and challenge his thought process. When discussing race and even racialised remarks made by your son (e.g ethnic minorities are less intelligent), it is important to ask why he thinks this, and how, historical and socio-economic factors may help understand these racial disparities rather than difference in one’s skin colour itself. I think even for the parents, it is important to study racism throughout history and colonisation, the criminal justice system, the education system etc and to be able to challenge or even respond to your son’s comments with facts and knowledge and just encourage him to look into these things as they are not traditionally taught at schools (*she says speaking from a British perspective*). Encourage him to learn and watch documentaries etc etc on the histories of non-white people and how they have affected their socio-economic positions today.
Also, I would suggest encouraging him to consider his privilege as a white individual in society as a whole and within a school context, like you said through observing the differences in the treatment and encouragement received by teachers by himself and his non-white peers. White privilege is an extremely uncomfortable realisation for most white people, but is necessary when deconstructing and aiming to understand racism and racial differences as observed in society. (If your son enjoys hip-hop and rap, I would recommend he listen to the track ‘White Privilege’ and ‘White Privilege II’ by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis as it’s an accessible and less uncomfortable way of realising and understanding one’s white privilege),
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“rather than shutting down the comments made by their son, this person should ask him why he thinks this way and challenge his thought process.” Exellent point, I want to highlight and amplify it. I teach a university-required social justice course, and I get all kinds in my class. I tell them that they are free to disagree with any of the course material, but with two restrictions: their factual claims need to be correct, and their arguments need to be sound. When they start expressing unsavory opinions, I stick to critiquing with those two criteria. That way, they can’t go on believing that the progressive position is “don’t say that because it’s not nice.” They start to get it that racism (and all other isms) are FALSE and INDEFENSIBLE.
Thanks. I have a background in sociology and inequalities (which is also what my blog is about) so your course sound like something I would enjoy! I agree with what you have written for the most part although I don’t really understand what you mean by the last sentence. In particular, the part about racism being false?
I mean, the claims of racism are false. Believing that black and brown people are inferior is not just “not nice,” it’s factually false. Until progressives make that point loud and clear, racists can go on thinking that we just suffer from terminal niceness and lack of realism.
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Ah okay that’s makes sense hahaha I totally got the wrong end of the stick!
Have the hard conversations..
Find the points & counterpoints to the statements; they can all be proven wrong..
Where facts fail to sway, then what about the values/ kindness that you’ve instilled? Sounds like that foundation is there..
Dismantle by removing generalizations; expose the nature of the conclusions of those divisive thoughts: they lead to violence & death, start with division & depersonalization of the ‘other’.. draw upon familiar lines of known persons that are the exception of those ugly caricatures.. logic & heart will go far.
Undermine with gentle questions as response to the ugly words.
Remind him that he’s your son & you love him ( apart from the times when conflicts are engaged)
.. And find a way to secure phone & internet browsing history from your routers control.. should be able to get a lead on what’s influencing him without interfering.
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All remember- this is a marathon, not a sprint. OP lists how wonderful the son is in many other ways. He needs to know his parents are proud of him and love him.
He needs to hear that with his ears and experience it. So that when difficult discussions happen, he is solid in his relationship with his family and doesn’t have to fear messing that up. So he knows that if he does budge, change his mind, that it won’t be about “winning” or “losing” respect or anything. Give him respect and love and relationship in this final year at home.
As well as talking about it, there is also a matter of leading by example. What black and hispanic people are in the parents’ lives? Not to advocate getting a “black friend”, but the white bubble is real and sticks with you and self segregation is real. It may be worth asking if he has witnessed his parents have ACTUAL normal personal interactions with black and hispanic people or if they have in practice remained mostly an othered group with maybe some professional interactions sprinkled in with idealized anti-racist lip service.
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holy effing shit, same… Not as over… Very covert but still the same… Will be following intently over the next few months and years… please keep posting
1st – I’m glad the mother is trying to do something about it.
Unchecked it can lead to some pretty horrible consequences.
2nd – I don’t agree with too much of the advice given
There’s a nod to “exposure therapy”, a claim the issue is about education, & the inference the only type(s) of prejudice that is relevant is “race-based”. I think it’s all wrong.
I want to be clear — I’m not saying the advice you’re giving risks making things worse I just see them as more important to the early days (her younger children) than someone who is currently entrenched. I see those as not inspiring or bringing about a change.
Here are more details to my specific criticisms if you’re interested:
Racism is not the default worldview of humans. Racism is not a likely manifestation of human’s instinctual tribalism. Racism requires several social constructs to be taught, reinforced, & given relevance.
Therefore, some White person who has never seen a Black person IRL before, never heard they exist, but encounters one who talks like they do, dresses like they do, is at the same job they have, their reaction is based on how SAFE that individual feels in their life.
if they feel SAFE in their life they will probably be curious.
If they feel THREATENED in their life they will probably be anxious.
I don’t mean “safe/threatened” because of the Black person I mean “safe/threatened” because of their economic position, health issues, minority status/expectations, trauma, etc. Therefore, people can be taught to be racist without ever meeting a POC they can surely be taught not to be racist without ever meeting one.
The battle isn’t over “education” it’s over the racist’s bias filter. I’ve known racist folks who will bend over backs, tie themselves into knots, & justify, their claims of racism even when they are directly experiencing the contrary & acknowledge it.
We have literal letters written by traitorous Confederate leaders extolling, in very explicit ways, the race-based motivation for their attempt to destroy the United States. Still, people refuse to bring that info in. This is not a competition of facts.
I mean, I know that’s the purpose of this particular response & contextually relevant, but I think there’s a lot of effort there to say “all prejudice is bad” is too watered down to be meaningful & not enough stating that someone being self-aware of their prejudices is the important part.
Prejudices can be random AF, someone could have a problem with people wearing blue because of gang affiliation or people who like vanilla. The question is about being self-aware & critical enough to analyze how absurd it is, either to make that connection or the degree of emphasis/focus on it. We will have biases & that’s the lesson to learn.
Give him Ursula Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest” in book or audiobook form.
Give him Ursula Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest” in book or audiobook form.
I’d let him grow out of it. It’s normal for kids that age to rebel. Maintain your relationship above all else. You have had all his lifetime to mold him, and having “the hard conversations” now can’t achieve anything. All the theoretical and historical and cultural stuff in the replies may well be true, but honestly, it is mostly people with strong feelings venting them, and is not relevant to you and your son’s relationship. Bottom line, do you want another broken relationship in the family, where you have no influence over him, or do you want a loving relationship where he can continue to observe your healthy and in my view admirable attitude to other races?
Yikes! It’s normal for people to rebel at that age. It is not normal for people to convert to white supremacy. Leave it unchecked for your kids but I wouldn’t go around spreading advice. Man, people with skin privilege love to sweep their kids racism under the rug and pretend like it’s teenage rebellion 🙄