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.