How do I handle my unapologetically racist son?

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?

Signed,

Minneapolis Mom

 

Dear MM,

Oh, WOW.

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.

Good luck.

 

How do I support my awful coworker’s daughter?

Dear Gentle Butch,

I work in a small office of only a few people. My least-favorite coworker (I’ll call her Susan) has a teenage daughter (Hannah), who is queer, but is not out to her family. (It’s complicated how I came to know this.) And, while I have met Hannah a few times, we don’t have a close relationship. My coworker frequently laments her daughter’s rejection of boys (chalking it up to immaturity) and tells us her plans for “socializing” her daughter (with or without her consent). Hannah is involved in drama club at school, which seems pretty social to me, but Susan is dismissive, saying Hannah is too introverted to be good at it (which is not necessarily true).

Most recently, Susan told us about Hannah bringing a boy home. Susan was glad that Hannah is making friends with boys, but disappointed that her interest in him is only friendly. On top of that, her husband freaked out and went full-on patriarchal. He insisted on meeting the boy first to see if he “looked scary,” imposing time limits on visits, making sure she keeps her door open, etc. Susan told this in a smiling dads-will-be-dads kind of way. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to laugh or what, but it was all I could do to contain my horror.

Susan always sounds exasperated when she mentions her daughter. I hate to hear Susan sound so down on her daughter all the time and I am never sure how to react. I don’t want to accidentally out Hannah, or make it sound like I’m telling Susan how to raise her children. But they way she talks about her daughter, queer or not, is appalling to me.

I should mention that I am also queer and quite out about it. My wife and I have casually offered to spend time with Hannah after she and my wife bonded a little bit over a shared enthusiasm for YA fiction. Hannah is very shy about reaching out and when we have made tentative plans, Susan tends to make it inconvenient so that Hannah cancels. We have not persisted, afraid it will look like “recruitment.”

I really want to be an ally to this girl, but I don’t like her mother at all. How should I respond to my coworker’s stories and comments about her daughter? Do you think we should try contacting Hannah again?

–Coworker Didn’t Get the Memo

What a heartbreaking letter.

It’s so incredibly hard to watch a parent pull this crap when you are helpless to intervene.

Well, mostly helpless.

I think you have done what you can with Hannah. You have made it clear you’d be willing to hang out. Her mother has made it clear that she is going to passively resist this as much as possible, but Hannah will eventually have more mobility and freedom. I imagine she will learn to drive or take public transportation, for instance. If her father allows it. (I HOPE I am joking about that.)

I assume Hannah knows you are a couple. She knows who to turn to if she needs to, when the time comes. And that is so, so important.

Now, the next stuff I’m going to say is fully optional. You are hereby cleared by me, as a queer and a parent of a queer, from any other responsibility. You can back away quickly when she talks about her daughter. You can change the subject or put your fingers in your ears and hum. She sounds like a very irritating person, on top of everything else.

But.

As a parent, I’m feeling like I need to at least give this damn lady a sliver of the benefit of the doubt.

To be clear: I think she is just a thoughtless parent who believes its her job to control her kid’s life and that there is only one way to be happy and she knows what it is, so she’s going to try to force her daughter into the shape she thinks is best.

Oh and that she thinks her husband believing that he owns his daughter’s sexuality and body is funny.

But.

On the off chance she is sharing this with people because it was a bit unsettling to her and she wants to see a reaction to gauge how weird some of this is, responding naturally might be just what she needs.

And she might be deeply frustrated with her daughter’s refusal to fit into the shape she’s trying to jam her into, and talking a little might help her see how ridiculous she is being.

You don’t have much to lose — she is already passively-aggressively keeping you from her daughter, so it’s not like you have a connection to her that will be in jeopardy.

So there are two ways to go, and this probably depends on how comfortable you are with confrontation.

One: I think she needs to see that some people are horrified by her husband’s behavior. I think she needs to see you recoil and say something like: “Actually, some of the best actors are introverts.” I think she needs to see you narrow your eyes over her bemoaning over her daughter not having a boyfriend already and looking skeptical. And if you can have a natural, honest reaction to what she says without telling her off, you will probably empower others around you to do the same.

Two: you can be empathetic. Or mime it. When she starts talking about her daughter in that antagonistic tone, you can say in a warm and kind tone: “It sounds like you’re pretty frustrated with her.” If she is, and wants to talk, she can — and increased intimacy might give you a chance to offer her other insights. If she isn’t, and hadn’t realized she’d taken on this tone — well, that’s information for her, as well.

I get it. I want to save all the queerbabies with parents like this (and worse, of course), too. But you have truly done what you can right now for the girl, and you’re continuing to be. And for her mom . . . showing her that it’s possible to have a happy life and a stable relationship even if you’re queer might help her to stop frantically attempting to force heterosexuality on Hannah. 

Good luck. And remember it’s always an option to just change the subject or walk away, for your own mental health.

How Do I Cope After the Election?

The fallout from this election is causing personal emotions similar to those I felt when the family rallied to support a sexual predator and to turn me out. Any advice?

– Triggered

*

I have neighbors in my very rural, agricultural little neck of the woods, who work on farms and who are Hispanic. I’m not totally sure where they’re from. I’ve heard Guatemala, but not from any reliable source, and it’s not that relevant anyway.I’ve met one of the families. Mom doesn’t speak any English, but Dad does. They have a daughter my son’s age and a newborn son.

I have no idea what their status is, or what the status is of the other family on my street. I am worried that they may be undocumented. But I also don’t want to make any obnoxious assumptions. So I’m trying to figure out the best thing to do for/say to them. I want to see if they’re ok and let them know they have my support. But since there’s going to be a huge language barrier if I ever actually get the guts to talk to them, my chances of saying the exact wrong thing are multiplied. We live in a very Trumpy area. I just want them to know they have my family’s support.

So I guess my question is, what can I say that won’t make offensive assumptions (or, more accurately I suppose, belie my offensive suspicions) that will show them I am an ally?

– Wants to help

*

How do I explain these election results to my kids? I feel like the schoolyard bully has just been made principal.

– Worried Mom

*

How do I fix the world?

– Wondering

Dear Fellow Citizens,

For the majority of us who are not white supremacists eager to keep this country safe for the white man but absolutely no one else, this election has brought up a lot of old trauma.

Our country is rallying around a sexual predator, ‘Triggered.’ Of course this is going to remind you of that dynamic. And we DID elect (or, the electoral college system, engineered to protect slavery, is going to elect) a schoolyard bully to rule over us all.

His appointment of a white supremacist as his chief strategist as well as the rest of his horrifying cabinet of bullies, haters, hypocrites, fascists and liars quite rightly fills all of us with fear, as do many of his stated goals: which quite correctly put your neighbors in danger from him, ‘Wants to help,’ regardless of their status as documented or undocumented.

I’m sorry to state all of this so baldly, but I want to first tell you all that your worries and your trauma, your anxieties and your fears, are extremely well-founded. Let’s not all add the sneaking suspicion that your right-wing coworker is right when he says we’re all paranoid about what is likely to come.

We are right. A bully has won, and will continue to bully us. What we are facing is extremely distressing. For many of us it’s also completely shocking that nearly half of the voting populace didn’t find abject misogyny, repellent racism, horrifying xenophobia, and a complete disregard for the constitution a dealbreaker in voting for this man.

It is easy to feel that we are surrounded by bullies and monsters.

But we are not.

And the way we fix the world, ‘Wondering,’ and the way we help, ‘Wants to help,’ and the way we explain this inexplicable thing to our kids, ‘Worried Mom,’ and the way we handle the trauma, ‘Triggered,’ is all the same: honor yourself for who you are and what you need, and reach out.

Triggered, take some time to think about and discuss these parallels with a competent therapist (my therapist has been talking All Trump All The Time, she says), or find a support group for survivors of sexual assault to share stories and solidarity. After you have taken care of your own re-traumatization, perhaps you can move on to other things. Anyone else reading this, this goes for you, too: take the time you need to do what you need to do before you do anything else. Drink a little too much, or zonk out in front of the TV, or curl up into a ball under the covers and call in sick, or cry, or hug someone you love, or pet a dog, or have some hot tea. Spend some time taking care of yourself and do not feel bad about doing so. Do it. It matters. As Audre Lorde says: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” She spoke for herself as a black woman, but this applies to the rest of us Trump would have die or go away or simply be subjugated: Queers. Immigrants. Any People of Color. Women of all races. Trans people. Muslims. Jews. Care for yourself. Stick it to the man and take a long shower and take a deep breath and take some time and hug your kids.

At some point, though, it’s an act of will to get up and stretch and take a deep breath and ask your neighbor or coworker if they are doing okay. To do the dishes and go for a walk and make a donation to Planned Parenthood or the Anti-Defamation League or the Arab American Institute or your local Black Lives Matter branch or the ACLU or the Southern Poverty Law Center, Standing Rock Legal Defense Fund, or the Trans Lifeline.

If you have money, that is one way to help fix the world, ‘Wondering.’ If you have neighbors you know might feel targeted by others in your community, ‘Wanting to Help,’ reach out. Bring them some cookies and a smile. Whether they are documented or not means nothing to Trump and his supporters — tell them you are glad they are your neighbors and that you are always happy to see them.

But it’s always the same: reach out. Smile at someone who looks unhappy or alone on the bus. Step in when you see someone bullying someone else, no matter what the reason. Find people like you in support groups and political causes and advocacy groups and create solidarity for yourself to help yourself feel less alone and to help further your rights and acceptance in the community. Reach out to your elected officials and let them know how you feel about these things. (Phone calls are the best way to get counted.) Create art that Trump would hate, or support it. Dance. Enjoy life. Refuse to be cowed into stillness and silence.

And, Worried Mom, you tell your kids that sometimes the bullies win. Sometimes they hurt people. But that we will get together and we will get them out of there in four years. And then take steps to do it, show them what you are doing, and let them join you.

There are so many ways to fight the good fight, in our own hearts and homes and out in the greater world. This is a scary time, my friends. It is scary as fuck. But with each connection forged, I think you will feel less and less frightened, more and more powerful, and far more joyful — even in the face of bullies and assholes and clowns.

Take time for yourself. Fight. Connect. Be real. You are not alone.

This letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on November 17, 2016.