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The Awkward Racist Moment

Imagine this scene. You and your child are minding your own business, when all of a sudden you hear someone make a racist comment. Confused, you pause for a second and think to yourself, “Did he really just say that?” In an instant that seems like an eternity, you emerge from the incredulous fog and find yourself angry; you’re angry the person would use such derogatory language, you’re angry you keep hearing stuff like this, you’re angry they’ve never been confronted about it before. Then, as quickly as the anger emerged, the mental scatteredness and disorientation begins. “What do I say? How do I respond? Should I just tell him he’s a jerk? Maybe he didn’t mean to be offensive.” All of these thoughts race through your mind as your opportunity to respond slips away. Inevitably, as you figure out the perfect response, the moment has passed and any kind of retort feels dreadfully out of place and super awkward. 

These kinds of encounters happen all too frequently. How should we approach these awkward racist moments? Over the past 7 years, we’ve been working with our Adoptee campers to solve this problem. While we’re far from having the perfect solution, the advice and support the campers have given each other is relevant to parents as well. Here’s what they would tell you:

  1. It happens to all of us. You shouldn’t feel guilty if you’ve been in these situations and have simply walked away stunned. It’s not always possible to have the perfect response (or any response at all). Unfortunately, you’ll have plenty of other opportunities to speak up against racist language.
  2. Even though your gut reaction is the same, the environment may not be. This presents the biggest challenge in preparing for these awkward moments; each one requires a different, customized response. How you address the little boy making “squinty eyes” at your daughter in the mall is going to be very different than how you treat the racist joke your brother-in-law told at the family reunion.
  3. It’s okay to make a scene. At times, we don’t react because we’re afraid of making other people uncomfortable. However, Adoptees have taught us that standing up to racism is always justified. Period. If that means the person who offended your family becomes a little uncomfortable when confronted, so be it.

Ultimately, you’re probably not going to eradicate racism by just calling people to task on their inappropriate rhetoric or behavior. However, by standing up to racism like this, you accomplish two things: Firstly, your child knows you support them and their racial identity. If you choose to regularly ignore these instances, the attempt to be “the bigger person” comes across to your child as an implicit defense and sanctioning of the offensive actions. Over time, this teaches them that protecting the feelings of the offender is more important to you than protecting theirs. And secondly, modeling intolerance for racism creates a safer emotional environment for your child while simultaneously giving them confidence to confront it when you’re not around.

It’s never going to be easy. In spite of regularly teaching and writing about this subject, I still feel like a deer in the headlights when it happens. You will, too. But if you take advantage of the teaching/learning opportunities in moments like these, it will add to a foundation of support for your child’s racial identity that will pay dividends in your relationship and their self esteem.

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