But you should derive some hope from the knowledge that kids are resilient and that many survive hurtful statements about their identities from adults who purport to love them. The goal, I think, is to do whatever you can to help ensure that your niece is one of those who reaches age 18 and leaves the house shaking her head knowingly about the fact that her caregiver had some serious shortcomings, rather than turning his hatred in on herself. I’d suggest that you go way overboard to try to fortify her overall self-confidence — telling her she’s smart, beautiful and competent (not to mention, fully American) and deserving of respect. Rally other relatives to do the same.
And it looks as if you’ll also be tasked with delivering an early lesson in something we all realize as we grow up: that grownups, including the ones who raise us, can be wrong. Talk with her about the idea that adults aren’t perfect, and although her grandfather loves her, he may unintentionally say things that hurt her, Fisher suggests.
That’s what you can do for her. But what about her beloved grandpa? When it comes to changing your dad’s behavior, you ask about “logic.” I think you have to give that up. The types of views he holds are not of the variety that bend in the face of good arguments or facts. I’m willing to bet that his outlook — like that of many who share it with him — is fueled more than anything by deep anxiety about his own place in a changing country.
So rather than reasoning about the underlying beliefs, maybe you can try to harness your dad’s undeniable love for his granddaughter in a way that can help soften his views — or at least his expression of them. To do this, let him know what’s at stake: his very relationship with her. “Over time, these beliefs are likely to create a wedge between the young girl and grandfather. Perhaps this is one way to get through to him,” says Richeson.
Fisher suggests that you “continue to make efforts to show him how his words may not be communicating the love that he feels.”
There’s decent evidence that this could lead your father to question his own attitudes, too. “If nothing else, the incredible transformation in attitudes about LGBT individuals in this country attests to the power that the loving bonds of family can have in the face of prejudices,” says Richeson. It’s true: In one poll, asked why they changed their minds and supported gay marriage, a third of respondents said that knowing a gay, lesbian or bisexual person was influential in making them rethink their position.
I’d never suggest subjecting an innocent child to the rants of an open racist in hopes that she would be a catalyst for changed views. But in this sad situation, that outcome may be the best we can hope for. I hope your influence on your family can change the course of this story and that your niece can one day say that she wasn’t just an observer of or victim of bigotry, but that she was powerful enough to help eliminate it in someone who loved her.
The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “Will an HBCU Make My Kid Too Black?“