Help! My White Husband Came With a Racist Teenage Stepdaughter

Race Manners: Given the way many Americans think about race, it’s no surprise that she insists hateful slurs are OK. The question is, what is your partner going to do about it?

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That’s not to say you and your kids shouldn’t still feel empowered to tell her exactly and clearly how her actions make you and them feel, to block her on social media to avoid posts that offend you, and to limit conversations with her in the same way you would with anyone who explicitly said she doesn’t care about offending you. You should.

But your stepdaughter is still a kid—one who’s been deprived of the racial-literacy toolbox she needs to do better. She’s evidently been neglected in this area by her school, community and parents. Just like a child who didn’t learn manners or hygiene or decent conflict resolution, she’s repulsive to be around, but in a way that’s largely explained by things that were lacking in her upbringing.

The bad news, of course, is that you’re married to one of those parents who contributed to her ignorance.

Although it doesn’t sound like your husband is the custodial parent—and maybe he never has been—she’s still his daughter. He should be as alarmed about this behavior as he would be if she were bullying or stealing or doing anything else that harmed others while having potentially negative consequences for her. Tell him that. Tap into his hopes and dreams for her. If it helps, remind him that not only is a lack of social awareness of the type she’s demonstrating associated with poor cognition (pdf), but she’s about to be 18, which means that one of these out-of-bounds comments or Facebook posts could easily earn public scrutiny or even derail her education or career.

Encourage him to raise his expectations of her and not write her off as a lost cause or too young to understand. There are plenty of teens, like the members of groups like Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, who are more sophisticated than most adults in this area. Now is the perfect time to work on giving her the information she deserves and to give her every possible opportunity to change her current outlook before dismissing the experiences of people who are different becomes a permanent character trait.

Hopefully he’ll listen—and not just because, as suggested in your letter, you and your kids are black. Rather, he should be as troubled by his daughter’s actions as you are because he cares about what kind of soon-to-be-18-year-old he’s going to send out into the world. He needs to start initiating frank conversations with her now—and there are plenty of resources available to help him do so, not the least of which is your input.

If he resists, your main worry should not be your stepdaughter’s offensive antics but the possibility of being married to someone for whom basic compassion and decency aren’t family values.

Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, 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.

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Previously in Race Manners: “It’s Not Crazy for African-American World Cup Fans to Root for Ghana”