Dear Race Manners:
I married a wonderful man two years ago. We each have three children from prior marriages. I am a black woman and he is white. My 17-year-old stepdaughter recently thought it would be amusing to post racial slurs (the n-word) on social media. She refused to take responsibility for this, saying that she shouldn’t have to watch what she posts because my children and I are black, and that it’s racist if blacks can use the word and she cannot.
I found this behavior appalling and offensive, and so do my children. I am the adult here, but this is a hard pill to swallow. How can I try to rise above this and try to act “normal” when I see her? (By the way, his children live with their mother a short distance away.) Help! —Shocked Stepmom
I hate to say it, but this doesn’t surprise me at all.
Let’s consider some context: Noting recent poll results (pdf) indicating that only 30 percent of whites and 46 percent of racial minorities say they were raised in families that talk about race and that 41 percent of white millennials say that the government “pays too much attention to the problems of racial minority groups,” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie provided in his “Why Do Millennials Not Understand Racism?” what I think is a good explanation of your stepdaughter’s outlook:
Millennials have grown up in a world where we talk about race without racism—or don’t talk about it at all—and where “skin color” is the explanation for racial inequality … A generation that hates racism but chooses colorblindness is a generation that, through its neglect, comes to perpetuate it.
She’s not quite a millennial, but close enough for this to be relevant. And it’s not just a generational thing, either: Just this week we saw poll results indicating that 63 percent of Americans of all ages believe “blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition”—a view that suggests willful ignorance of ongoing structural inequality.
It stands to reason that a kid who wasn’t taught much beyond the standard Black History Month highlight reel in this area, who has concluded that racism is defined by noticing race and who quite possibly isn’t aware of how the n-word was used before it was reclaimed by (some) black people would argue that “it’s racist if blacks can use the word and she cannot.”
Infuriatingly oversimplified? Yes. Kind of dumb? Absolutely. Missing key information? Check. But, alas, that’s sort of how we do a lot of our discussions of race in 2014, isn’t it? (See the comments section of any online article containing the words “African American” for some examples.)
I doubt your stepdaughter is a terrible person or even a person who actively dislikes black people. Rather, she’s the product of a society that’s largely racially illiterate and often racially avoidant. Of course she doesn’t want to “take responsibility” for what she posted. Why would she think she had to? When it comes to offending—or actually harming—black people, who does? Not celebrities, not politicians, not NBA owners and certainly not everyday Americans.
My guess is that many adults, like this 17-year-old, are stuck somewhere between stages 1 and 3 of what people who study these things call “racial identity development,” having not yet had “a catalyst for self-examination” or a reason to contemplate the privileges that being white has offered them.
So let me throw this out here: Don’t take it personally. And maybe, even feel sorry for her.