( The Root ) —
"My dad has recently become much more conservative. He now says things like, Obama isn't American, he is a Muslim, he hates whites, he might be the anti-Christ, he is unfit as president, he is a buffoon, etc. Outside of Obama, he complains about how welfare is being taken advantage of by 'the blacks,' or goes on about how this is a Christian country. He is raising my mixed-race niece with my mother, and I don't want this to hurt her self-image.
"My dad loves my niece. He picked up a second job to help take her to Disney World; he is an all-around great parent-grandparent, but I can't help but feel that his almost fanatical worldview is going to hurt her self-image. I don't want her to grow up resenting herself or my dad. My niece is smart, and she picks up on social cues and secrets faster than many adults I know. She is going into first grade and this is not getting better.
"I have tried numerous times to bring this up to my dad. I've asked him not say 'nigger' around her, even if she is wearing headphones or in the other room. I also don't want him saying 'blacks' in a derogatory way. But nothing has changed. How do I go about teaching him the logic of this situation? What are the possible effects on my niece?" —Unbiased Uncle
I assume you're writing because you've decided that kidnapping isn't practical.
Just kidding. But on a very serious note, I can think of few things more heartbreaking than being helpless to rescue a child from a home environment that threatens to seriously damage the child but doesn't quite justify a call to Child Protective Services.
More bad news: Even the best-intended parents can end up with kids who feel different when their race makes them stand out at home. Concerns about the "void" that can be left by colorblindness in multiracial families cropped up again just this week around the topic of the adoption of African-American kids by families in the Netherlands who declare that "the color of the child's skin didn't matter."
And it gets worse: We've recently seen evidence that even young black children raised by black parents are still "favoring" white dolls and, if nothing else, know that negative stereotypes are associated with their racial group, says Jennifer A. Richeson, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University whose research focuses on prejudice, stereotyping and intergroup relations.
One way these stereotypes cause harm, says Celia B. Fisher, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University, is through "micro aggressions." These are "the everyday racially insulting and demeaning language and actions that white people may not be aware they are inflicting," and your niece is getting a uniquely large and intimate dose of them. Fisher is worried that this will lead to feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem and a sense of personal inferiority that will affect her in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
You're right to worry that your niece is old enough and perceptive enough to pay attention. "Just like negative images about any other issues — body size, sexual orientation, etc. — kids pick up on the attitudes and beliefs of the people around them, especially the people they love," says Richeson.
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?"