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.
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.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “It's Not Crazy for African-American World Cup Fans to Root for Ghana”