Q&A: How to deal with racism in front of children

Bonnie writes: 

“I’d love to hear from some of your readers about how they deal with
overt racism in public, when young children are around. I am Chinese, my
husband is white, we have two children. We’ve been living in England
since 2005, and never have I once been subject to any overt racism
directed at me. But this weekend there was an incident, and it made me
think – do I need to have a strategic response when this sort of stuff
happens? I had no answer, and thought I’d appeal to you and your
thoughtful readers.

We were having a picnic by a river; kids (2yo and 4 yo) and I were
feeding ducks along the bank, where some several other families were
having picnics and had rigged low-fi equipment for fishing or
catching crayfish or whatever. I’m talking about twine held down by some
rocks and a pack of ham next to it, not actual fancy fishing equipment.
We were near to some family’s stuff, but not in it, and my 2 year old
wasn’t that good at tossing bread in the river yet, so we were picking
up chunks of bread that didn’t make it into the river. From afar it
probably looked like we were touching other people’s fishing stuff, but
we were not. Anyways, a little girl who probably didn’t quite see what
we were doing got nervous that we were messing with her stuff, and told
her mom. This woman came up to me and said, accusingly, “You know it’s
really rude to touch other people’s stuff without asking.” I was kind of
shocked by her tone, and explained that we weren’t actually touching
her things – just picking up bread that we had dropped. She said, still
accusatory, “Well, my daughter wouldn’t lie to me.” Essentially cutting
off the conversation. No asking her daughter if anything had actually
been disturbed. No asking me, a grown up who was there the entire time,
what had happened. Just angry and accusatory. I usually walk away from
this kind of crazy, and was about to, until she made a comment to her
husband loud enough for us to hear: “That Chinese American woman…which
is just the worst kind.” I just COULD NOT BELIEVE MY EARS. My kids were
there, sensing the tension, and I thought, “Really? Did she just make a
racist comment in front of my kids AND her own kids? About what was
just a misunderstanding?”

I was really really tempted to make a comment
about her parenting – like “Way to go for teaching your kids to be
racist”, but stopped short; because just because *she* was acting crazy
in front of her kids didn’t mean *I* had to start acting crazy. The
family picked up their stuff and walked off. My husband overheard her
racist comment to and asked if he had misheard; and when he realised
that he didn’t, he was also sort of shocked. Call us naive/sheltered,
but in our 8 years of being married and as an interracial couple, we had
never been exposed to overt verbal racism. So we just didn’t quite know
what to do. We ended up telling our kids in the car about what the lady
said about my race, and why she was wrong to say those things, and how
we don’t decide what a person is like or how to treat them based on how
they look, etc. BUT I keep thinking, should I have said something or
done something actually IN the situation? Should I have been more
assertive? What would an assertive, non-crazy response have looked like?
My husband and I are both pretty low-confrontation types – we don’t
like to deal with it head on, it takes us a LOT of psychological energy
to respond in confrontational situations – and my son is also a pretty
reserved/mild/sensitive type. It made me think, should I have modelled
more assertive behaviour in the situation? Should I have spoken up, for
our sake and for the sake of the other children who were there? I’d love
to hear how you would’ve responded in that situation, and get feedback
from your readers too. We’ve been lucky that we haven’t had to deal with
this, but as our kids grow up in an increasingly diverse world, I’d
like to be prepared for other unpleasant and difficult situations.


This makes me want to punch someone. Specifically, the woman who said that about you. 

I think that we always have to say something any time we hear any kind of offensive language (racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist, etc.) if it is safe for us to do so. Part of that is protecting our kids, and part of that is modeling for our kids, and part of that is maintaining human decency when others do not. 

Now, the being safe part is important. Sometimes confronting someone, or even just making a comment establishing boundaries, is not safe. In that case you should just get through the situation and then afterward talk to your kids about what happened, how you feel about it, and why you didn’t say anything at the time. That way they know that what happened was wrong but you’re also teaching them how to assess risk.

If it’s safe to say something, though, you should say it. Here are some phrases I’ve used: 

“Please don’t use racist language.” 

“Please don’t use racist language in front of my children.” 

“What makes you think that’s a reasonable thing to say?” (That one’s a little confrontational, because there’s no answer that doesn’t make them look bad, but sometimes that’s the point.) 

“We’ll come back when you’re able to talk about things without making offensive comments.” 

Notice that all of these things draw a hard line at the behavior, but don’t say anything about the person, so they’re not ad hominem attacks. They’re just establishing a boundary of acceptable behavior. And that’s all you can really ever do, is decide what you’re willing to stick around for. (And show your kids that they get to decide what they’re willing to stick around for.)

(Reality: Had I been in your situation I know I’d have thought about saying one of those things above but what probably would have come out of my mouth is, “You are a genuinely horrible person.”  Which would have made me feel spectacular for a few seconds but wouldn’t have taught my kids anything. So don’t be me.)

Thoughts? What have you said, if anything, if you’ve been the victim of or witness to racist or other offensive language? Is it easier to say something when your kids are with you or when they’re not? Do you have standard lines that you use to push back? 



25 thoughts on “Q&A: How to deal with racism in front of children”

  1. Hmmm, I think you need to have a few witty responses if there is a next time. The thing is, Bonnie hadn’t experienced this before and so had nothing stored up. To be honest, that’s a good thing because that means she doesn’t have to deal with this crap often.

    I want to say that I would stand up and say "Excuse me? Which kind would that be?", or "Oh, Sorry, but racists bigots like you are actually the worst kind", but I would most likely be in shock.

    I’ll be honest, I’m not as polite as Moxie.

    I want to think I would call someone out. I have on facebook and gotten crap for it. (some high schoolers using gay). I do know that my child at age 5 once saw an obese woman and said to me "Mom. That lady is really fat" I started to talk to her quietly about it and the person next to the woman started yelling at me for letting my daughter talk like that. I was angry because I was taking the time to have a teaching moment, but quietly. If I had been alone, I might have noticed, but of course I wouldn’t have said anything.

      1. As a really fat lady, what I’d like to hear is "and that’s ok – some people are fat and some are thin, just like some people are tall and some are short, and some people have light skin and some have dark, and some people are old and some are young. It’s all ok, everyone is different, that’s how it should be. But honey, no one likes to have strangers point out how they are different; that’s just rude. There’s nothing wrong with you being a child who hasn’t grown up yet, but you’d be embarrassed if a stranger pointed at you and said ‘hey, that kid is really little’. It makes people uncomfortable when strangers talk about them like that, so we’re not going to do it next time, ok?"

      2. As a really fat lady, what I’d like to hear is "and that’s ok – some people are fat and some are thin, just like some people are tall and some are short, and some people have light skin and some have dark, and some people are old and some are young. It’s all ok, everyone is different, that’s how it should be. But honey, no one likes to have strangers point out how they are different; that’s just rude. There’s nothing wrong with you being a child who hasn’t grown up yet, but you’d be embarrassed if a stranger pointed at you and said ‘hey, that kid is really little’. It makes people uncomfortable when strangers talk about them like that, so we’re not going to do it next time, ok?"

  2. Depending on the context, I’m either direct and say that something was offensive and hurtful to me and I don’t want them to say that around me, or I will pretend I’m confused and ask them to explain what they mean (with racist jokes you can look cluless and say, " . . . I don’t get it." As with your response about reasonable-ness, it’s hard to explain a racist comment/joke without showing your obvious jerk-face-ed-ness. Yes, Jerkfaceedness is a diagnosis applicable to anyone, anywhere!

    Re: whether one should be aggressive, whether they should always say something – I agree that if the situation has the obvious potential for harm to someone, that’s of utmost importance. But if the only thing that will get hurt are people’s feelings, I say respond, every time.

    I acknowledge, though, that this is emotionally difficult if you were brought up with different cultural norms or have a conflict-avoidant personality. What I’ve found that helps me push through the discomfort (because usually that’s all it is and no one is going to die from a little discomfort) is to periodically remind myself that I am committee to calling out racism when I see it.

    (CN: child/sexual abuse)
    When the Sandusky/Penn football/Paterno scandal broke, there was a ton of (warranted, I think) attention paid to the then graduate student/coach who walked in on Sandusky in the showers and why he did not step in that very minute and stop whatever he saw happening, much less go directly to the police after he left. I was one of the people who criticized him for his lack of action, but I also know that it’s a lot easier to say what we should/would have done had we been in the same circumstances. When you’re presented with a trauma – happening to you or to someone else in front of you – you may not respond as you’d hoped. I’m sure that if someone had said to that student/coach, "If you one day walked into a room and witnessed a child being abused that very second, would you walk out without stopping it, or would you at least try to stop it?" – I’m guessing he would say that he would try to stop it. Obviously that’s not what happened.

    So after thinking about that, and knowing I’m not superhuman, I decided that today, right now, I will decide and resolve that if I witness someone being abused, I Will Act. I remind myself of this every time I hear a story of someone being abused, which means I give myself almost daily reminders.

    I think with responding to racism – especially if we know we will be scared to respond – we have to make the decision BEFORE it happens that we will address it, and keep reminding ourselves of that decision. Then we go about practicing how we will respond, and talking to others about it so we can share ideas and gather encouragement.

  3. Sorry, forgot to mention – when I don’t say something about a racist remark, I feel terrible. I almost always wish I could go back and say something – it eats at me. When I do say something, I feel anxious because of the conflict. So – if I’m going to feel freaked out either way, I’d rather to also be able to say that I spoke up.

    1. I completely agree! That’s why racist comments are so terrible to begin with; because there’s absolutely no way to avoid negative feelings afterwards.

  4. First, I want to comment Bonnie for what she did do–explaining the situation to her children instead of pretending it didn’t happen–then I want to thank Bonnie and Moxie for sharing this story. I’m an African American woman in an interracial couple. I have not knowingly experienced racism in front of my kids (ages 1 and 6), but I think the previous commenter is right: it’s helpful to have a commitment and a plan before it happens. (I, too, am conflict averse, and, thankfully, overt racism is not very common where I live, even though there’s not a lot of diversity here. I’m pretty sure it will happen one day, though, and I appreciate the prompt to be prepared.) Bonnie, I’m glad you are working on this and I hope you don’t get a do-over any time soon.

  5. First, I want to comment Bonnie for what she did do–explaining the situation to her children instead of pretending it didn’t happen–then I want to thank Bonnie and Moxie for sharing this story. I’m an African American woman in an interracial couple. I have not knowingly experienced racism in front of my kids (ages 1 and 6), but I think the previous commenter is right: it’s helpful to have a commitment and a plan before it happens. (I, too, am conflict averse, and, thankfully, overt racism is not very common where I live, even though there’s not a lot of diversity here. I’m pretty sure it will happen one day, though, and I appreciate the prompt to be prepared.) Bonnie, I’m glad you are working on this and I hope you don’t get a do-over any time soon.

  6. I would never say anything to anyone about anything. It’s just not my style. I would talk to my kids later about what we heard/saw (or I may hustle them out of the room/situation to discuss).

  7. I think there’s a difference when you are a bystander to a racist comment, and when you are the target of it. I think what can feel "safe" is relative, and has to be defined by the person choosing if/what to say. I think it can feel less safe, emotionally and psychologically, to confront someone about a racist comment when you are actually the target of it, and if it doesn’t feel safe, even on those terms, it’s ok to let it pass. It’s ok to take care of yourself in whatever way you need to at that moment. If confronting the racist is what is going to help you feel safe, emotionally and psychologically, then do it! But if it is going to just add to the trauma, it’s not your responsibility to be an educator/activist in that situation. Of course, if it is physically unsafe to confront someone, everyone should walk away. But if you are the bystander and not the target, you have much less at stake and have more of a responsibility to speak up if you can. So in the scenario above, assuming that speaking up would not have put anyone in physical danger, it it is right that Magda would have said something, and it is also right that Bonnie gets to make a different choice if that is what she needs to do in that situation. Only she can know. But I think no matter what she does, assuming she is doing what she needs to do to take care of herself in that moment, she is modeling good self-care for her children. I do think it is always the right thing to speak to kids afterward, and probably healthy also to explain why you did or didn’t say anything. Either thing can be right, but helping your kids understand that is probably going to be important in terms of empowering them to take care of themselves in the way that feels right in the moment.

  8. I think it’s also important to consider children’s reactions and their emotional state. Will confronting the person making the racist comment make your kids feel safer, because they see their parent "protecting" themselves or others? Or will it draw them further into a conflict that makes them feel unsafe? The last thing you want is for someone to go from targeting you to your children, or scaring them. So, perhaps a consideration of the children’s personalities and ages is in order. If your children are relaxed or curious, it might be good to model a reasonable response to the arguments, but if they are already uncomfortable, it might be best to step away and reassure them. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind, but, obviously, it can be hard to tell in the moment what’s best for them.

  9. This is a bit out of context, but I always loved my Dad’s way of dealing with insider racist comments. As a white man he’d experience other white people making racist comments thinking he would agree with them. So, no matter the race of the person being degraded, my Dad always says, "Wow, my Dad is Chinese and I’ve never noticed that about him." And then he smiles.
    The person is generally confused, embarrassed and shuts up. The conversation never goes on from there.
    I personally call racists on their comments, always, but have employed this tactic many times.

  10. I’ve experienced mild racism with my son, who is 11 months. I am White, his father is Black. My son is very light-skinned, and people ask me all the time if his father is Hispanic. I am honest – I state, no, his father is Black. Recently, one of my friends has made indirect rude comments about "black people" in front of me and my son . He’s definitely too young right now – hence age appropriateness responses – but I am not too young. I know. I become numb and stunned in the face of racist comments now that I have a biracial son. However, before, I was vigilant, direct and kind but confrontational about talking about discriminatory comments, no matter the race, ethnicity, class, gender, disability, etc. I’ve been thinking a lot about what kinds of things to say to model the ability to speak up and be direct in the face of blatant or offhanded discrimination.

    The first things I’ve thought about have been, "Please don’t make comments about black people in front of my son – he is black, too." Other things, I’ve thought have been, "Remember, my son is a black boy, and stereotypes aren’t fair."

    Essentially, I want to model being an activist, even in the smallest of situations. Sometimes that does require a quiet reserve, and removing oneself from the situation. I hope I can teach my son when to leave, and when to stay and shed light on the issue. I also know that because my son is light, he will be faced with racist comments when people do not know his race, and I don’t want him to shy away from his identity because of other people’s ignorance.

    Any other comments/advice for prepping my son for what is bound to happen, and for what to say now to others who are out of line would be appreciated…

  11. A fool rushing in where angels fear to tread and all that………..I am sorry the woman said that, it’s appalling and aggressive and obviously an ethnic slur/racist. But from the English perspective the American is probably the bigger part of the abuse than the Asian .

    This woman was looking for a fight. You get them. A lot. In parks and at kiddie festivals and what not. Maybe as a Londoner I see more than most. No outside space of our own I have encountered people looking for trouble a lot in situations like that.

    It’s an escalation thing. There are bits of bread going round. Feeding ducks, half-hearted fishing. Mrs’s Have A Go gets a golden opportunity as her little girl alleges bits of bread being picked up. She tells Bonnie that she is very rude and badly behaved. Unsurprisingly Bonnie reiterates.

    Then Mrs Have A Go accuses Bonnie of calling her daughter a liar. Then she stomps off to loudly spout her nasty venom while no doubt hoping Bonnie would go up and challenge her about her racist, xenophobic statement.

    Discretion is always the better part of valor in such circumstances. Move away. Whatever made Mrs Have A Go behave that way is nothing Bonnie did. She got excited all by herself. And honestly it can be anything. Typical older mum of an only child very loudly or Perfect Firstborn , or we don’t behave like this in England you know……….Why you looking at me sort of thing.

    Yes it is wrong. Very. But I just move away and explain the racism wrong and the other wrong and that some people are angry and looking for trouble and you should never get between a fool and his funeral.

    Most anti-Americanism is envy. As are comments about you being old crinkly wrinkly with the one child. Bonnie did the right thing in my opinion and experience.

  12. Hi all, I’m Bonnie, and am grateful for everyone’s thoughts and feedback. Actually, I’m not even American – I just sort of sound like one because I’ve lived there for a couple of years and am married to one – so part of the lady’s insult wasn’t even really accurate. 😛

    I’m practising verbalising some of the responses that establish boundaries. I know that if it probably happens again, I’ll still be stunned – but I think having concrete steps like a) assessing level of danger and b) verbalizing the boundaries about racism will help me.

    This circumstance was just so out of the blue, and although we’ve lived in the UK for so many years, we’re not British, so we just don’t know how culture plays into it. But racism in any culture is not OK, and finding guidance on the most effective way of communicating this boundary, given the culture that we live in, is not easy. Almost all our friends are international academics – Australians, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, etc. – and all have lived abroad extensively – so when I ask them what they would’ve done, I also get very varied responses and advice. The irony is that the woman by the river wasn’t English, either…she had a European accent of some sort, but certainly not British, so you can imagine why I was really quite confused by the whole situation. There were several other English families around who had also rigged up their fishing stuff, which we also walked by, but no one came up to us to accuse us of touching their stuff.

    Thanks everyone!

    1. Ha! I was on the Paris Metro once with a French-American friend. We were speaking English and minding our own business. At one stop, two young women got off and muttered something derogatory in French about "les Anglaises" (the English) – she didn’t hear it and I am not quick enough in French to have called out, "We’re Americans and we heard that." When I told my friend, she was very bummed to have missed that opportunity because she loves calling people on shit like this.

      I have a same delayed response, too, when I hear a racist/sexist/whatever comment. My wanting-to-give-everyone-the-benefit-of-the-doubt brain short-circuits because I can’t believe a person would actually say something so blatantly offensive out loud and/or in public. (My internal dialogue when this happens is, "Did s/he REALLY just say that?!? Who says that?!?" on a loop for about five minutes. Externally, my brow is perma-furrowed.) It takes me time to process it and by the time I’ve accepted that, yes, this person has said something really ignorant/incorrect/horrible, the moment is long gone. As a non-confrontational sort, I’m somewhat relieved but as a person with an irrational sense of fairness and justice, I’m bothered that the other person "got away with it", even though I know on an intellectual level that it’s more complicated than that. So, don’t beat yourself up for not acting (or reacting) in the moment. You responded very well, IMO, for such a weird, out-of-the-blue non-sequitur. Carry on, Bonnie, and here’s hoping this will be the only time you have such an experience.

  13. @Marta – thank you for that thoughtful comment. I agree with you. There are several possibly scenarios here – being the target, being the witness, and being the parent to a child who says something insensitive/rude as well as differing circumstances in which those occur. I think everyone is right as well that it makes sense to think through scenarios and decide how we are going to respond, and I think this is especially true for the white parents out there who have the privilege always of saying nothing. It’s easy to not engage and draw a boundary, and not to say something to our children. But we need to – if not the first, then the second. I need to think about this too, now that we’ve moved to a large more ethnically diverse city. Recently, my son (5) said to me in a loud voice as we were standing in line at a donut shop full of people of color: "Mommy you’re the prettiest mommy here! ALl the other mommies are dark!" I was horrified and had nothing ready to respond. I said something neutral and he expanded that he liked the bright colors I was wearing (my clothes) and noted that all the other women were wearing dark and neutral colors. So he wasn’t talking about skin color at all, and I was relieved, but it also made me realize that I need to have responses prepared.

  14. I think the answer is, there is probably nothing you can say to that woman that would make a difference. Talking to your kids, however, you can explain that sometimes people treat others badly who look differently or believe differently. Then you can tell them that that type of behavior isn’t okay, and that we treat all people kindly whether they are old or young, tall or short, dressed in fancy clothes or dirty clothes, etc.

    My husband is Korean and I am white, and I have two kids (3yo and 6yo); my daughter (the 3yo) looks very Korean while my son looks more like me. Last year we were at the YMCA taking swim class. After the class, I was giving my kids showers in the family locker room. I was washing my daughter when this little boy (about 3yo) comes running up and points his finger in her face and yells, "Chinese baby! Chinese baby!" He then runs over and gets his brother (approx. 5 yo) and he does the same thing. I am shocked and I don’t say anything. The kids are with their father, who doesn’t say anything even though he clearly heard them since they were shouting. I felt so upset and violated, especially because my daughter was naked and standing there while I tried to finish giving her a shower.

    If I had had a minute to think, I would have walked over to those kids and told them that yelling and pointing at people is not okay, and that actually my daughter and so are half-Korean. But I was so shocked I did nothing.

  15. As for having quips at the ready, I do have one. Because my daughter looks so much more like my husband (Korean) than me (white), lots of people assume when it is just the two of us together that she is adopted. Several times, I have been asked, "Oh, where did you get her?" I look the person right in the eye and say, "My uterus."

  16. I don’t think that there is anything Bonnie could have said to the aggressive woman that would have made things better because she was clearly looking for a fight and/or confirmation of her racist opinions. Perhaps she could have said to her child in a loud voice that others would be able to hear: "That woman is being mean to me based on my looks and it’s not nice behavior. Remember that people can only make you feel bad if you let them" …or something similar that’s age-appropriate.

    I think the urge to defend one’s self is very strong in the moment but the better thing to do is to turn it into a teachable moment. So sorry she had to experience that.

  17. Karianne,
    My son is three and he has shouted, "Chinese baby!" and "Spanish boy!" The thing is, is that he very well may get that shouted at him as well. He is quarter Asian, quarter Eskimo, half white. I am the Asian/ Eskimo half and both of mine take after me.

    I don’t know why he is so amused over Chinese things, except I think the word "Chinese," is fun for him to say. We don’t know any Chinese people. I have made it a point to tell him I don’t like to buy things made in China… Anyway, I would be horrified and angry if anyone came up to my babies yelling the same things my son has yelled at other kids. I have told him that yelling like that is rude and anyway, how does he know the baby is Chinese or Spanish?!

    I’ve also told him some of my parents’ struggles, and he ADORES my parents, so that hit him pretty hard. That people have been mean to his Mowmow and Powpow because of their race is absurd to him. He doesn’t think yelling someone is Chinese is mean though.

    Bonnie, my heart goes out to you. I agree that this awful woman wanted a fight. However, I am pretty confrontational. I heard my dad say, "f you, you ignorant f-er," to my brother’s karate teacher and heard him tell off my science teacher when she called and said I was a surprisingly poor student, surprising as I am Asian. He bites back, and I inherited that, although I agree too that safety is most important.

  18. i think your husband should use his white privilege to carry the burden to deal with racism when he is available. i’m asian and i deal with overt racism all the time. i generally deal with the racism up front in my children without going nuts but regardless, i just end up looking like the "crazy" dragon-lady. i generally i think our children learn to also to sit down and shut up when they see their parents not address the inequalities in our world. they learn the complacency that allows the racism to continue. when our children do something wrong we call them out. when others treat us wrong they learn that we should sit down and shut up. i don’t think it needs to be addressed every time directly but it needs to be addressed and spoken about even when it’s not overt. racism, sexism, homophobia, classism…they all need to be addressed not just when it’s overt discriminatory or inflammatory.

  19. Personally, I’m a big fan of "well that was rude!"
    If taken up on the comment (in this case) the answer is – You could have asked us what we were doing before accusing us of touching your daughter’s things, and we could have explained to her that we were just feeding the ducks and hadn’t touched her fishing gear. But you were rude, and then topped it off by being racist as well. I’m sorry both our children had to witness such rudeness"
    And then walk away.

  20. This isn’t quite the same situation, but I’ll share an anecdote. I’m American, my husband is Swedish, and I speak Swedish too. His sister and her husband (both Swedes, naturally) were visiting here in the US, and we were quite naturally speaking Swedish while shopping at a sporting goods store. Some guy wandered past us and muttered, "speak English," and I kind of felt a popping in my temple, and I said, in clearly American, "Actually, this is my family. That guy, my husband (I pointed at him) has a Ph.D. from an American university, and they (I pointed at my BIL and SIL) speak perfect English and have lived in England. I’m American and speak English just fine, thanks. How many languages do you speak?" It wasn’t wise, it wasn’t kind, but DAMN it felt good. And at least the asshole’s girlfriend had the decency to look embarrassed.

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