Ask ARP: How do you combat an ex-spouse’s racism?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent,

I have a beautiful four-year-old son (five this September) Ian who is getting strong racist messages from his mother, who I separated from in January 2006. Ian’s mother Tina grew up in the Philippines, where dark skin tends to be looked down upon as a sign of being poor. She is educated Chinese Filipina and she migrated to Australia in 1997. I met her at a Chinese language class in 1999. I am Australian born with a mixed heritage, mainly Irish and English, but also Jewish and either black African or Indigenous Australian heritage (The issues with the latter have never been sorted out. All I have is a photo of my black great-great-grandmother.) 

Australia has more than its share of racism and I’ve been actively involved in anti-racist activism since 1995 and raising kids who aren’t racist is very important to me. To my surprise, after separating from Tina, I formed a relationship with a true soul mate and married late last year. My wife Ish is Australian born with Bengali parents and she has brown skin. 

Since Justina and I separated in 2006, Ian made various comments along the lines of “I don’t like Muslims”, “I don’t like Chinese.” When I asked him why, he tends to say “My mum says they’re no good.”

About five months ago, Ian and I were coming home from day care and he said ”My mum says Ishy has black skin because she drank dirty water.” He has said similar to Ish on a separate occasion and, of course, it’s extremely hurtful. Last Tuesday evening,  Ian was having his bath when he said: “I like sitting next to you at the dinner table because you’re not black like Ishy. Ishy doesn’t have the same colour as you and me.” I said: “That’s no good. We don’t like it when people won’t sit next to
someone because they’re black. We don’t like it when people say bad things about people because of the colour of their skin. That’s called racism.”

My ex has a tendency to bad mouth me a lot to Ian and it seems very clear she is feeding him racist poison to undermine Ian’s relationship with Ish. Ish insists that I tell her about these comments when they occur because she feels she needs to know about them, but they also cause her a lot of hurt
which I hate. I want my son to grow up a confident, happy kid free from racism and I want to protect my wife from this pernicious racism. When the issue comes up, I always try to talk about it and make it clear that racism is to be rejected and difference is a good and beautiful thing. I’ve sought advice from family specialist and I’m making sure to talk about different cultures and read lots of books with Ian representing lots of different peoples.

If you have any other advice, I’d be most grateful to you.

Many thanks,

L. Thomas
Melbourne, Australia

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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