Dear ARP: Should I step in to stop racial “joking” among kids?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent:

My middle school son recently told me that his good friend was making Jewish jokes (my son is Jewish, the other boy is bi-racial African-American and Latino). It was bothering my son so we brainstormed a conversation he could have asking his friend to stop.  I also asked my son if he was making racial jokes and he said no, “only, dissing him about his weight”. So they had the conversation in which they agreed to stop but clearly it hasn’t stopped because when I followed up and asked him how it was going now he claimed it was not my business and when pressed said they went back and forth insulting each other about being Jewish, black, fat, short, etc and it was just the  way boys talk, didn’t bother him etc. Of course I told him my feelings about this kind of behavior but what do I do next? My son is begging me to stay out of it, and my husband (white, not raised Jewish) seems to feel like it falls in the “dumb ways boys talk to each other that women don’t understand” category. My gut feeling is to call the other boy’s parents ( we are friends) and have a heart to heart with them and suggest a conversation with parents and boys about the issue. Obviously at this age we can’t control what they say when we aren’t there and I don’t want my son to stop telling me what is going on but I do want him to learn from this and hopefully change… How would other people handle this?

Leah K.

From the Editor:

I am so glad you asked this question, because I wrestle with it, too. Some of my teen stepson J’s racial “joking” with friends makes me uncomfortable. When I was the only black kid in an mostly-white environment, I tried to challenge every spoken stereotype (when I had the guts). It didn’t matter if the speaker was joking or not.

I caution my stepson about this behavior, but then I wonder if I am imposing my hang ups on him. He is, after all, a new generation. I think about how second-wave feminists’ disdain for what they think is my generation’s cavalier treatment of sexism; and how all those folks who marched with MLK think young, black folks like me just don’t understand. As a 30-something black woman, I experience sexism and racism differently than my elders and so my view of these “isms” is different. My generation can joke about and satirize things that would have been taboo in my parents’ generation. I’m sure J. understands racism and anti-racism. We’ve made sure of that. But maybe he sees it differently.  I tell you this anti-racist parenting stuff ain’t easy!

But I think your situation may be different. Your son is likely younger than J. and he initially was hurt by the “joking.”  Yours is more of a parenting question than a race one. When is it okay for a parent to step into a situation between friends? As the parent of an older child, if asked to stay out of it, I would, while keeping the lines of communication open with my son and checking in on the situation from time to time. In other words, I would give him the support he needed to deal with it.

ARPers with younger kids, chime in here. What would you do?


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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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