Ask ARP: How do I (Should I?) confront my aunt about a racist e-mail?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent,

A little background…

I’m white (actually mixed-race, but look 100% white) and I am adopted. (My adopted mom knows my ethnic heritage.) I married a woman that’s Puerto Rican and black, and we have a mixed-race daughter.

Now, my wife has gotten bad vibes from my adopted mom every now and then, but they’ve pretty much squashed that mess. Then today, an aunt of mine, on my adopted mom’s side, sends my wife a forwarded e-mail containing a racist “joke.” This aunt will be visiting town in less than a month and has expressed an interest in meeting my wife and child, but this e-mail has thrown a wrench into the gears of that whole deal.

How should we handle this?

On one hand, maybe meeting my wife and child would help to change the racist views of someone who has little experience with people of color, but on the other, she needs to know that what she did was not right and that it offended us deeply. Is there a way to balance a “teachable moment” with a validation of our hurt feelings? What would be a proper way to bring this up? Should we just avoid her (and the awkwardness that meeting up with her would surely bring)?


– J.M.
El Cajon, CA


From the Editor:

First, I am sorry that you and your family have to deal with prejudice from the people that you look to for love and support. It is often difficult to balance obligation to extended family with the needs and feelings of immediate family. Both are valid, but I believe that the needs of your immediate family—your wife and child—take precedence. And so, my questions to you are:

What would make your wife most comfortable? From your letter it seems that, of the two of you, she identifies as “of color” and was the one personally attacked by your aunt’s e-mail and perhaps is the most personally offended. (I say “attacked” assuming that your aunt knew that she was sending a racist e-mail to a person of color, which seems to imply an intended slight, or at the very best, someone being awfully obtuse.)

Teaching moments are wonderful, but I think that no marginalized person is obligated to swallow justified hurt and anger to better “teach” the privileged or “squash” the mess or racism. That people of color are nearly always asked to do so in the face of prejudice is spiritually wearying and a tyranny.
So, does your wife wish to meet your aunt?

What do you and your wife believe is best for your child? Of course, you and your wife know your family far better than I. How do you both feel about introducing your child to your aunt? Certainly, we all have biases. Are you confident that your aunt will keep hers in check in the presence of your child? Are you confident that your aunt will not do or say something that will be potentially damaging to your child’s self esteem and racial identity?

What action would best preserve relations with your extended family? While I agree that the needs of your immediate family should come first, extended family is important. Family should be able to speak frankly and address important issues, while preserving the bonds of love. (I know…I know…easier said than done.)

The best possible scenario is that you are able to explain to your aunt your reservations before she meets your wife and child, and that your family can then move forward in a way that is comfortable for all. I imagine a conversation like this:

“Aunt So-and-So, I am excited for you to meet my wife and child, too, but I have to say that I am concerned. Last week, you forwarded a joke about x to my wife. Our family believes “jokes” based on racial stereotypes are harmful and we were offended. My wife is Puerto Rican and black and my child is mixed-race, so that e-mail was personally hurtful to them and to me as someone who loves them.

“I wanted to be open about this, because I love you. I want my wife and child to know that they are loved and welcomed by my family. Frankly, that e-mail has me worried.”

Of course, your conversation would less formal and “bloggy.” Ideally, by addressing the issue in advance you can start a dialogue.

Of course, you are likely well aware that broaching this issue could result in recrimination and defensiveness. People often don’t react well when they think are being called “racist”—even if the charge is justified. So, there is a chance that calling racism for what it is may cause greater problems in the short run and maybe in the long run, too. Only you and your wife can decide whether it is worth the risk.

Readers, what do you say?

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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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