Dear Love Isn’t Enough: My partner’s child makes racist comments

Dear Love Isn’t Enough,

I am a young, black woman in a relationship with a white man who’s had a child with a Chinese woman. His five-year-old son is so cute on pictures, but not in person. Aside from his turbulent ways, which I can tolerate because he’s a highly-energetic little boy, he has come to break my heart by making racist comments at me on several occasions.

He has said in front of all that “black is not pretty” and that I’m not pretty because my skin color is not nice. Then again on another occasion, as I was walking and he watched me, he said, “Ah! She’s so ugly! Black people are ugly and they’re not good.”  My heart fell again, but not as much as the first time. I really love all children and I’m generally good with them, and I never expected a child to hold such beliefs, let alone the child of the man I love. His father told him not to say such mean things anymore because
people should not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters. Then his son said, “Only white people are good.” He sees all Chinese people as white.

The first time that this happened, I confronted my boyfriend who didn’t seem to know how to handle this situation. All he said to his son was that it was bad to say that and then carried on like nothing ever happened. I could see that my boyfriend was slightly embarassed when that happened and rebutted his son by whispering, but in my opinion he should have explained things
thoroughly to his son right then and there. His son is mainly raised by his Chinese grandparents (as most children in Shanghai) and mother. So, when I asked him where he learned such a terrible thing, my boyfriend said that ”the Chinese do not value dark skin as beautiful because it implies that you’re of a lower class (i.e. a farmer who works out in the sun)” and that they must have taught his son this notion that  dark skin is ugly. He said it may take a while for his son to stop thinking as such, and that he will keep teaching him the right thing from now on.

Four weeks later, the little boy said the same thing, in an even worst manner. We were all about to go out and have a good time when he dropped that bomb again. My spirits were completely down, and as hard as I try to like that kid every time I see him (once a week or once every two weeks), I just can’t be the nurturing person that I generally am with other children (regardless of race, and I have been around kids of different races before). I was so positive in the beginning about this whole “meeting the kids” thing, that now I feel uncomfortable and sad when I know that his son will be spending time with us again. Every time, I remind myself that he’s just a kid…. but then he lets me down again and again, and now I just have this sadness and anger towards my partner for not having taught his son about other races before incorporating me into his family, or not having a stronger influence on him. I have come to blame him, somehow, while he blames his son’s Chinese family. My boyfriend wants all three of us to do many fun activities together,  but I just can’t anymore and he doesn’t seem to really understand why…

It hurts me so much that his son, whom he adores, would say such terrible things about my race. I never expected this, honestly. He’s white and maybe he doesn’t know how I feel, because he seems to be  taking this more lightly than I am. I love my boyfriend and I would like to accept his son into my heart, but this was the worst thing that was ever said to me in my life, and I don’t know how to deal with this… I pray for patience (with the child) and I pray for strength (to carry this burden, having to hear this again in the future while treating this child in a loving way).

What is your advice? I would really appreciate some guidance.


From the Editor:

Anonymous, you wrote:

I pray for strength (to carry this burden, having to hear this again in the future while treating this child in a loving way).

You should not be carrying this burden and you certainly should not be carrying it alone. I am sorry that this is happening to you and that it seems your significant other (SO) is unable or unwilling to step in and provide guidance to his child. You must feel very alone and frustrated. I think you are right to be angry with your partner, because it is his duty as a parent to guide and teach and correct his son, and to ensure that his child treats other people with respect. As his SO, you can, and should, support him and the child’s mother in co-parenting, but they possess the ultimate responsibility. And I say this as the stepmother of two great kids, who came into my life at ages 7 and 10.

The ultimate problem here, apart from race, is that your partner’s son is being brazenly rude and disrespectful, which is not okay. His behavior may point to larger issues. It could be that he has not processed his parent’s separation and is resentful of your presence in his father’s life. It could be, that with another woman, he might find a thing other than race to attack. But this lashing out is not okay. And by not addressing it, your partner and his son’s mother are teaching their child that his behavior is okay–okay towards adults, okay in the schoolyard, and later, okay at work. Your SO owes it to his son and to you to get to the root of this problem.

The racial part of this is also disturbing. Your boyfriend offered:

“the Chinese do not value dark skin as beautiful because it implies that you’re of a lower class (i.e. a farmer who works out in the sun)” and that they must have taught his son this notion that  dark skin is ugly. He said it may take a while for his son to stop thinking as such, and that he will keep teaching him the right thing from now on.

Blaming his son’s thinking on Chinese culture is, I think, a way for your partner to avoid taking responsiblity for this problem. Even if his assertion is true, is his son’s behavior not egregious enough to invoke concern? Does he not want to DO something about it? Has he spoken to his son’s other family about how this race bias developed? His son will not magically outgrow his race-biased thinking unless an adult who loves him PROACTIVELY reinforces an understanding and appreciation of other cultures and discourages racial prejudice. That is the only way. Whispered admonitions won’t do it. And this passive love and adoration is not enough.

Your boyfriend might consider that he is raising a child of color and while that child may be among the majority culture while living in Shanghai, there are many other places where he will be in the minority and may face some of the very hurtful behavior that is currently being reinforced in his character. Your partner can help his son by personally getting smart about issues of race and prejudice, and learning to empathize with the victims of these things.

And that brings me to my last concern. I am concerned about you. With all due respect, a man who loves you should not expect you to suffer abuse with silence and a smile–even when that abuse comes at the hands of someone else he loves. I must add that I do not buy that your partner cannot understand how hurtful this situation is because he is white. One needn’t be “of color” to know that being constantly told that you are ugly or bad, even by a child, can be soul-destroying. 

Something needs to be done. As I mentioned above, I think this is ultimately a problem that your significant other and the child’s mother MUST solve.

- Your partner needs to talk to his ex and explain in no uncertain terms that it is not acceptable to teach racist insults to his child. It is true that this may not work, but I think he needs to have this discussion.

- Your partner and his ex need to ascertain if their son is ready to be involved in either of their romantic relationships. It may simply be too soon. The boy, if he has limited time with his father, may need more time alone with him, not  a new family unit that includes you.

- If your SO’s child continues to spend time with you,  your boyfriend must state in no uncertain terms what behavior is expected–that you are to be treated nicely and respectfully. And then he must reinforce that.

- Your SO must determine a proactive anti-racist parenting plan, as other parents should.

What can you do?

- You can continue to be kind to this child whenever he is around you.

- You can support your significant other in finding anti-racist parenting resources and you can reinforce the things he is trying to teach his son.

- And you can be sure to take care of YOU. You should not have to tolerate unchecked abuse–racial or otherwise. It is not uncommon for kids in blended families to act out. Seeing mom or dad form bonds with other people is hard for a kid, and can therefore be hard on all family members. How parents deal with children’s fears make all the difference in whether bonding happens successfully. If a child is allowed to disrespect and abuse one party in a blended family, the situation can NEVER work. Once that die is cast and the damage done, it will be hard to retrieve and repair five or 10 years down the line.

Readers, what do you think?

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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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