It takes a village: Can you anti-racist parent other folks’ kids?

written by Love Isn’t Enough editor Tami Winfrey Harris

We’ve all heard the adage “It takes a village to raise a child.” When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, this was true. It was not uncommon to be corrected by adults who were not your parents. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, my parents’ friends, even neighbors on our block would not hesitate to check my siblings and I on the off chance we got out of line. I have noticed things are different nowadays. The idea that we are all responsible for future generations–the youth of our communities–has fallen from favor.  A former colleague once lamented to me about in-laws who announced at a holiday gathering that no one but them was ever to tell their rather, um, spirited child “no.” I hear stories like this enough to be hesitant, now that I am an adult, to chasten children who are not my own. I like to think that anti-racist parenting has some use beyond how I interact with the children I am responsible for. If I believe in equality, aren’t I obliged to call out bias and the buds of hatred–even when they come from the mouths of babes?

A few months ago, I was with a teenage boy that I know and love when he announced that a certain activity was “for fags.”  That such a vile word could come from the mouth of a boy who is, in general, very kind and gentle and caring, hit me like a sledge hammer. That he said it in front of his mother and younger siblings was evidence that he had no shame in using the pejorative. I immediately explained to the boy that the word was ugly and hateful, why it was ugly and hateful, and impressed that I never wanted to hear him use it again.

I feel confident that what I did was right. Whether in the future, society really does see all men and women as created equal depends on what we teach the youth of today, who will be the leaders of tomorrow. That is why we are all here on Love Isn’t Enough, yes? And we talk a lot about the importance of not staying silent in the face of injustice–of speaking up when acquaintances and family members say or do something racist (or homophobic or sexist, etc.). But we are usually talking as adults addressing other adults.

My relationship with this child and his mother is such that I had no fear in correcting him in or out of her presence. (I was dismayed, though, that mom only offered a weak, “Where did you hear that word?”) But what if I had NO relationship with the boy’s mother? What do you do when a child not your own utters a slur or acts in a way that it hateful and biased? What if it is the child of a pastor or co-worker or neighbor? Does the situation differ if your child is within earshot?

I want to hear from Love Isn’t Enough readers. Have you been in a similar situation? What did you do? How would you feel if it was your child who was being chastised? Share your thoughts in comments.

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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, Change.org, 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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