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When Should I Call Out My Child’s Teacher’s Racist Comments?

Now? Or when my kid’s out of her class?

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@gmail.com.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife recently accompanied my son’s third-grade class on a field trip. Preparing the children, the teacher commented that she did not want them to behave “like wild Indians.” Naturally my wife was taken aback by this and, in the era of Trump, feels it’s necessary to address, but could not think of a way to do so at the time. Important information is that this would be a conversation between white people in a small, excruciatingly white district in what is very possibly the whitest state in the country—which hopefully goes some way toward explaining (not excusing) the casual insensitivity of the comment.

My wife would like to talk to the teacher about this during upcoming parent-teacher conferences. My concern is that, in my experience, people don’t react well to this kind of criticism, and my son is going to be in her class for the rest of the year. Complicating matters, my wife has recently been hired by the school district and she will likely have to work with this woman in the future.

I would like my wife to hold off on confronting the teacher with this concern until the end of the school year, when she is not able to adversely affect our son’s school experience. Are my concerns unfounded? Do you have any advice/suggestions as to how we could go about confronting this teacher gently and in a way that doesn’t put our son in danger of petty retaliation?

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—Hoping for the Best, Expecting the Worst

Dear HftBEtW,

I ask you to do a simple thought experiment. If you were a Native American family in this exact same situation, and you heard your child’s teacher encourage a bunch of white kids not to act like “wild Indians,” would any of these reasons—the teacher might be offended, our kid’s in her class all year, we should just wait until the situation is more chill—justify letting this comment slide? My guess is no.

Your letter suggests you have an option, a choice, about whether or not to address and correct racist behavior. You have that choice because while the behavior offends your sensibilities, you believe that it doesn’t directly threaten your safety or well-being. Unfortunately, white people believing they can opt in and out of addressing racism, based on their own comfort and the comfort of other white people, is exactly how we got to where we are today. I think you would like to do better. And so I think you should.

I’m going to assume that while the earnest desire to confront racism is there, what you are actually struggling with is having the skills required to do so effectively. You don’t need to attack this woman and call her a Nazi. You don’t even need to get angry with her. Think of it instead as helping. Just as I’m sure you don’t want to be racist, you can assume that she doesn’t want to be racist either. You can say to her: “Hey, a little while ago you used the phrase ‘wild Indians.’ And I know it’s common and you probably didn’t mean anything by it, but I’ve been thinking about it and that phrase is pretty racist. You probably don’t want our kids growing up thinking that ‘wild indians’ is a thing, just like you wouldn’t say ‘Don’t behave like a bunch of wild blacks.’ Anyway, I just thought I’d share that with you. Thanks for all you do blah blah blah … ”

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She may bristle and be offended—self-proclaimed good white people can get pretty jumpy when you point out the holes in the fabric of their wokeness. In the long run, though, it’s entirely possible this moment of discomfort will pay off for both of you, especially if you approach her with love and trust. It’s also possible that she will stay mad and never get over it, in which case you may have to do something about that. But either way I would say it needs to be addressed now, not later, no matter the consequences. Otherwise you’d just be prioritizing the comfort of your one white child over the safety of every person of color in the country, and I just don’t think that’s the kind of person you want to be. Right?

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have been divorced from my son’s father since my son was 1. We have shared custody in which my son spends every other weekend, parts of the summers, and school vacations with his father. I have always encouraged his father to spend as much time with him as possible, and there have been very few issues regarding custody.

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My son is now 12 and in seventh grade. In our town, he has a choice between two high schools: one that is traditional, and the other is specialized and will teach him a trade. I was curious which school he might like to attend, and he brought up that he’d had this conversation with his father already. Apparently his father and stepmom (who is a foreigner) are encouraging my son to go to a high school in their town and live with them.

This angers me for two reasons. One, his father should have spoken to me about this before bringing it up to our son. I don’t want to get his hopes up only for plans to fall through. Two, my son has lived with me and my husband his whole life. We have raised him to be a competent, respectful, and helpful young man. But like any 12-year-old, he has his faults. I don’t feel like his overly lenient father can provide him the parenting a teenager will require.

How do I broach this conversation with his passive-aggressive father and nosy stepmom? I feel like they are trying to take my son from me.

—Already Missing My Son

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Dear AMMS,

You say that your son has a choice of two high schools to attend, but the reality is that he has a choice of three: the two in your town and the one in his father’s town. That’s right. He has a choice about where he wants to go to school and also where he wants to live. It’s entirely understandable not to like that. But in this case, not liking something doesn’t make it wrong or unfair.

Your use of the phrase “trying to take my son from me” implies that he somehow belongs more to you than he does to his father. And I wonder if and why you feel that way. Nothing in your letter explains why his dad should have less of a right to him than you do. Your kid has two parents. You are one of them. (Surely this can’t be related to your bizarrely xenophobic comment that your husband’s partner is a “foreigner.” You know that “foreigners” also successfully have and raise kids, don’t you?) Your son’s dad has every right to suggest that your son come and live with him in high school. And while I agree that it would have been much kinder of him to bring this up to you before he brought it up to your son, the cat’s out of the bag now.

Your son is in seventh grade, and he doesn’t have to make this decision for a year. Even though the topic was introduced in a less-than-ideal way, it is good that it’s out in the open. This is a big decision and would require serious transition. Having it introduced now gives everyone a chance to sit with it for a while. Your son may be leaning toward it now, but against it later. You may be leaning against it now, but come around later. Either way, your ex did you all a favor by jumping the gun.

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But the one thing I would remind you is that your son’s wishes in this matter should be considered very important, perhaps the most important of anyone’s. You don’t like his father’s parenting style, but there’s no indication that it’s a bad or dangerous one. Just not what you prefer. I’m sure he has some opinions about your choices as well. (As you know, that’s the wonderful world of co-parenting with an ex.) The point here is that your son spends significant time in his father’s household. He comes back happy and in one piece, and is so comfortable there that he’s considering moving there for high school. What is being suggested here is a change in the custody agreement; in most states, courts will take both households into account as well as your son’s preferences as they decide whether or not to grant it. That is, if you want to take it to court. I would remind you that it’s not necessary to do that yet, and probably better not to do it at all. No kid deserves to see their parents fighting one another in court. It’s clear you care deeply for your son, so you should try with all your might to avoid that.

The pain you feel is understandable, and legitimate, and real. But don’t make your son organize his life around it. There may be very good reasons he wants to spend more time with his father. Let him do what he wants to do with this situation and let him know that you will love and support him always. I wish you good luck.

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More Care and Feeding:

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Dear Care and Feeding, 

My wife and I have two wonderful children who we conceived using anonymously donated sperm purchased from a sperm bank. A few years ago, I saw a cute series on MTV about “donor siblings,” as they call themselves, who found each other in their teen years and developed good relationships. My wife was hesitant, but I convinced her that we should register with the sperm bank to be open to communication with other families who used the same donor as us. For a long time, we heard nothing. Then, right after our youngest was born with severe health issues, we heard from the parents of another child conceived with this donor’s sperm. It was really bad timing for us, and so I told them we would try to be back in touch in a few months.

I did some searching online to find out more about them. We seem to be very, very different. They are straight, live in a big city, and socialize with celebrities. We live in the sticks and drive Subarus. One of them even works in the media and has used the story of their conception as content professionally. All of this makes me hesitant to develop a relationship with them, and yet it may be inevitable, as our children do share something significant in common.

It’s been almost a year since they made contact with us, and I feel guilty about our ongoing silence. I haven’t brought it up with my wife in a very long time, since she wasn’t super excited in the first place. How do I proceed? I never want my children to be ashamed of how they arrived on this planet or feel we are holding them back. But I also value our family unit and privacy, and I worry that this other couple will use our story for their work or judge us for our different socioeconomic status.

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—Unsure Donor Mom

Dear UDM,

I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a moment to comment on the irony here. You have pushed for a kind of transparency in the donor-sibling relationship that your wife was unsure about, and now that you have that transparency, you’re seeing exactly why she was unsure about it in first place. There is, in fact, a reason people don’t necessarily want to dig into the details of families to whom they are linked via DNA and technology. Our actual families are hard enough to deal with! Why go out of our way to find more people we’re stuck with but didn’t choose?

The impulse to want to connect is understandable. But you must remember the reason you’re doing it. It is not so that you can find like-minded people to approve of you. It is so that your kids can have a greater sense of their identity. That, indeed, is why most people seek out their donor siblings. The point is for your children to find their families, not for you to find yours.

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I’d like unpack a few assumptions you’ve made about this other couple. You say that your concern is that they won’t like you, but this conclusion is based almost entirely on a combination of future tripping and mind-reading. All that’s really happened is that you have discovered the public persona of some strangers on the internet. Just because they are a straight couple who lives in a city and has a selfie or two with some B-lister doesn’t necessarily mean that they will hold you in contempt. Your fear is relatable, but I’m here to tell you it’s also irrational. Until you have some actual information to justify it, it’s really just insecurity (and perhaps judgement, or resentment) masquerading as a legitimate concern. They could be lovely people. Or they could be like the top-hatted villains in a cartoon, lighting $100 bills on fire while laughing at the poor. The point is you don’t yet know.

Another irony here is that you are concerned that they will write unflatteringly about you, and yet here you are doing the same about them, in a letter to us. But notice that you were able to write about them without outing them, embarrassing them, or throwing them specifically under the bus. That is to say you have written about them in a way that doesn’t actually affect their lives at all. Most people who are writers or journalists try, at least, to do the same. Should you one day connect with these people, remember that you can always say, “Hey, if you write about this, please don’t use my real identity.” That is common practice and any professional worth their salt would honor that.

But all of that is a big “if.” As it stands now, you don’t have to reach out to them at all. You have your plate full with two children, one of whom has a significant health issue. As of now the other parents are not exactly pounding at your door. I’d say you can back-burner this for now. If they reach out again, then you can make a decision about what to do, and my advice for that time is to just go for it. Do it for the kids, not for yourself. But for now, let it lie. And maybe in the meantime you can get over your fear that people who may be different from you will judge you for being different from them.

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