This Week I provide counsel to one of two White dads whose partner balks when their young, Black son raises the topic of Racism.
My partner and I are both White and our eight-year-old son is Black (adopted at birth). We live in a large, diverse, liberal city, accepting of two White dads and a Black little boy. We’ve always gotten approving smiles from strangers when we’re out as a family. My partner believes that living where we live, racism does not exist and that by moving here, we have protected our son from experiencing racism and ignorance.
I don’t think this is the case however. Now that our son is getting older and bigger, I notice people regarding him as a Black male in subtle and no so subtle ways: mistrusting looks at stores when people do not realize he is with a parent, less warmth from teachers than other children seem to get. He is beginning to notice these things too. When he brings up negative encounters with White people, I am always devastated, but willing to hear him out and talk with him about it. I have Black friends at work and I am lucky that they are willing to give me advice and language to help me help my son through this.
My partner on the other hand dismisses any mention of racism from me or our son, attributing things to everything but race. In private, he reprimands me for “encouraging these complaints,” saying I am teaching our son to make mountains out of molehills.
Our son is aware that race talk is not okay with my partner and this is beginning to put distance between them. Before we adopted, I believed my partner was open-minded and accepting of differences. It is true that he was raised by conservative parents, but when he came out (and was rejected by them) I believed that he had rejected their values. Now I am not so sure.
How do I get him to see the light before he damages our son?
I agree with you. No good can come from denying your son’s experience of being treated differently from his non-Black peers. Racism comes in all shapes, forms and sizes, as you probably know by now. When an eight-year-old boy wants to talk freely about racism, there are no molehills that are NOT mountains. Even if there are alternative explanations for some of the negative encounters you mention, your son’s sentiments must not be minimized. He must be free to talk about it all, to have a non-judgmental sounding board and to receive some guidance (which you will be able to provide in partial thanks to your friends at work). Your partner is indeed wrong about this.
That said, it may help to get inside your partner’s head and understand where he might be coming from. You mentioned his conservative parents who rejected him when he came out, implying that your family was more receptive to learning of your orientation. Your partner knows the excruciating pain of being spurned by loved ones—a trauma any way you look at it. Unconsciously or not, those who have experienced trauma frequently go overboard in effort to inoculate their children against the pain they’ve lived through.
If I had to guess, your partner’s knee-jerk response to the mention of racism is directly linked to his own feelings of abandonment by his family. He was cast out for being different. The notion that the same thing could happen to his son may be more than your partner can tolerate emotionally.
For your son’s sake, your partner needs some insight into what he is communicating and why. Essentially, he’s telling your son: “Talking about bigotry makes it real. Real bigotry is too much to handle. If we just ignore it, we can pretend it doesn’t exist.” This, unfortunately is false and potentially destructive. Denial of racism, like denial of homophobia, leads to self-doubt and anxiety. To talk freely about racism fosters empowerment.
Either you (or a qualified therapist in your area) can gently encourage your partner to talk about what it was like to be rejected by his family, to air his pain and buried rage. Immersing himself in his own story may help him understand what your son is going through, and will continue to go through as he gets older. Listen to what your partner has to say, then share your opinion, explaining the importance to your child of talking freely about racism. I suspect that your partner will be more open to talking about it once he has reflected on his own experiences of being shunned. You might also join transracial adoption support groups, online or in-person and glean advice from other parents with children of color.
Also, socialize more with your work friends who are Black, providing your son plenty of positive contact with adult people of color who might provide advice and subtle mentorship.
Hopefully, after you have taken these steps, you and your partner will be able to create a safe environment for your son to talk freely about racism and, with support from your community, brainstorm ways to deal with his experiences together.