My son told me his white friend said something racist. I hope my advice doesn’t screw him up

OPINION: Parenting is a minefield, just like being friends with white people can be a minefield.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

So my 14-year-old son came home the other day and said one of his best friends at school, a white boy, said that before he got into his current school, he had been rejected from several schools because of affirmative action. My mind immediately went into crisis mode. Like, if you could’ve put a camera into my brain, you would’ve seen little people running every which way as if a bomb had just exploded, and there was screaming and blood and people trying to figure out how to respond. Quickly, two factions took the lead—the How To Deal With White Friends camp and the Black Political Reality camp. And they weren’t in agreement about what to do.

The How To Deal With White Friends camp quickly asserted itself. They made it clear that we had to be careful with what we said to my son—we did not want to say something that would lead to him going back to school and announce that his friend is racist. That would be problematic, to say the least—we don’t need verbal grenades going off at school. But the Black Political Reality camp was clear that what the white boy had said was racist. It was garden-variety racist. It’s a common anti-Black canard to assert that affirmative action prevented a white person from getting a spot in a school or a job. The Black Political Reality camp said that we must say that the statement was racist and that the prime beneficiaries of affirmative action are white women. The notion that affirmative action robbed a white person of something suggests tremendous entitlement, as if that school spot or that job belonged to them until affirmative action took it from them. That is white supremacy. 

The How To Deal With White Friends camp admitted that the statement was indeed racist and said that it’s important to know that white people may say racist things even though they’re our friends. It’s important to know that we don’t need to instantly dump white friends who say ignorant things. Perhaps they just need some education. But, more importantly, Black people shouldn’t have to mute themselves in response to white people’s ignorance. We shouldn’t have to contort ourselves and our values in order to maintain our relationships with white people. If we can’t be our full selves with them, then it’s not a truly healthy relationship.

As adults, it’s easy to dump these sorts of people—who’s got time for white people who spout ignorance or have blind spots when we have careers and families to worry about? But, children’s relationships with their friends are different. In their world, friends are crucial and making new ones isn’t easy for every kid. And among kids, political ideas aren’t cemented like they are for most adults. Is this an example of the white kid receiving this idea from his parents and repeating it, or is it his idea? Is he open to having the reality of affirmative action explained to him?

The Black Political Reality camp said this was an important moment to explain that affirmative action is not a quota system, it’s not taking spots that belong to white people, and it’s trying to level the playing field after centuries of injustice. Affirmative action doesn’t mean any Black person gets in, and no white person does. The How To Deal With White Friends camp agreed with all of that and then pulled out an old home movie. It was me as a teenager in a prep school that was overwhelmingly white. It showed me sometimes dealing with those white kids saying ignorant things about race and me struggling with how to deal.

I didn’t always push back because sometimes I wanted to maintain the peace and not lose friends and not have people talk negatively about me. But, I learned the hard way, when ignorant things are said, and I don’t say anything, I end up feeling terrible. I feel waves of shame and embarrassment. I feel like I let the race down. I learned as a kid that I have to find the courage to stand up in a room full of white people, even if I’m the only one, especially if I’m the only one and speak back when people are saying ignorant things because if I don’t, it’ll become a corrosive tumor on my soul.

All of this cognition played out within a few seconds. Parenting is complex and exhausting. I gathered myself and told my son that he should not tell this boy that he’s racist. I wanted to be clear about that. But, I also told my son that he should be clear that what the boy said is racist and a complete misunderstanding of affirmative action. This aligned with what he felt, and I had to validate his feelings and thoughts especially when he’s right. I told him sometimes our white friends say dumb stuff, and it’s our choice after that to decide whether or not to keep being friends with them, but it’s critical to not back down from saying what you feel is right. You shouldn’t be silent just to maintain the friendship if it means that you have to rearrange who you are. If you can’t be your true self as a Black person in your friendship with a white person then it’s not a real friendship.

I stopped then because years of parenting experience told me kids will only listen for about 15-30 seconds and then they’ll tune you out. After my carefully considered and very thoughtful comments, my son said, “Uh-huh.” Then he walked away. Did I do the right thing as a parent? I think so. But I won’t really know until years from now when one day, out of the blue, he’ll say, Dad, you remember that time when…and I’ll say, yes, I remember that (I wrote a whole essay about it). And he’ll say that really helped him or it really screwed him up. Because every major parenting moment is a chance to either help your kids or screw them up. Parenting is a minefield, just like being friends with white people can be a minefield. And you won’t know if you stepped on a bomb and messed your kids up until many years later.


Touré hosts the podcast “Touré Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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