Care and Feeding

My Biracial Stepson Wants to Go to a Racist Southern College

It was brutal when I went 30 years ago, and I doubt much has changed.

University Banner with a U patch.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by umesh chandra/iStock/Getty Images Plus and koya79/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding, 

Thirty years ago, I went to a small state school in a small Southern town. I grew up in the suburbs of a large, urban Southern city, so I faced a lot of culture shock when I went there. The thing that surprised me the most was how racist everyone was (I am White) and how openly they made snide comments about African Americans. An acquaintance of mine proudly wrote an essay to the student paper bemoaning the fact that our school had a Black Student Union and not a White one. When a mixed girl rushed a sorority, members complained and threatened to quit—or worse—if she was let in.

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My stepson, who is also biracial, is interested in going to this school.

He was born of an affair that his mother had with a Black man, and is being raised by his parents and me, all white. While I know my husband and my son have had some important conversations about how he is perceived in the world and how he must handle himself differently, I don’t know how much my son internalizes this. He talks all the time about being raised with White privilege. I don’t care what race he identifies as—but the fact is that racists will only see him as Black.

I know I can’t judge the university based on how it was 30 years ago, but quite honestly, I am scared to send him to, or give him the option of, this school. I am in a social group and am Facebook friends with some of my former sorority sisters, but I’m constantly defriending them because of continued racist and political posts. My nephew recently graduated from another university located in this state, and he spoke of the racism he saw there, including people griping that BLM protests prevented them from parking at the cafeteria and all the outrage when the state of Mississippi decided to change their flag. This does not look hopeful. I know racism is everywhere, and he may face it wherever he goes, but why allow him to go somewhere where there will be more adversity and less acceptance? Am I overreacting or overthinking? Am I worrying about something I shouldn’t be? We haven’t even toured the school, although he has asked to visit in the fall.

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—Southern Doesn’t Always Mean Racist, but …

Dear S.D.A.M.b., 

Without negating the brutal racism that college students and other Black people face in other parts of the country, it sounds like you have reason to believe that the campus culture at this school has not progressed enough over the past 30 years for it to be a truly safe environment for your son. The only way to know this for sure would be to tour the campus, do some research, and most importantly, hear from current and recent Black students about what their experiences have been at this school.

As far as his perception of his “White privilege,” I am assuming that this child is not White-passing, so I’m very curious as to what he means here. Perhaps he is referring to the privilege he experiences because he has White parents? Unless he is able to live as White, he does not have White privilege. He has adjacency to White privilege via his parents, and he has light-skinned privilege, sure, and it’s important that he recognizes how they show up in his life, and how his experiences may be different from Black kids with two Black biological parents and/or those being raised by at least one Black parent.

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It’s also important that you are incredibly transparent with him about what you witnessed as a student, what your fears are, and why his “White privilege” will not protect him from anyone that believes that Black folks are, well, N-words. He needs to know what it’s like to be a Black kid, mixed or otherwise, in a situation where people who believe that the wrong side won the Civil War might be in charge of his education, or sharing a dorm room with him, or pulling him over if he blows past a stop sign on campus … all things he should know well by this point in his life, to be honest.

I don’t know how far the conversations with your husband, or his mother, have gone in terms of helping this kid understand race, but I do find it interesting that you say that “racists” will see him as “only Black.” Most people will see him as Black if he looks it even faintly and certainly after he’s disclosed his heritage because he IS Black. Yes, he is Black and mixed, but he is irrefutably Black, and as long as being Black means what it currently means in this world, Black will always be the headline, the big story, the part that matters most. Racists are not the only people that will see him as “only” Black, because no matter how he relates to his White heritage, he will not ever have the experience of Whiteness in this country if he is visibly Black.

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If the circumstances of his upbringing have not made that certain for him yet, which is unfortunate, that leads to another question: Has the beauty of Blackness been explored with him at all? Or is his heritage, passed on from his absent daddy and his parent’s illicit affair, typically reduced to skin that is merely darker than the rest of the family? Is his race something that comes up when it comes up? Is it a challenge to be navigated? What have his parents done to ensure he had meaningful interactions with Black people throughout his life or to help him learn about where he comes from? I’m dying to know what happened the day the mixed Black boy with three White parents learned about slavery at school.

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I share your fears in regards to this particular school, but I am also concerned about what this young man will face at any school if he hasn’t been given the proper preparation he deserves to face life as a mixed-race Black man raised by White folks. I can only imagine what his relationship to Black girls, or even non-mixed Black boys, might be. Check out Georgina Lawton and Rebecca Carroll’s recent books on their own experiences, as well as this classic book from James McBride on being the biracial son to a single White mom for some very helpful context from people who’ve navigated identities much like your stepson’s. Consider that there may be a lot more work to do before you get him settled in any dorm, anywhere. Best of luck to you all.

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Dear Care and Feeding, 

There’s a certain store in our city shopping center that I absolutely loathe, but my 12-year-old daughter loves. I hate it because it’s a “one size fits most” brand. I’m a size 6 and naturally very petite, but most of the clothes in that store still wouldn’t fit me. My daughter weighs less than 100 pounds, and some of those clothes are too small for even her to wear, but the store is very popular among girls her age. I’ve decided it’s not worth the fight, hoping she’ll grow out of it (perhaps literally) in a few years. Anyway, her birthday is coming up and as there’s not much else to do right now, she wanted to celebrate with a day of shopping with her girlfriends. I thought that sounded fun until she mentioned she was going to invite “Amy,” a very sweet girl from my daughter’s softball team. Amy is a little further along, developmentally speaking, and is both much taller and much bigger than my daughter and her friends. There’s no way she will fit into anything from that store, and my heart breaks thinking of the rest of the girls looking through and trying on clothes while Amy sits out. How do I handle this?

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—Worried for Amy

Dear W.f.A., 

Are there other stores in the mall where the girls can all shop? Is it impossible to have this shopping date without going to what sounds like the worst store in America? Please explain to your daughter how Amy might feel, that this is a common experience among kids who don’t fit “average” sizes, and one that is exacerbated by this retailer that has decided to alienate a large percentage of the young people who might be attracted to their goods. It is important for us, as friends, to be mindful when we may put someone we care about in an uncomfortable situation. Perhaps there is another mall, another store … What about some shoe shopping? Jewelry? Would these girls appreciate a thrift-store trip, maybe even a challenge to see who can curate the best outfit at the local Goodwill?

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Find something else they can do together that won’t leave Amy out, and if getting items from the Size-3 Store is such a big deal to your daughter, maybe that’s something you can take her to do afterward. It may seem like an unreasonable sacrifice “for one kid,” but explain that one day, she too may be the person who warrants that sort of consideration. Being Amy’s friend means being a friend when it’s uncomfortable too. Wishing you luck!

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• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a middle schooler. Recently my school reopened, and I have been attending hybrid learning. I really, really dislike it. We are doing pretty much the same thing in person as we were at home, but being home was much better for me. I could work at my own pace, which is generally faster than most of the class, and be able to see my friends, who are all either fully remote or attend in-person school on different days than I do. All the kids in my pod are nice, but they play computer games during class and play computer games during any and all downtime. At in-person school, all kids and teachers are logged onto the Zoom chat, and the teachers address the kids at home more than they do the ones in the classroom. We are doing all work on computers, and it is pretty much the exact same thing as being home.

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The problem is, my parents really want me to be in person, even though they know how I feel. I have been back in class for three weeks, and went in-person six times in total, which I know isn’t a lot, but it feels like forever. My parents say it will get better, but nothing at all has improved or changed. My grades have also started to slip, and it is very hard to participate with this new system, something we are graded on. My parents aren’t at in-person school, and they have no idea what it is like. How can I try to talk to them about switching to fully remote classes? Every time I try, they say it’ll get better, and to keep trying. Thanks for any advice.

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—Hybrid Isn’t Working

Dear H.I.W.,

I’m so sorry your return to the classroom has been so rocky. I wonder if your parents have sent you back out of necessity; were there any challenges with regard to their own work schedules, and/or keeping you supervised during the school day?

Continue to share with them, as clearly and politely as you did here, what your challenges are during the remote school day and why you believe you’d be better served by returning to what you were doing before. Make sure you articulate the problems with remote participation and explain the connection between that and your final grade. Let them see you give this current model your best efforts. Hopefully, if your parents are able to do so, they will consider accommodating your wishes here. If not, do understand that they aren’t doing this to punish or harm you, and are likely doing what they think is best for the family during a very, very difficult time to be both a parent and a child. Wishing you all the best—the school year is almost over!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I want to ask if you have any opinion on how I should bring this topic up, or if it’s even my place to do so. I am autistic, and I highly suspect that my teacher’s daughter is too. I was just diagnosed recently, and he doesn’t know that I am autistic. As of right now, I haven’t really told anyone else about my diagnosis, partly because people at my school have some very outdated views on autism, and I don’t want to be told over and over again that I don’t actually have it. His daughter (I’ll call her “Lila”) is very similar to me in many ways. She is very smart, but like me, struggles socially. I can relate to her better than I can with neurotypicals. My little brother is in her class, and from what I’ve heard from her and from what I’ve seen myself Lila stims a lot in class. She also takes things very literally. There are also many other reasons that I think she is autistic. This is Lila’s first year at our school, and she is really struggling. She doesn’t really have any friends. I’ve been trying to support her in any way I can. She reminds me of myself when I was her age. I’ve seen her dad yell at her sometimes because she stims, doesn’t understand what is going on, or has a meltdown. I just want to help Lila, but would I be stepping out of my place to talk to her dad about this because he is my teacher? Should I wait until I graduate this May to talk to him? Just tell him now? Should I just not tell him? I would really appreciate your advice, especially since I struggle socially. Thank you.

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—Am I Stepping Out of Line?

Dear A.I.O.L.,

It is so kind of you to be concerned about Lila. I think the best thing for you to do would be to continue to be supportive of her, as you have thus far, and to perhaps save your observations for your teacher until the end of the school year. It may be that she is, like you were, undiagnosed, but there is also the possibility that her family has received a diagnosis or has other reason to consider that she may be autistic and either has chosen not to properly deal with that information or has struggled to do so. There also is the possibility that there’s an explanation for her behavior that we are not considering.

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I say wait because of the unfortunate attitudes about autism within your school community, the newness of your own diagnosis, and the fact that this teacher has influence over your grades. If there are autism deniers among you, there is the chance that he is one of them, which may explain why you’ve seen him blow up on his child.

Once final report cards are done, you can speak directly to your teacher if you feel comfortable, or you could write to him. Either way, let him know that you have seen some things in Lila that are all too familiar, that you empathize with her struggles, and that you are reaching out only because you both care and can relate to her. Talk about what it meant to you to finally be diagnosed and how understanding your own diagnosis has helped you understand yourself and the world around you. Be prepared for the possibility that he may not be able to receive this information, which is why I suggest doing so via written correspondence, but also wish for the best, which would be him listening and perhaps considering a new way of approaching his daughter and her needs. Thank you for being willing to advocate for Lila, and even if you ultimately decide that you don’t feel right speaking up, your care and concern for her are still important, and hopefully, she’s been able to benefit from that all along. Wishing you and her only good things!

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—Jamilah

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