When Kids Face Racism at School

Racial bullying is especially harmful. Here are some strategies to help your child cope and respond to racial teasing.

racial bullying

“I can’t believe this still goes on, and in our ‘nice’ town!” said a mother, who called me in tears. Her daughter, adopted from China, had come home with dirty clothes every day of the first week of first grade. When she finally got her daughter to explain why, she found out that no one would let her sit with them on the school bus, so she’d been sitting on the floor. The bus driver did not intervene, none of the children told other adults, and the girl had not wanted to tell her mother. When she eventually did, she asked her not to tell anyone at school, so the mom called me. I wish this were a rare incident, but, sadly, it’s not.

The Destructive Power of Bullying

I’ve recently read several powerful accounts, written by adults, about how deeply they were wounded by the teasing they experienced growing up. For many of them, the teasing shaped how they felt about their bodies, their looks, and their cultural roots. (To read some of these stories, search for “Interview with My Bully” on salon.com) The Bully Project sheds more light on this troubling topic.

Teasing about race is especially harmful. There is no smart comeback to a racial slur. In many cases, children are so confused and humiliated by the experience that they do not tell anyone about it. It is a secret shame that too many carry into adulthood. Some children don’t say what they feel, but may “behave” it; if your child suddenly hates to go to school, is mysteriously ill, or avoids talking about what is going on at school, he may be experiencing bullying. If this is the case, you can start a discussion about how kids sometimes say mean things to each other when the teacher is not around.

Letting Your Child Know You’re an Ally

Children may not tell their parents about racial bullying because they believe that their parents would never understand. For many white parents who have adopted transracially, this is true. Furthermore, most are uncomfortable talking about it. Most of the parents I have worked with dread the day their child comes home from school and tells them they are being teased about their race or culture. But if this day arrives, be grateful. Your child trusts you enough to share what happened, rather than keep it a shameful secret. Still, you can be fairly certain this is not the first time she’s been teased. It usually takes a couple of incidents before a child feels she has to get help.

If your child has told you she’s been bullied, show her that you are an ally. If you have bullying experiences to draw on, share them. Make it clear that you know that being teased about being chubby, being the new kid, or wearing glasses is not the same as experiencing racism, but explain that the feelings could be the same. This lets your child know that it is OK to have these feelings, and that she is not the only one who has ever felt that way. You also are giving your child words to express what she is feeling.

Make sure that you have your child’s permission before you share her problem with anyone else. She should not overhear you discussing this with your friends. Your child needs to trust you if you are 
going to continue to be a resource and an ally.

Ensure that your child knows that racial teasing is not just about her, but that it is a big problem in our world, and that even adults have a tough time handling this kind of behavior. Children as young as three or four can start to understand that some people might not “like” others because of the way they look or act. When my daughter was in kindergarten, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was a new holiday, and some schools did not give the day off. We chose to take her out of school that day and attend a march that was happening nearby. During the march, we talked about who Dr. King was, what he had done for everyone, and why. It was a positive way to explain what racism is and how we can all work to change it.

Responding to Racial Teasing

After your child describes the incident and her feelings about it, demonstrate a problem-solving approach. This is a process that adults work though almost automatically, but that young children need to be taught.

The hardest part of the process for parents may be to not overreact or take over. Allow your child to arrive at a solution that he is comfortable with and believes will work. Even a preschooler can be walked through this process. At that stage, you may be the one who acts on the decision, but he still needs to understand what is going to happen and why.

  1. Have your child define the problem. Who is involved, and who should be involved? Does he want you to contact the bully’s parents? The teacher?
  2. What is the outcome your child wants? Some children only want the teasing to stop, some want the bully to be punished, some may want to be friends with the person who is tormenting them.
  3. Brainstorm all of the possible actions your child could take to achieve his goal. The options your child thinks of may be funny, outrageous, or even illegal. This step gives your child the opportunity to vent further about the experience, and will help you gauge the level of harm done to your child. Your child may say he wants you to take over. This will be tempting, and it is OK if he is in the early grades. But by late elementary, children need to learn to stand up for themselves.
  4. Go through each option. Discuss whether it would lead to the outcome your child wants, and if it might have unintended consequences. For example, if your child says he wants to punch the other child, this may accomplish his goal of ending the taunting, but the unintended consequence is that he’ll get in trouble at school.
  5. Help your child choose one option. If your child decides to directly confront the bully, let him know that he’ll need to be the one who speaks, but that he can do so in the presence of a teacher, a school counselor, and/or both sets of parents.
  6. Role-play the words and/or action your child chose until it feels very natural.
  7. Schedule a time for a follow-up conversation to see if your child thinks the plan worked.

If your child’s solution worked, and the teasing stopped, great! If not, you will have to intervene with the school authorities and the other adults involved. Before you do, make sure your child knows your plan and agrees to it.

The bullying epidemic we are struggling with now may have been avoided if we had intervened earlier, tolerated less, and stood firm that bullying is not a normal, acceptable part of childhood. We need to shape a new “normal” when it comes to “childhood teasing,” eliminating it once and for all.

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