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Dear Care and Feeding: My In-Laws Called My Culture “Backwards”

Care and Feeding

I’m devastated.

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,

I am Indian, and my husband is white. His family lives a few hours away in a majority-white area of the state and are mostly liberal, but there have been times I’ve felt like they see me as the representative for every Indian ever, and it’s tiring. For example, his aunt has asked me multiple times what to cook for her son’s Indian friend, since she doesn’t want to “confuse him” with American food. Upon talking to her about him, I learned he was actually adopted from India and had lived here his whole life, and told her to just ask him his favorite food. Or I get relatives asking me if I naturally know yoga or can teach them how to make “authentic chai from my home country” (I’ve spent my whole life in the USA).

Whenever something like this happens, I’ve tried to explain why I’m not an expert on India, that it’s very diverse and multicultural, etc., because I felt like they were genuinely curious and didn’t know better, as many of them have spent their entire lives in mainly white places. I also try to remind myself that a lot of them are firm Democrats and are passionate about equality, they just… need more educating in some areas.

I’m currently six months pregnant with our first child (a girl) and was telling my MIL about the special earrings my family had sent from India. She said that it was sort of unfair to send a gift that couldn’t be used until the baby was much older, and I explained that these were for when she was 4 months old, the same age I had my ears pierced, and were designed so she wouldn’t grab them. My husband understands that this is culturally important to me. But MIL and her sister got very upset, and said that they couldn’t support a “sexist and backwards tradition” and it may have been “acceptable to harm babies” when I was little in India, but that they couldn’t allow it here.

I got very upset and started crying, and my husband and I left. His family have not apologized and have called me dramatic and told my husband they were “defending his daughter’s rights.” I am so angry with them, and I feel like telling my MIL and her sister that if they think I’m going to raise my daughter “backwards,” then they just don’t get to see her. My husband thinks I’m being too extreme, and says that his mom is just “older and has a different perspective on other cultures” and pointed out that she was never racist before, and she wasn’t trying to offend me. I still want to put my foot down, but I’m also kind of wondering if I went too far. I can’t get over her calling my culture backwards and insinuating that something safe and normal is some evil exotic practice. Would I be wrong to set some firm boundaries because of this, or am I being too emotional and overreacting?

—Setting Boundaries in Brooklyn

Dear Setting Boundaries,

I’m sure you’re aware of this now, but white liberals can be some of the most racist people in America. Just because they vote a certain way or have a “I’m so happy you’re my neighbor” sign written in multiple languages on their lawn doesn’t mean a damn thing if their actions aren’t aligned with equity. Yes, your relatives (and other white liberals) need more educating.

By the way, I chuckled when you wrote about your in-laws believing you’re an expert in “all things India.” The same thing happens quite often when clients ask, “Hey, Doyin, do you think the Black community will like this product?” Hell if I know. I’m just one guy, and you’re asking me to be the spokesperson for 13 percent of our nation’s population? Get outta here. I don’t know any white person alive who was tasked with speaking for all white people.

I digress.

In regard to your question, I know better than to recommend my first inclination, which would be to put double middle fingers in your mother-in-law’s face, since that wouldn’t be half as disrespectful as her behavior was toward you. Instead, you can politely thank her for her opinions, but let her know you’re going to do whatever you want for your baby.

Your husband needs to understand how serious it is to have your culture insulted while calling you a drama queen for being offended. If he loves you, he should stand beside you instead of brushing it off like it’s not a big deal. They denounced a part of you, which denounces a part of your daughter. That’s never OK.

No, you didn’t go too far. As a matter of fact, you didn’t go far enough. I would flat out tell them that if they don’t sincerely apologize for their words and behavior that they will not be able to see your baby in person. Sorry, but that’s the price for being xenophobic and racist.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My heart is breaking over having to return to work. My little girl is 4 months old and being her mother is the most wonderful and fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. I know these are the best days of my life (which is its own gift, I don’t take any of this time for granted) and thinking of leaving her for 40 hours a week brings me to tears. I was really proud to work my way up and gain the technical skills I needed to start a higher paying job in a new industry last year. I was great at my job and found the work very interesting but had to leave in order to have a safe pregnancy. I assumed I would look for something new shortly after her birth and start a new job after an average-length maternity leave of two or three months… Some medical issues on her part and feet-dragging on mine mean this hasn’t happened yet!

I’m trying hard to find something where I can work from home, but I worry that I may have to take what I can get, given that I am new to the industry and have been out of work for seven months! My husband earns enough for me to stay home, and says he is happy for me to do so, but his job is incredibly stressful, and I don’t feel like it’s fair for him to assume the entire financial burden of our family. I never want him to feel like he can’t leave his job if it becomes unbearable. For my part, I do believe it will be healthiest for me in the long run to have a career I can be proud of and my line of work isn’t one where you can take a long break and get back into it with ease (I’m already pushing it), so I need to hustle.

Can you help me find some peace with this decision and look at my return to work with some positivity? We are so fortunate to have family that will help out with some child care and a great day care in our neighborhood she can go to a couple days a week, so I think she’s going to be just fine. But when I think of not seeing her precious face all day, I am desperately sad. I never thought I would feel this way; motherhood has really thrown me for a loop.

—FOMO

Dear FOMO,

You have a lot in common with many other Americans in the workforce. A recent study revealed that almost 40 percent of workers would consider quitting their jobs if they were forced to come back into the office full time. Many people are realizing that they can be just as productive working from home, without having to deal with lengthy commutes. More important, many parents don’t want to spend so much time away from their children after they’ve enjoyed being with them for the past 15 months.

I think you should take your husband up on his offer to be the sole breadwinner for your family while you look for a remote position on your own timeline. The good news is that especially right now, there are a lot of companies that are progressive and open to full-time remote work. With that in mind, you can conduct a much broader search instead of places within a 30-mile radius from your home.

Yes, you may have to start from the bottom when you find a position, but at least you’ll be home with your daughter, and you can’t put a price tag on that.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am white, and growing up, my parents never had anything negative to say about any race. I never knew racism was a thing (a great privilege, I know) until I got into high school and became aware of what was going on around me. I adore people of all colors, racial backgrounds, faiths, and nationalities and have always taught my two girls that our differences are as important as our commonalities. I have made sure they knew how people of color experience racism for being themselves, the staggering amount of contributions they’ve made to society, and have chosen movies and books that show people of color in a positive starring role. When we moved, my husband and I chose a neighborhood that was made up of many different races.

You can imagine my surprise when my (then) 4-year-old became hyper fixated on her white skin. She talks about how beautiful her skin is daily and how happy she is to look like the rest of her family. I try to gently steer the conversation to other features we have in common, like brown hair and freckles, but it keeps coming back to our white skin. She loudly points out families with black skin while we’re out, and exclaims that we’re different because we have white skin. I’ll agree that while it’s awesome that we look the way we do, the other families are just as awesome and just as beautiful. Recently I’ve sat her down and gently talked with her about it, and she confessed that she’s afraid of people with darker skin but doesn’t know why.

I don’t know where this is coming from. She doesn’t go to day care and is always with me. I don’t have any friends who are racists and call out (loudly) any inappropriate racist jokes that I hear. She’s never been scared of my adult daughter’s boyfriends, all of whom have been Black men, and she’s never had a bad interaction with a person of color. She’s kind and sweet to the Black children in our neighborhood and has never show a preference toward skin color when choosing a playmate or doll. I’ve stepped up reading Black-positive stories, played more movies with people of color in them, and made sure to compliment Black people on their hairstyles and clothing when we go out. Is there anything else I can do? Should I be worried? Is there anything I’m doing wrong or could be doing better?

—Rainbows are Beautiful

Dear Rainbows,

I don’t think you should be worried. Your daughter is still extremely young and is trying to navigate her away through this crazy world we find ourselves in.

It really comes down to this: We fear what we don’t understand. Her fear could come from a book, movie, or television show where the villain was dark (this happens extremely often) and now she’s carrying it over to people.

I’ll give you a quick personal example. Many years ago, one of my white colleagues brought her 6-year-old daughter into the office to hang out for the day. When I met the kid for the first time, she was deathly afraid of me. It was at the point where she would cower in fear behind her mom whenever I walked by. It made me feel awful, because I like to believe I’m a nice guy, but I was determined to show her that she didn’t have anything to fear. I found out that she really liked cinnamon rolls, so I brought one into work and eventually her guard came down. As we ate the cinnamon roll together, we laughed, joked, and talked, and she realized that I’m just another guy—even though my skin is darker than hers. As time went on, she would run up to me and give me hugs, and she hung out with me at work more than she did with her mom.

Like I said, we fear what we don’t understand. You’re doing all of the things you should do in order to raise a child who believes in racial equity, but you need to have her spend time with a Black adult. I’m not talking about a quick hello from your adult daughter’s Black boyfriend, I’m referring to spending one-on-one time with her, like I did with my co-worker’s daughter back in the day. These human interactions can go so far to help kiddos deal with the fear they experience from different races. Hell, if more people would spend the day with someone of a different race or ethnicity and engage them in meaningful conversation, we would see a significant drop in racism.

The fact that you care so much about this is all of the evidence I need to know that your daughter is going to turn out to be just fine.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My very precocious 4½-year-old loves to talk about poop and toots during imaginative play. He will be playing with his grandmother and say, “And now Spider-Man is going to poop on your butt.” She rolls with it, and when he does it with my husband or me, we will usually just say, “Yuck, don’t do that Spider-Man!” and then redirect to something less gross. My husband once overheard him say, “I’m going to poop on your face” to his grandmother (it was in the same context as before, all imaginative play with other characters), and she told him that was gross and not to say he’s going to poop on someone’s face ever again. Now when he is around my husband (and also sometimes just me) he will usually change the word poop to toot, as he seems to understand it’s slightly less offensive. Anyway, should we be stopping this gross-out talk? It doesn’t bother me, but I worry that it should.

—Poop Talk

Dear Poop Talk,

Potty humor is something I’ll never understand, but my kids think it’s the most hilarious thing ever, so I feel your pain. You should ask yourself these questions: Would you be mortified if your son brought up poop talk at school? In front of strangers? At a restaurant? If you answered “yes” to any of those, then it’s time to have a conversation with him. My rule is that my kids can use potty humor while they’re playing at home or with their friends—because I think that it’s important for kids to be kids—but that it has no place in “polite society.” They can’t have Spider-Man poop on grandma, and there’s no talk about poop at the dinner table, at school, on an airplane, or any other place where it’s deemed inappropriate. Even though potty talk still is fast and furious at my house, my kids know where to draw the line, and that’s all that matters to me.

You need to determine where that line is for you. Just because potty talk doesn’t bother you doesn’t mean it won’t bother other people your son is around, and sadly, you’ll be judged as a parent because of it. If the opinions of others aren’t an issue to you, and you want your son to express himself in a way that humors him, then continue along the same path. Just know that if his behavior isn’t policed at home, it will be by others.

—Doyin

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I was very close to my aunt while growing up. She helped to home-school me when conventional school didn’t work out well, so I often stayed with her. I’m still somewhat close with her, but past occurrences now give me pause regarding her relationship with my children. What should I do?

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