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Dear Mother Wit: My Daughter Has Picked Up Some Bad Habits From Her White Friends

My 12-year-old daughter is a great student and generally well behaved. I have to address some normal adolescent moments from time to time, but nothing unusual. We live in a wonderful suburb, where we moved for the excellent school system. But I’m worried that my daughter is starting to act too White.

Our community isn’t very diverse, though we feel welcome. And my daughter has some very good friends—two White girls her age—that she’s grown up with. They’re nice girls and I’ve worked hard to build friendly relationships with their parents. I wish we could live in more diverse community, but this is where the best schools and other family-friendly services are located.

My husband and I are both African-American professionals, college-educated, and very culturally aware. We have wonderful Black art throughout our home, we belong to an African-American church across town, we play all kinds of Black music. And we’ve gone out of our way to make sure that our daughter has had diverse books, dolls and other toys throughout her life.

I’ve sometimes wondered if she’s missing out by not having close Black girlfriends, or learning traditions like clapping games and double-dutch. But I’ve pushed those concerns to the back of my mind. What’s bothering me lately is that she’s exhibiting behaviors that aren’t appropriate in our home. We’ve spoken calmly with her from time to time, even jokingly, about how the rules that her friends live by don’t always apply to her or to us. We discuss racism in open, honest and age-appropriate ways, and she pays attention.

But lately she’s been whining when she doesn’t get her way, and talking back to her father and myself in ways that are just plain rude. She slams doors and talks at me in a tone of voice that would have gotten me slapped in the mouth by my mother. She seems to be adopting that sense of entitlement that her friends wear as part of their White identity. Even her voice changes: if you close your eyes, you’d swear you were hearing a young White girl. She’s been rejecting anything we say that suggests Black history, culture or pride lately—even putting up her hand and claiming that she “is tired of all that racial stuff.” We talk about what’s happening in the news around the country, but she just ignores us or tries to put her headphones on—even at the dinner table! When we scold her, she whines, “Well, Jillian’s parents let her do it! Why are you so unfair?”

I don’t want to be paranoid or petty, and I don’t want to get physical with her the way my mother did me, but I want to nip this problem in the bud. The world we live in isn’t going to cut her any slack for growing up in a fancy suburb. All that matters is her Blackness, not her zip code. I don’t want to make her feel limited—we’ve always told her she can be anything that she chooses, and succeed at whatever she puts her mind to. It was great being able to point to the Obamas when they were in office. But the current administration is making it clear that White is right, and I’m desperate to get my babygirl straightened out before she runs into trouble and learns the truth in some horrible way.

Dear Frustrated Suburban Mama:

Guess what? I’ve heard versions of this same story from so many parents like you. You are not alone! As Black people have been able to “move on up” and live in nice neighborhoods with wonderful schools, we’ve faced the challenge of how to balance our kids’ sense of Black identity with the whiteness of their neighborhoods, schools and social circles.

First, remember that your daughter is 12. She’s an adolescent, almost a teenager, and the one thing they are guaranteed to do is test you and work your last nerve on the regular. In your case, it sounds like she’s trying to figure out her identity in relation to her parents, her friends and her environment. She might be able to better relate to some things that we consider “White” simply because that’s what she has always lived with.

Second, while the way she’s acting and speaking to you might feel like disrespect, she probably doesn’t mean it that way. That doesn’t mean that you don’t speak to her about it, though. Just try to keep the racial part out of the discussion for a while. Explain that her tone of voice, whining, etc. is not acceptable. Encourage and praise her when she acts and talks in ways that are more normal for your household.

One thing you can discuss (when everyone is relaxed and calm) is that the world is full of different cultures (again, try to leave the Black-White aspect out of it for now). And you can give examples of how Jillian and her other friends interact with their parents, explaining that things are different in your home and that when she is there, she needs to get with the program. Don’t come down too hard on her and try not to sweat the small stuff. She might really be struggling to keep up with her friendships, and soon she’ll be wondering where she fits into the dating scene at her school. So she’s facing her own sources of racial and cultural stress on top of the normal pre-teen identity struggles.

You sound like you’re doing all the right things by demonstrating a commitment to your culture in your home, church and activities. Keep presenting those opportunities, but in a laid-back way that doesn’t make her feel you’re forcing her. I know—that can be so challenging, but it’s also part of bringing up teens, who pull away from us in a natural attempt to figure out who they are beyond their relationships with their parents and other authority figures.

Don’t ridicule or criticize her when you see her acting White. Accentuate the positive and focus on the things she’s doing right—good grades, not getting in trouble, etc. And while it might seem impossible, you also have to accept the fact that all of us are impacted by our environment in one way or another. So while you’re seeing her behavior in terms of Black and White, she’s just trying to adapt, fit in, be accepted and figure out how to move through a very different world than the one in which you grew up.

Interestingly, it’s young people who grow up in mostly White environments who often want to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Include that in the options you present when that time comes, but keep it low-key and chill.

And cut yourself some slack. Your daughter sounds like a “normal” suburban adolescent, and I’m sure you and your husband are doing a fine job of raising her. We can’t control the choices our children make when they grow up; we can only love them, nurture them, and encourage them to find their own way.

With love,

Mother Wit

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