Microaggressions Often Happen in Front of My Kids — Here's How I Handle Them

Jen Rabulan-Bertram
Jen Rabulan-Bertram

"Wow, is he yours? His look is so unique. You're so lucky your kids are mixed."

What would've been a normal grocery store visit with my young son turned into an uncomfortable encounter with a stranger. I wish I could say these type of exchanges are unique and rare. But as a Filipino American, unwanted remarks about my race or my children's appearance are common. While these comments can be seemingly innocent, the exchanges are awkward and insulting, and they create a lot of stress.

Microaggressions have added so much weight to our ongoing narrative as a mixed-race family. More often than not, these comments come from a well-meaning acquaintance or curious stranger. Although they can be direct and intentional, I find that microaggressions are often said unconsciously by the offender. And, as innocent as these comments may seem, it can be difficult to navigate them as a person of color, especially in front of my children.

My children have often been oblivious spectators when these awkward conversations happen. But every time the "where are you from" dialogue starts, I try to reframe it in such a way to remind the other person that I was born and raised in the US. Because of the many degrading conversations I've had over the years, including ones that have occurred in front of my kids, discussions about race and culture began at an early age in our home. It's always been paramount for me to help shape my children's outlook on race and be as transparent as possible.

It's natural to have questions and to be curious about someone's background, but there are better ways of approaching the topic than commenting on the way my children and I look.

It's natural to have questions and to be curious about someone's background, but there are better ways of approaching the topic than commenting on the way my children and I look. Questions about our culture and if I've ever been to the Philippines have always been great conversation starters. However, when microaggressions happen, I take it as an opportunity to pull my kids aside to talk them through it. The kids certainly aren't going to learn this type of social and racial decorum elsewhere, so it's best that it comes from me.

As a parent, I've found that awareness and empathy are important tools when coping with microaggressions. Jeanie Y. Chang, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and AAPI mental health expert, explained that it's important to be aware of how you're feeling and take care of your own mental well-being when faced with trivial comments about race — something you can then teach your children to do as well. "You can't control future microaggressions and you can't control what society does, but you can help control how your kid handles it," Chang said.

When confronted with microaggressions, it's important to address our kids' needs while tending to our own as well. "Parents should always understand their stress first," Chang said. Only after taking a second to center ourselves should we then address and validate our children's feelings if they're on the receiving end of racist comments. Chang suggests teaching children techniques such as box breathing — where you breathe in, hold your breath, and breathe out for four seconds each — to help them literally exhale the unwanted stress.

My emotional and mental well-being was never really addressed as a child, and microaggressions were most certainly not a part of our vernacular. Like so many others, I quietly ignored or tolerated hurtful racist comments. We learned self-preservation at an early age, and unfortunately, these awful statements continue to manifest beyond our control. Microaggressions, sadly, aren't going away anytime soon. But giving our kids the tools to help control their emotions may outweigh unwanted insults and offer strength in situations out of their control.