Your Cousin’s Grandchildren are Beautiful. Period.

This week’s question comes from KidSundance, who is worried about what to say at an upcoming family reunion if shown a photo of a cousin’s grandchildren: “I am white. I am not a racist, and am very open-minded about race, race relations, etc.

“So, please understand that this is a question about etiquette in which, as always, my concern is for the feelings of another person,” KidSundance wrote. “I am quite certain my distant cousin’s child has formed a union with someone of a different race. At an upcoming family reunion, everyone will be exchanging pictures of their grandchildren. If my distant cousin shows me a photo of her mixed-raced grandchildren, what is an appropriate response (besides ‘aren’t they beautiful!’)? I know this is a sensitive subject in some circles. If they were my grandchildren, I would not be embarrassed or apologetic, but I think my distant cousin and her husband feel ashamed, or that they need to somehow explain their child’s choice in a father for her children.”

What does it mean to say you are “white?” Or that your cousin’s grandchildren are “mixed race?” The important thing to keep in mind, KidSundance, is that race is a social construct, not a biological one. It’s a holdover from our primitive ancestors’ brains, which divided the world into tribes — yours versus mine.  Biologically, we’re all of mixed race; for a longer discussion of this topic, see “The Illogic of American Racial Categories.”

You had it right when you suggested that an appropriate response to a photo of your cousin’s grandchildren would be to say, “Aren’t they beautiful!” You can follow up with a specific question—”What grades are they in?” or “What are they up to this summer?”—that shows you are understandably interested in getting to know more about the youngest generation of your family.  This approach may also help your cousin learn to focus on the things we have in common as human beings, rather than on differences in skin pigmentation.

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