What I did when my son said, “that man looks like a monkey!” on a public bus

julie robertsby guest blogger Julie Roberts-Phung

This post is being re-posted as part of a week-long series highlighting supporters of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), both in their parenting of race-conscious children and their activist work for racial justice. SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice. For more resources and information check out SURJ’s website.

I was on a public bus when my three-year-old excitedly said, “Look momma, that man looks like a monkey!”

I was embarrassed to see that he was pointing across at an African American man. I didn’t think that the man had heard my son though I assume another African American man next to us did. I am a White woman (Irish and Russian) and my son is Vietnamese and White.

In the moment, I was thinking a few things:

1) This is terrible.

2) I’m supposed to keep space open for my children to talk about race, and not shut them down (which could make them think it’s a bad thing, and keep them from coming to me with future questions). How do I give my son room to explore race (and not stop the conversation) while, at the same time, share the message I want to give him about race (without making any other possibilities seem “wrong”)?

3) There is a bus full of people looking at me. How do I also be a good ally? How do I support the people of color on the bus? How can I make sure this doesn’t feel like another moment that they face racism? How do I send the right message to my son, and to other White people watching?

In the moment, I said, “Why do you say that?” My son gestured to the man’s bushy beard/sideburns and said “He’s got hair on his face like a monkey.” Then I said, “I know you’re not a mean guy, but some people say that African American people look like monkeys to be mean. I know you like monkeys, and you’re not being mean, but some people do that.”

I think I was speaking a little louder than normal, and feeling a little anxious about making sure people heard that I was not letting that comment go unchecked. In the moment, I didn’t feel like I did a good job of handling this situation.

On the bus, it felt like I had to talk about race, and racism, and the history of people organizing for change all at once. And I felt like I had to talk about all of this on a bus in front of a completely diverse group of strangers.

After consulting with Raising Race Conscious Children, I was able to separate out different pieces. Since then, I’ve been trying to talk about race often, when we’re reading books, in the same way that when we talk to kids we say “look it’s a kitty, and it has stripes, and is soft.” I learned to say, “Look that’s a momma kissing that baby! The baby has light brown skin, straight black hair, and pretty almond shaped black eyes—some people call that Asian, like your Ba’noi (grandma) and your poppa, and who else is Asian?” It feels awkward sometimes to do this, but I am trying anyway.

I’ve also tried to say, “We don’t talk about people in public. It makes people feel bad.” I say that in general, even when the observation isn’t about race. When it is an observation about race, I try to say, “Oh, I’m glad you noticed that, remember we don’t talk about other people in public. Let’s talk more about this later.”

Lastly, we talk about when things aren’t fair, and what we can do to make them better. I think by having all of these building blocks, my family can put them together over time. Having a conversation about them all at once is too complicated and overwhelming.

Sometimes my son will say, “Stop saying that blah, blah, blah momma!” When I pile in too much and he doesn’t want to hear it, he stops me. I’ve realized that this is a conversation that happens over a long time, and that I’ll have lots of chances to try again.


Julie Roberts-Phung is a long time community organizer turned consultant and coach, and a member of SURJ. Through her business, Empower Together, she coaches change-makers on a variety of topics, including leadership and career issues. Julie is mom to two children, a four-year-old and a one-year-old.

If you would like to find out more about joining parent activists through SURJ, please join the Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) Families Facebook group or become a SURJ member.

Click here for more information on participating in a Raising Race Conscious Children interactive workshop/webinar or small group workshop series.