Q&A: How to deal with racism in front of children

Bonnie writes: 

"I'd love to hear from some of your readers about how they deal with overt racism in public, when young children are around. I am Chinese, my husband is white, we have two children. We've been living in England since 2005, and never have I once been subject to any overt racism directed at me. But this weekend there was an incident, and it made me think - do I need to have a strategic response when this sort of stuff happens? I had no answer, and thought I'd appeal to you and your thoughtful readers.
We were having a picnic by a river; kids (2yo and 4 yo) and I were feeding ducks along the bank, where some several other families were having picnics and had rigged low-fi equipment for fishing or catching crayfish or whatever. I'm talking about twine held down by some rocks and a pack of ham next to it, not actual fancy fishing equipment. We were near to some family's stuff, but not in it, and my 2 year old wasn't that good at tossing bread in the river yet, so we were picking up chunks of bread that didn't make it into the river. From afar it probably looked like we were touching other people's fishing stuff, but we were not. Anyways, a little girl who probably didn't quite see what we were doing got nervous that we were messing with her stuff, and told her mom. This woman came up to me and said, accusingly, "You know it's really rude to touch other people's stuff without asking." I was kind of shocked by her tone, and explained that we weren't actually touching her things - just picking up bread that we had dropped. She said, still accusatory, "Well, my daughter wouldn't lie to me." Essentially cutting off the conversation. No asking her daughter if anything had actually been disturbed. No asking me, a grown up who was there the entire time, what had happened. Just angry and accusatory. I usually walk away from this kind of crazy, and was about to, until she made a comment to her husband loud enough for us to hear: "That Chinese American woman...which is just the worst kind." I just COULD NOT BELIEVE MY EARS. My kids were there, sensing the tension, and I thought, "Really? Did she just make a racist comment in front of my kids AND her own kids? About what was just a misunderstanding?"
I was really really tempted to make a comment about her parenting - like "Way to go for teaching your kids to be racist", but stopped short; because just because *she* was acting crazy in front of her kids didn't mean *I* had to start acting crazy. The family picked up their stuff and walked off. My husband overheard her racist comment to and asked if he had misheard; and when he realised that he didn't, he was also sort of shocked. Call us naive/sheltered, but in our 8 years of being married and as an interracial couple, we had never been exposed to overt verbal racism. So we just didn't quite know what to do. We ended up telling our kids in the car about what the lady said about my race, and why she was wrong to say those things, and how we don't decide what a person is like or how to treat them based on how they look, etc. BUT I keep thinking, should I have said something or done something actually IN the situation? Should I have been more assertive? What would an assertive, non-crazy response have looked like? My husband and I are both pretty low-confrontation types - we don't like to deal with it head on, it takes us a LOT of psychological energy to respond in confrontational situations - and my son is also a pretty reserved/mild/sensitive type. It made me think, should I have modelled more assertive behaviour in the situation? Should I have spoken up, for our sake and for the sake of the other children who were there? I'd love to hear how you would've responded in that situation, and get feedback from your readers too. We've been lucky that we haven't had to deal with this, but as our kids grow up in an increasingly diverse world, I'd like to be prepared for other unpleasant and difficult situations.

This makes me want to punch someone. Specifically, the woman who said that about you. 

I think that we always have to say something any time we hear any kind of offensive language (racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist, etc.) if it is safe for us to do so. Part of that is protecting our kids, and part of that is modeling for our kids, and part of that is maintaining human decency when others do not. 

Now, the being safe part is important. Sometimes confronting someone, or even just making a comment establishing boundaries, is not safe. In that case you should just get through the situation and then afterward talk to your kids about what happened, how you feel about it, and why you didn't say anything at the time. That way they know that what happened was wrong but you're also teaching them how to assess risk.

If it's safe to say something, though, you should say it. Here are some phrases I've used: 

"Please don't use racist language." 

"Please don't use racist language in front of my children." 

"What makes you think that's a reasonable thing to say?" (That one's a little confrontational, because there's no answer that doesn't make them look bad, but sometimes that's the point.) 

"We'll come back when you're able to talk about things without making offensive comments." 

Notice that all of these things draw a hard line at the behavior, but don't say anything about the person, so they're not ad hominem attacks. They're just establishing a boundary of acceptable behavior. And that's all you can really ever do, is decide what you're willing to stick around for. (And show your kids that they get to decide what they're willing to stick around for.)

(Reality: Had I been in your situation I know I'd have thought about saying one of those things above but what probably would have come out of my mouth is, "You are a genuinely horrible person."  Which would have made me feel spectacular for a few seconds but wouldn't have taught my kids anything. So don't be me.)

Thoughts? What have you said, if anything, if you've been the victim of or witness to racist or other offensive language? Is it easier to say something when your kids are with you or when they're not? Do you have standard lines that you use to push back?