How to Talk about Race with Your Racist Family

“Talk to your racist family,” is one of the first things we say to non-Black (especially white) people concerned about social justice. With the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the nationwide protests in response, conversations about race are everywhere. Many of these conversations highlight racist views. So in this moment, as you prepare with either righteous anger or dread (or both) to confront the racism in your social circles, I want to spend time on how to have these talks effectively.

There are a lot of resources on explaining race and racism. Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk about Race is an excellent starting point. There are numerous books, articles, films, and TV shows to help you out. These materials cover content. They explain how racism is embedded in our society’s structure, why claiming colorblindness is not useful or accurate, and that yes, slavery does still have an impact today. Get your talking points from these.

In this post, I focus on how to approach and hold a conversation about race, rather than what to say. This post is intended for non-Black allies (both white and POC) and starts from the assumption that you want to maintain positive, long-term relationships with your family members or friends. I acknowledge this may not always be the case.

I also acknowledge that what I’m presenting here is only one approach. I draw on my experiences (and mistakes) with racist family members, well-meaning friends, and diversity work. It’s difficult, no fun, and almost always unsatisfying, but sometimes, just sometimes, you think you see evidence of a small win and in that moment, you get to do the world’s most satisfying fist pump.

1. Accept that you can’t change minds.

In the context of romantic relationships, we recognize that expectations like “I can change them” or “they’ll change for me” are unhealthy and unrealistic. The same principle applies here.

You can’t change someone’s mind. It’s physically and psychically impossible. Each person can only ever change their own mind. The person you approach isn’t a passive subject; you need to engage them as an equal partner who has an active role in the conversation.

Your task is not to “change” or “fix” someone. The task you’ve taken on is a potentially lifelong process of exchanging your thoughts, sharing the information that has changed your mind, and listening to what remains unconvincing to theirs.

2. Get clear on your goals.

What are your goals in having a conversation about race? What is your motivation? These are different. You might be motivated to talk race for some of the following reasons:

  • You feel morally obligated
  • You feel responsible for your family members
  • You want to call out a racist belief or behavior
  • You want to be a good ally
  • You’re angry
  • You’re sad

This list could be endless. But goals need to take priority over motivation, just as Black lives should take priority over non-Black feelings. We could list several goals for a race conversation, but two distinctions matter most:

  • Short-term vs. long-term goals
  • Inward vs. outward-focused goals

Calling out a racist belief is a short-term goal. Expressing your anger is a short-term, inward-focused goal; the focus is on you. If goals like these are all you want from a conversation, you have an easy task. Scream, shout, and do whatever gets your point across. This can be cathartic, provide an outlet for your pent-up frustration, and maybe give you the impression that you’re doing something “right.”

But if you’re reading this post, you probably aspire to long-term, outward-focused goals. Long-term goals might include helping someone understand your point of view, the history of racism in the US, and that racism is structural and embedded in our society. An outward-focused and long-term goal might be to continue having respectful dialogue with this person down the line, to leave the possibility for change open, and help someone move from racist to antiracist beliefs.

I’m not dictating what types of goals you have; sometimes it may be perfectly reasonable to not have a long-term goal. Toxic or abusive family members are one example. A professor who has demonstrated their commitment to racism is another. In this case, since my goal would not be a dialogue with this person, I approach the situation differently. I might, as a multiracial person, just focus on getting through the interaction with minimal harm. I might drop in words like “racial abuse” and “anti-Blackness” to make them uncomfortable, not caring that these concepts are beyond their social justice awareness level (see number 6). But in group settings like a classroom or family dinner, a short-term goal might be appropriate, like calling out these behaviors so others listening don’t walk away thinking what just happened was okay.

Whatever your goals may be, spend time being intentional about them. Then consider how you can approach conversations in ways that are consistent with your goals.

3. Avoid arguments/escalation.

I can argue with my family on some topics and we can all be over it the next day. Race is not one of those topics. Discussing race and racism tend to result in highly charged, emotional conversations that haven’t worked well when paired with explosive outbursts. The result tends to be instant defensiveness the next time the topic comes up and even policing from other family members who want to avoid the topic in the name of “keeping the peace.”

It’s natural to become defensive and dismissive of any challenges to your own views. We know that our brains interpret challenges to our deeply or long-held beliefs as threats to the self. Times of stress and uncertainty (like say, a pandemic) also increase how strongly people cling their beliefs.

Remember, you’re human too. Your body is interpreting racist remarks from your family as threats, especially if you’re doing this for the first time. This means you’re also prone to getting defensive and worked up. In conversations where both parties feel threatened by the other, it’s a lot harder to reach a shared understanding. If your goal is to help a racist family member understand more about race, you need to bypass your fight, flight, or freeze urge.

4. Expect multiple conversations.

I have some bad news. The only way to become good at these conversations is to practice. You need practice to have effective conversations that involve disagreement. You need practice speaking and thinking clearly when you’re emotionally charged. And you need practice figuring out what works with your family members and friends.

No one likes being called to the table for a serious, worldview-challenging talk. “We need to talk” is a phrase that gives most people anxiety. Instead, have several small talks and integrate race and racism into other conversations. Bring up racism whenever it’s relevant to the conversation. Bring it up when it’s on your mind and you want to talk about it, like you would any other subject. You don’t always have to use the word “racism”; your approach depends on the other person’s racial literacy. For a resistant beginner, you might just make observations, express your hurt or concern, or strive to make race-related topics common and non-threatening.

Repeated contact is important, especially if someone has never been exposed to an idea. Marketers follow a “Rule of 7,” which states that on average, a customer needs to have contact with a brand or product seven times before purchasing it. Similarly, someone committed to racist views may need repeated contact before they accept any number of ideas, including:

  • That their views are racist
  • That racism still exists
  • That white privilege is real

The need for multiple conversations is a given. The good news is that you don’t need to put pressure on yourself to “get it right” the first time. Remember that conversations involve two parties, that people are always a little bit unpredictable, and that you can try again.

5. Approach conversations with empathy and respect.

I’m not saying you should be sympathetic to racist beliefs or actions. Respect for a person does not need to equate to respect for all their beliefs. But remember that we can’t change others’ minds and as a result, we should approach them as equal, active conversation partners.

Empathize, in the sense that you consider how your family members think and feel. Why do they hold these racist beliefs? Are these simply taken-for-granted beliefs? Is it how they were raised? Is their racism connected to group membership? Did they have a negative experience or sleight related to race? You might have access to all the details of a person’s background, but this information can only help you figure out your approach. Because that’s what you need to consider – what’s the most effective approach?

Approximately 100 percent of the time, hostility, dismissal, and disrespect is not effective.

6. Tailor by level.

In diversity work, there are levels. First, there are beginner workshops. The goal of these workshops might be to get participants to understand that “racism still exists” and “no one is colorblind.” If someone is at this level, you can’t expect them to follow or even be interested in discussions of structural racism or racial capitalism. “Race is not biological” might be enough of a challenge. 

Blatantly racist family members are at level 0. A statement as simple as “Black lives matter” might ring alarm bells because “why does it always have to be about race with you?” The acknowledgment of race is accompanied by the inevitable (but perhaps unconscious) acknowledgment of racism. Racism brings with it ideas about inequality, privilege, and guilt; those are uncomfortable, emotional topics that cause resistance.

Graphic by Joseph Oteng (@drjotengii)

Joseph Oteng has created a useful graphic for visualizing the levels of social justice awareness. Before you have any more conversations about race, identify where you think your family members and friends might fit. Then – because you were already thinking about it weren’t you? – identify yourself on this spectrum.

It’s vital to consider your own level and how that impacts your ability to teach. This work requires a great deal of self-awareness and self-work. We all have beliefs and structures from which we need to divest. We all have ways in which we need to continue to grow, even after the protests and social media campaigns fade away from this news cycle.

May we never stop striving to have better conversations about race.

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