How to talk about race and racism with your family, according to experts
Let’s be honest: We all have a family member who we’d gladly like to steer clear of when it comes to talking about politics and race. Yes, we may love and want the best for them, but that doesn’t change the fact that we wish things were different in this regard. But instead of sitting on the sidelines, hoping that our family member(s) will change on their own, it’s time to sit with the uncomfortable and talk to our families about race and racism.
Given the current state of unrest in the country right now, those topics—especially in regards to Black people–are at the top of most people’s minds. Over the past few months, several Black individuals, such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd, have been victims of racial violence, and protestors across the world have taken a stand for #BlackLivesMatter. Even if you’re in that fight yourself, though, take the time to discuss the news with your family; according to Ph.D. candidate in counseling psychology at the University of Kentucky, Jardin Dogan, conversations about race are crucial to making sure history does not repeat itself.
“Racism is learned at home,” says Dogan. “It’s reinforced through subtle messaging, funny jokes, and unaddressed comments. If your family talked about race all the time, it likely influenced your views on racism. If your family didn’t talk about race at all, it likely influenced your silence towards racism.”
“I remind my clients—and myself, too—that we have power over the narratives we tell ourselves and others,” she continues. “We have the ability to create and shape our family legacies around race and break generational curses by acknowledging racism and being committed to doing anti-racist work.”
Below, Dogan and other mental health experts give more insight into how to do just that.
When should you talk about race and racism with your family?
According to Dogan, there might never be a “right” time to bring up a conversation about race and racism—but that doesn’t mean you should never have it. If an opportunity arises, take it. “You have to decide if a one-on-one conversation is best with individual family members or when the entire family is together,” she says. “Timing plays a role in when someone is able to see, hear, and engage with you. I encourage others to pick a time to start conversations and be more mindful of frequency (how often you have them) rather than quantity (how long you have them) to do consistent anti-racist work.”
It can seem like a good idea to bring the issue up when a family member makes a racially insensitive or blatantly racist remark, but make sure you feel comfortable. “Addressing these comments in the moment is ideal but understandably challenging,” Dogan says. “We have to remember there’s a privilege in deciding when you would like to have a conversation about race and racism. Black people have these conversations with their families all the time–for safety and survival.”
How should you start a conversation about race?
Dogan suggests using “I” statements, as “it feels less threatening than when we’re on attack mode,” she explains. For instance, you can begin by saying “I feel…,” “I’ve been thinking about…,” or “I’ve noticed…”.
“This can help lead the conversation with personal accountability,” says Dogan. “This could also be a place to recognize your privilege and the ways it manifests. Being vulnerable about your unlearning and relearning process can allow you to show up as a model for understanding race and racism in your family.”
If you want to prepare before discussing these topics, certified rehabilitation counselor and licensed professional counselor intern Devyn Walker suggests doing as much research as you can. “Some historical events you could discuss with your family are the Tulsa Bombing, Little Rock 9, and Central Park 5,” she notes. “You can also educate your family members on forms of passive racism such as education funding from property taxes or Eurocentric beauty standards.”
Another way you can begin the discussion is by using resources, such as books, movies, and other self-reflective activities, to guide your family. You can find some suggestions from Dogan below:
1. Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad
2. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
3. Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey
4. 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say by Maura Cullen
5. How to be an Antiracist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
Social media accounts
1. Bree Newsome
3. Matt McGorry
1. “White Homework” by Tori Williams Douglass
2. “White Privilege Checklist” by Peggy McIntosh
What specific aspects of race and racism should you discuss?
“When bringing up the topics of race and racism with your family, it is important to explore the privileges and disadvantages that come with the race you belong to,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Jordan A. Madison. For instance, if your family is white, you may want to discuss white privilege and how to use it in healthy and constructive ways. If your family is a part of a minority, you may want to discuss the difficulties that arise due to your skin color. Do what feels best for you, though. “It can be a very thin line between providing your family with the consciousness and awareness that comes from the race they belong to, while also seeing beauty in their culture and not being so fearful and hopeless that it is paralyzing,” says Madison.
Madison also suggests exploring the history of race in America alongside your family. “By focusing on it as a systemic and historical issue, you can empower one another to be the force that helps create change in the society instead of a blaming or ‘woe is me’ mindset,” she says.
How should you handle arguments if they arise?
Since race and racism are topics that can conjure uncomfortable emotions like guilt, shame, and fear, arguments are bound to happen. But if disagreements occur in the middle of your conversation, don’t panic—there’s a way to manage those moments. “The goal is to move through these disruptions with greater clarity, understanding, and empathy,” Dogan says. “If this happens, I would recommend acknowledging these feelings and ‘tabling the conversation.’ If things get too heated (where individuals cannot be heard and respected), I suggest taking a 15-minute break with a firm commitment to return to finish the conversation with calmness.”
During the break, Dogan suggests practicing deep breathing, thinking through your responses, and considering your end goal. “Some questions to ask yourself in these moments are: How you would like to express your empathy and understanding? How you would like to extend and receive grace? And how you would like to hold yourself and your family members accountable for learning and growing through the discomfort?” she notes. “These conversations can be overwhelming but they’re necessary for starting anti-racism work in your family. If they were easy, they would’ve occurred already.”
What should you refrain from doing when discussing about race and racism?
According to Madison, it’s important to avoid using assumptions, generalizations, and stereotypes. “By repeating and feeding into those, we will continue to pass down the negative messages we’ve received about one another instead of taking the time out to learn,” she says.
So what should you do instead? Tap into your curiosity, and reflect. “Do not brush this off as not a big deal, or something to be ignored if it’s not directly affecting you,” says Madison. “Do not be silent. Do not refrain from having the conversation in the first place just because it is difficult.”
What should you do if your family doesn’t agree or side with you?
Even if you have an in-depth conversation with your family, things might not turn out the way you want them to. “Sometimes people are comfortable with their ignorance and it doesn’t matter how many facts you present to them as to why racism is inhumane,” says Walker. If this happens, understand that you can’t force anyone to change but that it’s completely normal to be hurt or angry with your relatives. “Grieve the relationship just like you would grieve anything else. Allow yourself to process the emotions; be sad, angry, disappointed, and voice that to them as well,” adds Walker.
However, just because your family doesn’t agree with you doesn’t mean you should ignore their racism. “It’s totally up to you if you want to continue your relationship with them, but if you do decide to, please continue to educate them and check their racism,” says Walker. “Set firm boundaries with your family members to let them know you will not tolerate racism in your presence. If you decide to love your family from a distance, be an example. Make sure they see you speak out about racial injustice, let them see you protesting and donating to causes. Hopefully, they will eventually follow your lead.”