How To Talk About Racism With Your Family


Recent events in Canada, the United States, and around the world may have you reflecting more than ever on the various ways in which we all can do better when it comes to supporting Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Being an ally can include many things, such as educating yourself and others, sharing resources, and signing petitions, but one of the most effective ways that we can bring about social change is by fostering conversations with our friends and family. Being an ally not only involves taking responsibility for ourselves, but working to dismantle racism when we see it. Honest communication about race and racism within your family can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be scary.

Here are six ways you can address race and racism with your family.

1. Prepare For Tough Conversations

When your grandmother, uncle, or cousin makes what seems like or what is a racist remark, your first thought may be to jump into a heated discussion. However, it can be extremely helpful to take some time beforehand to prepare for conversations so that we’re not overtaken by our emotions. Doing this may allow us to approach conversations in a more level-headed and mindful manner. Additionally, it can be helpful to figure out what our tolerance level for these conversations looks like so that we can set boundaries on when we will end the discussion.

2. Be A Role Model

While it’s imperative to be educated, one of the best ways to overcome stereotypes is by making true connections with a variety of people. Oftentimes, whether by choice or by plan, we aren’t exposed to individuals who are diverse from us and end up sticking in a group of friends that are very much like us. Think: Does your network of friends all share the same cultural/ethnic background? Ask yourself why this might be. If you’re teaching your family about the importance of having a diverse network of friends but everybody who enters your home looks the same, that is something to think about.

3. Focus On Empathy

When you family member says or does something that reflects biases or perpetuates stereotypes, point it out in a kind and caring manner. Guide the conversation toward empathy and respect by asking, “How do you think that person would feel if they heard/saw that?” If it feels like there is a misunderstanding, instead of getting heated, try to ask clarifying questions like, “What makes you feel that way?” This approach can help by making others less defensive when talking about sensitive topics. Additionally, strive for common ground by asking what it is you can agree on.

4. Focus On Feelings

One of the most effective ways to communicate is to share how you are feeling. It is productive to share your perspective but try to use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Using “you” statements can make others feel defensive and cause them to put up walls, which probably won’t lead to a very productive conversation. Instead, using “I” statements can promote an open and constructive dialogue.

5. Appeal To Family Ties

When bothered by a family member’s jokes or comments or their stubbornness against seeing your point of view, try to appeal to them by letting them know how much you value your relationship with them. Let them know that their remarks are causing distance between you and them and ask how you can become close again. If you feel like you can absolutely not come to common ground, remind yourself that you may not be able to control the attitudes and opinions of some of your family members, but you can set limits on the behaviors that you will personally tolerate.

6. Be Curious

Ensure that you’re using open-ended questions when having discussions. For example, ask them, “What makes you think that?” This can help to ensure that the conversation is an open discussion rather than a lecture. Additionally, if your family member says something that you think may potentially have racist connotations, stop, be curious, and ask yourself:

What are they saying?

What are they noticing?

Is it coming from judgment or a true exertion to know more?

Where does the need to know more stem from?

At that point, break down how the question or statement is being asked/said. If it’s a question, answer it in the best way you know possible and seek to educate, whether that’s going through history books, watching videos, or simply talking about the subject in an open and honest manner.

We can try our best to have open, respectful, and empathic discussions with family members, in which we share our feelings and try to educate them on the effects that their comments have. However, despite our best efforts, sometimes they may still not be receptive. If you continue to find it difficult to find common ground, it’s extremely important to set boundaries. What types of things will you tolerate? Who will you spend time with? How much time will you spend around this person? How will you choose to interact with them moving forward?