Hey White People: Here’s How You Can Deal with Your Racist Relatives

Rules number one, two, and three of dealing with racist relatives: Don’t tolerate any of it.

Hey White People: Here’s How You Can Deal with Your Racist Relatives
Photo credit: Nicole Michalou @Pexels

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It has always been true that everyone must stand up against bigotry when they see it, but it is every white person’s responsibility to eradicate racism, starting within their own circle.

Internal biases exist within all kinds of communities and generations — biases each one of us is responsible for exploring, challenging, and undoing, regardless of where we come from, how we were raised, or what we believe in. But when someone possesses discriminatory thoughts and beliefs toward people of colour and stigmatised faiths such as Islam, action mode must be activated. In fact, we can feel very comfortable labelling this type of special someone as racist, even if they’re a member of our own family. 

Throughout America’s reckoning with police brutality against Black people (followed by other countries like Great Britain and France), coronavirus-related hate crimes against Asian people in 2020, and the usual stereotyping of Latin and Hispanic groups (among the other racist atrocities we've witnessed this past year), it has become crystal clear that the world has reached a tipping point. It has always been true that everyone must stand up against bigotry when they see it, but it is every white person’s responsibility to eradicate racism, starting within their own circle. So how do you navigate these dark waters within the confines of your own family? Here are a few strategies for dealing with your racist relatives.

Call out their behaviour, and be firm about it. Bringing awareness to your relative’s racist speech or behaviour is the first step before you can even dream of educating them—but this could go sideways if they start to feel defensive. Don’t expect the conversation to be easy or conflict-free. This isn’t a topic you can solve with hugs. Point out the issue by saying something like “Are you aware these terms are racist because ____?” or “Research has shown that this type of behaviour is harmful to ____ community.” As much as you may be judging them right now, approach the situation like you’re trying to help them be a better person. 

Introduce them to perspectives outside their own. Some people grew up in a bubble in which their thought processes were never challenged, resulting in long-fermented discriminatory attitudes. If you think your relative is one of these people, it could be productive to introduce them to content that presents new ideas, like a podcast, book, or documentary. Amal Kassir’s TEDx Talk about Muslim stereotypes is an excellent place to start; so is the Netflix documentary 13th, about America’s racially disproportionate prison system. There are also countless resources out there, from social activists, artists and thinkers outside of America, for those biased relatives who are interested in learning and growing—it’s just a matter of finding them and committing to using them.

Explore the origins of their biases. Let’s face it: conversations about racism and injustice are bound to be difficult and heated when the person in front of you has revealed their bigotry. If you and your relative are capable of having a level-headed discussion about the source of their racism (which they will likely label as something else), doing so may be worth your while, as finding the root of a problem often means also finding its solution. Keep your eye on the prize and avoid yelling so you can get through to them effectively.

Understand that progress takes time, but effort is not optional. Old habits die hard, and as much as we all wish our relative’s racist leanings would vanish in an instant, this isn’t realistic. Expect mistakes while keeping in mind that giving up isn’t an option. If your family member seems to be losing interest in their anti-racist journey or claims that you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” remind them that other people deserve the same kindness and consideration they probably expect. Relay to them the historical and modern consequences of their habits, and if you must, go back to square one. This type of work requires commitment.

Set boundaries. When racist people do not learn that there are consequences for being racist, they continue on. It’s okay to tell your cousin you don’t feel comfortable inviting her to a family dinner because of some nasty comments she still hasn’t apologised for, and you’re absolutely encouraged to tell your grandpa that “we don’t use that word in this house.” Setting boundaries doesn’t make you some kind of killjoy—it means you’re serious about sticking up for other people. Plus, believe it or not, it’s okay to cut racist people out of your life. Doing so not only proves that there are consequences for their harmful actions, but it’s likely to benefit your mental health and prevent your children (if you have them) from hearing or seeing things tainted by hate.

Above all, here’s what you don’t do: you don’t let racism slide. You don’t pretend not to hear Aunt Karen’s racist comments because acknowledging them would make you and everyone else in the room uncomfortable; instead, you call her out, even just to make it clear that those comments aren’t acceptable. You also don’t look the other way when your brother jokes about a harmful stereotype just because “that’s his sense of humour.” Dismantling your family’s racism doesn’t produce magical, overnight results, but it does require some form of action, and it isn’t productive to be a bystander.

Challenging a family member’s habits and beliefs is hard work, no matter how close we are to them. But it’s everyone’s responsibility to put the nice childhood memories aside and nip racist behaviour in the bud. It’s this type of work that makes you an effective ally—one that helps create a safer and more equitable society.