As Americans think more critically about what it means to be anti-racist, many people are starting their journey at home by confronting racist White family members.
But it’s not exactly an easy discussion to have.
“There’s a moral imperative around talking about racism,” says Laura Smith, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “People are dying because White people aren’t having conversations about racism.”
Jump ahead to the noted time stamp if you want to go straight to one of these tips.
Before you can have a productive conversation about how someone else is racist, you’ve got to come to terms with the fact that you might be racist, too. Or, at the very least, that you benefit from racism.
“The problem of racism is the problem of White people. It’s created by White people. It’s perpetuated by White people. It benefits White people,” Smith says.
Smith adds that’s how the system of racism perpetuates itself: “It exists in silence and we learn not to question it.”
In the U.S., we’re taught that White men are the protagonists of American history. Being an anti-racist means questioning that narrative and thinking more critically about how that informs the cultural and systemic biases that you benefit from as a White person.
Smith says you should approach the conversation from your own stance as a learner: “Because, get it straight, you are still learning if you’re white.”
It’s important to think about what you’re trying to get out of this conversation.
“Is it that you enjoy having a thing or two to tell your parents?” asks Smith. “Is it that you want to enjoy the experience of being one of the ‘good’ White people?”
Smith acknowledges that those are all very human temptations that people indulge in from time to time, but that it’s important to clear that up with yourself. Then you can start to be more strategic.
Although these are tough conversations to have, she says it’s White people’s duty to stay committed and not decide that it’s just too hard to talk about.
Tania Israel, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, sees some White people on Facebook saying they’ve unfriended all of their racist relatives.
“Oh my gosh, what opportunity you have with your white privilege to actually be able to reach out to family members and to have these conversations with White people,” she says, adding that it’s a privilege people of color don’t have.
Israel is the author of the new book, “Beyond Your Bubble,” where she coaches people on how to have conversations about polarizing issues.
“It is not up to Black people to educate everybody,” she says. “This is a place where White people can really take on those efforts on themselves,” says Israel.
Israel says listening is important, particularly what she calls “listening to understand,” rather than “listening to respond.”
“Really being curious and trying to know where somebody is coming from,” she says. “Because if you want to maintain that family connection, that’s going to be important.”
It’s hard to talk to family members, particularly when you know that they’re going to disagree with you. But it’s important to avoid lecturing them.
“Nobody likes to be lectured, including you yourself who’s getting ready to facilitate the conversation,” says Smith. “The more you can ask open-ended questions that invite conversation, rather than coming in to pontificate.”
“We can get evangelical about things that we’ve just embraced and we’re really excited about,” says Israel. “It’s really helpful to express that somewhere, but not necessarily to express that with the people who we’re hoping we can move to shift their views.
There’s a benefit to being vulnerable in this kind of conversation with somebody who’s racist.
“We all have grown up in a racist society,” says Israel. “There are a lot of people who two months ago were kind of in the same place their parents are.”
“I think it’s helpful to talk about that process, to talk about their own journey of how they’ve come to see things and how their views may have shifted,” she says. “Rather than just using the statistics or the slogans.”
“Your kids — they’ll inherit this world just like it is if we aren’t honest with each other about what’s happening and what it’s done to us and what we need to do to get each other past it,” says Smith.
In the next episode, we’ll talk about why it’s important for non-Black people of color to start having these conversations, too.
“The New Normal” is a series from The Lily and The Washington Post that talks about how to navigate the different ways news affects our everyday lives, hosted by Nicole Ellis.