What To Do If The Racist Is Your Family Member

Your father may not have a racist manifesto, but is his social media feed full of demeaning memes about Black politicians? You may have looked away to protect your own peace. But protecting your own peace can come at a cost, and the cost is that racism unchecked is racism that grows.

Wooden Figures Arguing

Likely, your mother-in-law doesn't know the term "The Great Replacement theory," but she tells you she's worried that if abortion isn't made illegal soon, there won't be "enough white babies." Likely, your teenage cousin doesn't have plans to incite a race war, but he might casually joke about "taking out" people who he thinks are "coming for us."

Friend, I have unfortunate news for you, which isn't news to you at all: Your relative is racist.

You may know it—you may have even said it before. You may have looked away, or you may have avoided them to protect your own peace. But protecting your own peace can come at a cost, and the cost is that racism unchecked is racism that grows.

You wouldn't find a cancer and then decide to ignore it. As parents and caregivers to children, the peace we need to protect is not just personal. The peace we need to protect is also the world around our kids. It is inside of them. The good news is that if we want our kids to live in a world without racism, we don't have to solve the entire world. We can start right where we have the most influence: with those around us.

We Need To Change Those Around Us—Even When It's Uncomfortable

Desiree Adaway, one of the nation's preeminent DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) consultants, sees that many white people might want to confront racism, but feel uncomfortable doing so. "Name me one big change that happened without conflict or difficult conversations? They are essential skills for us and our children to have. You make the environment better for everyone when you interrupt problematic behaviors!"

While it's true that racism requires disruption, Adaway reframes the disruption as a positive thing: "We can hold folks accountable and hold them with great care. If the ultimate goal is to get someone to change their problematic behavior, then we need to be intentional and strategic about how we encourage people to do that. We can do this with compassion and care. We can invite folks into conversation from a place of deep inquiry and love AND we can have strong firm boundaries about what language is acceptable in your home and around our kids."

Corey Bennett Williams, a racial equity educator, tackles these issues in her one-hour workshop Race Brave Parenting. "One of the things that white folks don't love to hear from me, but I often need to say, is that THEY are the right person to call their loved one in. Often I hear people say that they've tried and they have decided to give up. Or that they can't talk to the person anymore. But that leaves the status quo in place, a culture of racism intact and Black and brown people in harm's way.

The person that you have a relationship with, especially a family relationship, is in your circle of influence. And we need you to call them in."

Disrupting racism is an act of love. It's an act of love for the people harmed by racist behaviors and systems. It's love for ourselves and our neighbors, who deserve a better world. It's love for all our children—Black, brown, white, Indigenous. It's an act of love for the person we are confronting—helping them learn and grow if they are willing.

First Thing's First: Identify Your Allies

"To effectively address racism with white family members, it's important to first build consensus around whether there is a problem and, if so, what it is and where it comes from," says Adaway.

Engage other family members who might agree with you. Ask them questions like:

"Have you noticed (person) does (fill in behavior or comment)?"

"How does it make you feel when they do that?"

Share your perspective.

"It really upsets me because..."

"It makes me feel..."

"It sets a bad example for..."

"I don't approve of..."

Look for common solutions.

"I really feel like we should say something. How do you think that would be best received?"

"Would you like to start or should I—who do you think it would best come from?"

Even if the other family member is unwilling or feels unsafe being a part of the confrontation or conversation, they can play a crucial role in supporting you emotionally, and perhaps bringing on board other family members to build an environment which is supportive and anti-racist.

Calling In or Calling Out

"Calling in" and "calling out" are two approaches which serve different purposes.

Calling out is, simply put,"if you see something, say something." It's best used immediately when you've just experienced a racist behavior or heard a racist comment. You can use this when you aren't necessarily emotionally close to the other person, or where you don't think the person is willing or open to change.

Calling out is declarative—in whatever situation, you are taking an immediate stand and not letting something slide. "[You]...can have strong, firm boundaries about what language is acceptable in your home and around our kids," insists Adaway.

For example, if your relative makes a racist joke, you can respond: "That isn't funny. It's hurtful"

"I don't see it that way at all."

"I don't want you to use that language around my child and I." You can also do so in a little less direct way by asking questions. "What did you just say?"

"I'm sorry, did I hear you right? (repeat what you heard)."

"Why do you think that's funny?"

Calling out is an important tool because it gives immediate feedback, and gives all those listening or overhearing a strong signal of direct disapproval.

Calling in usually occurs one-on-one, within the context of a relationship. According to Bennett Williams, "[calling in] is a kind, caring way of teaching and holding someone accountable. Calling in is the practice of internationally and carefully informing someone that they are causing racist harm. (We don't use the word racist because we find that it's more effective to describe the harm rather than label the act or the person)."

"Calling in works because it assumes that the other person is capable and willing to change. That starting point assumes the best in another person and makes space for growth. And when we carefully choose our words, tone and timing—we're being intentional and we minimize the chance of activating feelings of defensiveness and withdrawal."

Bennett Williams describes her key steps for having a "calling in" conversation:

"We use the mnemonic device RYE to remember the three steps in a calling in conversation.

The 'R' in RYE stands for respect.

When we begin the conversation with a genuine, personal statement it does two things. It slows us down to remember and name the good in the other person, and that helps us ensure that we're calling in kindly and with intention. And, a compliment or statement of respect helps the person being called in know that you see and can name good in them. That statement might look like, "I've always been impressed by your compassion," or "I know you to be a kind person."

The 'Y' in RYE stands for you.

We find that calling in is most effective when you share how YOU learned what you now know to be true. If that's not possible, you can share how the particular microaggression made you feel. Sharing how YOU received it or what YOU have learned helps avoid blame and gives the person being called in some ego cover-- and that can be helpful. "I used to believe that as well, and then I read or heard this…." might be one way to share, or, "when you said that I had these three thoughts."

The 'E' in RYE stands for engage.

Continuing to engage with the person increases the likelihood that they will make the change and helps them know that you are invested in their success. So, after calling in, continuing to connect is important. And know that changes like this don't happen overnight, and continuing to engage increases the probability that your friend or family member will respond."

If Not You, Who. If Not Now, When?

There's of course a lot more to be said about how to confront racism in our own thinking, in our relatives, and in our workplaces and institutions. The more we learn about racism and how it persists, the more we are faced with questions of how we can be anti-racist. Knowing that you are not alone with these issues and finding support from professionals and groups committed to change goes a long way to give us the skills we need.

As Bennett Williams says, especially while kids are present, "It's important to name the unnamed. Kids are putting together the puzzle pieces not just about what's said, but what's unsaid."

Adaway adds that, even though allies may find this work difficult, "It is exhausting for marginalized people to constantly call-in people who have privilege over them, so our supporters should be doing that for us whenever they can. Marginalized people should not have to educate folks microaggressing them. Engage with other white people when their behavior or attitude perpetuates racism. Stay with it...It might not work, but I believe we make space and room for folks to come back to us if they want."

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