How to Talk to Your White Family About Racism
Being an ally means having uncomfortable conversations. Here's how to start.
Recent events in the United States have left me reflecting on the multitude of ways that I can do better as an ally when it comes to supporting the Black community and tearing down the inherently racist systems in our country. A big part of being an ally is not just taking responsibility for yourself and not being racist, but actively working to dismantle racism when you see it — in other words, talking to the people in your life who still make ignorant comments in response to the news or who hold prejudicial beliefs.
That is to say, people like my dad, a conservative white man in an affluent town who is surrounded by other conservative and mostly white men and women. My dad “doesn’t see color” (he often points to my mom, a Japanese American woman, as “evidence” of this); he often retorts “all lives matter.”
I’ve never shied away from getting into it with my dad about his conservative opinions. We both love to debate, and get excited at the prospect of a verbal spar — be it about a woman’s right to choose or the concept of universal healthcare.
I realize that my insistence on bringing up politics with family members makes me an anomaly and even, sometimes, a pest. But there are times when keeping quiet is polite, and times when it is complicity — and right now, allowing anyone’s racist beliefs to go unchecked is the latter. Over the years I’ve learned some ways to disarm even Rush Limbaugh’s biggest stans, and in light of our responsibility as non-Black people to educate and create more allies, I wanted to share them.
Please know that talks like these aren’t meant to be easy or comfortable; there’s always a chance that the other person will still refuse to hear you, that you won’t be able to move the needle, or that your relationships might be damaged. But doing this work is important. Knowing how to talk your parents — and even how to talk to your children — about the definition of systemic racism is important. A glance at the news will show you that the topic of race and oppression in America is more than a difference of opinion, all too often it can be the difference between life and death.
For those who have found starting their own conversations with stagnant and frustrating, here are some tips for any conversation that I’ve used, followed by some conversation starters.
Tactics for Tough Conversations
Repeat their words back to them. A classic conversation trick, repeating an idea back to the speaker tells them that you’re listening, and makes them less likely to interrupt.
If they concede to your point, note that. My dad actually made fun of me for using the phrase "I appreciate that you recognize…" whenever he made an agreeable statement. Even if it sounds silly, or obvious, it can help ease the tension and keep your dad from hanging up on you.
Come prepared. If you don’t know a stat, don’t bluff. Make sure you’ve done your research, and that you can contextualize that research — who did the study? When? Where? To those who have the privilege of avoiding the news, the statistics you report may sound jarring or “unbelievable,” and it’s important to be prepared when someone says, “that’s not true,” or worse, “that’s fake news.” (Find to relevant studies below.)
Queue up some content: If a writer or an activist has said something especially eloquently, bookmark the page or screenshot it so that you can easily and quickly access it, even email it to your relative later with a casual, “this is that article I told you about.”
Don’t interrupt: If you feel like you’re about to explode in frustration, take a step back — make an excuse to run to the bathroom, or move your conversation to text. I’ve done this plenty of times when conversations with my dad got too personal, when it moved toward “my emotions” and away from the subject itself. Call your other ally friends and remember why you’re having the conversation. Because no matter how hard it is to have uncomfortable conversations, it’s much, much harder to be a Black person in America.
Don’t cave to goading: Whenever I bring up the inherently racist institutions in our society, my dad takes it as a personal affront — as though I’m calling him, and every other straight white man who has passively benefited from privilege, a racist. And while I personally believe that we should all come to terms with our racial bias and proactively work to correct it, there is no way to have a meaningful, productive conversation that begins with calling someone a bigot — especially if their definition of racism is, exclusively, the wearing of a pointy white hat. During your conversation, list any of the many, many real world examples of what racism looks like in 2020 (Amy Cooper is a good place to start) and avoid getting personal (at least at first).
Apologize: If, in the heat of the moment, you begin name calling, apologize. Because how can you create change if you sever the relationship you have with that person?
And Now, Some Specific Talking Points
When they say: “I believe in peaceful protests, but the destruction of property is where I draw the line.”
My dad brought up this point as though he was a preacher delivering his Sunday sermon.
In response to this argument, I would reply by repeating some of his own words back to him. “I also believe in peaceful protests, and am happy that in the U.S. we have the right to free speech,” is one way to ease the conversation in a productive direction. (Invoking first amendment rights also plays well with conservatives.) It’s also important to make it clear that you’re not condoning or encouraging violence — and that most protestors aren’t either. In fact, many have tried peaceful protests (hi, Colin Kaepernick, and every Black Lives Matter rally since the organization was founded) but were unable to break through the noise. “I also wish that the protests were more peaceful, and I don’t condone violence,” is a good place to start, "but what do you do when those don't work?" I would also whip out this TikTok video, made by a Black middle school teacher, which breaks down and contextualizes the history of riots in our country.
Next I would insert myself into the conversation. “To me, a life matters more than some broken windows at Nordstrom. To me, a life matters more than any store, or any property.” It’s also important to reiterate that the protests aren’t just a reaction to George Floyd’s murder, but to dozens of (documented) murders, to thousands of instances of police brutality, and to centuries of oppression. Don’t let anger over property damage, or damage to the economy, detract from the point, which is that Black Lives Matter.
Your relative might counter that some of those stores are owned by Black people or other people of color, or that the looted stores serve people of color. This may be true, and we can't speak for Black business owners, but some have spoken up themselves in support of the protests, or have even joined them.
Most importantly, I think it’s important to reiterate that this injustice — this murder — is not an isolated, one-time incident, and that the response to it goes much deeper than one cop’s brutality. Rebecca Sun, an ally (and my former The Hollywood Reporter colleague), put it eloquently: “I have learned, through the words of MLK and the Black leaders that have come after him, that the destruction and repossessing of property and material goods are a symbol of this country’s chronic and continuing destruction and purloinment of Black bodies. These fires are a physical manifestation of the rage and devastation we as a racist society wreak upon our Black citizens day after day. ‘But this is different. I’m upset because what’s happening endangers innocent people. This behavior is wrong because it makes me feel unsafe in my everyday life.’ Exactly. Now do we get it??”
When they say: “I don’t see color.”
This is one of those arguments that my dad employs in an attempt to end the conversation. In the case of George Floyd’s murder, he said that the cop probably was a racist, and that he was definitely a murderer. But discussing the idea that the cop was more than just one bad apple with him, specifically, was a moot point, because he sees everyone as equal, that “all lives matter.”
The best way to meet this point is to admit that you do see color. No need to point out that the “I don’t see color” argument is outdated, wrong, and a result of the miseducation of boomers, even if that all may be true. I personally used the example of coming to terms with my Japanese American heritage. Even as a child, when I longed to fit in with my white peers, I was doing so because I saw color.
In addition to a personal anecdote, there are countless studies that you can point to, such as this 2003 study from Miami University about white Americans being more likely to perceive anger in Black faces than in similar white faces. Or this study from 2018 about the prospective teachers being more likely to observe the faces of Black children as angry than the faces of white children. Or this journal from the Perception Institute illustrating the concepts of implicit bias, racial anxiety, and stereotype threat. Or this, or this, or this. Or just Google “racial bias study” and take your pick.
When addressing the “all lives matter” argument, Vox compiled nine different ways to reiterate that such thinking is silly — that while yes, we value human lives, period, the evidence has proven time and time again that Black lives are in danger. And we need to stand up for them and to explicitly say they are humans worthy of being protected, too. As this pithy tweet says, you wouldn’t run through a cancer fundraiser going, "THERE ARE OTHER DISEASES TOO."
When they say: “Those cops are just a few bad apples.”
Within any organization, you can make the argument that there are just a few people making everyone else look bad. With the police force in America, it goes beyond “a few bad apples.” The entire system is rigged against Black people — and the data proves as much. Consider the data on:
- Racial profiling: An ACLU study conducted in Milwaukee between 2010 and 2017 found that Black people were six times more likely to be searched during pedestrian or traffic stops than white people, and that less than 1% of those stops turned up contraband; Black and Latinos were 20% less likely to be found with contraband than their white peers.
- Petty crimes: Nationwide, the “Black arrest rate is at least twice as high as the white arrest rate for disorderly conduct, drug possession, simple assault, theft, vagrancy, and vandalism,” according to a study by the Boston Law Review).
- And sentencing: according to a study by the United States Sentencing Commission, Black male prisoners received sentences that are 19.1% longer than their “similarly situated” white male offenders.
The U.S. Criminal Justice system has continuously oppressed the Black community for decades.
The term “systemic racism” does not mean that every person within the system is, at an individual level, a racist. I’m sure your relative may know a cop or two who is “a real standup guy” or a woman with a heart of gold. But are they aware of the statistics? Are they aware of the injustice within the system of which they are a part? Are they willfully ignorant?
Unequal policing — and broad use of brutality against Black people at the hands of the police — is not about one or two guys who should’ve never been granted a police badge and a service weapon, it’s an entire U.S. institution that was largely built in the Jim Crow era with the intent of maintaining racial hierarchy in America. The laws were explicitly written to appear “color blind,” but in practice they are anything but.
Speaking with family members is hard work. Unless you’re like me, a person who has a hard time shutting up, you might even be dreading these conversations. But it’s worth it to try. The work is worth it because Black Lives Matter, and because silence is complacency.