Updated: Jan 31
One of the hard parts of anti-racist work is talking to the people closest to us about racism--what it is, what it looks like, the history of racism in America, how to address racial and social injustice. Even the mention of racism is enough to put some people on edge, for defenses to rise and an “us versus them” (or “me versus you”) mentality to take over. Nobody wants to be called racist, but the truth is we live in a racist society with a collective history permeated by racism in such a way that we all have been affected or influenced by racism in one way or another and we may not even be aware to what extent our thoughts, opinions, preferences, bias, or understanding of history has been influenced by racist ideas.
As we seek to apply ourselves to anti-racist work and begin to have conversations (or continue having conversations) with family and friends, we will struggle, get frustrated, mess up, be challenged by our own understanding (as well as our limitations), and realize there’s so much more for us to learn in the work of anti-racism. We may have a realization that a family member or close friend doesn’t share our understanding or has an outright racist belief that we didn’t know.
So how do we have conversations about such an important topic with family and friends? Here’s a few things I am learning from having conversations about racism and social justice:
Realize people will naturally have their defenses up. When approached with new ideas, we are naturally wary. Your defenses may also be up, because it can feel like your relationship with this person is on the line based on whether you agree or not.
Share your own journey. How did you awaken to issues of social justice? What has the work of anti-racism stirred in you? Why does this matter to you? Sharing our stories can be a powerful tool for helping others hear and, hopefully, understand. However, sharing your story or the story of others, even if you’re a person of color, doesn’t mean people will be moved, understand the issue at hand, or even care. That can be difficult when you share your perspective and realize some people still don’t care or moved to understand. It’s important to know the person you’re talking to.
Define terms! There are so many different terms when it comes to racial and social justice. Before you get too far into a conversation, make sure you and the person you’re conversing with have the same understanding (or at least similar) when you’re discussing a topic. For example, “What do you mean when you say.... This is my understanding of that term. How do you understand it?” Asking follow-up questions can give insight, “Where did you learn that definition from?”
When you don’t know the answer to a question, say, “I don’t know” or “That’s something I haven’t looked into or considered yet.” It’s unhelpful to assume or pretend we have all the answers. The truth is we’ll never have all the answers, but we can always seek to learn more and explore new perspectives.
Addressing “What aboutism…” When people share things with you (in person, via text, or social media post) saying, “What about this…” trying to invalidate racism. Here are a few examples that have come up in conversations with my family or friends, “Well, the chief of police was Black! How can the police department be racist?,” “I know this guy who is successful and nobody helped him,” “How come they can say the N-word to each other?,” “What’s the point--these protests aren’t doing anything? Watch this video of a Black man who says so,” “Why is this article saying he’s the greatest white football player, why do they have to bring race into it?”
Often these aren’t sincere questions with a desire to learn, these are “what aboutism” tactics trying to discredit the existence of racism, what it looks like, or the need for racial justice. I believe they, generally, stem from discomfort. On some level people recognize there’s an injustice, but aren’t sure what to do or think and in turn prop up their old or faulty position. What I’ve found helpful is to not so much engage with answering the why, but to provide context for answers: “I don’t know why they’re comparing these athletes [context], but here’s some articles I’ve read on racism in sports and the idea that Black people are inherently better athletes.”
Realize these conversations will take time. You may spend an hour or three in a conversation with one person. There may be shorter conversations over months or even years. It’s hard to not be discouraged or feel alone in this work, but little by little we can make change.
Set boundaries. Conversations on race are hard, taxing, emotional, and require a lot of brain power to stay engaged--especially if you are a person of color. Anti-racism conversations feel deeply personal, because they are. You do not need to have a conversation with everyone and it especially does not need to be on their timetable. Set parameters for your time--
”I can talk about this for an hour and then I need to be done.”
“This week’s not good for me, let’s set up a time we can talk about this next week.”
“I’d love to talk with you about this, would you be willing to read this article before we talk?”
“I’d be interested to hear what you’ve read on this topic, so I have a better understanding of where you’re coming from.”
Ask yourself and the person you’re conversing with, “Where are you getting your information?” If it’s mainly from memes, anecdotal social media posts, YouTube, reddit, then it’s not going to be the most helpful or, possibly even true, source of information. Go to sources--read articles with citations, websites of organizations in the discussed area with data, books with long lists of works cited. Consider the media bias chart when reading news: https://www.adfontesmedia.com/
Try to find middle ground. Where do you agree? Sometimes it can feel like we don’t agree on much, but it can be helpful to find where we do agree and see where our agreement can lead to further and helpful discussion, education, and understanding to where we disagree.
What is the main issue of disagreement? Most often it seems to be not so much a disagreement, but a lack of knowledge and awareness. For example, take the statement “We all have the same opportunities.” For many of us, our parents or grandparents were raised during the 1940s-1960s, one example of how we don’t all have the same opportunities is the post WWII era and GI benefits given to veterans for school and housing. Those benefits helped raise the middle class of white America, but Black, Native, and other Americans of color while receiving the same benefits on paper, by and large were denied those benefits by banking, housing, and educational institutions. This increased the disparity in equity of wealth, education, and housing. Now, if they still disagree, ask why? What’s their point of contention or disagreement?
Point out inconsistencies and blind avoidance in areas of disagreement, then ask hard questions--”You don’t like rioting and destroying businesses, how is this different than the Boston Tea Party or when people destroy property after sports wins/upsets?” “What offends you about xyz and how would you approach it?”
A few examples I’ve seen or heard,
“Well, they should vote or go through the proper channels.” Response: “People have and those avenues have not brought just results for decades and beyond. What other action should be taken?”
“Well, it’s Marxism/communist and I can’t support that.” Response: Did you know during the Civil Rights era many people, even Christians like the evangelist Billy Graham, considered what Civil Rights activists were doing and asking for communist? [See the book Divided by Faith.] Do you think that equal rights for voting, dismantling Jim Crow laws, and desegregating schools led to communism? By saying social justice is Marxism/communism, could you perhaps be applying a label without considering the actual injustices and real solutions?
Give data. When someone makes casual racist remarks, share with them why that’s untrue and not helpful and how that affects real people.
Realize when you need to step away--when the conversation is not fruitful, circular, for your own mental health, or is taking longer than you allotted and straining the rest of your day. We can’t solve racism in a day or one conversation.
Conversations with family and friends are just one part in the work of anti-racism. We can acknowledge it’s a hard part and doesn’t always feel effective or worthwhile, but we can be voices of truth, justice, and mercy. We can bring light, understanding, and new perspectives to these relationships. It will take time and it’s rare to see someone change their thoughts or positions overnight, but we can be like a river slowly, but effectively, changing the landscape of our country with our words, conversations, education, and actions.
Books to aid you in conversations:
So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
Be the Bridge to Racial Reconciliation, Latasha Morrison
Blog Post image: https://unsplash.com/photos/LQ1t-8Ms5PY
Questions for Facebook discussion:
What conversations are you having with family and friends?
Where are you struggling in your conversations with family and friends?
Share a good outcome of a conversation you’ve had with a family member or friend.
How can MAR support and encourage you in these conversations?
MAR Moms share things that have helped you in talking about racism with your family and friends.