How to talk to your non-black family members about race, according to therapists

  • After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, some non-black people are confronting their contributions to racism and want to talk about these issues with their family.
  • But many don’t know where to begin and say they feel uncomfortable broaching the subject of race.
  • Though race-related conversations are difficult, therapists told Insider it’s important to have them to dismantle racist thinking and systems, and to uplift black people.
  • When having these conversations, you should mentally prepare, use “I” statements, and set boundaries.
  • You must also understand when your energy would be better used elsewhere, like with donating money or supporting black-owned businesses, the therapists said.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, many non-black people around the country and world are beginning to realise their silence on race-related issues has contributed to racism.

One way people can actively work to dismantle racism is to talk about race and the issues surrounding it with their family members, but non-black people often don’t know where to start.

“It’s a tough conversation [to have], even when you’re super connected with your family, and especially if you’ve never talked about race before,” Elizabeth McCorvey, a North Carolina-based therapist who created a guide for white therapists to discuss race, told Insider.

But black people have to consider their race every day, so non-black people can take steps to start those uncomfortable-yet-vital discussions with the people in their lives. Here’s how.

Mentally prepare yourself for a difficult conversation

When your uncle, grandmother, or cousin makes a racist remark, big or small, your first inclination may be to jump right into a discussion.

But McCorvey suggested taking some time beforehand to meditate or do another activity that helps get your anxiety under control. Doing so can help you better navigate the conversation.

“I think it starts with knowing what your own tolerances for those kinds of conversations are. If you know that you need to be breathing throughout, [do that],” she said. “But ultimately there’s not going to be a pretty way to do it, especially if they’re resistant family members. You might have to prepare to be disagreed with, or vilified, or have people’s feelings get hurt.”

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If your relatives are open, discuss concrete ways you can use your privilege to affect change

If your family members are more in agreement that racism is a real issue and they don’t tend to make overtly racist remarks, you should prepare differently.

Come prepared with ideas for how you can use your privilege to make change as a family unit, according to Shanta Jackson, a therapist in Dallas, Texas.

“Chatting with family members who aren’t overtly racists would look more like strategising with how to use your privilege to amplify the cause, to donate to the cause, to fight for the injustices against black people. This chat needs to be filled with each member holding each other accountable, and less about chatting and more about action,” Jackson said. “What are we doing? How can we help? What actions can we take? That should be the conversation.”

Use examples from your family’s local community to help them understand broader systemic issues

For non-black people, talking about race with family members can feel impersonal, so McCorvey suggested tying examples of racism back to your town or local community to better illustrate how it directly affects those around you.

“If it’s bringing up issues that are coming up in your hometown with leaders whose name you recognise, [who] you may have voted for, who knocked on your door asking you to vote for them, people might feel slightly more open to hearing things that are happening in their community first and connect to those,” she said. “You might not know the person or people that it impacted locally, but someone might go to church with that person and have three degrees of separation.”

People wear masks as they wait in line to vote at a voting centre during primary voting in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
People wear masks as they wait in line to vote at a voting centre during primary voting in Washington, Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Associated Press

Use “I” statements

Additionally, using “I” statements to personalise the issues may make some family members more willing to discuss race, according to Dallas-based therapist Monica Denias.

“When a person feels that they are being blamed, whether they are right or wrong, it’s common that they respond with defensiveness. A good ‘I’ statement takes responsibility for one’s own feelings, while tactfully describing a problem,” Denais said.

She suggested saying, “I feel,” followed by an emotion like “angry,” “hurt,” or “worried,” and to use a soft and even tone so family members don’t perceive you as blaming them. Then, you can describe how their actions or words affected you and made you feel.

“You are now actively changing the conversation to come from a place of concern and allow space to make your points on why what they said was racist,” Denais said.

Set boundaries with family members who refuse to hear you out

If conversations with family don’t result in actionable change, or if someone disregards your attempts to teach them about racism, you should set boundaries with that person to show you will never condone their behaviour, according to Jackson.

“If this member isn’t interested in the education, or understanding that they are the problem, then set your boundary, a boundary that showcases that it is not OK for them to speak that way in your presence,” she said.

Jackson added that non-black people should speak up and remind a racist family member every single time they cross that boundary.

For example, if you’ve told your grandmother not to use racial slurs in your presence and she continues to do so, remind her of the boundary you created.

If the behaviour still continues, McCorvey suggested telling the boundary-crosser that they will be seeing less of you in their life if they continue.

Know when to move on and use your privilege elsewhere

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how many facts you bring to the dinner table, how nicely you speak to your dad, or how many times you tell your grandpa to stop saying racial slurs in your presence.

In addition to setting boundaries like McCorvey and Jackson suggested, you should also decide when to move on from an unproductive race conversation and use your energy and position as a non-black person elsewhere.

“A productive conversation is one that will either assist in dismantling racist views and personal biases or developing a plan on how to strategize to contribute to the fight against racisms and the injustices against black people,” Jackson said. “If the conversation isn’t that, remove yourself from it.”

She said non-black people shouldn’t confuse arguing with racist family members as contributing to anti-racism, because those conversations aren’t what will improve black lives.

Once you remove yourself, Jackson said, you should use your time and resources to expand your own social circles to include more black people, buy products and services from black businesses, donate to organisations that support black people, and uplift black people on social media platforms.

“Use that energy to contribute to the cause,” Jackson said.

Recognise feeling uncomfortable doesn’t excuse you from having difficult conversations regularly

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For non-black people, having conversations about race is something new, and therefore something that can feel uncomfortable.

But that doesn’t mean it’s OK to shy away from hard discussions, or to have a few and then never speak on race issues again.

“As long as racism exists, the conversation needs to be ongoing,” Jackson said. “My experience is ongoing, the injustices against black people have been ongoing, so the conversation cannot stop.”