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How To Talk About Racism With Your Extended Family, Because It Can Be Hard

Racism can be a difficult subject to discuss with family members, whether over the dinner table on Thanksgiving, or in a public exchange on social media. Nevertheless, these are necessary conversations to have. And as protests against racism and police brutality continue around the world, these conversations have become much more prominent in households (and on social media accounts) across the country. If you want to have thoughtful discussions with your family but are unsure of where to begin, here are some suggestions from experts about how to talk about racism with your extended family.

Conversations about racism and police brutality have always been of the utmost importance. But recently, following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade by police officers, as well as the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by two white men, many young people are now talking about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement with their families for the first time. You may already be having discussions about the ongoing protests for racial justice with your parents, but what about the relatives that you really only interact with on certain occasions, or who you only chat with over social media?

If you see extended family members saying things like "all lives matter" on Facebook or hear them making racist comments at a family gathering, it's important to engage with them, but you first need to make sure you have a strong grasp of the arguments you want to make. According to Elizabeth McCorvey, MSW, LCSW, a therapist in North Carolina, you should not "let the first time you talk about race be [when you start a conversation] with your 'All Lives Matter' family members." Instead, McCorvey tells Elite Daily, "practice having difficult conversations with friends or support groups" first, and recognize that these conversations often require a level of vulnerability that many people aren't accustomed to.

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When you do approach a family member you want to talk with, there are a few conversational techniques you can use to keep the discussion focused. For example, McCorvey says, use "I" statements where possible, so that your relative is more receptive rather than defensive. McCorvey also recommends looking up Color of Change's conversational model in partnership with Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). This model encourages people to "call people in" instead of calling them out; as an ally, it's important to meet people where they're at, commit to educating them, and ask sincere questions. It is also important, however, to not simply be silent if you see your family member making racist comments in a public forum like social media.

"Not everyone likes to have Facebook arguments, and I think it's great when folks comment publicly and offer to continue the conversation privately — face to face or by message (although remember how much tone can get lost in text)," McCorvey says. Moving to a phone call, face-to-face video, or in-person meeting also creates a safer space for self-reflection and productive dialogue. "You're publicly standing up for what you believe in, and you're giving the [original poster] the chance to respectfully continue what might be a vulnerable conversation, outside of the public eye."

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Riana Anderson, Ph.D, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, tells Elite Daily that engaging in cases like this can be as simple as sending over a text message along the lines of, "I saw you post X — I'd love to chat with you about it when you're available." After that point, you can really only control the information you present. In any conversation about racism and privilege, Anderson recommends using a combination of media, statistics, and anecdotal experiences to make your case, so, again, it's important do your own research before approaching anyone else to have a discussion.

"You need to know your stance on your things, how you feel about something, before you talk to folks and try to shift their gear," Anderson says. "Try to pinpoint times in your life where something happened, maybe there was a shift for you." You can use that same kind of anecdote to relate to your family members.

Preparing for conversations like this also means being able to explain complicated topics and define key terms in a way that is accessible to people who haven't previously engaged in conversations about racism and police brutality. But no matter how prepared you are, it is highly unlikely that you're going to change someone's mind in one conversation — and most of the time, that shouldn't be your goal to begin with. "You aren't going to change everyone's mind," McCorvey notes. In cases where you know the other person may not be receptive, "the goal might just be to have an open dialogue, to share your opinions, and hear where theirs come from."

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"Helping them get to a place where they can commit to some form of action is the dream!" McCorvey adds. "But they may have had a lifetime of reinforcement of a certain viewpoint, so you may need to prepare yourself for the long game."

As you have these conversations, you should also remember to set boundaries for yourself — and while the above tips may be useful in many scenarios, they also may not apply to every familial situation. If you feel a conversation devolving into personal attacks or coming to a standstill, that might feel discouraging. But Anderson says it's important that you work through your discomfort and let yourself learn from these conversations. "[When] you bring it back up the next time, you try to talk about it again — and maybe [you take] a different approach next time," she says. After all, Anderson adds, if you're able, there's really no excuse to avoid having these key conversations.