How to Address Racism Within your Family

January 13, 2021

Dear Achona,

I’m going to be able to spend Christmas with my mom’s side of the family, and I’m really excited. I love them so much, but there’s one issue: they’re rather racist. By this, I mean they make not-funny racist jokes that make me really uncomfortable because they go against my beliefs. But if I tell them to stop, they’ll ignore me and say that I’m just ‘a stupid teenager.’ What should I do?

Dear Anonymous,

Although our response to this question comes a little late, we still think it’s imperative to respond to this concern because it is a situation that many young people often find themselves in. The first thing I would say to remember is that your family members likely grew up in a different environment, have internalized racist messaging, and might struggle to justify their behavior when asked about it. These are not excuses for their racism, but rather a reminder that you are not in the wrong for questioning their behavior; by calling them out, they are likely to get defensive and resort to personal insult to shift the attention away from their racism.

You are not “just a stupid teenager,” and your concerns are completely valid. It’s a tough conversation to have with your family, but it is one that you have every right to initiate — even if you are a teenager. Unfortunately, there is not a “one size fits all” approach to conversations about race, so there are only a few general recommendations I can make. Avoid lecturing them, ask open-ended questions, and do your best to actively listen to understand rather than to respond. Make sure you are solid in your purpose for addressing racism within your family, and come equipped with research. Avoid being performative, shaming others, interrupting, stereotyping, or centering the conversation on white emotions. Be prepared to respond to common rebuttals surrounding race, such as “I don’t see color” or “my life is hard too.”

Everyone can grow and learn. Continue to respectfully call out the racism of your family members. Hopefully, over time, your sustained anti-racist efforts will pay off and your family will come to see your perspective. It’ll be slow, hard work, but in the end, every effort you make to call out racism is a step in the right direction.

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