A great distance separates me from my family. Not just geographical — they live in Maine and I live in Georgia — but also the distance of identity. I am a leftist agnostic who practices a vague form of religious expression that encompasses paganism and Catholicism. They are right-wingers with a strong belief in evangelical Christianity. Conversations at the Thanksgiving dinner table have tended to be tense. But one thing I could always count on my family to not do was make racist comments. My extended family is, after all, a multicultural dream.
However, over the last few years things began to subtly shift, both in terms of how I began to understand the body terrorism of racism, but also how my family reacted to current events. Not all of my family engaged in racist talk, but some did. While I can just click “hide” on a lot of their politics on Facebook, in real life, I knew I had to speak up. At this crux of history where African-American people are literally dying at the hands of police, where we still do not see equality in terms of employment, education, and housing, and where we’re dealing with the overt racism of the current administration, not speaking out is an act of compliance.
My first foray into having a conversation about racism with a family member ended disastrously. My cousin shared a piece on Facebook from a conservative website using racist insults to talk about Obama and suggested that African-Americans benefited from entitlements that disadvantaged white people. I went with my first response: anger.
That tone set up the exchange. My cousin responded back with anger, as he felt I was attacking his character. The Body is Not An Apology’s Community Agreements point out that anger and sarcasm are fast ways to derail conversations, and this one had gone way off-track. My cousin and I couldn’t beat each other to be the first to defriend the other on Facebook.
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Looking back, what I saw as my justified anger made me forget, as a white person, the importance of meeting others where they are. Sometimes where we are is not a pretty place. I had to ask myself, “If someone confronted me the way I confronted my cousin, would I have shut down that person just as he shut me down?”
I watched my partner have a very different conversation with my cousin. While he didn’t fully convince my cousin, his approach led to a conversation rather than an exchange of insults. I witnessed how patience, compassion, and a lot less self-righteousness created the potential for understanding as opposed to hurt feelings and defensiveness. Instead of beating myself up at the lost opportunity with my cousin, I used the exchange to rethink how I might approach another incident differently.
It was not long before I had the chance to redeem myself. This time, one of my uncles shared a piece outlining how undocumented immigrants “destroyed the United States.” The comments from the piece horrified me, as they were filled with racist vitriol, including the assertion that all immigrants were drug dealers. My uncle agreed with the statements.
As someone married to a Mexican immigrant, I had to speak up. The comments felt personal, and I knew it would be easy for me to react in anger. I found that the following four steps made it easier to have a conversation focused on engaging rather than alienating.
1. Step away first.
When I first read my uncle’s comment and then his agreement that all immigrants were likely drug dealers, I wanted to respond with some big angry words. But I’ve learned that shooting off in anger right away leads to a lot of misunderstanding and lots of shouting.
A friend of mine told me she’s learned there is nothing wrong with removing yourself from a racist environment with a bookmark to take up the issue later. She pointed out that often these statements are said in an echo chamber where people double down on their racist comments.
My feelings were hurt. My uncle, a person I love, made sweeping and painful generalizations about people like my own husband. I deserved to be angry about his words. I needed to sit with my anger and hurt, feel it, and then move through it so I could engage without rage.
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I waited to engage my uncle, sorting out what I wanted to say and how to highlight the ways in which his comments were an attack on my husband. I opted to write my thoughts on his Facebook page rather than texting him. It felt important to share my response with others on the thread.
Upon reading my comment, my uncle pushed back, but we did not end up in an immediate fight. We were able to have a conversation. Stepping away gave me a chance to collect myself and respond with rationale and reason. While the feeling of reasonableness was not always present in the coming exchanges, it made the work easier for me.
2. Keep calm.
When people are saying things that impact my family or my friends, I turn into a mama bear. Coupled with the inclination towards being angry about racism in general, the desire to protect can become an explosive but not necessarily effective mix. I’ve ended too many hard discussions with loud words and personal attacks.
Anger is a vital element of social change, but a lost temper often doesn’t serve well in interpersonal conversations. I wanted my uncle to hear me, a task that was going to be difficult no matter what. Racism is a heated topic, and the act of calling out someone’s racist words or actions is going to be a tense moment. Having at least one calm person can change the dynamic of the conversation.
During these moments I must remember that talking to my relative is not about condemning them. My desire is to change how they think and offer them a new perspective. We don’t need more angry racists; we need more former racists.
3. Be compassionate.
I asked a group of friends how they had conversations about racism with their racist relatives, and one friend offered these wise words: “I try to be compassionate.”
This might be the hardest one for me, as my inclination is not always toward compassion. But when I started to really examine what this meant, I got it. You have to meet people where they are, which means understanding their background, their motivations, and their limitations. TBINAA nails this in their Community Agreements: “Everyone has not read the books you have or had the experiences you have. Our journeys are unique and varied. Compassion births PATIENCE.”
My own journey with racism is not a pretty one. I didn’t just wake up non-racist one day. I experienced the discomfort of learning. I had to deal with feeling vulnerable when I was challenged by others. Radical self-love taught me that defensiveness and wallowing in self-guilt were not radical acts. Learning to forgive myself actually opened me up to being able to be gentle with others.
Remembering where I came from and that I could forgive myself for those mistakes made me more generous in reaching out to my uncle. My uncle was not some awful “other.” I began looking for what I had and used to have in common with my uncle. Seeing those commonalities allowed me to say, “We may be different in some ways, but we are in this big sinking boat together.”
One thing that became very clear to me the longer I spoke to my uncle was that he didn’t see how we lived in a system that benefited from our division. Recognizing how he was part of a system made it easier to not attack him as an individual. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist and theorist, argued that we are often unable to see the playfield of culture. It’s why systemic structural oppression works. It is impossible to fight what we cannot see. Compassion can help us see the invisible.
4. Figure out your boundaries with radical love.
Despite our conversation, over the next few months, my uncle continued to post racist articles and commentary. I had to make a hard decision. Did I continue to dialogue or did I protect myself and my family? Setting up boundaries is a painful but important part of self-care.
Ultimately, I found myself in a position where I could not choose to be silent, but the very act of going over and over the same ground started to take a toll.
I wrote to my uncle privately and told him that while I loved him, I could not tolerate his racism, so I had to unfriend him, at least on Facebook. I wanted him to understand that I didn’t make the decision lightly and that I was not doing it as an act of superiority or punishment. My children never read his words, and our geographical distance meant we didn’t have to sit through racist comments in person. But it became clear that he had little regard for how his ideas hurt the lives of my partner and my children.
This defriending, however, came from a very different place than the one with my cousin. I am not sure if there is room for reconciliation with my cousin, and that saddens me. We both said things I imagine we regret. Those words live between us now.
With my uncle, I left room for a relationship. I left him with kind words and with a plea to understand that his attempt to make my partner and my children the “exceptions” to his racist views didn’t work. They were no different than the people he was stereotyping. I also left him with words of compassion when I assured him I understood the frustration of working hard and never seeming to get ahead, but I reminded him he was blaming the wrong people.
In this case, I chose to protect myself and my family because of my love for them. But that same love helped me leave the door open for my uncle. I am holding out hope that one day I will be able to welcome my uncle into the fold of radical self-love for himself and others.
[Headline Image: Photo of a white family sitting at a wooden table eating a meal with a mini Christmas or solstice tree behind them near a window. The focus of the picture is a man with a beard and a reddish shirt clasping his hands in front of himself as he looks at an elderly woman with white hair to the right of the photo. It seems as if they’re in the middle of a conversation. Two children are seated at the table with them, as well as a woman with blonde hair at the left edge of the frame and a man who is standing and appears to be filming or taking photos of the occasion. On the table are many lit candles. Source: Pexels]