My Parents Don’t Think They’re Racist. I Know Better. What Do I Do? You can show up with your belief systems and values and decide what your future with them looks like.
Trying (and failing) to get through to stubborn family members will never not be exhausting. Our advice columnist, therapist Minaa B., helps you handle confrontation sans chaos.
Recently I’ve been struggling with the racist views of my (white) family. My boomer parents fail to understand the anti-racist movement, and our relationship has become strained because of it.
I’ve found that I can’t talk to them without correcting their racist language or getting into a fight about what equal opportunity really means for disenfranchised groups. In 2020 during the height of the BLM protests, my parents would often go off about how—trigger warning—the “rioters are burning down their own neighborhoods,” and “if they don’t care about their own people, homes, businesses, or streets, then why should we care about them?” As a millennial who has educated myself on how systemic racism works, I know this logic is flawed and problematic. But whenever I try to correct them or explain why their outlook is just plain wrong, they turn it into a debate. It doesn’t feel like they’re even listening to what I have to say.
Then again, although my parents have some pretty effed-up views on systemic racism (like whether it even exists), I do love and care about them. When we’re not arguing over these issues, our relationship is relatively calm. They’ve always been supportive of me, and they’re proud of all the things I’ve accomplished thus far.
But as the upcoming midterm elections, police violence cases, and “antiwoke” legislation continue to make headlines, it’s hard to avoid talking about racism altogether. Is there any way to get through to them to change their perspective, or is my relationship with them doomed forever?
You ask if your relationship is doomed because you can’t get through to your parents, but that question suggests you need to take on the responsibility of fixing them. You don’t. You can show up with your belief systems and values and decide what your future with your parents looks like.
Your power lies in changing the way you respond to them. Take some time to really reflect on your bond with your parents. Think about: Can I tolerate being in the same room as them? Are my parents’ other values in alignment with mine?
If you feel comfortable, set boundaries around the things you discuss and the things they say. You might tell them, “Hey, when you use racist phrases or try to debate me on equality, it makes me feel uncomfortable, so I’m going to leave or hang up if that happens.” It might not seem like it, but you have a role in keeping these negative cycles going, so stepping away and reminding yourself that it’s okay not to have the last word can help you make peace with yourself in this shitty situation. And if you need space to recover from your interactions, consider spending less time with them or calling less often. Although you don’t owe them a reason, you can share why you’re stepping back if it feels safe to do so.
It can be really tough to reconcile the fact that people we care about, including our family, can’t see the world for what it is or think it’s no big deal to vote for candidates who uphold the oppression of non-white people. But we have to learn to protect ourselves when people show us who they are. Unless your family is actively asking you how they can become less racist, be cautious of how much labor you exert trying to get them to think differently when it’s clear they don’t want to. We dispense so much of our energy trying to change the minds of people who are fine with the values they uphold. But the truth is that the person you’re trying to change has to be willing to see things differently.
When you say you can’t talk to your parents about their racist views without getting into a fight, that’s an indicator that your parents are content with their belief system. And since arguments happen when both parties feel strongly about their views, your fights likely mean they’re passionate about the values they’re upholding and they don’t like that you’re trying to get them to think in a new way. This might sound harsh, but chances are, your parents are filtering out what you’re saying because they simply don’t care to take in that point of view. They have to have their own inner awakening. And the best thing you can do in the meantime is focus on your growth so you can support them when they—finally, hopefully—get there.
MINAA B., LMSW, is a therapist, writer, and speaker and the founder of Minaa B. Consulting, where she works with busy professionals on enhancing their wellbeing and developing workplace boundaries to improve their mental health. She is a cohost on Sydel Curry-Lee’s podcast Because Life and sits on the mental health advisory committee for Wondermind, a mental-fitness company cofounded by Selena Gomez.