Four Steps to Talking About Racism with Loved Ones

1. Consent to Continue:

Conversations require the willingness of at least two participants.  Forcing your loved ones to address issues they are unwilling to face will be unproductive and probably pretty upsetting for both of you.  Instead of bulldozing into a lecture, begin by asking permission to explain why you are concerned about what was said.  But what if they say ‘no’?  This ‘no’ might be coming from a place of past experience where they felt lectured by you previously.  Signal to them that this time will be different, offer to listen to their perspective first before offering your own.  And if they still say ‘no’?  Respect the ‘no’.  Maybe now is not the time.  But you can offer to return to the conversation later and also ask that comments like this not be made around you.  By letting it go peacefully this time, you may earn some credibility and be able to return to the conversation in the future.

2. Framing the Discussion:

What if you get a ‘yes’?  Proceed with caution.  You just got an opening, but that opening will disappear quickly if your loved ones get the sense that you are calling them bad people or that you think you are better than them.  Focus on addressing the concerns you have with the comment and not on labelling the person making the comment.  Also try to avoid presenting yourself as an expert and instead focus on how this is something that you are “working through” too.  We all have areas of equity that we are more familiar with than others and areas where we have room to learn.  Acknowledge your own learning process and offer to share what you have learned.

3. Focus on Impact:

One of the central principles informing human rights law within Canada is that it is ‘impact, not intent’ that matters in findings of discrimination.  Accordingly, try to acknowledge that you know that your uncle/cousin/aunt/mother does not intend to be hurtful but then steer the conversation towards the impact that the statement might have on the particular group being referred to.  Your impact statements will likely vary depending on the nature of the remark, the group being referred to, and the sort of information you think your loved one is likely to accept.  You could focus on historical accounts of oppression, offer personal anecdotes, or try to cite statistical evidence.  Be ready for the following responses:

“I’ve suffered too” – This reaction is often an argument against perceived “special treatment” for marginalized groups.  “I have had to struggle my whole life, why should they get hand-outs”.  It is helpful first to acknowledge the other person’s challenges, rather than minimize them.  Don’t get drawn into the Oppression Olympics of trying to win the medal for worse oppression overall.  The fact that this person has struggled might actually be a great entry point into relating and understanding the struggles of others.  Ask them to consider the ways in which they have faced unfairness and barriers, and then try to offer examples of barriers facing others.  This is not to claim that all equity struggles are necessarily equivalent, but helping people to see common systematic barriers may be an entry point for deeper discussions of oppression in the future.  Chances are the ‘I-have-suffered-too’ guy is going to have difficulty acknowledging privilege.  Possible resources for this discussion would include Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack or the Unequal Opportunity Race video.

“Based on my experience of those people” – Also known as “I know someone from x group and they are like this”.  Sometimes these generalizations are based on single bad experience, sometimes these are based in more deep seeded ethnic divides.  It is important not to discount their negative experiences, and instead acknowledge that those experiences sound rough (e.g. “ya, I agree, that guy sounds like a jerk”) but challenge why they take that experience to be representative of the entire group (e.g. “I am pretty sure I have come across a lot of jerks who aren’t from x group as well”).  You could also discuss generalizations made about a group to which your family belongs and then consider how hurtful and limiting these generalizations are for those subjected to them.  For more deeply entrenched generalizations consider offering socio-economic or historical causes for why certain groups are subject to different challenges.  Possible resources for this discussion will be largely dependent on the group being discussed, the Ontario Human Rights Commission provides resources relating to the protected grounds which could be insightful, in particular the Living Rights project.

“It’s a harmless joke” – Often accompanied by “don’t be so sensitive“.   As per my handy-dandy diagram, remember to begin by acknowledging that you know it isn’t meant to be hurtful and then focus on why this impacts you personally.  It may help to acknowledge that you are ‘sensitive’ about this subject and then try to express what it is about the ‘joke’ that you don’t find funny or that upsets you (e.g. “I take sexual assault really seriously and it is hard to hear it be turned into a joke” or “I have friends who are gay and have been harassed on an almost weekly basis”).  As Diane J. Goodman points out in Promoting Diversity and Social Justice many jokes serve to recirculate stereotypes that limit people’s acceptance in the world.  She suggests “if you’re unsure of whether a joke is acceptable, ask yourself if you would tell the joke in front of members from the subordinated group.” Ask your loved one if they would feel comfortable making this joke if you had brought your friend or loved one from that group to dinner.

“But it’s a positive stereotype” – As Seinfeld famously asked: “If I like their race, how can that be racist?“.  What could be offensive about claiming that members of group x are fantastic cooks or great at math?  When groups are pigeon-holed through these supposedly ‘positive’ stereotypes, they are also being limited to these pre-set scripts for what they can and can’t accomplish.  One effective way of challenging this form of stereotyping is simply questioning the person on whether they truly believe what they are claiming: “do you think all x are great at math?”  Sometimes hearing generalizations restated are enough for people to backdown.  Again, consider the impact that these stereotypes might have on those confined to limited set of expectations and the repercussions these limitations may have on them as they go to school, try to find work, or try to excel in an another area.  Have a look at why: ‘3 Reasons why Positive Stereotypes aren’t that Positive’.

4. Ending the Discussion:

You don’t want this conversation to go on forever because people will get tired and frustrated and become less receptive.  Once you have shared your piece, make peace.  Use statements like: ‘I just wanted to offer another perspective’ or ‘I think that this is something worth thinking about’ and thank the other person for allowing you to be heard.  If the conversation appears to be taking a negative turn or nothing new is being said offer to share materials by email or at a later date.  Try phrases like “I may have some resources that can express this better than I can, may I send them to you?”  Changing someone’s perspective does not happen overnight, or in one conversation, so be patient and understanding as your loved ones work through these issues.

Nicole BernhardtFour Steps to Talking About Racism with Loved Ones

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