You’ve been there: it is a big family holiday dinner, everyone is around the dinner ‘table’ (one table cloth, several tables underneath), and somewhere between your second second-helping and dessert your uncle/cousin/aunt/mother lets out the following “why is it that THOSE PEOPLE must always act like that.” You tense up and brace yourself for yet another family equity 101 class. You try to find your calmest, sweetest tone to review why stereotyping is hurtful and inaccurate, but when you open your mouth to speak what comes out is: ‘why are you such a racist?’ Dessert may have to wait.
If you have been there, then you probably know first-hand how ugly this conversation will get after you have thrown down the r-word. Growing up my mom, a human rights and equity lawyer, often shared with me that many find it “more offensive to make the accusation that someone or some system is racist than it is to engage in racist behaviour.” As it is generally accepted that racism is a bad thing, a fairly simple logical syllogism allows most people to conclude that they themselves, and the people that they love, can’t be racist. It goes like this:
Racists are bad people.
I am a good person.
∴ I am not a racist
It is a fairly tidy piece of logic, but it is really ineffective at understanding the way racism, discrimination, and oppression operate. We know from our own dinner tables that good people make discriminatory remarks all the time and the trick is finding a way to address these comments without shutting down conversation or erupting in argument. Having been through this conversation in many forms over the years, I have developed some tips for navigating tough conversations about equity issues, especially when speaking with people you care about.
As you probably already know, this conversation can go off the rails quickly if your friends or family members think you are trying to educate them or sit them down for a lecture. A true conversation requires back and forth, so it is important to be attentive to what sort of responses you are hearing and choose your path forward carefully based on the feedback you receive. If you get consent to launch into this conversation, consider these Four Steps to Talking About Racism. If you get shut down from continuing then respectfully ask your friends and family to be considerate about what sort of comments they make in your presence and leave it at that, and try another day.