08 March 2021

How to handle conversations with a relative expressing racist views

08 March 2021

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Oprah Winfrey has highlighted an issue that many people will relate to – how to handle conversations with a family member expressing racist views.

Meghan and Harry both opened up during the televised interview with Winfrey. Talking about their son Archie, Meghan said there had been “concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he is born”.

Knowing how to approach these conversations can feel extremely difficult, especially if there’s ongoing distress involved. We asked some experts for their advice…

An emotive topic

Psychologist Dr Maryhan Baker (drmaryhan.com) agrees this can be a “very emotive subject” and for numerous reasons, these conversations can feel very hard.

How you handle the issue might depend on the individual in question, your relationship with them, and how their views and comments are impacting you. But generally speaking, there are two main elements you might want to think about.

One is the importance of speaking up and challenging racist remarks. The other is around protecting your own boundaries and wellbeing, if the situation is causing too much distress or simply feels unacceptable.

Avoiding conflict

Understandably, this is an issue that can trigger a strong emotional response. How can you approach these conversations and still avoid conflict?

“I think the first thing is being clear that what they’re saying is intolerable to you, that it oversteps something for you,” says Dr Maryhan. “I think you almost have to [say something] if something really jars with you, but it’s about doing it in a way that doesn’t create confrontation.

“Often in the heat of the moment, you feel like it has to be a confrontation, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a private conversation that you have off to one side, where you say you find comments like, ‘That’s unacceptable in this day and age’.”

Try to open up a dialogue

Obviously, a lot of this depends on the specific circumstances of the situation you are in. But generally speaking, when it comes to being more comfortable with confronting racist comments within a family setting, and having these tough conversations, senior therapist Sally Baker (workingonthebody.com) suggests trying to think of it as opening a dialogue.

“When someone says or makes a racist comment, ask a question, like, ‘What does that mean? Where is that [viewpoint] from?’ Or say, ‘I’m surprised to hear that’ – just try and open it up,” says Baker. “Because if you close people down straight away by stomping on it, then it will just go under the radar, and what we want is a dialogue. When we ask an open question, we’re bringing light to it, and you’re having to bring reason into your stance.”

Reacting with instant judgement, or shaming the other person, can all result in shutting down these avenues of communication. Opening a dialogue, if you can, could be far more effective if you do want to try and educate family members, and maintain those relationships.

Take a breath

If emotions are flaring, it might be helpful to remove yourself from the room and take a deep breath – and then come back to the conversation when you’re feeling more ready for it. Dr Maryhan agrees it could be helpful to enlist the support of another trusted family member, who could support you in the process.

She says: “I wouldn’t suggest having somebody else have the conversation for you, but it could be helpful to have somebody else there, who can prompt and support you, and just help you have that conversation.”

Remember the bigger picture

When it comes to racist comments within families, many of us have probably been guilty in the past of just letting things slide in order to avoid difficult conversations. If you are somebody who feels deeply uncomfortable about the idea of speaking up, a helpful tip might be to remember it’s not just about you – there is a bigger picture.

“If it’s at a family gathering, what they’re saying could be an influence on younger generations too and spread toxicity within the family – and it shouldn’t be normalised,” says Baker. “Whatever they’re saying shouldn’t be allowed to just continue, because that normalises it, and makes it part of the thread of conversation.”

We are also showing children how to approach these conversations. “Part of it is remembering you are modelling for them what it means to deal with difficult situations, and remembering that we set the benchmark for ourselves and our children – and what they need to do in terms of setting boundaries,” adds Dr Maryhan.

Explain that their comments are hurting you

What if the situation’s getting increasingly difficult, and you’re just getting more and more angry? While this absolutely does not excuse racism, Dr Maryhan says it can be helpful to have “some understanding that the comment is coming from the world that individual’s experiences and upbringing has created, particularly when we’re talking about older family members”. She points out that this is not about allowing intolerances or injustices to continue, but it may help bring awareness to how you manage these conversations.

Baker says you could try to “express some of your vulnerability. It’s very easy to respond with anger. But if you go back and say, ‘I am being continually distressed and hurt by these comments’, and appealing with them that way, instead of just being angry, and sharing how much impact those comments are having on you, that might be a wake-up call for them, that it could be time to reassess what they’re doing”.

 Setting boundaries

If things are causing a lot of ongoing distress? “Then it’s about setting healthy boundaries,” says Dr Maryhan. “This could just be an acknowledgment that you have differences in your viewpoints, and it’s best keeping away from those particular subject matters for the sake of maintaining those relationships. It’s not that you’re saying it’s OK for them to feel that way, but you are acknowledging that it may take time for them to become educated and change their viewpoint – or it may be the case for some that they’ll never change.”

You may want to have some space from the person too. “That’s not a sign of weakness, that’s about exercising your right for boundaries,” adds Dr Maryhan.

Baker agrees that there can come a point where you need to put yourself first. “This might be if you’ve tried everything – you’ve tried to reason, debate, deflect – but they are intent on being racist in their responses,” she says. “You could try a short, sharp shock – ‘Actually I’m not going to have anything else to do with you’.”

If things become very hard, Dr Maryhan adds: “I think it is about having a cold, hard look at how that relationship serves, or does not serve them. And if it’s creating this [issue], are there benefits to the relationship that outweigh that? And if there aren’t, then it may well be a time to take your distance from that for some time. That’s exercising self-care.”

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