Nice white people, including those in your family, can still be racist.
That’s a hard lesson many of us are grappling with as we enter into the second month of protests and conversations spurred on by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
For years, during the holidays or at family get-togethers, you may have listened through gritted teeth as racist jokes or comments were casually tossed around, frozen from action because, hey, racist uncles are gonna racist uncle. (Plus, did you really want to be that family member who ruins what might be the last Christmas for your 97-year-old grandma?)
But in light of the protests, many are doubling down with racially insensitive comments and reaction memes: “MLK protested, these are just thugs looting on the streets.” “All lives matter.” “No white person alive today ever owned a slave. No Black person alive today was ever a slave.” “Candace Owens says we shouldn’t be mourning George Floyd because he was far from the perfect victim.” “What about Black-on-Black crime?”
You were silent before, but the stakes feel higher now. You’re probably more well acquainted with recent victims of police brutality, knowing them by their full names and back stories: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Elijah McClain. Ahmaud Arbery. Tamir Rice. Rayshard Brooks. Atatiana Jefferson. The list goes on and on with a sickening constancy. Just as soon as you commit one person’s face and name to memory, it seems like another incident committed by the police makes headlines.
If you feel compelled to speak up and call out racism when you see it, especially among those you’re close to, you’re hardly alone right now, said Elizabeth McCorvey, a clinical social worker and therapist who offers anti-racism courses in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
“Sometimes speaking up isn’t even about educating the other person so much as it is standing up for your own morals and ethics,” McCorvey said. “It’s saying: Whether or not I change their mind, I refuse to let this happen without saying something. I will always accept the invitation to stand up for what is right.”
White people need to normalize checking each other when they see racism. Even the most politically sanitized quote cards shared at the height of the protests drove that point home: As we’ve seen, protesting is vital and effective, but there’s also a need to address hatred in your own inner circle, with your own people.
There’s nothing fun about “getting into it” with your family, but calling out implicit bias and racism is one of the most important things you can do as an ally. And this isn’t your standard family disagreement: You can’t “agree to disagree” that Black Lives Matter.
A lot of these debates are happening on Facebook: Because of the pandemic, we’re all sitting around on our phones, reacting to updates about anti-racism protests in real time. People you never would have thought had hard-line beliefs about oppression or the Black experience are revealing a lot of interesting thoughts.
Some of those views are problematic. If someone close to you posts something racially insensitive or factually inaccurate on social media, what should you do? Do you have a moral obligation to call it out?
The long and short of it is yes, you do, said Jacqueline Battalora, an attorney, professor of sociology at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of “Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today.”
“Because Facebook is such a public platform, even if among ‘friends,’ it is important to point out when something is problematic,” she said. “Failing to do so can be affirmation by silence. You don’t have to do it directly; you can indicate that you are happy to talk offline.”
You won’t change everyone’s mind, but you can plant some seeds of thought about how race operates in our country. Below, experts including Battalora and McCorvey offer advice on the best tactic to take with these uncomfortable conversations.
Accept that addressing it will likely be uncomfortable.
It’s easy to get worked up: You value your friend or family member’s opinion and it’s painful to see them be so dismissive of Black people’s generational trauma and current experiences: “How could they watch that video ― all 8 minutes and 46 seconds ― and not come away with the same unshakeable belief that things need to change?”
It hurts to see them miss the mark. Truth-telling can hurt, too; no one wants to draw battle lines or be divisive with people they love, but sometimes it’s necessary. Bringing this topic up or objecting to things said can absolutely change lives for the better.
“You may be potentially saving a Black or brown person from having to risk further traumatization, and you’re letting the people in your life know where you stand and what your commitment to equity is,” McCorvey said.
“The responsibility for dismantling systems of oppression has been on the shoulders of Black and brown people for a very long time but we can’t do it alone,” she explained.
Don’t shy away from intervening and objecting when you see racism, whether on Facebook or offline. As Paul Kivel said in “Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Social Justice,” notice code words for race, and the implications of the policies, patterns and comments that are being expressed or supported.
Notice how racism is denied, minimized and justified, even by your family. If someone says, “All lives matter,” break down what that statement gets wrong: There is nothing in the BLM statement that insinuates other lives don’t matter. All lives do matter, but as this moment shows, collectively, we need to do a much better job of protecting the Black lives in our community.
“Being someone who is against white solidarity and anti-racist means that when you see racism, you have to call it out. And call it out. And call it out. And call it out, even when you’re tired,” McCorvey said.
Understand why your white friends or relatives get defensive when you point out blatant or systematic racism: You’re breaking white solidarity.
When you first hear about the concept of “white solidarity” and the need to break rank from it, it can sound a little weird: After all, you’re not part of some vast white person conspiracy to screw over Black people. You didn’t rally with white nationalists in Charlottesville in 2017. You strive to treat people of all races and ethnicities equally and you’re definitely not a racist.
But as sociologist Robin DiAngelo explains in “White Fragility,” that’s just not how racism works today: It’s systematic and operates quietly. You can be a good person while still reaping the benefits of a deeply racist society, one that favors whiteness. If you really give it some thought, you’re probably more unconsciously biased than you realize: Racism exists on a spectrum and we all have unconscious and learned racist behaviors and beliefs.
As DiAngelo explains, white solidarity protects those beliefs: Think about all the times you’ve shrugged it off when someone made a racist joke about a Black classmate when they’d left the room. The times an elderly person said a racial slur and you overlooked it because “that was just their generation.” The times you and friends unconsciously grabbed your purses or darted across the street when you saw a Black man approaching. Think about how it happened and how you never thought about it ever again.
When you break white solidarity with your family or friends ― on Facebook or elsewhere ― you’re probing and questioning that kind of behavior. It’s unnerving to the other person because they, like all of us, have been taught that only “bad” people can be racist. By calling it out, you’re disturbing their peace and their ability to go on thinking of themselves as non-racist. But this kind of avoidance is exactly why white supremacy still has such a hold in our country, anti-racist organizer Clare Bayard said.
“White people are born and trained to be its primary defenders,” she said in a 2016 interview. “That is what our role is supposed to be, whether we are active advocates or whether we’re complicit through silence or passivity. If we’re not moving against white supremacy, we are moving with it. We are supporting it.”
By objecting to casual racism and talking about your own racial biases, you’re modeling for them how a “good” person can still have racial biases ― and that it’s possible to address those by becoming more racially conscious. Point the finger inward and take ownership of your mistakes when pointing out white supremacy.
By seeing your example (whether you’re replying or sharing some other experience about race on your personal page), your loved one may swing from being totally offended to begrudgingly (and hopefully later, non-begrudgingly!) appreciative.
Accept that you might not change their mind, but you will get them thinking.
When you try to break white solidarity, you’re showing integrity and doing the hard work but you won’t win over everyone right away, McCorvey said. That cherished older neighbor from your hometown probably won’t join a march with you, but by offering a counterargument to the “Black-on-Black crime” talking point meme she shared, you’ve given her some racial awareness she may have been blind to living in her suburban bubble.
“Every time you continue to engage with them, you’re planting seeds for thought,” the therapist said. “You might never see the fruits of your labor, but if she chooses to read the article, she might think twice next time she hits the ‘retweet’ button on similar content. That’s progress, too.”
Don’t make it personal.
Be strategic here: Decide what’s important to challenge and what’s not. You don’t want to be troll-ish and reply to everything. You don’t want to hint that your friend is a bigot for their beliefs. You’re not bringing this up to make them feel bad.
Don’t go personal — attack the source of power (systemic racism, police brutality) instead, Battalora said.
“Keep things as factual a possible and try not to let your response focus on an individual,” she said. “I respond in a way that includes me in the social indictment of white structural advantage (‘us white people often … ’) and I always try to give a historic example to support my point.”
If they describe the largely peaceful protests as “looting” carried out by “a bunch of thugs,” describe to them what you saw with your own eyes when you went out protesting.
Overall, the most effective way to approach someone is not through shame or with a flood of counter-evidence but through empathy. McCorvey said she often recommends people start the conversation from a place of wanting to learn more: If someone you love posts something racially insensitive, you could say, “I’m surprised to hear you say that. Can you elaborate?”
Not everyone will want to learn right now, but try to make inroads by leading with things you have in common, she said. If your loved one posted something racist, they’re not going to be so blatant to say, “I hate Black or brown people and I want them to suffer.”
“They might assert that they value all life and think everyone has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” McCorvey said. “Well, awesome! You both agree and are on the same page and have somewhere to start.”
From there, talk about how Black Americans’ rights and pursuit of happiness have been severely sidelined by the government long after Emancipation and the end of slavery. (Talk about the Jim Crow era, the prison-industrial complex, redlining, the looming threat of police brutality within Black communities.)
In other words, meet them where they are right now and nudge them to think beyond their own experiences as a white person.
“If you can stay curious in the conversation, learn where those viewpoints come from, and understand the experiences they have and why it’s led to the conclusions they’ve come to, you might have a better chance at a meaningful dialogue.” she said.
Take the conversation offline.
It’s true that the most effective political conversations take place face to face rather than Facebook-to-Facebook, said Tania Israel, a professor at UCSB and the author of “Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations that Work.”
Of course, we don’t have much opportunity for those in-person conversations because of social distancing, but you can still text or talk on the phone.
“If you really want to connect, understand, or persuade, the most effective comment is an invitation to set up a time to talk via video or in person and then approach the conversation with curiosity and listening,” Israel told HuffPost.
Think twice before hitting “unfollow” or deleting the person.
There’s nothing wrong with taking breaks from engaging with your friends or family if they’re posting things that are upsetting. But try to reengage ― and recognize that you can unfollow someone and still commit to having a conversation with them, said George James, a marriage and family therapist and a professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
“You can hold them accountable but you don’t have to cut off from them,” he said. “You can send them a text saying that you didn’t like their post and you thought it was offensive.”
Unfollowing is easy ― but it’s also a very privileged choice, James said.
“If every Black person cut off everyone who said or did something racist, where would they live, work or go to worship?” he said.
Of course, if your relative is posting racially insensitive or dismissive comments on your posts and you’re worried how it will impact friends who are BIPOC, you have a right to tell them you’re moving the conversation to DMs.
Stay hopeful: Seismic change is happening — and you’re definitely not alone in having these conversations.
The reassuring news is, the public, by and large, is learning and changing from this conversation about race: Over the last two weeks, U.S. voters’ support for Black Lives Matter has increased nearly as much as it did over the previous two years, The New York Times reported.
Each tough conversation you’re having with your relatives ― each article you’re sharing on your own page ― is making a difference, even if you’re not seeing immediate change in your inner circle. And it’s important to remember that challenging racism is never just about the person or persons you’re trying to “change.”
“It’s a process that impacts you and society,” Battalora said. “The engagement shapes our thinking, helps to understand resistance and sources of fear and anxiety, helps to sharpen our thinking, challenges our emotions and body.”
Lean in to your friends who are broaching these tough conversations now, too, said McCorvey.
“You definitely have friends or followers that are dealing with this exact same thing,” she said. “Start an anti-racist book club to increase your education on the topic, get an accountability partner to practice conversing with, and research anti-racist educators that have published work on how to have thoughtful dialogue with challenging people.” (She noted that the organization Showing Up for Racial Justice is a good place to start with all of this.)
Remember that you’re calling out those close to you so a Black person doesn’t have to.
Going to bat for anti-racism causes and beliefs is exhausting; Black people have known this for generations. It’s so disheartening getting through to white people, some Black people have said they’ve essentially “given up” on talking to their co-workers, neighbors and friends who are white.
As writer Reni Eddo-Lodge said in a 2017 Guardian piece: “The journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of color to prioritize white feelings. Even if they can hear you, they’re not really listening. It’s like something happens to the words as they leave our mouths and reach their ears. The words hit a barrier of denial and they don’t get any further.”
Black and brown communities depend on us to stay in the conversation about race: They need you to remind your relative that Candace Owens doesn’t speak for all Black people. To counter the tired “bootstrap narrative” pushed by conservative radio and TV, to talk about President Donald Trump’s dangerous track record with people of color.
The need you to talk about what it means to be Black in America and, more important, what it means to be white. People of color have historically depended white-on-white conversations happening in the home and still are today, McCorvey said.
“Black Americans need you to have those conversations so we don’t have to,” she said. “The conversations with family might be annoying to you, but they’re traumatizing, harmful and invalidating for me.”