How To Talk To Parents About Racism: 7 Recommendations From Therapists
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Over the last few weeks, many of us have had to face a pretty ugly realization: Some of the people we love the most and who've cared for us throughout our lives are also people who harbor racist beliefs.
Hearing our parents make racist comments can be particularly upsetting, especially if you're close to them and talk to them regularly. But the good news is, our family members are the people we're likely to have the biggest effect on because of our close personal relationships with them.
Addressing racism in your parents—or any loved one, for that matter—can feel daunting, but it's not impossible. We reached out to three therapists for advice on the best ways to open the conversation and actually help our parents overcome their prejudices:
1. Understand where your parents are coming from.
Try to have a mindset of understanding about your parents' experiences that may have led them to have these beliefs, says therapist Alyssa Mancao, LCSW.
"Keep in mind the generational differences and the conditioning that was bestowed onto them. Remind yourself that you have more access to information that they may not have had access to growing up, due to the whitewashing of history books and absence of social media and internet use during their times," she explains. "Approach your parents with compassion and understanding. It is also important to note that your parents have had these views and beliefs for their entire lives."
Understanding your parents background will help you meet them where they're at and help them unpack prejudices that may be a product of their generation, culture, or upbringing.
2. Avoid using blame statements.
People rarely respond well when they feel like they're being blamed or attacked, licensed psychologist Ebony Butler, Ph.D., points out. You want to avoid putting your parents on the defensive from the start of the conversation.
"The thing to remember in these types of cases is that you want to be heard and want to feel listened to," she explains. "Leading with statements that accuse or place blame increases people's defensiveness and decreases their ability to hear with the intent of understanding. Instead, they listen with the intent to defend."
Butler recommends leaning on factual information and your trusty "I" statements, rather than "you" statements. Approach with a spirit of warmth and love.
3. Provide them with information and resources.
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It can be hard to find the right words, especially when we ourselves are still learning and educating ourselves. In such cases, it can be helpful to offer up links and resources that you've found helpful that you think might also be helpful for your parents.
"Oftentimes, when parents hold racist sentiments, their sentiments stem from distortion thinking (overgeneralization) and skewed media perspectives, and therefore it is highly important to approach them with factual information regarding institutional racism, systemic inequality, and social stratification. This is a lot to learn and unload, and therefore, when approaching your parents, coming in informed will be helpful. I would also recommend looking for infographics that break down information, offering to watch an educational documentary together, and finding information in their primary language if English is not their first language."
It can also be helpful to watch movies or podcasts about racism together, she adds, or you can host a book club about race as a family.
4. Remember that helping someone recognize their mistakes and grow from them is a way of showing love.
It's not your responsibility to "fix" your parents, Mancao says. They are responsible for themselves.
But she notes, "This does not mean be complacent, throw up your hands, and say 'it is what it is.' No, we do have a responsibility to share education with them, continually challenge, point out errors in their thinking, and be steady with our approach."
And as humans who care about justice and equity, she adds, we all have a responsibility to educate each other and to question beliefs that uphold systemic oppression.
5. Know when it's time to establish boundaries.
As important as it may feel to you to change your parents' minds about racism at all costs, remember that your time and energy are limited—and there may be better uses of your resources than getting into huge arguments with your parents every time you see them.
"Instead of focusing on changing your parents' mind to make you feel at ease, use that motivation to motivate others around you to change their viewpoints and hold others accountable," therapist Patrice Douglas, LMFT, recommends.
If your parents have persistently racist beliefs, Douglas adds that you may need to establish boundaries with them. Unless you're experiencing significant harm from interacting with them, that doesn't necessarily mean you need to cut your parents off entirely.
"Changing your parent's mind may never happen, but it's important to understand where you stand and how you want to move forward in your own life," she explains. "Instead of your parents having a major role in your life, you may decide to decrease contact and only check in when necessary or have surface conversations with them."
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6. Take care of yourself throughout this process.
"Addressing racism and a person's anti-blackness can provoke feelings of anger, rage, and helplessness, especially when you feel like your conversation is falling on deaf ears," Mancao notes. "Learn when to take a pause from the conversation."
Reach out to loved ones or a mental health professional who can help you cope with the understandably jarring experience of feeling so alienated from a parent.
"This level of rupture can feel like high-level betrayal and might be difficult to recover from," Butler adds. "In such instances, it can be really beneficial to enlist the help of someone trained in healing and working through interpersonal betrayal and trauma."
7. Be patient.
"You won't change a person's entire belief system in one conversation," Mancao reminds. "Be steady, persistent, and patient with the process while you keep in mind that these are tightly held beliefs, and it can be quite common for a person to get defensive when their belief systems are being challenged. The conversations you are having with your parents are planting seeds. It's important to have realistic expectations of how quickly your parents digest and process information."
Change takes time. Be patient.
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