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Jun 11, 2020

10 Expert Tips For Thoughtfully Talking About Racism With Family Or Friends

It can be difficult — but there are practical ways to make things more effective for everyone.

Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

Right now, many of us are having tough conversations with family about Black Lives Matter, racism, and police brutality.

But making sure those conversations are constructive is often easier said than done.

Here are 10 things to focus on when talking to family or friends about race, racism, and injustice:

1. Educate yourself first so you can accurately articulate your opinion.

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When talking to someone who might disagree with you, it can be difficult to fully convey your point if you don't know the context behind it. As a starting point around racism, there are plenty of books, films, and resources that can provide necessary background.

At the same time, if you — or your family — aren't yet aware of the history of racism, keep in mind that it's not entirely your fault. "Most people’s invalidation of racism’s well-documented history can be traced back to two failures of our education system," says Araya Baker.

"Schools teach revisionist accounts of history that distort necessary historical context," he says. "Schools also don't teach structural analysis of -isms. Things like racism, sexism, or classism are framed as micro-level interpersonal issues." This is often to avoid discussing power dynamics and how people can both use privilege in a harmful way or benefit from privilege in a passive way, he says.

2. Lead with questions and curiosity.

3. Keep a few links, videos, podcasts, or statistics handy.

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Even if you've actively been reading and learning about racism, it can be easy to forget some key points, especially if the conversation turns into a heated debate.

"If you want to keep conversations on track, I’d recommend not only referencing teaching tools and data — both statistics and stories — but also keeping these resources in an easily accessible place," says Baker. "That can look like bookmarking links and posts on social media, or compiling a shareable syllabus."
You can start by opening a Google Doc and adding new things as you come across them. If you have a specific family member you want to convince, try looking up people they admire or respect who have now vocalized condemnation of police brutality.

4. But don't count on this being an entirely rational argument.

5. Avoid preemptively assuming (and stewing over) what your family member will say.

6. Be extra aware of what the other person has been socialized to believe and value.

7. Be humble yourself.

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Privilege is not a clear-cut metric, nor is race or class the only way one has it. Approaching it from that angle — and not an "I'm educating you" way — can take you further.

Often, people are most receptive to criticism when the person teaching displays humility, says Baker. "For me, that can be explaining my learning curve about class and male privilege. I’m a queer Black person, but I also grew up in a financially stable, middle class family, and I’m also read as a cisgender male," says Baker. "Sharing this often signals to people that my interest in dismantling inequitable power structures isn’t just a self-centered endeavor."

8. Don't expect to solve racism in one conversation — and know when to pick it back up later.

9. If your family reacts to the conversation in ways that make you feel threatened or unsafe, know when to pause.

10. Lastly, consider this an opportunity for yourself, where you don't need to tolerate disrespect, bigotry, or hatred.

Charlotte Gomez / BuzzFeed

"A lot of courageous folks who confront their family members about issues related to oppression and privilege get alienated or intimidated," says Baker. "I urge them to take their courage a step further, and consider that not everyone who’s related to you by blood is 'family.'"

Maybe this moment feels like a bigger catalyst in your life, one where you realize that even though you "agreed to disagree" in the past, you just can't do it now. Unfortunately, sticking up for what you believe in can mean distancing or cutting yourself off from people you thought you were close with.

"Losing [connection] can be a complicated trauma to cope with, but you will survive it," says Baker. The good news? "You’ll find many like-minded people along your journey. And they'll affirm every truth of yours that others refused to acknowledge or hold space for."

Interviews have been lightly edited for length or clarity.