The saying that white silence equals white violence doesn’t simply mean that if you’ve posted about Black Lives Matter on social media, you’re now no longer a part of that silence. It means taking an honest look at the moments in our lives where we as white people have shown complacency toward or otherwise failed to take an active stance against racism — including when that racism is perpetuated by our own non-Black family members.
For many people, silence may ring the most deafening when we’re faced with a difficult conversation about race within our family networks. It’s the idea that “everyone has a racist uncle.” We’re told that we can’t change people, and indeed, that it’ll often cause us harm to try. Our family relationships are the most subjective — and, for a lot of folks, already fraught — relationships that we have. If a relative says something problematic and you challenge them, things can get personal quickly, and the fear of that is what ultimately drives a lot of otherwise well-meaning white people to not engage. But we have to engage.
It’s our responsibility to challenge racism whenever and wherever we see it. And it’s perhaps even more important that we do this not just on the street, but behind closed doors — namely, in spaces that only we have access to. If we don’t recognize our responsibility for keeping racism out of those spaces, and out of the beliefs of those we’re related to, who will?
These conversations are hard, but vital. For advice on how to approach those exchanges, Julia Naftulin at Insider spoke to mental health professionals for tips. The next time you as a white person hear a family member say something that upholds racism, here are some things you do to challenge it, according to Naftulin in her Insider piece.
1. Mentally prepare yourself for the conversation to be difficult.
"I think it starts with knowing what your own tolerances for those kinds of conversations are. If you know that you need to be breathing throughout, [do that]," Elizabeth McCorvey, a therapist who created a guide for white therapists to discuss race, told Insider. "But ultimately there's not going to be a pretty way to do it, especially if they're resistant family members. You might have to prepare to be disagreed with, or vilified, or have people's feelings get hurt."
2. Use examples from your family’s personal community or environment to help them understand the issues.
"If it's bringing up issues that are coming up in your hometown with leaders whose name you recognize, [who] you may have voted for, who knocked on your door asking you to vote for them, people might feel slightly more open to hearing things that are happening in their community first and connect to those," McCorvey told Insider. "You might not know the person or people that it impacted locally, but someone might go to church with that person and have three degrees of separation."
3. Use “I” statements.
"When a person feels that they are being blamed, whether they are right or wrong, it's common that they respond with defensiveness. A good 'I' statement takes responsibility for one's own feelings, while tactfully describing a problem," a Dallas-based therapist Monica Denias told Insider.
4. Learn how to set the right kind of boundaries.
It’s important to not shut down altogether — and thus, stay silent — when these moments arise, but to put boundaries in place that serve both to protect your own mental health while simultaneously making it clear that you don’t condone racist beliefs or attitudes. An example Naftulin used in her piece had to do with hearing a relative use harmful and racially loaded language: “If you've told your grandmother not to use racial slurs in your presence and she continues to do so, remind her of the boundary you created,” she said.
But before you can reach this point, you have to have first firmly explained that this language isn't OK, and why. Do your best to calmly educate the relative in question — as many times as it takes. If it becomes clear the other party still has no desire to change their views, at that point, Naftulin recommended setting responsible boundaries. You should be clear about the consequences of what will happen if those boundaries are crossed, too, which is something that will look different for different people.
The therapists she spoke to had other suggestions to this end, as well. Read the full piece in Insider for more.