You Need Help: Should I Cut Off My Racist Dad?

Q:


My dad was bombarding me with right-wing, racist rhetoric all weekend via text message after he saw on Facebook that I was posting in support of Black Lives Matter. I told my dad that “politics” are off the table with me and tried to do an “agree to disagree” kind of thing. 

He ignored me and kept sending me “political” things, some of which I found to be vile. I put “political” in quotes because I know this isn’t a political issue — it’s an issue of morals — but when speaking to him, I referred to it as a political issue anyway. I know that was wrong. I told him for the good of the family I cannot discuss political issues with him. I want to fully acknowledge that the fact that I feel I have options here at all, I owe to white privilege.

He seems to have accepted that, but now that I’ve had time to process, I’m not sure that choosing to “agree to disagree” is something I can live with without feeling a lot of guilt. My family is part of the problem, but if I choose to just ignore this fact, do I become part of the problem too? I feel pretty certain that I can’t change his mind.

I love my family. I’m afraid that if I try to talk with my dad about all this, that he will say something so deplorable that I won’t be able to maintain the relationship. I also know that if there is a rift, I will be seeing my little siblings less. I have already been absent for so much of their lives because I have had to cut off this part of my family before to heal from childhood wounds they helped create. I don’t know what to do.

A:

When the people who raised us spout racist rhetoric, we want to look away, but when we “agree to disagree,” we’re ending a conversation that could have been generative. I’m answering the question under the assumption that you and your family are white. White people face a lifelong process of unlearning racism. When other white people refuse to do that work, we have to take responsibility for our own community.

You said you’ve previously distanced yourself from your family due to “childhood wounds.” If those wounds are mostly healed and your dad isn’t harming you personally, then it’s on you to maintain some version of the relationship and stay in conversation about racism.

In those conversations, you’ll probably see an ugly side of your dad. I know you love your dad, but you don’t have to like him. Learning more about his convictions might make you feel disappointed or embarrassed, but his racism isn’t affecting you directly. Continuing the dialogue will feel uncomfortable, but it will never feel as uncomfortable as being personally harmed by racism every day.

If you engage your dad in conversations about racial justice, you’re also setting an example for your younger siblings, who are currently being socialized into your dad’s way of thinking. If they watch you confront your dad, they’ll learn how to recognize ignorance, and if you speak to them directly and provide them with kid-friendly resources, they’ll grow up to be much better people.

Confronting your dad’s racism might feel hopeless, but people can and do change. I’ve seen this firsthand in my own family. Sometimes it takes a specific approach. Sometimes it just takes time. Overall, it’s easier to get through to the people who love us. Addressing racism within our own families is the least we can do as co-conspirators in the racial justice movement.

Autostraddle writer Abeni Jones recently published this comprehensive guide outlining ways in which white people and non-Black people of color can talk to our white friends and families about racism. Please read Abeni’s article! Then consider these approaches that have helped me talk to my own family:

Find what you agree on. Then find the contradictions.

If your dad is back in your life, I’m guessing he’s not a total monster. You probably agree on some basic moral principles, like “people deserve respect” and “everyone deserves to be treated fairly.” Establish those shared principles. Revisit them when your dad contradicts his own standards. Check out Abeni’s advice about building off your dad’s existing values.

Share your own ignorance.

I’m sure there was a time when you were less informed about racism than you are now. If you talk to your dad about where you started and how you evolved, he’ll have an easier time relating to you and might be more willing to listen.

Don’t interrupt.

Letting your dad complete his racist thoughts might feel senseless, but he needs to feel heard. If your dad feels invalidated, he’s more likely to shut down. Plus, you’ll have an easier time countering his arguments if you’ve actually seen them through. Remind your dad that you listened respectfully if he tries to interrupt your response.

Assume the best.

If you treat your dad like he’s hateful, he’ll probably feel too defensive to hear you. Speak to him like he already agrees with you — he just doesn’t have the right information.

Personalize it.

Your dad might not have any people of color in his life. It might be hard for him to understand racism when he can’t connect it to a specific person he cares about, but you can build a bridge. Share the experiences of your friends and coworkers of color. Tell him that you worry for their safety. Even if your dad can’t access compassion for strangers, he can probably empathize with his own kid.

For more anti-racist resources, check out this reading list and this history of Black liberation.


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.

Malic White is a Chicago-based writer, comedian and actor. Follow Malic on Twitter and find upcoming shows on Malic's website.

Malic has written 24 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. I’ve had similar struggles in my life. I’ve tried all of this and more, and had no success – the years of Fox News have made my mother even more radicalized. (She’s pretty much a white nationalist at this point.) In my case there aren’t younger siblings involved, I’m older and my mom is in her mid-seventies, and she lives in an area where her interactions with non-white people are close to non-existent, so I’ve concluded that she’s a lost cause. I’ve never in my life convinced her to change her mind on anything once she’s made up her mind, and it’s not going to happen with her racism.

    This dramatically limits our relationship. I maintain minimal ties to avoid conflict but there’s no real emotional connection. And I don’t want to lose my father, who is not like this – he’s persuadable if she’s not in the room.

    I know everyone is going to tell you to fight the good fight, and that our comfort as white people is not important compared to the harm our racist relatives do. And for many that’s true! But at a certain point it’s a lost cause. I’ve caused IMMENSE self harm to myself trying to combat this with nothing to show for it.

    Know when to fold. Do what’s safe for you at a certain point. Sometimes it’s cutting off contact, sometimes it’s cultivating a sterile pro-forma relationship. You are not a sacrifice to be thrown onto the burning cross even if it’s your parents that are racist. Of course it’s vastly superior to make a dent in these loathsome opinions. But at a point, you just have to point your energy elsewhere.

    I’ll forever feel like I have an unpayable karmic debt due to my mother, and my racist relatives. I’m ashamed of my family, deeply. But they’re just not persuadable. And in fact my anti-racism has been hampered by feeling forced to focus on these immovable objects. Now that I’m abandoning them on these views, I feel like I can focus my energies on much more productive activities.

    The standard answer comes from people who don’t come from these families, or at least not from ones so deeply entrenched into it. For me, these weren’t the right answers. I wish they were.

    • Yeah I disagree as well, much for the same reasons (though the burning cross comment doesn’t sit well with me?).

      The abuse was so bad you went no-contact for a while, OP. Your father did not seem to feel a lot of hesitation to send this stuff to you even though you objected.

      “If those wounds are mostly healed and your dad isn’t harming you personally, then it’s on you to maintain some version of the relationship and stay in conversation about racism.”
      No? For the love of god no. Staying in a relationship with certain people, or at least engaging them beyond a really superficial relationship, can BE the harm.

      Of course you know best, OP, but my feeling is telling me that it’s not an easy thing for you to stay in contact with your family and that they can (or at least your father can) still hurt you.

      And beyond the personal harm you might by taking by this, I am very much with Captain Awkward’s stand on this and with what you mentioned, Kate: Changing the heart of this one racist will contribute to pretty much nothing as compared to 1) taking care of yourself by ending this discussion and 2) using the resulting energy that you have to engage in MEANINGFUL protest and anti-racism. That means rather focusing on people who are on the fence and can therefore be swayed, engaging in protests and mutual aid, contributing to the plethora of funds going around if you have the means. I argue it would be a DETRIMENT to the movement to exhaust yourself on this pointless quest instead of engaging meaningfully with all the great alternative options within your energy limits.

      Was it good and helpful to stop the discussion with your dad: yes, you took a stand. Will it be helpful to repeat this as necessary if your father pipes up in front of your siblings: sure.
      But you know what will show your siblings what’s what? You living your best life, you setting boundaries with your parents instead of engaging in pointless arguments. It means for them there is a way out. And sure, if you get the chance, have some discussions about current events with them and let them know where you stand. I’m sure they would love to learn from your example.

    • Yeahhh, I’m going with you and boots_ on this one. This is a relationship toxic enough the person went no contact – not a “we have a pretty good relationship but I’m uncomfortable with x y and z they believe and don’t know whether to avoid the subject or call them on it.”

      I especially have a problem with this statement: “If those wounds are mostly healed and your dad isn’t harming you personally, then it’s on you to maintain some version of the relationship and stay in conversation about racism.”
      NO. NO NO NO. It is not your moral obligation to stay in a relationship solely because of the small chance you might convince what sounds like an all around toxic person who already hurt you deeply to be less racist. If you’ve already decided that this relationship is one you want to maintain, then yes. Call out racism when it comes up. Don’t let them get away with that shit unchallenged. But maintain healthy boundaries so if your family member starts harassing you about it, not actually engaging in discussion, cut that shit off. The stress and harm that comes from that is not doing a damn thing to make a better world for people of color.

      Follow the advice that’s already been posted on Autostraddle and across the web that actually will do tangible good – support the black community with your money! Volunteer to help incarcerated people! Get involved in defunding the police! Buy from black-owned business! Have discussions with the white people in your life who are not actively toxic to you and make a public stand, continually educate yourself, and commit to working for racial justice over the long term.

      I also have family that hurt me deeply. Even after a decade of recognizing that and taking steps to heal, I still maintain a sterile pro-forma relationship because even when their toxicity continue to affect me directly they refuse to even discuss changing their actions and beliefs. If they can’t consider that for their own child/sibling, they’re certainly not going to do that for other marginalized people. This bit,”Even if your dad can’t access compassion for strangers, he can probably empathize with his own kid” is just. No. Loving but flawed parents operating in deeply entrenched privilege and harmful ignorance maybe, yeah that could be a strategy. But this is presuming a level of healthy relationship that simply doesn’t seem to be present.

      Seconding the above and boot_ advice on this one – the article above is not the right answer and there are much better and healthier ways in this situation to use your privilege to make concrete changes for racial equality.

    • As a woman of color, I agree. Some people are persuadable, and some aren’t, at least not within the parameters of a reasonable amount of time and effort. You know your family better than a stranger on the internet does, and if you have made an effort and believe it is extremely unlikely that you will ever change this one person’s mind, then there are many better uses of your time and energy: go to protests, call your elected officials, volunteer with your local mutual aid organization.

  2. I’ve been having similar struggles with my family. They’re aware enough to know the right things to say, which makes it very hard to call them out on their actions (or lack thereof). My dad in particular is very set in his mindset that capitalism and policing are the way things are and the best possible option, expressing both nominal concern about racism and stubborn belief that the system as a whole can’t or shouldn’t be distrusted or dismantled. I’ve been struggling to get him to actually engage with the conversation at all, because he tries to change the subject to something “lighter” or more “personal” and also in general doesn’t respect me or my beliefs, calling me young, idealistic, etc. For example, he recently laughed at me for suggesting that there are alternative options to police for protection and safety, saying “you won’t be saying that when you really need them” and insisting on changing the subject when I expressed that I both didn’t agree and felt dismissed. Does anyone else have any experience holding productive conversations with family that doesn’t respect you/won’t engage? Also, with family that isn’t overtly racist so there’s nothing to call out, but is still very reformist/limited in their thinking about racial justice?

    • My mom does that ostrich head-in-the-ground thing too that exasperates me so much and my dad is just like “what do you mean? I treat everyone equal as in I think I should be able to use the n-word because you can definitely apply it to both white people and Black people” (I have never heard him use this word except in defending his theoretical right to use this word to apply to everyone).

      In the past I haven’t made much headway in part because it’s devolved into me yelling at them rather than explaining why their statement is in fact racist, but my mother recently said something about looting and protests that led me to not talk to them for several weeks. We’ve recently reopened communication and they seem more willing to discuss. I found Abeni’s article extremely helpful in terms of coming at them with both facts (I suggest this article https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/24/magazine/reparations-slavery.html, which really threads the needle between the end of slavery and the different systems that white and Black people still experience today) and starting with a more moderate opinion that reflects both of out values. So like accept their assumption that capitalism is fine and great because everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps to buy a nice house in the suburbs… but then teach them about how the systems we’re operating in are not at all the same due to redlining, the higher interest rates that Black people get while borrowing, wealth discrepancies, etc. Anyway, the end result of my campaign was that my dad offered to make some donations to charities “that reflect his values” like the Audrey Lorde project (which he came up with all on his own) and I feel like I’ve moved the needle on their public opinion at least a little bit. It’s obviously an ongoing thing.

  3. I think when having these “discussions” it’s really important to frame them in a way that centers whiteness above statistics about marginalized communities.

    As a Black person I generally refuse to engage in a “conversation” where I am basically defending my humanity because if someone doesn’t believe my Black life matters then any “discussion” will be in bad faith from their end to begin with. Another thing to think about when having these discussions with your families about race is often the very entitlement of the framing.

    Black lives matter. This isn’t an opinion but a fact. I am a human being. Fact, not an opinion. I do not deserve to die through state sanctioned murder. Simply not up for debate. Thus any discussion “debating” those facts and my humanity through statistics or otherwise is a privilege and a literal act of white supremacy in and of itself. My life, my personhood and experience relegated to numbers to be broken down and dissected in order to…get another person to recognize my humanity? It’s dehumanizing and will in no way make me appear more human to someone who doesn’t recognize my humanity but it WILL give you talking points and serve as a great distraction from doing the actual work in a world where people like me are still very much dying at the hands of white supremacy.

    The work, by the way, is interrogating your own whiteness and what role it plays in your life, and experiences and world view and actions. The invisible conditioning that would lead you to think that dissecting my body with words would somehow make me whole to another, whole even to you. This isn’t to say that statistics aren’t important but making them the foundation of your argument to make someone ELSE “not racist” IS actually a bit racist because it breaks me down to 1s and 0s while keeping your humanity as well as the humanity of the person you are talking to completely intact.

    To reference Toni Morrison, the very serious function of racism is distraction and quite frankly a lot of these discussions with radically racist people are a distraction to keep you from dismantling the very heart of what is going on which isn’t merely statistics but whiteness itself. That’s what needs to be interrogated in these table discussions.

    I would suggest reading the article Whiteness on the Couch by Natasha Stovall

    “An old saw about therapy is that the thing you don’t talk about is the thing. The therapist and patient together avoid this thing, this shameful and threatening thing. The thing is unconscious — sometimes partially, other times totally. You only know it by the silence and illogic that surrounds it, and the extremes to which the patient will go to erase any sign of it in their own mind, and in their therapist’s, too. The first step towards unpacking the thing is finding a way to talk about it. Just talk about it, moving step by careful step into a psychic place so raw that even acknowledging this unconscious thing is a threat to safety and sanity. Freud called this process “making the unconscious conscious” and it has defined psychotherapy ever since.

    What if whiteness is the thing?”

    If witnessing Black death doesn’t create empathy then a statistic about Black life is a distraction from the real problem at hand and also serves as a way to distance yourself from the problem too. If you believe that there is a way to get through to your white family then talk to them about whiteness. Leave my body out of it.

    • Hi Jasmine,

      I am a long time reader of Autostraddle but this is the first time I am commenting. As a cis black queer man I didn’t want to encroach on a woman in a woman’s safe space but I just had to thank you for your comment.

      I have been having trouble with my employers not understanding me when I have tried to explain why they not supporting Black Lives Matter publicly has changed the way I view both them and the business I work for.

      Discussions with them have reduced me to crying in the road after one particularly bad interaction.

      I have been trying to draft a letter to HR to explain my stance and you’ve put into words everything I am feeling. You’ve really given my pain a voice. So I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  4. This question, advice, and comments have really gotten me thinking about this topic. I have one other thought to add to the mix: If you decide that talking with your dad would not lead to generative conversations at this time, if that’s not possible right now, I don’t think that means you have to cut him off.

    What if agreeing to disagree doesn’t have to mean ignoring the fact that your family is part of the problem? You’ve set a boundary with your dad that you’re not open to talking about race/”politics” right now. So if he continues to say racist things to or around you, would it be possible to reassert your boundary? Something like, “Dad, we’ve discussed this. You know that I don’t agree with you and that I’m not open to talking about these topics with you. Please drop it.” Or something like that that feels authentic to you. By reasserting this boundary, you are actively not ignoring your dad’s views. You are asserting disagreement with him. More broadly, you are asking him to accept the fact that someone in his family who (I hope) he cares about does not agree with his beliefs about race. You are asking him to practice not saying racist things, at least while you’re around. You are showing your siblings that you don’t agree with him and modeling healthy boundaries, potentially paving the way for them to disagree with him too. These are all ways of pushing the needle. And by maintaining the relationship, you make it more likely that at some future time, you might be able to have generative conversations with your dad about race (in which you could apply the great advice that Abeni, Jasmine J., and Malic have offered). If the example I gave doesn’t work for your situation, are there other ways that you can agree to disagree with your dad while actively acknowledging/asserting this disagreement, ideally to your dad, or at least to yourself?

    You mention that you don’t think you can agree to disagree without feeling a lot of guilt. I’m wondering if sitting with that discomfort and seeing where it leads might be useful. I encountered this idea from Layla Saad’s writing, and I know many others have written and spoken about it. Talking and reflecting about race often brings up discomfort and intense emotion for those of use who hold white privilege. (I should acknowledge that I’m assuming you are someone who holds white privilege.) It is not easy to learn to tolerate these emotions, and it takes practice, but the more we can do so, the more we can be emotionally present when these topics come up. This ties in with Jasmine J.’s comment about interrogating whiteness, and how much those of us who are white try to avoid thinking about it. I’m wondering if being present with your discomfort around not being able to talk about race with your dad right now might be a way in to interrogating your whiteness. And I’m thinking this kind of reflection may help you to engage in a more grounded way with the kinds of actions that Wrenne suggested. And the idealist in me is even hoping that over time, these reflections and actions might bring you to a place where you might be able to have generative conversations with you dad.

    If these ideas don’t apply to your situation, of course, feel free to disregard. If there are reasons unrelated to racism that are making you feel like you need to cut your dad off, you should do that! Whatever you decide is best for you, I’m sending good wishes.

  5. After years of talking about racism with family, friends, and colleagues, I eventually recognized a pattern, which was that friends and colleagues were able to listen and engage with the arguments I made, but my family was mostly incapable, especially the men.

    The trouble is that with family a ‘political disagreement’ is not merely a political disagreement. It’s a chance to rehash resentments lying under the surface that have nothing to do with politics. It’s about him not being able to control you, dominate you, know more about the world than you, and be the authority over you anymore. It’s about him resenting you for outgrowing him and being able to think independently. It’s about the fact that he can’t be wrong in relation to you or any of your opinions. It’s about any other wounds in your relationship and his issues with his own father.

    We are often the last people our racist family members are capable of listening to. There are countless other people we can engage with who actually have the potential to change their minds when presented with new information. Focus on those people instead of letting a toxic parent abuse you.

    • I have never put it together before but I think you’re very correctly on to something here. I share many similarities with the OP (and clearly many posters here as well). And I have always felt my efforts for anti racist work have been most successful with peers but NEVER with family despite focusing so much energy on it. And this to me makes the most sense as to why. Because not listening to me has little to do with their feelings on race but so much to do with the family dynamics. So thank you so much! This has truly offered a breakthrough for myself.

  6. As the author of the article linked throughout this one, I have to echo other commenters and say: sometimes it’s just not worth it.

    That being said, I think it IS often worth it to try different approaches. Some of the ones I wrote about and some of the ones Malic mentions above, for example.

    Sometimes we think it’s not worth it because all we’ve ever done are get in shouting matches. But we haven’t yet tried leading with love and preparation and strategy, and that can sometimes make all the difference. (note: I only recommend putting in the effort with family/loved ones; it’s rarely worth it with strangers).

    It also matters who your dad is. Does he have power? If he’s just some old white man who never interacts with any people of color, has a very small sphere of influence, etc. then yeah, your energy might be useful elsewhere. If he has power or influence, though – like even if there are people who are part of his Facebook network and get validation from his racist posts – it might be powerful to talk to him?? If he’s a loan officer or school principal or real estate agent or something? Then yeah it’s maybe worth it.

    Only OP knows for sure.

    I also think it’s important to recognize the benefit to both dad and child if dad is able to undo his racism. The negative mental health impact of having the tough convos is probably balanced by the positive mental health impact of having a non-racist father with whom you can have a full, loving, intimate relationship.

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