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