The past week in the United States has been a rough one—it has sparked a seemingly endless succession of Black death and police brutality. Some people, though, appear to be far more worried about the fate of a Nordstrom or Target store than that of the actual human lives of protesters… and, you know, the Black Americans who are suffering at the hands of law enforcement and the justice system, and who the protesters are showing up to honor and demand justice for.
If you, a non-Black person, know that Black lives matter, but your parents or other relatives (or friends, or chosen family) fall squarely into the camp of, “I support their right to protest... as long as they do it on my specific terms! And, yeah, I think Colin Kaepernick was also doing it wrong, what of it?”… well, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
It’s your responsibility to talk to them, and do what you can to change their minds—or at least let them know, in the strongest possible terms, that you agree with the protesters that police violence against Black people is unacceptable and Black people have a right to safe and healthy lives. This is what allyship means in practice: doing the work by taking some of the burden off of the marginalized folks fighting for their lives. We need you right now (and always).
Having fraught conversations with your kinda (or definitely) racist loved ones will likely not be fun—bearing a burden isn’t enjoyable, by definition—but it’s good, important work, and a very worthy undertaking. It also might not be as bad as you think it will! Especially if you go into it prepared! But? Even if it sucks, it’ll be fine. Here are some tips to get you started.
Know your shit.
It’s really hard to defend something you don’t totally understand, particularly when it feels like a thorny topic. If your relatives are wringing their hands over the fate of that poor “small business” CVS and you don’t know what to say, I strongly recommend reading Vicky Osterweil’s 2014 essay “In Defense of Looting” in The New Republic. It corrects the myth that peaceful protest is the only way to successfully fight for civil rights, and explains the connection between property, anti-looting discourse, and white supremacy.
You might also like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s recent LA Times op-ed, “Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge,” in which he makes a very personal plea for empathy and understanding instead of judgment right now.
There are sort of two different paths you can take during these conversations. One is the, “Most people aren’t destroying property—the majority of Black protestors are peaceful/outside agitators are the problem” path, and the other is, “Honestly, who gives a fuck if Black people are destroying property?” I, personally, think the latter is the move, because I’d like us to move away from respectability politics and the idea that just being compliant will save Black people.
You should also be decently versed in what’s really been happening over the past several days: Law enforcement and government officials responded to peaceful demonstrations with tear gas; were incredibly, disturbingly violent or just cruel; and tried to tell us the thing we saw with our own two eyes…. did not happen. Be prepared to share videos—there are many because a lot of this is happening on live TV, which shows you how confident cops are that there will be no consequences—as a way of challenging the long-held belief that law enforcement and mayors are good and inherently trustworthy. (There are even more in this thread, by the way.) Also, here are some examples of all the times white people have violently rioted for no reason… just in case you need that handy.
Know your audience.
You know your relatives best. What are their values? What do they care about the most? For example, if they are Christian, it might make sense to talk about this through a lens of their faith, and the way Jesus believed in standing up for the vulnerable. If they care a lot about fairness and doing the right thing in day-to-day life, you might find it easier to hit them with data about the way Black people are overpoliced, racially profiled, and punished. (Scroll to the end of that article for tons of stats.)
Think about how you might bring up their values during this conversation, e.g., “I'm surprised to hear you say [XYZ], because that’s not in line with [things you taught me growing up/what I expect from you.]”
Focus on what they are saying and doing, instead of who they are as a person.
In her book Why Won’t You Apologize?, therapist Harriet Lerner writes about how the greater an offense is, the more difficult it is for the wrongdoer to feel remorse. Basically, we feel deeply ashamed “when our identity and sense of worth are at risk of being diminished or being annihilated, we will not be able to offer a true apology and face all that the challenge of earning back trust entails. We are more likely to wrap ourselves in a blanket of rationalization, minimization, and denial in order to survive.” Later, she writes, “Once we label and shame people, we narrow the possibility of redemption and positive change.”
Even though you aren’t exactly looking for an apology in this situation, keep this advice in mind if you hope to have a productive conversation and try to frame your criticism in terms of their actions and choices, versus their whole character. As much as you might want to say, “Wow, you are incredibly racist,” in these moments, that is not necessarily going to get you the results you want. If you’re genuinely trying to affect change, go with something like, “Yikes, that’s an incredibly racist thing to say”—and then explain the wider context of why that is—over, “You’re racist.” That said, I also don’t think you should be afraid to use the word “racist” when people are… being fucking racist! But ideally, using the above advice will keep them from shutting down entirely, and make it easier for them to actually hear what you’re saying.
Be willing to share your own growth with them.
Surely you’ve done some racist or ignorant stuff in your life, right? And you felt deeply ashamed, but also grateful for the people who took the time to educate you, forgive you, etc.? Of course you have! Now’s a good time to mention that.
- “I used to think the same thing, but then I [read XYZ book, had conversations with my Black friends, got a stern talking-to from a white pal] and learned [some important facts]. Accepting that [all cops are not, in fact, good] was really hard for me because it forced me to re-evaluate my understanding of the world and of my own life, but I’m ultimately really grateful that [person] was able to get through to me. As painful as that experience was, it made it possible for me to [behave X way] instead of [Y way]. Now I am a better friend to Black people, and I’m better for it.”
Doing this shows empathy and reminds the person you’re talking to that they aren’t the only person who has ever made a mistake or believed the racist views that are constantly being pushed in our culture. It also communicates that there is a path forward from that kind of thinking, as you know and are willing to discuss based on your own experience.
Say, in no uncertain terms, that you disagree with what they are saying.
People often hear what they want to hear and will interpret anything other than an “absolutely no” as a form of agreement with their thinking. Don't leave anything open to interpretation, which you can do by prefacing your response with, “I disagree,” or, “That’s just not true,” or, “That’s a truly awful thing to say, wow.” Allowing room for ambiguity isn't quite honest, and it confuses the topic at hand. Instead, frame the conversation clearly through direct dissent.
In addition to the suggestions above, here are some other things you might want to say during this talk:
- “We have no right to tell oppressed people the ‘right’ way to protest for their lives. Or to tell them how to interpret the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the words and actions of any other Black activists that non-Black people misuse to promote their own viewpoints.”
- “We’ve seen many, many instances this weekend—and in the past—of people with power lying about what happened. Even outside of politics: Why are you so willing to believe what the police are saying here? There are many documented instances of law enforcement units—not just single officers—harassing or using excessive force against Black people or doing racist or illegal things and then lying under oath about an interaction. It’s starting to feel more like you don’t want to believe the protesters, and I’m wondering why that is.”
- "It’s weird that you’re so insistent on talking about the destruction of property and not at all on the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of law enforcement, and the complete lack of justice in so many of these cases. Why are you concerned for the safety of... Target, all of a sudden, rather than real people? It sounds like you care more about property than you care about Black lives—because that’s the only thing I’m hearing you talk about or get angry about. I don’t know if that’s how you really feel, but that’s how it’s coming across."
- “Destroying property and looting only hurts the movement insofar as we let it. If you’re worried about how white people will react, the best thing you can do is not let that become a distraction from the reason why people are protesting in the first place. If you hear people getting upset about property more than people, you can just bring it back to what matters: police brutality, racism, and the lack of justice in the criminal justice system. I think it’s really important to keep the conversation on what caused these protests, and I wonder if we could talk about that first and foremost today.”
Be willing to set the terms of the conversation and be firm about it throughout the entire discussion.
While I do think you have a responsibility to educate and engage, you can also push, hard, to keep the focus on police brutality, and/or to eventually insist that people do the reading if they want to discuss this topic further with you.
There’s a good chance the person you are talking to will try to bait you with some bullshit argument that takes away from the subject at hand, or accuse you of being intolerant because you’re not letting them simply shout bad ideas unchecked. Consider… not taking that bait. This will keep the conversations on track and help you preserve energy. (It’s also wise to not reward bad-faith behavior; when you do, you very clearly communicate that being an asshole will get them attention.) That might sound like this:
- “I’ve already told you I’m not going to respond to [troll talking point of the day].” (Then… say nothing and stare at them.)
- If they bring it up again: “Why do you want to talk about [other thing] so badly instead of talking about [police brutality against Black people]?
- “OK. If you genuinely want to hear my thoughts on this, you need to _[read the article I just sent you/stop regurgitating Fox News talking points/stop interrupting me/demonstrate that you are actually interested in listening to what I’m saying to you_]. If you’re not interested in having a genuine conversation, fine—but I’m not going to keep trying to talk to you in good faith when it’s clear you’ve made up your mind and don’t have any interest in hearing what I have to say.”
If possible, help them have empathy for the people who are protesting. That might sound something like...
- “How would you feel if the fact that I regularly smoked weed in college meant I was spending the rest of my life in an inhumane, filthy prison? And not just me—also [a bunch of your friends (or their friends!) who they really like]? Wouldn’t you be furious and angry, too?”
- “Remember when [relative who loves their legal gun] had a broken tail light for like two months? How would you feel if they got pulled over for that, and, after they calmly told the police officer they legally had a gun in the car, the cop shot and killed them? And then the cop was acquitted?”
- “I know you’d say something to a person who let their dogs run off-leash in the park when it’s against the rules… what if, in the midst of doing that, the person who was mad about it implied she was going to have you arrested or maybe killed?”
- “How would you feel if I was shot multiple times in the back while out in Grandma’s backyard, just talking on the phone, and there wasn’t even a trial for the police officers who did it? Or if you knew that that could happen to you basically any day?”
Hold the line.
If you’re fairly conflict-averse, you might feel pretty uncomfortable with standing firm and not backing down in a conversation with someone who really, really wants you to let them off the hook or to “agree to disagree.” Try to push through your own discomfort and not let the subject drop just because the other person is getting agitated. Racists are used to getting their own way, and not being challenged, and your own stubbornness can be the most powerful tool in your tool kit during these conversations if you’re willing to reach for it.
Be prepared to set boundaries with your relatives. You might say, “Please don’t talk to me like that,” or, “Don’t use that word” if the person you are talking to is being really nasty—you can add, “If you continue to talk about this in racist terms, I’m not going to discuss this with you further.” You might also say something like, “I’m really disappointed that you are so unwilling to reconsider your stance on this, and, to be honest, I can’t imagine bringing [my kids/friends/Black partner] around you when you have so much hate in your heart. I really hope you’ll rethink what you’re saying here.” This isn’t “let’s agree to disagree”—this is, “I think differently of you because of your views/behavior, and so now here are some natural consequences.”
Arguing with people about race and racism is exhausting, but you should be willing to do it longer and go harder than a Black person could or would. That means not tapping out after 15 minutes or saying, “What even is the POINT?” because you tried once and it didn’t go well. If I can do this, trust that you can, too.
Look to other non-Black people for help with these conversations.
Your best resources right now are the people who have had similar conversations with their relatives, and who either got through to them or who wish they’d handled things differently in the past. Ask around, share tips and advice, and report back on how the conversations went.
On that note, if you have a Black partner or even a close Black friend, it’s extra-important to be mindful of how much you’re talking about your relatives’ racist views with them. Yes, they care about you and your life, and yes, you have a responsibility to inform them that your relatives are racist so they can keep themselves safe—but this is a really traumatic time for Black people. In this exact moment, we might not be up for hearing in great detail about how the people who raised you, and whom we have to make nice with at holidays, are actually a huge part of the problem.
Before you forward them your dad’s racist text: Tell them, in vague terms, that your dad has shared his thoughts on the protests and they are Not Good. Ask the person, “Do you want me to read it to you or would you prefer to not deal with this right now?"
Plan to vent to other non-Black people about your conversations with ignorant folks. In these moments, the burden of protecting your partner (or friends, or colleagues) is on you; trust that they will be paying close attention to both how you talk to your relatives about this stuff, and how you talk to them about the conversations with said relatives.
Finally: Remember that the fact that your relatives are engaging with you at all is a good thing.
Yes, these conversations are incredibly frustrating, but it’s ultimately good that your loved ones are willing to engage with your POV and/or care about what you think of them. If you have their ear, don’t let it go; treat this opportunity for what it is: an accessible, immediate way you can do the work of making the world a little safer for Black people. One conversation is just the beginning: This is something you'll likely need to continue to do throughout your life if you're not Black and committed to anti-racism efforts. Commit to be in this for the long haul.