How do you intervene at family events when you’re a witness to racist or misogynist conversations happening? This has been very challenging for me and I want to approach it in a way that models positive activism for my children without compromising the integrity of my relationships with my family whom I love.
Wannabe “Woke” Mama
Dear Wannabe “Woke” Mama,
Thank you for asking such a vitally important question. I want to first invite you to let go of the idea that there is a right or a wrong way to do this. The most important thing is that you say something, because on the other hand, the choice to be silent speaks much louder and clearer than any clumsiness you may have around finding your words in these tender and difficult moments. Children learn both from what we say and what we do not say.
Your question is one that is close to me as I have experienced this with my husband’s extended family, at a Christmas dinner, no less! Uncle Bob, I will call him, was talking about how nice the neighborhood is where he lives. He then said that recently a black family moved into the neighborhood and was causing some problems and that he wasn’t so sure of them. I felt the bite of food I just swallowed moving into my throat, my hands get sweaty, and my face flushed. The red wine I had been drinking all of a sudden seemed like a bad idea, because I felt like I was going to totally lose it on him. I allowed myself to blurt out the first thing that arose, which was, “I am so curious, why does it matter that they are Black?” and “What would happen if you took some time to get to know them?” Uncle Bob’s face then took on a very surprised look and turned red as well. He floundered over his words and literally did not know what to say. Another family member said something like “Well, you know what he means.” I said, “No, I really don’t know what he means. I would be happy to live in a diverse neighborhood.” The table then had several minutes of uncomfortable silence, and the topic was quickly changed. What I said did not bring about a constructive conversation in that moment, but it is called a disruptor. It disrupted that particular conversation from going any further. Disruptors can be gentle, but they are often uncomfortable moments in a family conversation. However, they are extremely powerful and have the ability to plant little seeds of perspective and have a lot of potential to create change over time. When parents disrupt racist conversations, it models positive values for children and cause them to think deeper about what is being discussed.
I grew up in a small NC town in the middle of the state that was full of conservative socialites with deep roots in southern history and culture. I was fortunate to be raised by a Mother who was not afraid to be a disruptor of social norms. She did not ever attempt to conceal her anger at the racist words or actions that we were witness to growing up. It was in witnessing and experiencing the depth of her emotion and deep conviction that taught me, and gave me the courage to stand up for justice despite it feeling uncomfortable.
Each family relationship is different and it is up to you to find the best ways to navigate them. That said, we cannot be afraid of conflict during these times, as sometimes, it is only through uncomfortable conflict that change can happen. Our willingness to experience our own awkwardness, emotions and discomfort will serve our families and communities.
I have included some resources below to assist you with this further.
It is also very important that we understand our own stories and narratives around whiteness, and any other culture we may be part of or that we may have in our ancestry. Sometimes witnessing racism and bigotry in our families can trigger uncomfortable realizations of unconscious beliefs that we may be holding, which can make it difficult to know how to speak out. Try hard not to be afraid to be honest about that in yourself, as courageous honesty and awareness is the only pathway towards dismantling beliefs that do not serve us.
We are all learning, and sometimes the best way to learn is through making “mistakes.” You do not need to be perfectly articulate or perfectly “woke,” in order to plant the seeds of change for the future.
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