I wish I had a family full of Freedom Riders but as it turned out I was born into a family that, is not only multi-cultural, embraces multiple layers of belief about race. I have some racist family members that successfully get under my skin on many an occasion. Chances are you have a couple of inflammatory family members as well. You ask them to pass the mashed potatoes at family gatherings and they leisurely pass along a heaping helping of prejudice as well. You know it isn't right. You want them to see that their beliefs are awful and need to be adjusted... but you don't know how. Here are some steps to facing a showdown with Racist Uncle Ted that I've learned along the way:
Understand that their beliefs aren't an extension of YOU
It is SO easy to think that our families are reflections of who we are. They are the foundation of our origins and it makes sense to view the world this way. The good news is that when you become an adult and develop autonomy (differentiation) you don't have to claim the burden for other's behaviors and beliefs. Racism is harmful and hurtful to all of us, but a racist family member feels even MORE hurtful. Depersonalize and draw invisible lines between you and that family member. If you approach reforming your racist family member's viewpoints too closely attached, the difficult task will not only become overwhelming, but you can feel deeply wounded by taking on too much responsibility.
Communicate clear boundaries
Once you feel securely separate from that family member's identity, start formulating what your bottom line is. Racism is rife with ignorance and noxious beliefs and behaviors. You'll have to understand that the free expression of those beliefs are the right of your family member, but you also have the right to establish "deal breaker behavior boundaries". These are behaviors that you will not, under any circumstance, tolerate for your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. This could look like communicating, "If I am with you and you call a person of color a derogatory name, I will no long spend time with you." Be consistent. Choose boundaries you will consistently uphold. If you are inconsistent you send a message that sometimes some of your racist behavior is okay. If you establish something as a deal breaker, you truly need to be willing to walk away from the relationship or execute the consequences you established based on your boundary.
Choose your battles
Not every instance is a time to go to battle with your racist family member. Think through what you choose to engage and how it will be received from the family member. Many times our belief systems are so deeply entrenched in our identity that when people question our beliefs, we feel like they are saying we don't measure up. Make sure you have the relationship equity to confront your loved ones and don't attack their character. If every time you spend time with your racist family member you want to debate about their beliefs, you may be ostracizing the family member. Remember you can impact a deeper change in their lives if they still enjoy being around you and you keep trust intact.
Combine both soft and hard confrontation
Soft confrontation is a nuanced form of engaging a narrative. This could include inviting your racist loved one to watch a documentary about social justice or suggesting a book that respectfully covers the topic of racism. For some, soft confrontation can feel or look like passive aggressive behavior or behaving disingenuously. It isn't. It is a way of honoring your relationship with the individual while also honoring your belief that racism is wrong and should be confronted. Hard confrontation can the hard discussions and ways you engage the conversation about your loved one's racist beliefs head on. Your boundaries are also a form of hard confrontation. This could look like an honest and direct conversation over coffee, writing a letter referencing how the racist behavior impacts you, or correcting the racist behavior and speech when you experience it. Notice I said discussions and conversations? That is because ARGUING over racism or DEBATING over racism indicates that there is space for your racist family member to persuade you away from your beliefs. Say it with me: " I believe you are wrong and I will agree to disagree." Decide now that you will not concede any points, arguments, or counter-arguments. The rights and values of others aren't up for debate.
Don't be a hero
You can't take on the world and we can't, as much as we want to, make everyone suck less. Free will y'all. It is a bitch! So make sure you are steering clear of any kind of Messiah Complex and ask other like-minded family members (and friends as appropriate) for help. Help your other family members understand that your desire isn't to gang up on Racist Cousin Ted, but to help him see his need for healthy change. Unless EVERYONE in your family is a racist but you... then that totally sucks and I will adopt you.
More than anything else remember that EVEN the most racist family member who rants about MUSLIM OBAMA and the DANGEROUS BLACKS is still a person!! People are made good. All people have value and are worthy of being respected and honored. We can give a good side eye to Racist Cousin Ted, but devaluing him as a human means you are staking claim on his prejudiced territory and you've lost the high ground. So inhale, exhale, pass the mashed potatoes, and remind Ted that Obama was, indeed, born in the United States.