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So You've Got Racist Family Members...

jasmine banks

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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.

4 Priorities for White Allies

jasmine banks

Establish Accountability

What people of color hold you accountable? That is a real question. Have you approached a person of color and had this very important conversation with them: "Yo. So I just realized I have to do something about this race stuff and I need some accountability. Can I form an accountability situation with you were I welcome your critique. Can you call me out when I am veering of the path?" If you are not in relationships with folks who are leading change in the communities you are in coalition with, you may be caused unintentional harm that you are blind to. 

So what does accountability look like?

Folks who are oppressed because of their race and gender (among other intersections) have far less power than you. Engaging in a mentorship/accountability relationship with a person of color means that you are resisting the way that white supremacy socialized you. You are submitting to the leadership of the kind of person white supremacy say you are superior to. Accountability will look like you trusting the experiences your accountability partner communicate. It looks like opening yourself up to understanding the multi-deminisonal experiences you'll witness as you grow your connection with people of color. 

  • determine that you'll both be committed the process of transformation through the work you do together
  • establish what you need with your accountability partner. what are the first steps you are taking to unlearn your whiteness and confront the ways in which you've participated in oppression 
  • remember this isn't a white guilt dumping ground! this relationship isn't for you to cry and feel bad. this is about mutual learning and communication 
  • agree to be open, honest, and clear with one another
  • create a rhythm: be intentional about connecting on a week basis in ways that work for both parties

Self-Care

Waking up the realization that you've been complicit in the systemic oppression is emotionally devastating.  Shame, guilt, and the wash of emotions that accompany the awakening that you are experiencing can result in intense emotional upheaval. It is your duty to take good care of yourself so that you can continue in this work. It i not a sprint-- it is a marathon. If you burn yourself out because you've not managed caring well for yourself, you are not good in the fight. Establish boundaries for yourself as you are growing in this process. Determine how you'll decompress when you begin to the feel the weight of your work.

 

Engage in History Self-Education 

f you've been asleep in the comfort of white supremacy you'll soon learn that waking up means you are behind the curve in education. You'll come to understand that you've been taught history and narratives by a system that seeks to keep white folks shiftless and people of color oppressed. Take time to really dig deep and learn about actual factual oral accounts and histories of people of color. Be prepared to re-engage learning because you'll have to learn AS you do your work. You do not have permission to sit and do nothing while you learn. You can find a solid starting point here.  

Start Where You Are

You can't exactly walk into the White House and destroy it and re-build a better system. When you evaluate the "To-Do" items on the list of dismantling systemic oppression it can become overwhelming. Don't try and save the world. Save one space at a time. 


 
WHO IS HERE, WHO ISN’T, and WHY?
 

What you'll find is that Black folks, the texture of our lives, and our participation are absent from many of the spaces you move in and out of with freedom. Wonder why your church leadership committees are all white. Wonder why you school parent teacher organization has zero diversity. Do not make it the job of the marginalized to create their own seat at the table. Begin to disrupt business as usual by requiring that the spaces you occupy begin to intentionally seek to include and draw from people of color and their leadership. Assuage yourself of the inclination that any person of color should be responsible for reaching out to you to be included and listened to. Become incredibly critical of the folks in your spaces who are leaders. Schools, media, religious institutions, and other systems should be under inspection. Is your priest committed to antiracism in more than their words? Does the 2nd grad teacher at your child's school create curriculum that is inclusive and culturally competent? Start asking yourself this very important question over and over again: who is here, who isn't, and why?

I believe in you. We can do this work together.