How To Talk Race With Your Family: Ask Code Switch | KUOW News and Information

How To Talk Race With Your Family: Ask Code Switch

Aug 20, 2017
Originally published on August 28, 2017 5:12 am

Well, we asked and then you asked. Over the past couple of weeks, dozens of you have responded to our call out — we've gotten letters from all over the country about the complex racial situations people find themselves in.

Our goal? Offer up some advice on America's race problems — from the merely awkward to the downright inappropriate — with a thing we're calling 'Ask Code Switch.'

We got questions about whiteness and wokeness. About fashion and fetishes. Oh, and family. So many questions about in-laws, Thanksgiving dinner and parents who just don't understand.

So to kick things off, we talked with Weekend Edition's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about dealing with family members who don't see eye-to-eye when it comes to racial justice. That question was by far the most common topic in the letters we got, and seems particularly relevant in the wake of Charlottesville.

Here's how Christina Cameron, of Durham, N.C., put it:

I let it slip to my mother that I was going to a Black Lives Matter rally. She kind of knew I was involved in BLM as a white person, but she didn't really know the extent.

During our call, she called me brainwashed and said that if I got hurt and ended up in the hospital, she wouldn't come see me. If I got arrested, she wouldn't come bail me out. The next week, it was a barrage of emails from my dad saying I can't stand up to the godlessness of my peers, and that I'm involved in a terrorist organization. I told them, "No, these are the principles you raised me with as a Christian." They said, "Don't tell anyone we had anything to do with the way that you are now."

We don't really talk much since then. I know that as a white person in this movement, my responsibility is to talk to other white people about race and racism. I've done that pretty well. But I just can't seem to get through to my parents. We're kind of at an impasse and I don't know where to go.

Shereen: I don't know if this is going to be popular advice, but I've been in therapy long enough to know that when you're opening up conversations like this, that you know are going to be tough, stay away from trigger words. In this case, words like racism, and bigot and bigotry. I feel like you have to have more of a soft opening with your family. And go into the discussion sideways. I just don't know if saying, "Hey, Mom and Dad, you're being racist," ever helps the conversation.

Also, know that you might never get through to your parents. And maybe you should try and have the conversation with family members who are more open to listening to you. Sometimes you don't want to hit your head against the wall over and over again. You just have to say, we agree to disagree.

Gene: Yeah, I think this is even true of conversations with your family that don't involve race at all. You have to go in with realistic, honest understandings of what your expectations are. Are you trying to have a conversation with your mom and your dad in which you want to change their worldview? That's not realistic. If you want them to understand where you're coming from, that's a long process. You're not going to resolve that in one conversation.

There are two pieces of reporting that seem relevant here. I was talking to Phillip Atiba Goff, [a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice] who works in institutional bias. And he said that the reason you confront your family members about their views, if you think they're bigoted views, is not because you want to change their minds, so much as to establish that they can't say those things without some kind of push-back. You're pushing back on things your uncle says so that your nieces and nephews understand that those views will be met with some push-back. So even if they don't change their minds, they have to consider whether those views are worth saying.

The other thing that might be relevant is that, in the wake of the election, a lot of groups that focus on white people who work in social justice spaces have been really honest about how important it is to have other white people to talk to about this stuff. Because the problems of white people in these spaces are specific to white people, right? I don't have a white parent. I don't know what it's like to have to change a parent's bigoted views about black people. So people need a space that they can go to deal with that very real feeling of being cleaved from their family when they have a big fallout over these things.

It can sometimes be cumbersome to bring those problems to a social justice space with a bunch of brown people who are dealing with their own issues. So sometimes it's helpful and useful to have a space with other white people you can commiserate with, and know that you're not alone.


What do you think? What kinds of difficult or awkward racial questions come up in your family? How have you handled it? Email us at CodeSwitch@npr.org, with the subject line, "Ask Code Switch."

And if you need some racial advice of your own, fill out this form.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And this is the Call-In. Race is hard to talk about. And in the wake of Charlottesville, there's a renewed intensity behind those conversations. And this week, you shared racially charged social interactions that you've experienced.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm calling regarding how you deal with racism in your life. For me, it's people crossing the street. It's people grabbing their handbags tighter. It's people following you around in the store.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For years, I lived in a predominantly white area. Driving home from work, I would have to have all my paperwork right out in the front seat 'cause I knew there was a good chance I was going to get pulled over.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We wanted to hear your questions about how to handle some of these situations. So we brought in our friends Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji to help. They're the hosts of NPR's Code Switch podcast on race and identity. First up, we have Erin Smith in San Francisco. She's white, and she says she gets conflicting messages about how to fight against racism.

ERIN SMITH: I've been faced with either white silence is violence and told to speak up - but when I do speak up, a lot of the reaction I get is, we don't want your white guilt or kind of patronizing - good, little white advocate. Here's a cookie. So I don't really know how I can be a good advocate or an effective advocate for people of color.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, guys, where do white people fit into this right now as we're having this conversation?

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: We get this question a lot. And I think the first thing you're going to have to acknowledge is there's no way to sort of guarantee that extending help is going to be, like, pleasant or comfortable - like, people won't be prickly. You're going into spaces where people are dealing with really heavy issues - in a lot of cases, life or death. And so some people are going to be understandably wary about people who say, hey, I'm here to help.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Right.

DEMBY: But this is a tough one.

MERAJI: And listening to that, it sounds to me like the letter writer is talking about people of color looking at her sideways - right? - for trying to speak up and get involved. But I'd like to tell her, remember, you can do anti-racist work in predominately white spaces, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Our next question is from Debbie Dunleavy in Chicago. She's white, and she has a question about a specific interaction she witnessed while seeing a theater production. One of the actors was black. And then, at intermission, a white usher asked an African-American man in the audience...

DEBBIE DUNLEAVY: Is he related to anyone in the cast? And he sort of fake laughs and says no. But she will not let it go. She tells him how much he looks like the actor playing Queequeg. And he very, very clearly does not, except for the fact that he's black. And I am sitting there with my mouth hanging open. I thought about interjecting myself into the conversation and pointing out that she was being, you know, a little racist. But then that felt like I was just going to be, like, performing forming how woke I am. Oh, look at me. I'm not a racist. And I was just paralyzed. I have no idea what I should've done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think this is a common one.

MERAJI: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you do in a situation like that? I mean, how do you intervene or not intervene? Is it welcome? Is it not?

MERAJI: This does happen all the time. I had a Friendsgiving dinner at my house. And it was predominantly people of color. One of my friends was white, and we were at a table. And two of my friends at that table were African-American. And he asked if they were brother and sister.

DEMBY: Oh, boy.

MERAJI: And then later he asked if this other friend who went to Howard with my friend who was there - if they were together, if they were dating. And so it happened twice. And it happened. And my friend was like, hey, dude.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Is it just because we're black? Like, what's up here? You know, this isn't cool. You can't do this. And I remember sitting at the table and not saying anything. And I called him actually up on the phone. And I asked him, should I have done anything? And he was like, no, no, no. I felt very safe in that space to speak up and handle myself. But in this question, I feel like it's a little bit different because, one, it's weird to interject yourself into someone else's conversation if they're strangers. And it also can read as being totally patronizing.

Then again, if this couple is one of just a few black audience members, there's definitely a power dynamic going on - right? - where they could feel as if they can't say anything because if they do, and it gets misinterpreted, who knows how the situation could escalate? And, you know, then if it escalates, Gene, we've read enough history and reported on race long enough to know that the odds are the black couple are the ones who are going to get in trouble, right?

DEMBY: Right. That's right. And they would look at that as, like, unwieldly or making a big deal out of nothing.

MERAJI: Yes. So I think you could go one of two ways. You could interject early and light-heartedly by saying something like, you know, I was just eavesdropping on your conversation, and I was wondering if you were related to - and then list every single white actor on stage. Wink at the couple. Go along your merry way.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: That's a lecturing.

MERAJI: Or you could say - right? I would love to do that.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: I want this to happen so that I can do that. Or, you know, you could stay quiet but close enough to bear witness in case things do escalate, right? And then you step in immediately, defend the couple, complain to management. Do all that.

DEMBY: Or maybe something as simple as, like, you know, after the usher goes away, you just sort of like, yo, that was weird. And you just, you know, keep it moving. And I think a lot of times in these encounters, - we have them all the time, right? And they're annoying, but they're sort of insignificant. And, sometimes, you just want someone to acknowledge that the thing just happened, you know, like, so you're not there, crazy. Like, you don't necessarily need someone to be like, I am so appalled on your behalf so much. Someone who's just like, yo, you saw that, too, right?

MERAJI: I saw that.

DEMBY: Yeah. And just keep moving, you know?

MERAJI: Yes. What do you think, Lulu?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do I think?

MERAJI: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, when I'm listening to this, I'm just thinking of, like, a million different situations that I've either been involved in or borne witness to...

MERAJI: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Or actually in myself, in my ignorance, participated in because I ain't exactly perfect. And I'm thinking, wow, this stuff is really complicated. And...

MERAJI: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...I don't know. I think I err on the side of saying something. But that's just me. And that has often not gone well. All right.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Our next question is about an uncomfortable situation a caller found herself in at work.

AMAL AHMED: Hi. My name is Amal Ahmed, and I'm from Dallas, Texas. And I'm currently interning at a magazine in Austin. A few weeks ago, I was reporting from the special legislative session at the Texas State Capitol, and I was interviewing a group of white Republican women about what they were doing there that day. One of them turned around and asked me, what do you think of Sharia law? I was really taken aback by that question. I didn't know how to answer it in the moment. But I tried to brush her off. And she kept asking me more questions. And it ended with her saying, you Muslims are all the same. You never want to give a straight answer.

MERAJI: Whoa.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So yeah.

DEMBY: Yeesh.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her questions to you are, how do you stay professional when someone makes it so personal? And then she says, she had no one to turn to for support because all her bosses are white. So where can she find that support system?

MERAJI: Well, OK. So I'm thinking, as a journalist, practical advice for when you're in the field - if someone says to you, what are your thoughts on Sharia law, I think you've got to be ready to say, I'm a journalist. I'm not a religious scholar. So I don't have any thoughts on Sharia law. Thank you very much. Turn around and walk away. But as far as, you know, everybody at work being white and not feeling like you have a support system, you can reach out. There are people-of-color journalism groups on Facebook. There are ways that you can find people who have gone through these very similar situations out in the field when they're working. And you can talk to them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is obviously not something that only journalists face. I mean, I can imagine this is a situation that anyone in a professional capacity would face. My question, actually, is a little bit more pointed. Should she then go to her white bosses and say, this was a situation that made me feel uncomfortable? Or will that make her a target - and, potentially...

MERAJI: At work?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Those bosses saying, oh, this is a problem. Having this person in this position is a problem. I mean, do you have to keep it to yourself, or should you report it to your bosses?

DEMBY: I mean, I think you...

MERAJI: I think you should report it.

DEMBY: Yeah. I agree.

MERAJI: What do you think, Gene?

DEMBY: No, I think you have to talk to your bosses, I mean, like, if only so there's a record of it.

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: And maybe you don't - maybe she's not the person who benefits from the fact that the record exists. But, you know, maybe your boss has a different approach to covering these women the next time you have to - someone has to engage them, right? Maybe that's something to keep in mind the next time. Even if, like, the sort of emotional support is not exactly what you get, there's a bunch of other more practical reasons to just make that known, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say, of course, that your white bosses might be completely sympathetic and supportive.

DEMBY: Absolutely. Absolutely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it's not that they wouldn't necessarily understand.

DEMBY: That's absolutely right.

MERAJI: I would also write this stuff down every time it happens just to keep a record for yourself, as well, because, you know, sometimes, you're out there, and someone says something to you, and you think, am I crazy? Like, am I crazy? Is this...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did this really just happen to me?

MERAJI: Yes. And you can go back to your record and go, no, this has happened 15 other times in spaces just like this. And I don't know. I just think it's important to write down these things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. OK. We're going to get to the big one now, which, I think, is something that everyone is grappling with right now, which is, how do you talk about race with your family, especially if your family have different views, and they see things in a different way? This question comes from a woman who's really been struggling with how to talk to her parents.

CHRISTINA CAMERON: Hi. My name is Christina Cameron. And I'm calling from Durham, N.C. The incident in particular that happened was over the phone with my mother last September. I let her know that I was going to a Black Lives Matter rally. And that started a whole rift in my family. She called me brainwashed. And she said that if I got hurt, ended up in a hospital, she wouldn't come see me. And then the next week, it was a barrage of emails from my dad, saying that, you know, I can't stand up to the Godlessness of my peers. And I'm a terrorist involved in a terrorist organization. And we don't really talk much since then. And I know that, you know, as a white person in this movement, my responsibility is to talk to other white people about race and racism. But I just can't seem to get through to my parents.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the wake of Charlottesville, we've seen so many calls for people to talk to their family members, talk to their friends, you know, have this very difficult conversation. How do you do it? How do you have a productive conversation with people who may fundamentally disagree with the way that you see things?

DEMBY: Shereen, that's your cover.

MERAJI: OK. I mean, I don't know if this is going to be popular advice. But I've been in therapy long enough to know that when you're opening up conversations like this that you know are going to be tough, stay away from trigger words - words like racism and bigotry. I feel like you have to have, like, more of a soft opening, perhaps, with your family and go into the discussion sideways. I also feel like, maybe, you will never get through to your parents. And maybe you should try and have the conversation with family members who are maybe more open to listening to you. Sometimes, you don't want to hit your head against the wall over and over again. You just have to say we agree to disagree.

DEMBY: Yeah. I think, you know - and this is probably true of, like, conversations with your family that don't involve race at all. Like, you've got to go into these conversations with some, like, realistic understandings of what your expectations are. Like, are you trying to have a conversation and sit down with your mom or dad in which you want to change their worldview. Like, that's not realistic, right? If you want them to sort of understand where you're coming from, like, that's a long process that will not be, like - you're not going to resolve that in one conversation.

Once, I was talking to a gentleman who works in the - he works in institutional bias. And he said, look. The reason you confront your parents or your family members about their views if you think their bigoted views is not because you want to change their minds so much as you want to establish that they can't say those things without some kind of pushback. And so you are sort of establishing for the other people in the room, whether it's - you know, if it's your uncle, you're not talking to your uncle. You're talking to your nieces and nephews, right? You're talking to - you're pushing back on your uncle so your nieces and nephews understand that those views will be met with some pushback and so they know that they - like, even if they don't change their minds, they have to consider whether or not they're worth saying.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I will just lay down my thoughts on this. I think racist or bigot in the - in any (laughter) Thanksgiving, Christmas setting are just not...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...The right words.

MERAJI: Don't do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Don't do it. I will jump in with my advice there. Yeah, I think there are other ways to have the conversation. But pushback could be done in many, many ways. Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji of NPR's Code Switch podcast, thank you both so very much.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Lulu.

MERAJI: Thanks, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And next week on The Call-In, as the school year begins, there's a lot of excitement. But for some students, there can also be a lot of fear. Bullying online or in person has become a serious issue. Have you been bullied in school in the past? Are your kids dealing with bullying? Tell us your stories. Call in with your experience at 202-216-9217. Be sure to include your full name, your contact information and where you're from. That number again - 202-216-9217.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.