I wasn’t looking forward to Father’s Day this year. While I missed my father and planned to see him, I knew we would have to take additional precautions– wearing masks for the duration of our time together, meeting outdoors, and maintaining six feet of distance. This makes it hard to connect, especially with my children present. And given that I had been thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement, and my own work on being anti-racist, I was also trying to ready myself to talk to my parents about their views and about my own.
Over the past few years, the disparity between how my parents see things and how I see things has become more obvious to me. Sometimes this has led to feelings of frustration, and has increased the distance between us. In the past I would just tell myself that our differences were due to being from different generations, or because they grew up in a different country. I would try to have compassion for them and to ignore the ways in which we disagree, and just move on.
I’ve recently recognized that, in order to truly be an ally, and to authentically be myself, it’s important that I try to engage my parents about anti-racism. It’s important to me that we work together to challenge internalized messages that are harmful to us and harmful to the black community.
So, on Father’s Day, my parents and I had a conversation about racism against Black people in America. This conversation was painful for all of us. Not that we were ever uncivil— we weren’t— but challenging my elderly parents on their opinions was difficult, to say the least. And unsurprisingly, I did not succeed in getting them to commit to being anti-racist.
But that doesn’t mean that we are done having these conversations. Just as I am committing to doing the work on being an anti-racist internally, I’m hoping to do the work with my family too. This is a lifelong marathon, not a sprint. It’s not easy. But this is the work. The frustrated and exhausted feelings I experience after talking in circles with my parents are mere inconveniences compared to what the Black community has gone through.
Since that conversation, I’ve spent some time reflecting on how I’m taking care of myself and continuing to manage my expectations in this process, and how I will approach these conversations. I’d like to pass my observations on to you, in hopes they might help you tackle having difficult conversations with your own parents.
I try to be kind.
I learned the phrase “call them in instead of call them out” from Neelamjit Dhaliwal and The Seed Project, and it’s been at the top of my mind these past weeks. No one likes to be shamed or attacked. When we are, it rarely leads to fruitful self-reflection or change; in many cases, feeling attacked can actually cause us to double down on our original beliefs. So when I have these conversations, I am intentional about naming that I don’t know everything. I make it clear that we are all racist, I am doing this work too, and my hope is that they will join me in doing it. It’s not me versus them. I tell them that I am learning and I ask if I can share what I’ve learned. And I ask them what they think, and really listen when they speak.
I use facts if I have them.
Every day (especially on social media), all of us are bombarded with advertisements and hyper-partisan clickbait. I understand that my parents may be struggling to reconcile what they have heard on the news with what I’m telling them. I bring facts to the table to try and help keep the conversation grounded, and I avoid parroting statistics or characterizations I haven’t researched myself.
I don’t expect an “aha!” moment.
In having these conversations, I anticipate that I will likely not feel lighter, resolved, or better after talking. My parent(s) will likely not adopt an anti-racist mindset all at once, if at all. Talking about racism may put a strain on our relationship. However, I know my feeling better is not the reward— increased understanding all around and social justice is the reward. And I know that if I approach these conversations with care and intention, the seeds I plant may, in time, become agents of change. If I can expect discomfort during the process, or at least normalize it, that helps me manage my expectations.
I try to bring my best self.
I don’t know about you, but I am not at my kindest, smartest, or most patient when I am tired or hungry. Although sometimes a conversation happens spontaneously, and we won’t have time to prepare ourselves accordingly, sometimes we know when we’re going to see or talk to our parents (like before visiting them in person or before a scheduled FaceTime/Zoom call). If possible, before seeing my parents, I take some time to “fill my cup” physically and emotionally. Being able to disagree with grace, in a way that makes people willing to consider what I’m relaying— it’s hard work. I try to prepare accordingly.
I try to be vulnerable and let the conversation come from the heart.
It’s difficult for me to bring my whole self into these conversations with my parents. I believe that statistics about injustice and racism should speak for themselves. I experience a flurry of emotions when my parents don’t immediately see what I want them to see. I remind myself to try and take my own defenses down as much as I can, even though it’s hard. I know that when my parents hear me speak from the heart, that’s probably when they’ll hear my message the most.
I am certainly not an expert in anti-racism, as I am just starting to do this work both internally and in the larger world. And while I wish I could offer you a script that would effectively challenge racism and convert folks to doing the work of anti-racism, I know if this was easy to do, it would already be done. My hope is that this article helps you know that you are not alone, and that it gives you a place to start if you’re struggling with having this conversation with loved ones.
Family dynamics aren’t easy. If you’re struggling, reach out at (323) 388-5578 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. All of our therapists at Take Root Therapy are committed to anti-racism work, and we’re here to support you.