How to deal with a family member who opposes a major civil justice movement

During a time when most family members, friends, coworkers, and major brands are outwardly supporting (or at least saying they support) the Black Lives Matter movement, those who stay silent stick out like a sore thumb. But what do you do with that one family member who doesn’t just stay quiet about one of the biggest civil justice movements of all time, but outwardly opposes it?

Listen: I don’t care about good ol’ Facebook Bob, that guy I met at a parent’s BBQ that one time and felt compelled to share my life’s story with online via friend request. I can block or choose to engage with any general acquaintance who begins posting hateful statuses or #AllLivesMatter hashtags or straight-up confederate flags online while folks are fighting for their right not to be killed in the streets outside. But a family member? I’m stuck with that person, even after things go south during what’s intended to be a peaceful conversation about systemic racism and the state of humanity. I’m not a huge believer in the whole “blood is thicker than water” thing, but some family members can’t be tossed out with the trash no matter how much you’d rather rely on your “found family.” And many of us have actual relationships with our family members, ones that go back for years (maybe even to the day we popped out of the womb) and are full of memories. As a result, dealing with a family member who opposes an entire civil justice movement isn’t as easy as posting “If you disagree with me on this topic, unfollow me.”

But how do you come to terms with a person you’re stuck with (to some degree), who makes it clear they don’t agree with or legitimately despise the Black Lives Matter movement and all it’s fighting for? At best, how do you deal with a family member who misunderstands the movement we’re currently witnessing and a part of? At worst, how do you deal with a family member who is racist?

A number of social media posts discuss how to sit down at the dinner table and discuss race with your family. These posts offer great strategies: relate what’s currently happening to a personal experience of the individual you’re talking to; provide bulletproof sources; admit your own privilege so they feel safe admitting theirs. But as much as we’d like to believe everyone is composed, open to new information, and willing to face factual evidence—this isn’t the case. I’ve met a handful of people who outright scoff at verifiable statistics, gaslight people who don’t look like them as they’re sharing their stories (“I doubt it really happened that way” or “You just don’t know their intentions”), and refuse to hear others out even when those others have, I don’t know, professional experience dealing with the subject at hand. Not everyone is willing to listen. Not everyone is willing to change their minds when presented with information they previously didn’t have access to or didn’t want to consume.

I’ve personally struggled at a crossroad like the one I’m describing. Even if you don’t consider yourself an activist, you likely understand that when considering the question “Do people of color, particularly Black people, deserve life?” there is only one legitimate answer—no opinions, no perspectives, no sides. Many say that to tolerate racism means to perpetuate racism. But what do you do with the fire when the extinguisher doesn’t seem to work?

Up until recently, my strategy has always been to draw a ring of silence around the topic. If a person to whom I am relatively tied does not just misunderstand a civil justice movement but actually opposes it, I have historically made it clear that the topic of said movement will not fly around me. But this doesn’t solve anything, outside of avoiding arguments with a specific person. Rather, it allows the other person’s harmful beliefs to continue to manifest in spaces that do not immediately include you: in their hiring decisions, interactions with friends, and even just trips to the grocery store. It makes you complicit in whatever racist behaviors they engage in when they are not in your presence. It also displaces the work of dismantling their oppressive beliefs onto people of color, who should not have to and are not obligated to do said work.

So if the topic is there, it’s important to you, and it’s unable to be ignored, what do you do? How do you maintain a relationship with someone you must or would like to remain close to, without becoming complicit in a racist system you wish to help dismantle?

There doesn’t seem to be a tried-and-true answer. Did you click this article thinking that I had one?

In all seriousness, this seems to be a struggle that white people (and even non-Black POC) are just beginning to take seriously. Like myself, many people I know have up until now chosen to ignore their family’s prejudice in one way or another, not realizing the damage it really did.

I’m aware that not everyone on Earth will look inward, consider their internal bias, examine the times they’ve made that bias known, and resolve to be better in the future. I don’t expect everyone in the world to go out and buy books by Black authors, listen to Black podcasters, and most importantly of all, seek out and listen to Black friends. I’d love for things to go this way, but I’m realistic. At the same time, however, I believe it’s the duty of anyone who genuinely cares about other people to attempt to do right by those people. Even if their intentions are good and their tactics need improvement, taking action is vital. And I refuse to be the exception to this philosophy, especially during a time when change is so important.

So I’m attempting to deploy the following strategies going forward, and implore anyone else dealing with an ignorant or downright racist family member to do the same:

  • Make it known that as a person they (presumably) love, I would really appreciate it if they’d ____. That blank can be filled with anything: “read this article,” “check out this documentary,” “hear you out and consider what you have to say for a day before coming back.” I’ll be making this request calmly and empathetically, regardless of how much rage and frustration I’m filled with at the time, because people are far less likely to really listen when they feel threatened.

Maybe these approaches will prove useful. Maybe in another few years, I’ll be furiously googling this same question. But it is wrong to be complicit, no matter how comfortable complicity is for some; and for those on which the average “family dinner table” tactics do not work, we have to get creative.

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Adrianna Nine

Tech & science journo who writes about social activism and mental health in her free time.