So Your Parents* Are Racist. Now What?

*your friends, your spouse, your colleagues, your neighbors, and/or you (probably you)

Image of (mostly) white women protesting against integration in black and white
Probably your grandparents, and maybe your dad on the right

Sometimes people ask me What To Do about the racists in their lives. I’ll get to my response in a second, but a lot of this smacks of not wanting to seem racist themselves, and frankly, if you are more concerned about how you come off than about the actual lives of the racialized, I don’t think you actually care. You know what seems racist? Spending time with racists. So if your concern is saving face, you’re of no use to any efforts at racial justice. And take down your lawn sign.

It’s a sign that says “Please go away.”
It’s a sign that says “Please go away.”

If you actually genuinely and truly don’t know what to do About Them, and want someone’s (free) advice, you’re probably still not of much use, because this sort of advice should cost money if it’s going to be specific to your actual scenario, but if you want some general guidance, read on.

A couple caveats first.

First, if you are financially or physically dependent on these people, be they parents or landlords or spouses, then do whatever you can to escape, but that’s a very different scenario. I wish you the best, as you probably know how harmful it is to be surrounded by this sort of thing.

Secondly, I say “racist” here, but everyone has been taught racist ideals, and lives within a racist system. Just because you might be thinking you’re better than the Big Bad Racists because you didn’t storm the Capitol doesn’t mean you’re immune to this mess. I’ll come back to this, but I want to be clear that you’re not off the hook or Officially Anti-Racist because your sister is a fascist and you’re not.

Third, I know racism is a broad system and not contained entirely within individuals. Your anti-racism needs to include a lot more than who you spend time with. But, if the question is what to do about those people, well, that’s what this is for.

Learn Some Things

There are so many (too many) books to read about racism, about whiteness, about the many other axes of oppression with which they intersect. Maybe you didn’t learn about Tulsa in school (and neither did I), but you’re an adult now. You can do the work. You’re too old to be shocked that the people who spent several years making statements any Black person would have noticed have suddenly started saying things that even you took note of.

There have literally always been white people who bucked the trends of their day to understand that oppression of the racialized was harmful. Ever since there has been whiteness, there have been white people who were like, “Nope.” There was a John Brown, there was a Viola Liuzzo, there was a Heather Heyer. (I left the links out because you are capable of doing that Google work.)

This is not to position those people as better than the racialized people fighting for their own liberation, but the point is, your grandma didn’t really have the excuse you think she did. She was just kind of terrible.

(I’m sure she was sweet, but, you know, she might have been terrible too.)

Realize They Don’t Actually Love You

Cover image of German singer “Haddaway,” a Black man looking pensive
Cover image of German singer “Haddaway,” a Black man looking pensive
There are no non-cheesy pictures of “love” online

People aren’t usually willing to give up on these people because they love them, I guess. And you wouldn’t give up on someone with an illness or an addiction, right?

These are bad excuses. (And people give up on addicts all the time.) The love of a person committed to racism is conditional. If they are only willing to show you affection based on your own proximity to whiteness, they don’t actually love you — they love the you that they’ve imagined agrees with them (and if they’re your parents, the you that they’ve raised to agree with them).

I don’t say this flippantly, because I’ve received professional support myself, but letting go of people who only half-love you might take some serious therapeutic work (though I’m slightly less sympathetic than I am to the victims of these peoples’ behavior, who are in greater need of support). Unfortunately, because they are swimming in the same toxic sea we all are, a lot of therapists aren’t any less racist than the people you need to break free from, so finding someone who can help on this might take some time. It’s worth the effort to search, though. And look for someone who can help on this specific thing.

Build an Anti-Racist Community

Image from “Captain Planet” of the titular hero and the Planeteers with their rings glowing
Image from “Captain Planet” of the titular hero and the Planeteers with their rings glowing

I don’t just mean people who don’t like fascism. You gotta go farther than that. People you can actually talk about racism and whiteness (and the rest) with, and not just your racialized friends you can burden with your anxiety (no this isn’t a subtweet, why do you ask?). If you don’t have any friends you can talk about this honestly with, you need better friends. And if you are still uncomfortable talking about this, that’s fine. Be uncomfortable. Still work to build that community.

Now, I’m being snarky in this essay because I’m frustrated, but you don’t have to do this alone. I truly believe more people would cut ties with the racists they love if they knew they had a better community to go to. An open, honest, and yes, actively anti-racist community.

Give Them One Goddamn Chance

Dr. Strange holding up one tremulous finger
Dr. Strange holding up one tremulous finger

Maybe they can learn, you say. Yeah, maybe.

Probably not. I mean, they can, but they won’t. Not because of you, anyway.

You’re probably not an expert in pedagogy. You’re probably not an expert in whiteness and racism. You’re also very very emotionally tied to the people who might have to do this learning. It’s not great odds, buddy.

But, you can give them one shot, so long as you stick to your plans. You can give them books, give them links, give them ideas. If they express genuine curiosity, you can stick with it and see.

One friend of mine, who is braver than most, really tried to get her husband to see how harmful a lot of aspects of whiteness are. She was very patient with him over several months and occasionally he would show signs of learning.

But now they’re divorced. Is that sad? I won’t speak for her emotionality, but that is not a surprise, because if someone is more invested in the comfort that whiteness provides, it’s unfortunately up to them to make the choice to leave it behind, and a lot of people won’t. I consider my friend (who is also a frontline worker during all of this) one of the bravest people I know, and I think you’d rather be like her than whatever it is you’re doing now.

Which means you’ll need to…

Grieve

Hands holding a lit candle
Hands holding a lit candle

It’s sad, because your happy memories will always exist. Knowing that they were partially based on the assumption of shared racist values might taint them, but that joy did occur. Just like any sort of concluded relationship, it’s fair, and necessary, to grieve for what was lost, so long as we understand that it was actually lost years ago when they chose racism over the person you are becoming. And they made the wrong choice.

Leave

Cover image of singer Jojo from her song “Leave”
Cover image of singer Jojo from her song “Leave”

You’ve got to cut them off, and find comfort in your new community. If whoever it is has failed to make progress, you must move on from them. It’s up to you what that means — no calls? Only a yearly visit? — but the relationship must fundamentally change unless and until they make genuine progress over a longer period of time. If that happens, you can be proud of what they’ve done and bring them back in, always ready to push them away if they fall back down their hole. In a way, you will be the one giving conditional love, because you should only extend your affection to people who have rejected racism. Maybe that seems hypocritical, but not every issue has two equally valid sides, and this is one of them.

If you want (not free!) advice, I’m at justin.gerald22@myhunter.cuny.edu. Good luck.

EdD student. Race and language scholar. I love my wife, my son, my dog, running, NYC, subways, and the Yankees.