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Talking to your family about racism

By Emma Shehan

Contributing Editor

One of the defining cultural moments of 2020 is the Black Lives Matter movement and the work being done to acknowledge that racism is and continues to be a serious societal issue. An amazing thing that has come out of this uprising are the conversations and new understandings being created, especially among those who may not have previously known the extent of racism faced by many people of colour today. Those conversations can also be difficult, especially with family. If you have wanted to discuss racism with loved ones, but aren’t sure how to go about it, read on for some talking points and ideas. 

Before you delve into issues of racism with a loved one, think about what you want to express and why it matters to you. An excellent starting point is this Ted Talk video, titled ‘The difference between being not racist and antiracist’. In this video, Ibram X. Kennedy explains that actions are either racist, or anti-racist, and that both racism and the belief that one is ‘not racist’ are rooted in denial. Being anti-racist means taking an active stance and supporting the belief in equality and equity. Be sure to share with your loved ones why being antiracist is important to you personally as well. 

When we talk about racism in 2020, the term ‘systemic racism’ is often used. But what does that mean? Flare defined systemic racism as “the ways that white supremacy (that is, the belief that white people are superior to people of other races) is reflected and upheld in the systems in our society”. It infiltrates so many things in our society: healthcare, education, wealth inequality, and more. It isn’t just one instance, but barriers faced by people of colour throughout their lives. 

"So how can you explain to your loved one that ‘all lives matter’ is not an appropriate statement? Remind them that the BLM movement is not trying to say that only black lives matter, but rather that black lives matter too." 

Many of our parents were taught that to be antiracist meant ‘not seeing colour’. The problem with this way of thinking is that when you choose not to see colour, you also choose not to recognize patterns. One startling example of a pattern of racism, or systemic racism, is the incarceration rate of First Nations people in Canada, who represent over 30% of those behind bars, while only making up 5% of the population. Indigenous over-representation in the correctional system is a complicated issue with many roots, like unequal access to health services, but it’s clear that there is a serious problem going on. So, if you do not see colour, you will miss institutional problems like this one and put an unreasonable amount of blame on the individual instead of the system which has made it more difficult to move within if you are not white. Not seeing colour also means erasing differences, which should be celebrated and respected! 

A sentiment that often goes hand in hand with not seeing colour is the belief that Black Lives Matter is exclusionary, as ‘All Lives Matter’ (ALM). But only saying that all lives matter when faced with hearing ‘black lives matter’ is incredibly invalidating and misses the point. So how can you explain to your loved one that ‘all lives matter’ is not an appropriate statement? Remind them that the BLM movement is not trying to say that only black lives matter, but rather that black lives matter too. It’s a small, but crucial difference that changes the meaning completely. Stating ‘all lives matter’ only serves to ignore that black people (and other non-white people in general) historically have and continue to face threats and challenges because of their race. Vox has a write-up on 9 ways you can explain this in a persuasive way, if you need some more ideas/metaphors on how to frame this important differentiation (the first example is the Burning House analogy, which is a particularly well-done comic to illustrate the difference). 


When you start your conversation, remember to approach it as a call in instead of a call out. People don’t tend to react well to perceived criticism and may get defensive. If you set about to create a discussion instead of a lecture, they will likely be more open to hearing what you have to say, and hopefully understanding. However, if you are still finding it difficult to put your thoughts into words, Letters for Black Lives has created a fantastic resource of sample letters discussing racism in many different languages. You can use it to guide your own letter or conversation, or send it to your loved one as is. 

Lastly, don’t be discouraged if your loved one does not immediately have a change of heart on the subject - this can be something you approach over multiple talks. Being antiracist is a continuing practice as well and extends far beyond one conversation. But bringing your loved one into your circle of understanding is worth working through a tough talk, and can ultimately help to make our world more equitable and compassionate. 


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