I recently went for a meal with a couple of close friends and our parents. Halfway through the meal, one of the parents made a racist remark. The rest of the table looked at each other in shock. The same parent repeated, and then expanded, on the racist remark. It resounded through the table as we all looked at our plates and thought, what the hell, where did that come from?
After, I spoke to my friend – the child of the person who made the remarks. He was, and still is, deeply upset and troubled by his parents view. He told me how it’s difficult to counter. The thing is, his parents are not card-carrying racists. They are nice, polite, friendly people who would hate to think that they have “said the wrong thing”. My friend explained that his parent has had a sheltered, relatively uneducated life, and that they are very sensitive to making a social faux-pas. My friend finished by saying that he KNOWS that his parent is a vicious, spiteful person harbouring racist views. And yet, we both recalled it: that undeniably racist remark that hung in the air, like a mushroom cloud above the dinner table.
My friend is not alone in his predicament. I often listen to my shocked and troubled friends talking about the crap their parents say, or the problematic views their relatives hold. It is rarely from an outwardly xenophobic place: their relatives are pleasant, welcoming people. The familial brand of casual, unconscious racism is among the most pervasive in society, yet despite being so prevalent it is also one of the hardest forms to tackle. I get it: how do we talk to our families without causing a huge rift?
I sympathise. My family are largely tolerant, open-minded people, but I have encountered troubling views in one specific branch of the extended tree. A few years ago, I had a lengthy argument with an older, white relative which culminated in me storming out in shock and anger. I remember the horror and shame. The disgust of knowing I was related to the bile I was hearing. Our argument was not resolved. A couple years later, that same family member reached out to me to apologise after I published a post on my own experiences with racism. I still grapple with their views, but them apologising and listening seemed a tiny step away from racism, and towards humanity.
When it comes to family, these tiny steps are all we can do. It is horrific to think of our nearest and dearest as harbouring racist views, however casual, but we can’t just sweep it under the carpet. It can feel scary trying to bring up issues of race with family members – like we’re subverting the natural order of doing things, or like we are potentially going to destroy our relationships. How often do the young teach the old?
It’s important to call out racism whenever you see it, and the thing is, when it comes to family we have a massive advantage in that we KNOW them. We know how to address our relatives and how to get their attention in a way we can’t know with a total stranger on the street. The benefit of talking to family is that you can attempt to suss out the source of their problematic views, because you know their background in a way you wouldn’t with Joe Public on social media. You can approach your family in a more nuanced way: they’re more likely to listen.
Racism DOES need to be approached. Here in 2016, lives are being lost, borders are being built up and unfiltered xenophobia is rising. Ignoring the problem just isn’t working. It’s not good enough for our families to be aware of the possibility of causing offence, and then merely trying to tiptoe around it. Relatives also need to know why their views are offensive in the first place. To help, we need to listen to our family members and not just write them off. We can do better than that. We can try, repeatedly, to explain and learn and discuss. We owe it to each other.
I feel as though we take a huge step back every day in terms of race issues. “Avoiding the topic” is not an option unless you’re unaffected by racial profiling. You’re either a race ally or you’re not – there is no neutral ground. It is tricky, and difficult, and draining to try and target these issues in our own families. I get it: race is a complex, nuanced issue. I can barely address it in my own writing most of the time because there is just SO MUCH to try and pick apart. But we have to try. That’s all we can do: confront the racism closest to us. Target the views in our kitchens and at our dinner tables, comment by comment, day by day. Step by tiny step. Maybe with enough tiny steps we can try to counteract the big ones.