5 Ways to Handle a Racist Family Member

Be direct and set consequences

family talking around a table
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It’s no secret that family gatherings can cause stress and lead to conflict, especially if some of your family members have racist views that you're staunchly against.

So, what’s the best way to proceed when a loved one not only seems small-minded but outright racist? Don’t suffer in silence through one family gathering after another. You can take a number of steps to stop the Archie Bunker of the family in his tracks. These strategies include setting boundaries and calling attention to the racist behavior.

Be Direct

Confrontations are never easy. That said, if you don’t want to listen to your parents or siblings rattle off racial stereotypes every Thanksgiving, the direct approach is necessary. How will your family members realize that you find their behavior offensive unless you let them know?

The moment your sister makes a racist joke or uses a racial stereotype, tell her that you’d appreciate it if she didn’t make such “jokes” or sweeping racial generalizations in front of you. If calling your relative out in front of others will make her more defensive, ask to speak to her privately and then make your feelings known.

If your family member uses a racial slur in front of you, request that she doesn’t use such epithets in your presence. Do so in a calm and firm voice. Make your request short and sweet and then move on. Don’t attack your family member’s character. Just let her know that her comments make you feel uncomfortable.

Get Other Relatives to Help

What if this particular family member intimidates you? He’s an elder or an in-law and you don’t feel comfortable calling attention to his inappropriate behavior—even if it is racist. Find a relative you feel more comfortable with and request that he accompany you as you confront your offensive family member.

Tell the insensitive family member that you love and appreciate him but find his views on race hurtful. Alternatively, if your grandfather has made a series of racially insensitive remarks, you might want to ask your parent to speak with him about his behavior. If your father-in-law is the guilty party, ask your spouse to confront him about his language and attitudes concerning race.

If no one else in your family can serve as an ally to you, consider taking a less direct approach to confronting your bigoted relative. Write the person a brief letter or email informing him that you find his comments hurtful and asking him to refrain from such remarks in the future.

Don’t Argue With Racist Family Members

Whatever you do, don’t get into a racial debate with your racist relative. Agree to disagree with this family member about race rather than listening to her argument about why her racial stereotypes are valid and you’re just too politically correct. Stick to the following script: “I find your comments hurtful. Please don’t make these remarks in front of me again.”

Arguing with the relative will likely be a waste of time. The family member will be on the defensive and you will be on the offensive. Meanwhile, your relative will have learned next to nothing about racial sensitivity. Focus on your feelings about the relative’s comments rather than on the validity of her beliefs.

Set Consequences

Depending on your situation, you may have to set some guidelines with your racist relative. Say, for example, that you have children. Do you want your children to hear the drivel coming out of your family member’s mouth? If not, let your relatives know that if they make bigoted remarks in your children’s presence, you will leave the family gathering at once.

If your relatives routinely make such comments, let them know that you will be skipping family gatherings with them altogether. This is an especially important move to make if you’re in an interracial relationship or have multiracial children who will feel targeted by your family members’ insensitive comments.

Open Their Eyes

You will probably not open your relatives’ eyes about race by arguing with them about the issue, but you can take some steps to free their minds. Organize a family trip to a museum with a social justice focus. Have a movie night at your house and screen films that address issues of racial inequity or show minority groups in a positive light. Start a family book club and select anti-racist literature to read.