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 family members have racial views that you're staunchly against.

What’s the best way to proceed when a loved one seems not only small-minded but outright racist? Don’t suffer in silence through one family gathering after another. You can take several steps to stop the bigot of the family in their tracks. These strategies include setting boundaries and calling attention to 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 understand that you find their behavior offensive unless you tell them?

The moment your sister makes a racial joke or uses a racial stereotype, tell her that you’d appreciate it if she didn’t make such jokes or racial generalizations in front of you. If you believe that calling out your relative 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 not use such epithets in your presence. Do so in a calm, firm voice. Make your request short and then move on. The goal is letting her know that her comments make you uncomfortable.

Get Help

What if you find this family member intimidating because he’s an elder, in-law, or fits into another category you believe warrants respect? Find a relative you feel more comfortable with and request that they accompany you as you confront your racist family member.

Tell your relative that you love and appreciate them (if that's true) but find their views on race hurtful. Alternatively, if your grandfather has made remarks you consider racially insensitive, you might want to ask your parent to speak with him about his behavior. If your mother-in-law is the party in question, ask your spouse to confront her about her racial attitudes.

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

Don’t Argue

Avoid getting into a back-and-forth with your relative about their views. 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 isn't likely to change their views. The family member will be on the defensive and you will be on the offensive. Focus on your feelings on the comments.

Set Consequences

Depending on your situation, you might have to set guidelines with your relative. Say, for example, that you have children. Do you want them to hear your family member's ignorant comments? If not, let your relatives know that if they make bigoted remarks in your kids' presence, you will leave the family gathering at once.

If your relatives routinely make such comments, let them know that you will skip family gatherings with them altogether. This is an especially important move if you’re in an interracial relationship or have multiracial children who will feel targeted by your family members’ comments. It is also important if everyone involved shares the same race, but you don't want your family's racial attitudes to poison your children.

Try Outside Influences

You probably won't open your relatives’ eyes about race by arguing with them about the issue, but you can take steps to influence them. Organize a family trip to a museum with a social justice focus. Have a movie night at your house and screen films about racial inequity or ones that depict minority groups in a positive light. Start a family book club and select anti-racist literature to read.