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

Get Help

What if this family member intimidates you if he’s an elder or an in-law and you aren’t comfortable calling attention to the behavior you find inappropriate? Find a relative you feel more comfortable with and request that he accompany you as you confront the family member you believe is offensive.

Tell the insensitive family member that you love and appreciate him but find his 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 father-in-law is the party in question, ask your spouse to confront him about his language and attitudes concerning race.

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 him that you find his comments hurtful and asking him to refrain from such remarks in the future.

Don’t Argue

Whatever you do, don’t get into a debate with your 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 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, you will have convinced her of little or 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 might have to set guidelines with your relative. Say, for example, that you have children. Do you want your children to hear the comments by your family member? 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 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.

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 that they might go along with. Organize a family trip to a museum with a social justice focus. Have a movie night at your house and screen films addressing issues of racial inequity or showing minority groups in a positive light. Start a family book club and select anti-racist literature.