How To Start A Hard Conversation With Family Members About The Racial Justice Protests

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Shorter Version

Est. Reading Time: 2 Minutes

It is not enough to be non-racist, rather to be a real ally of African-Americans and other people of color, one must commit to having those hard conversations with friends and loved ones.

With emotions at an all-time high in the US and around the globe, it’s necessary to start a hard conversation on race, inequality, police brutality, and privilege to heal a country in mental, physical, emotional, financial, social, and even spiritual distress. These conversations are especially important for families right now.

Constant news reports on racism, the killings of African-Americans at the hands of cops and non-cops, Black Lives Matter and equality protests, and rioting, looting, and violence have led to a much-needed wake-up call for people around the world, but especially for Americans.

The result?

The beginning of important conversations on racism within family and friend circles. 

Why are these uncomfortable conversations imperative for families?

For many African-Americans and people of color, these events aren’t just conversations, they are “ways of life.” The dialogue in this country is long overdue. Although this problem (social and systemic racism, discrimination, police brutality, and inequality) has been around since the first Transatlantic trip from Africa to America, this is the first time these issues have taken center stage in this country.

It’s also the first time non-minorities in the US and around the world have taken notice that the Black community is in danger. The iron is hot right now which is why it is imperative to start a hard conversation with loved ones. Times are changing, albeit slower than Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and hundreds of other civil rights activists once envisioned.

Still, times are changing.

In fact, every year, more and more young people of all races and ethnicities embrace (i.e. befriend, date, marry, and start families) people of color. These young people “see color,” however, they choose to view these “variances” as assets rather than liabilities. And, if reports are right, this trend will continue as time goes on.

But, changes begin at home. 

So, even though it may be tough to start a hard conversation with loved ones, you must gather your courage and have them anyway. Be open and honest with family members because doing so will help improve your family’s understanding of racial issues plaguing this country. It will also help them look at the current state of affairs in the US from a different perspective.

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Longer Version

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Recent events have left millions of non-Black Americans wondering how they can become better allies to African-Americans. These individuals are looking for meaningful ways to voice their dissent and show their support to a community experiencing distress – inequality, police brutality, discrimination, unrelenting fear, etc. They want to eliminate systemic racism and reform an unfair and imbalanced penal system. 

However, being a true ally to African-Americans involves not only being non-racist and taking responsibility for your own words and actions but also being anti-racist or actively stopping racism and discriminatory practices when you encounter them. More specifically, it means talking to loved ones who continue to make stereotypical, derogatory, and racist remarks in response to news reports – and who hold negative views and beliefs when it comes to Black people, in general.

If you are a young adult, your relative’s discriminatory beliefs, opinions, and words are mind-boggling and almost repulsive. You chalk it up to an older relative who has outdated views. He or she constantly spouts-off his or her racist and stereotypical views to family members, including you.

You hate it, so you ignore it and try to avoid him or her at family functions. Is that enough? NO!

You can’t be an ally to African-Americans and remain silent – even if it’s a family member. The only way you can fully support the Black community is to start a hard conversation about racial injustice with your loved one.

How to start a hard conversation about race

Having these conversations can be hard, but this is not the time to allow damaging views and behaviors to go unchecked. This is the perfect time to dismantle false narratives centered on people of color, specifically Black people.

For instance, not all Black people are lazy, stupid, “thugs,” drug dealers, rappers, or “ballers.” And, the majority of African-Americans are not looking for a government handout. Moreover, not all Black men are “absentee fathers.” And, not all Black people are poor. I can account for all of these, but especially this last one – I grew up in an affluent two-parent home and I am African-American and a psychologist.  

Black people like any other race of people are individualized, which means their experiences, from the color of their skin, hair texture, educational background, income levels, family status, career, needs and wants, and likes and dislikes are unique to the specific person and his or her family.

It’s not going to be easy or comfortable…

Understand that these “family talks” aren’t supposed to be easy or comfortable. Prepare yourself for the idea that your relative(s) may not want to hear what you have to say on the topic – regardless of the validity of your message.

Furthermore, you may not be able to change his or her mind. And, your relationship may be temporarily or permanently damaged due to your diverging beliefs. But, it is important to at least try. This is bigger than you or your relatives. Therefore, you must approach this topic the right way.

You only have one chance to get it right – to make a difference.

The hope is that you can start a hard conversation to force your family members to step outside of their comfort zones and see themselves, African-Americans and people of color, and the world around them in a new and different light. Maybe this dialogue will make your loved ones more empathetic to the plights of others. It’s worth a try, right?

Actionable Steps


Research the facts and come prepared before you start a hard conversation about race

Don’t make things up to prove your point. Make sure you have facts, statistics, studies, and personal testimonies to back-up your claims. Provide your family members with details and try to make these facts relatable for them.
It’s important to come prepared because if you don’t you’ll lose credibility when your relatives challenge the things you say. So, make copies of statistics, articles, and studies, and/or video or audio record personal testimonies and take these items with you to the “family talk.” The only way you’ll be able to change the hearts and minds of your loved ones is with evidence.

The good news is there are numerous studies you can use to make your point, such as the 2003 study that found that White people are more likely to “see” anger in the faces of Black people and, a 2018 study that found that teachers are more likely to “see” anger in the faces of Black children and less likely to “see” it in the faces of White children.


Listen to your family members

In other words, don’t interrupt your loved ones as they share their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs with you. This is important because if they feel “voiceless” they are less likely to listen to you when it’s your time to talk. Truth-be-told, this may be one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. But, it’s important to hold your tongue and listen to them.
You can’t shoot down stereotypes and false narratives if you don’t know what the person has said. So, listen.
But, if it becomes too hard to listen to your relative or relatives talk, take a break. Tell them you need to run to the restroom for a minute or grab something from your car really quickly. Once alone, close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. Then, remind yourself of your goal: to help your family members see the protests in a different light and to change their hearts and minds so they see that Black people aren’t much different than themselves.
However, becoming too emotional can distract you from your primary purpose so wait until you have calmed down and can listen to your loved ones without blowing up. Then, return to the conversation.
Note: A good way to counter faulty and racists beliefs about Black people is to highlight the contributions they have made to American society throughout the centuries.


Calmly explain why the focus is currently on “Black Lives,” not “All Lives”

A common misconception is that the focus should be on “All Lives” instead of “Black Lives.” Those who are against these racial justice protests often use this argument to end the conversation. They don’t understand why the attention is focused on African-Americans right now. They also don’t get why so many young people (of all races and ethnicities) are invested in racial justice.
Basically, they don’t see the need for the protests and equate peaceful protests with rioting, looting, and violence when they are ultimately two very different things. How do you handle these assertions? By calmly explaining that while “all lives matter,” it is “Black lives” that are under attack.
More specifically, “Black people” are in danger right now – not “all people.”
Reference this point by using the Bible verses (if your family members are Christian):
·      “Blessed are those, who have regard for the weak; the LORD delivers them in times of trouble.” (Psalm 41:1)
·       “This is what the Lord says: Be fair-minded and just. Do what is right! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. (Jeremiah 22:3)
·      “Speak up for the people who have no voice, for the rights of all the down-and-outers. Speak out for justice! Stand up for the poor and destitute!” (Proverbs 31:8-9)
·      “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”(Luke 15: 4-7).

Or, compare it to a fundraiser for breast cancer. Say something like: Imagine that your daughter or mother was struggling with breast cancer and you have created a fundraiser for breast cancer research and treatments – how would you feel if someone interrupted this fundraiser because it did not include other cancers.
The focus is supposed to be on breast cancer but someone has hijacked it and made it about something else. That is the difference between “all lives” and “Black lives” right now. Of course “all lives matter,” but right now the focus needs to be on “Black lives.


Make comparisions

Your loved ones may assert that although the cop involved in George Floyd’s death is definitely a murderer, he’s probably just “one bad apple” – not collective of all cops. Calmly explain to family members that the same concept applies to people of color and specifically, African-Americans.
Similarly, “one bad apple” is not reflective of an entire race of people. This is why people are protesting for racial equality and justice. Explain to your loved ones that is why African-Americans need non-minorities to stand up for them. Remind your family members that Black people are human beings who also deserve fair treatment and an opportunity to have a better life.


Hold your ground and keep your cool

In other words, don’t back down even if you feel like other family members are ganging up on you. Keep in mind that your loved ones may become hostile or resentful towards you when you start bringing up systemic racism (racist institutions and practices aimed at African-Americans and minorities). They may take your position as a personal attack and accuse you of calling them “racist” even though that is not what you’ve said or even implied.
Even if you believe your relative is “racist,” the worst thing you can do is to say or imply that he or she is indeed “racist.” Rather, stick to the facts and avoid name-calling at all costs. Why? Because your family members will most likely stop listening to you and the conversation will be DOA (dead on arrival).
So, keep your cool and do not allow your family members to rattle or bully you into backing down or validating their faulty, offensive, bigoted, discriminatory, unfair, stereotypical, and/or inflammatory beliefs. If you feel passionate about what you’re saying and doing, hold your ground – even if it’s difficult.
When you start a hard conversation, use it as a “teachable moment.” Provide your loved ones with plenty of examples of what racism and discrimination looks like for African-Americans and other minorities in 2020.

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About the Author

Dr. R. Y. Langham

Dr. R. Y. Langham

Ph.D. in Family Psychology

Ree has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy (M.M.F.T.) and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology. She spent over ten years counseling families, couples, individuals, and children on adjustment issues such as blended families, same-sex couples, dysfunctional family relationships, relationship issues, etc. Now she writes for famous health organizations and is a published author.
Full Bio | LinkedIn

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