When relatives are racist: Confronting hateful speech in families

By Malia Jacobson

You’re enjoying time with your child and a beloved relative when you hear it: The relative casually uses a hateful term, makes a racist joke, or expresses a privileged perspective that stops you in your tracks. Your cheeks flush as you grasp for the right response—do you say something? When? Now? In front of your kid, or later? Could confronting them end up making things worse?

Just as quickly as it appeared, the moment fades, but your questions linger.

Like many parents, I’ve been in this situation more than once. And I haven’t always been happy with the way I’ve responded. In some cases, my swift and heartfelt response wound up alienating my relative, effectively shutting down communication. Other times, I was shocked into silence or simply unsure how to explain my stance with one kid on my hip and another tugging on my arm.

Confronting racist beliefs, words, or actions in friends and family is always hard, but maybe never more than we begin hearing the comments in the presence of our own children. When the person spouting hateful speech is someone our child loves and admires, we don’t want to create or intensify family conflict. And countering such comments from older relatives means stepping outside of family norms and rejecting our own internalized beliefs about not questioning or disrespecting our elders, says parenting coach and speaker Sarina Behar Natkin, LICSW.

We might wonder whether confronting a relative’s beliefs will make a difference. And well-intentioned parents raised with the problematic “colourblind” mindset may squirm at the thought of bringing their child’s attention to racial oppression.

These concerns are real, but they’re no reason not to act, says Orchid Fowler, a teacher at Chavitos Spanish-immersion nature school in Tacoma who spent her undergraduate years teaching anti-racism in Boston schools. Raising children who champion equity means countering racist beliefs within family systems, despite the difficulty.

“We know that racism is handed down to children over time, through family members who view the world through the lens of racism,” she says. Recognizing and fighting racism, and raising children who do the same, means resisting any urge we might feel to keep quiet.

“Let the child witness you standing up for a person of colour or people with a different background tells them that as an adult and parent, you don’t stand for oppression,” she says. “You’re shifting the ignorance that is passed down through our parents.”

But that doesn’t mean you should respond with hostility, or even necessarily respond immediately, she notes. Thinking about your response as two or more separate conversations can help.

“As educators we take the stance that children don’t perceive things in the same way adults do,” she says. “Around third grade and younger, you might address it later with your child by saying the comment was hurtful and that words matter. Then, with the relative, you can explain how you’re having a conversation at home about racism and this is what you’re learning, then ask them for their perspective. Later, after fourth grade or so, children can understand systemic racism and are ready for deeper conversation.”

Even with very young children, talking about why a relative’s comment was hurtful is important, says Natkin. “Not understanding isn’t the same as not noticing. Younger kids do notice, and store these things away.”

What happens when you’ve respectfully requested that your relative stop making these comments in front of your children, and they don’t? Parents should keep in mind that they get to choose who their children spend time with, Natkin says.

“If I had parents or grandparents who continue to use language or act in ways that don’t align with our values, I’d tell them that I was concerned.” Parents can choose to set boundaries with relatives who can’t shift their behaviour, she notes.

Confronting racist language means having difficult conversations with relatives, but those conversations can be opportunities for connection, learning, and growth. “I think we only have influence through connection,” says Natkin. “Shocking or shaming our relative may seem to work in the short-term, but what about the long term?”

“I do my best to model compassion, and meet people where they are,” says Jennifer Dumlao. “I’m not going to educate my relative on white fragility when he doesn’t understand how using stereotypes is racist”.

“I used to never say anything, but having a kid has made me stronger,” she says. “I’m trying my best to speak up.”