How to talk about racism

What do you do when a parent won’t acknowledge the issues?

Presenting the facts is a good start, says our elder, but connecting with personal stories may be a more effective approach.

Dear EWC:

Hello, I would like to talk to my father about the protests and race issues, but I am struggling to do it constructively, since we think differently. He doesn’t believe there are any issues that need to be solved.

He has blamed the black community for incarceration rates, black shooting victims, and segregated housing. I tried discussing the history of reconstruction, Jim Crow, red lining, and anti-civil rights actions. I also tried showing him statistics. I also provided current news stories, vlogs from members of the black community, and modern comparisons of other countries and their efforts to quell racial inequality and the results.

He will show me unverified articles claiming black people are attacking and killing white people far more than whites harming blacks. And he says the black community should only have gratitude for everything white people have done for them. I did my best to acknowledge the fact that he is older and more experienced, but that is the only line of dialogue he listens to. His response to each attempt is that he has seen more and he experienced racism from black people but he hasn’t seen racism from white people, so all the evidence I show is staged by the media or doesn’t happen anymore so he shouldn’t be worried about.

How can I respectfully broach the subject with him in a way that would be constructive? This is important to me because not only do I want to play a role in repairing the damage done by systemic racism, but also it hurts to see someone I care about put a negative message into the world that can cause emotional harm to the black community, including some of my friends. I also think it’s important to limit the support for anti-civil rights or racist messages so it will no longer proliferate.

Folk replies:

I understand that you want to do a good thing. You want to do your part to help heal the hurt in the world by raising the awareness of someone close to you, your dad. But, as you have discovered for yourself, it isn’t easy to persuade people to change their deeply held opinions, even when you present them with clear statistics and facts. The reason for this is that our opinions are not generally based on facts, but on feelings. If you want your dad to listen to you, really listen to you, then instead of giving him facts and figures, I suggest that you talk to him about your own feelings around racism and about how his negativity is impacting you. Your dad may not care about racial injustice in the world, Kris, but he cares about YOU. So, if you share your own journey to awareness with him, your dad is more likely to be interested in what you have to say. A good place to start might be with how he raised you.

Did your dad raise you to respect and care about others? Did he teach you right from wrong? Did he encourage you to resist injustice and stereotyping? If so, try starting there. You didn’t grow up in a vacuum, after all. You didn’t get to be the intelligent, caring person you are today without some parental input, so begin your conversation by thanking your dad for the things you learned from him. Then talk to him about how YOU applied the lessons HE taught you to race issues. Your objective in having this conversation shouldn’t be to change your dad’s views, but to open a dialogue with him that may eventually lead to his deciding to change his own views. And don’t try to fit everything you have to say into one conversation; instead, plan on having a series of spaced out conversations with your dad to allow him time to reflect on each one.

As your conversations with your dad progress, you might be able to tell him about personal experiences you’ve had that challenge his stereotypes. You can also try asking your dad searching questions, like ‘If this was happening to you, what would you do? Would you do whatever you could to make sure your children were safe?’ Or “What would allow you to feel more empathy with the plight of the black community?”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, during these conversations, listen to what your dad has to say. As abhorrent and negative as his views might seem, if you don’t give him the respect of listening to his views, then there is little chance that he will do the same for you. Your dad will be much more receptive to hearing what you have to say is he feels that he’s been heard and understood.

Your dad won’t change immediately, so be patient. When change comes to us humans, it comes gradually. Think back on yourself. Are you the same person you were five or ten years ago? Do you have the same thoughts and feelings you had then? Probably not. But you also probably cannot pinpoint the exact moment that your thoughts and feelings changed. The changes in your dad may be imperceptible at first, and you may think that you are wasting your breath. If you don’t get discouraged though, if you don’t blame, and if you keep talking, change will come.

I hope this helps. I am always here if you’d like to talk more about this. Good luck!


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