Todd Davidson PTY LTD./Getty Images
Todd Davidson PTY LTD./Getty Images
As people across the nation continue to call for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others killed by the police, there has also been an urgent call for Americans to not just talk about racism, but to speak out against it. You might be ready to do that with friends, maybe even with co-workers, but it seems to get even trickier when it comes to parents and elders.
Ijeoma Oluo, best-selling author of So You Want to Talk About Race, shares advice on how to talk to your parents about racism. While her tips are mostly geared towards non-black folks, there's something for everyone in this episode.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah McCammon: Conversations about this moment are going to vary depending on each family and their circumstances. But I want to start by asking what advice you might have for beginning a conversation about this moment with a parent or an elder who just doesn't really understand it.
Ijeoma Oluo: I think it's really important to start first from a place of your own ignorance that you once had. A lot of times when we start conversations about justice and social justice with people who may not believe that these issues are important or understand why there's so much urgency around them. We forget that at one point we didn't think there was urgency either.
I always advise people to think about what brought them to the point where they realized it mattered, and to share that story. Talk to the people that you care about who aren't understanding this and say, 'You know, I used to think the same way you did. But I know, like me, you care about people. And I want you to hear why I believe differently.' And kind of share your journey.
I hear you advising, maybe don't take a super confrontational approach.
I would say that that rarely works. I always tell people before getting in a conversation, especially about race, know what you want to come out of the conversation. Do you want your parents to hear you? Do you want them to be more supportive of your efforts? Do you want them to act? Or do you want them to stop doing something that they're doing that's causing harm?
Know what your goal is, and state that goal, and then tailor the conversation towards that. If you come in really confrontational, 'You're wrong. This is why' And your goal is to get them to be more supportive of you, that's not going to achieve the goal.
If you want them to know that maybe the things they've been saying are unacceptable, then maybe just saying, 'You know, this is unacceptable, and this is why,' is your goal.
You, like so many Americans, come from a family that is racially diverse. You've written about talking to your white mother about race. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your family and what some of those conversations are like?
My mother is a white woman from Kansas, and my father came from West Africa. Our mother loves us so dearly and is so proud to have black children, but she really thought love was enough. She still never spent a day in her life being black. The conversations I've had with my mom over the years are to get her to understand that that difference between us isn't a threat. That it is OK that she is white and I am black. And we are still family. And it is okay that she does not fully understand what I have faced in life, because her love should enable her to listen to me and support me so that she can find her best way to be an ally — not only for black people across the country, but for her children.
We've had some real honest conversations about where she benefits from white privilege, where she can use that privilege to help us. And also, areas where maybe we could use more understanding. It's actually brought us a lot closer.
You wrote an essay a couple of years ago about what you described as your first substantive conversation about race with your mom. And you said it wasn't until your mid-30s that you had that conversation. Why do you think it took so long?
We don't sit around our dinner table talking about race. And we should because it's very easy for us to miss all of the ways in which we are interacting with a racial hierarchy. But you don't sit down and say, 'How was your day today? How did you interact with white supremacy today? What did you do to deconstruct it today?'
As I became more active in my work for Black liberation, I started realizing my mother was becoming uncomfortable because she didn't know where she fit in my life and my work because we hadn't really had a conversation about what it means to truly be there for the people of color, for the black people in your life. It was shocking to me after all these years of writing and working that I had forgotten to go back and have that real conversation that I advise people to have with my own mother.
So how did you navigate that discomfort?
First there was some pushback with a lot of patience — and recognizing that the fear I was hearing from her was fear that maybe this was going to divide us, that maybe issues of race were going to pull her children away from her. And underscoring what my goals were: I wanted my mom to understand the work I did, and understand how she could help me, and stop doing things that had been harmful so that we could be closer. So me being really clear about how I needed her to support me and what I needed her to do as my mother to really make a difference, gave her a purpose and a place.
I hope that as we're having these conversations, that if you are a white parent of a child of color, especially a white parent of a black child, that you proactively do this work. It can be scary, but you don't always have to wait until your child approaches you. You can do this work now and say, 'How can I truly be there for the people in my life that have a different lived experience than me?'
Are there things right now that you wish your white friends — or white people in general who care about these issues — would say to their white parents, if they have white parents?
I really wish that my white friends would sit down with their white parents and all of their white community members and start talking about the real power that they have as individuals in their communities, in their workplaces, in their stores and say, 'I think we all want a world where black people feel safe. Where they have just as much access to opportunity. So what can we do together?'
Start pointing out the meetings that people get to sit in, the city council meetings they can attend, the places they can spend their money. There are different conversations they can be having to create strategic plans to make a difference in their community. I want it to start with 'Here is an opportunity for you to make a real difference.'
There's a lot of pressure to start fights with people, to start arguing with people. And what I really need people to do is start collaborating with the people that they know who at least understand that racism is wrong and that there is something wrong with our system, and start talking about real action, putting together little community plans, family plans to make a difference where they are.
I think the reason people don't do this more is, frankly, because it's uncomfortable and hard and there is sometimes fear of damaging relationships. Now, clearly, that fear and that danger is nothing compared to what people of color face in this country. Do you have advice on how to kind of overcome that fear and defensiveness?
I always say that it's important to state why you're having this conversation. So state 'I'm having this conversation because this is happening in our town, and I need you to join me in action.' Or 'I feel like when you say these things about race, it distances me from you. It makes me feel unsafe. And I want to feel safe with you.'
State the goal and get people to really sign on to that goal. Say, 'Do you want to do this with me?' That gives you something to call back to when people start to get defensive. Say, 'Remember, this is why we're having this conversation.' And make sure you're tailoring the conversation towards that goal.
I think it's also really important to understand when to step away from a conversation that's lost track and say, 'Right now, emotions are a bit high. And I can see that we're not going to be able to get to the goal we have. Can we come back to this in a day or two?' and then come back to it.
But it's important to recognize, if you have people of color in your life, especially black and indigenous people in your life, and they are not talking to you about what they're facing, they are not as close to you as you think they are. You have sent a signal that you aren't someone to be trusted, that you aren't safe to discuss those things. If you actually want to be really close to these people, have the conversations. The fear you have that it will drive you apart is ignoring how apart you actually are because you're not having these conversations.
Conversations between people of color and their parents — if they're people of color — those have to be very different conversations than what we've just talked about. What kinds of conversations would you like to be seeing right now in that regard?
It is so important that in the black community and other communities of color that we are having intergenerational conversations about systemic racism in our society. Every generation is shaped by the environment they grow up in. This means that the struggles for freedom that your parents' generation and your grandparents' generation had are different from the struggles today. And the goals you have are different.
Oftentimes I see in my work and with my friends and my peers, that there's a generational divide about what it is we're asking for or what tactics we're using. So it's really important that you're communicating what your goals are, like what your definition of freedom is. Because people who spent a lot of time fighting for the ability to just drink out of a water fountain may have trouble understanding the nuances of what we're fighting for today because they've invested a lot of time and energy into these basic freedoms. And to understand that we also have these new ideas of freedom that we're fighting for today, that requires communication.
It also requires communication because we have to learn tactics. We have to learn about the resiliency and the strength of prior generations in order to move forward. And we have to honor and show respect for the work that was done. So it takes a lot of empathy, a lot of kindness and a lot of generosity on both sides of that age gap.
What other concerns are you hearing?
I am hearing a lot of concerns from indigenous parents about their children. It's important to note that indigenous people are just as likely, if not more likely, to be killed by police in America as black people are.
Also, I know that a lot of parents are concerned for the safety of their disabled children, especially disabled children of color. The issues that they are confronting when they are confronted with police force are different from those who are not disabled. So talking about what it means when an officer is trying to shout commands at you and you cannot hear them. How do you communicate the needs of a child who has different behaviors when stressed? And we need to start talking about what we can do to make sure that everyone is safe from police brutality.
What have your conversations with your mom been like in recent days during the protests breaking out around the country against racial injustice?
My mom has been really wonderful. Her call was just 'What do you need from me?' We're all social distancing, and so she was just, you know, 'I know that you're going through something I can't fully understand right now. I know you're working really hard. I know that you're traumatized. You want me to cook dinner? Just send me your favorite recipes and I'll make it and I'll drop it off at the door. Are there any chores you need me to do? How can I support you?' And that really helps me feel better.
She was like, 'I'm having conversations with my friends, with my coworkers, but I need to know what you need in this time.' And that really made me feel seen. It wasn't her trying to prove that she was woke, trying to prove that she was out battling. It was her trying to be useful to the black people in her life that she loves.
If you have a tip about navigating difficult conversations, we'd love to hear it. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.
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The audio portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen and Gemma Watters.