SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Sarah McCammon.
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's 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 co-workers, but it seems to get even trickier when it comes to parents and elders.
Ijeoma Oluo is the bestselling author of "So You Want To Talk About Race." She joins us with advice on how to talk to your parents about racism. And while her tips here mostly are geared towards nonblack folks, there's something for everyone in this episode.
Ijeoma Oluo is the author of "So You Want To Talk About Race." Thank you for being with us.
IJEOMA OLUO: Thanks for having me.
MCCAMMON: Over the past couple of weeks, we've seen protests across the country against police brutality, sparked, of course, by the video of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Obviously, 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, say, a parent or an elder who just doesn't really understand it.
OLUO: I think it's really important to start first from a place of your own ignorance that you once had. I think 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 as well. And so I always, you know, advise people to think about what brought them to the point where they realized it mattered and to kind of share that story with people as well. It kind of removes any defensiveness and shows, even if people aren't going to agree with you in the end, that there is a logical progression of your thought.
So just think, you know, I saw this story. This is the impact it had on me. Or I was talking to these people, and I used to think this, but then I started considering these new viewpoints. And really kind of 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 to where you got to where you are with your parents.
MCCAMMON: I think about a lot of these protests that we're seeing, so many people of different races out in the streets protesting. And I would think that for some people, especially I'm thinking of white young people who are out there feeling the urgency, it might be frustrating to talk to parents who don't get it. But I hear you advising, maybe don't take a super confrontational approach.
OLUO: I would say that that rarely works. And so I always tell people before you're getting in a conversation, especially about race, know what you want to come out of the conversation. So 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 doing 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. But it's really important that you know what you want to get out of the conversation first because knowing that no matter what, I'm going to come in and I'm going to yell - that may not serve your purpose if your goal is to maybe, you know, get them to join you in the protest or get them to be more supportive when you come back from, you know, the actions you've been taking or when you're talking about these things. But sometimes, you may just need them to stop saying things that are harmful or doing things that are harmful, and then your approach is going to be different.
MCCAMMON: You, like so many Americans, come from a family that itself is racially diverse, right? And 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?
OLUO: My mother is a white woman from Kansas, and my father came from West Africa. My brother likes to say, you know, we have the Barack Obama story, but none of us became president. And our mother loves us so dearly and is so proud to have black children but really thought love was enough. But she still had never spent a day in her life being black. And so 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 OK 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.
And so 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, you know, areas where maybe we could use some more understanding because it is getting in the way of our relationship. It's actually brought us a lot closer.
MCCAMMON: 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?
OLUO: You know, I think the truth is that we have surface-level conversations. My mom had conversations - this is what to do if you're around cops - you know, the things to help us survive. But nobody - 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. You know, but you don't sit down and say, how was your day today? How did you interact with, you know, white supremacy today? What did you do to deconstruct it today? That's not the dinner table conversations that most families are having.
And as I became more active in my work for black liberation, I started realizing my mother was becoming uncomfortable because she suddenly didn't know where she fit in my life and my work because we hadn't really had a real conversation about what it means to truly be there for the people of color, for the black people in your life. And so 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.
MCCAMMON: So how did you navigate that discomfort?
OLUO: You know, it really started - first, there was some pushback - with a lot of patience, you know, 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, you know, what my goals were, so the same advice I give. 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. And so being really clear about how I needed her to support me and what I needed her to do as my mother, you know, to really make a difference gave her a purpose and a place.
And I hope that, you know, 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?
MCCAMMON: 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?
OLUO: 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, you know, 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? And start pointing out the meetings that people get to sit in, the, you know, city council meetings they can attend, the places they can spend their money, the different conversations they can be having to create strategic plans to make a difference in their community. I want it to start with, here's an opportunity for you to make a real difference. Those are the sort of conversations I want to have.
Right now, 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, 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.
MCCAMMON: 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, but it still, I think, prevents sometimes those conversations between white people who love each other and are afraid to step on toes. Do you have advice - advice on how to kind of overcome that fear and defensiveness?
OLUO: You know, 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. I want us to move forward in this. State the goal and get people to really sign on to that goal. Say, you know, do you want to do this with me? And 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, you know what? 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. And so 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.
MCCAMMON: We've talked a lot about talking to elders, to parents who are white. But I also want to ask - 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. But what kinds of conversations would you like to be seeing right now in that regard?
OLUO: Yeah, I think that 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. And 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. So 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 you've invested a lot of time and energy and - you know, into these basic freedoms, and to understand that we also have these new freedoms, 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 while understanding that perhaps older generations are not going to immediately understand why we're fighting for what we're fighting for exactly.
And so it takes a lot of empathy, a lot of kindness and a lot of generosity on both sides of that age gap. But it's so important because we have so much to learn from older generations, and older generations have a lot of inspiration to get from younger generations. And I think that the more that we keep those lines of communication open, the stronger our movements will be.
MCCAMMON: So we're talking about intergenerational conversations here. What other concerns are you hearing?
OLUO: So I am definitely hearing a lot of concerns from Indigenous parents about their children as well. 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. And so they're having a lot of these conversations as well. We're seeing a lot of solidarity in these protests. And it's really important that we include Indigenous people in these conversations.
Also, though, I know that a lot of parents are concerned for the safety of their disabled children, especially disabled children of color. And we need to start talking about what we can do to make sure that everyone is safe from police brutality and make sure that especially black and Indigenous disabled people are safe because the needs that they have, the issues that they are confronting when they are confronted with police force are different from those who are not disabled. And 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? All of these things put your child at risk, and so those are really important conversations that as a community we need to have but, also, I think that families need to have around disability and police violence.
MCCAMMON: What have your conversations with your mom been like in recent days during - you know, as these protests are breaking out around the country against racial injustice?
OLUO: You know, my mom has been really wonderful. Her call was just, what do you need from me? You know, and we're all social distancing, so she was just, you know, I want to do something that will make your life easier. 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. Do you want me to cook dinner? You know, and just send me your favorite recipes, and I'll make it and I'll drop it off at the door. Do you - you know, what do you need me to do? Is there any chores you need me to do? How can I support you? And that really helps me feel better. She was like, you know, I'm having conversations with my friends, with my co-workers, but I need to know what you need in this time. And that really made me feel seen in a way. It wasn't her trying to prove, you know, 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.
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MCCAMMON: That's Ijeoma Oluo. She's the author of "So You Want To Talk About Race." Thank you so much for being with us.
OLUO: Thank you.
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MCCAMMON: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. There's one on how to start therapy and another about managing anxiety. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.
This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen and Gemma Watters, editing help from Natalie Winston. Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan, and our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I'm Sarah McCammon. Thanks for listening.
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