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The "R" word

Talking about race with your friends and family

Everybody knows that it is a lot easier to talk to strangers about their behavior, than to family and friends. When you need to address things said that need to be, confronting a stranger is a lot easier than someone you care for, as there are no feelings involved. When the person using a slur, stereotyping a certain person, or making demeaning comments in your presence is someone you care for, like a friend or someone from your family, things get a lot more complicated.

The initial shock of hearing someone you love say something that you don't agree with at a moral level, is also one of the reasons why people do not talk to their friends and family about their stance on serious matters like race. We don't want to hurt their feelings, or be disrespectful. Or call them out and open a line of discussion that would bring even more conflict to the table. So we don't say anything. And later regret it.

The problem is, we need to confront them. They need it. People tend to listen to the ones they love, even when they don't initially react positively to corrections. The idea is, however, to do so in love and with an open mind, and listening ears. In order for them to listen, you have to do the same. Most people don't usually go about their lives purposely trying to hurt others, so listening to their reasons might give you an idea of their upbringing, how the world was for them when they were children, and how to help them, and maybe educate them a little about something you think it's important. In this day and age, not being racist is not enough- we have to actively be antiracist, and speak our minds.

But that is easier said than done. You have to be willing to get yourself in trouble, sort of speak. This is a person that you'll continue to see, someone you care for. Being matter of fact might convey the message, but it might miss the mark because the other person feels attacked by you, and stops listening as a result.

This is also not specific to one group of people, anyone can make the mistake of using a slur- no matter their race. It's also very human to stereotype a group because one person belonging to it wasn't kind to us at some point. Or based on inaccurate information they heard from a source they trusted. We need to work on those biases in ourselves, and others. Some of the racist comments I've heard in my life, came from people of my own ethnicity, friends and even family. These are all people of color, just a different shade than the ones they were talking about. Sometimes we internalize the hate we grew up with and we don't even realize it, parroting out what we learned, without thinking of whom it may hurt.

I've had the chance to talk about this a lot with my older children. As mixed race, they get to experience the comments from friends that don't know they are mixed. One of my daughters even had an experience where a teacher told her she was not Dominican, because "people there don't look like you" (stereotyping- nationality does not mean race). This child was in fact born in the mountains there, making her- for all intents and purposes- a dual citizen of both my home country and the US. She would be, even without having my DNA in her body. When that happened, she felt bad- but didn't say much to that teacher. We later talked about how she had been so disappointed at this person, and how she wished she had said something. It impacted her enough to affect her relationship with this particular teacher, and making her dread going to her class.

What I've told them is to ask questions, or say in a few words that they don't agree. Some people call them "racism interrupters". When you have the person explain what they said, sometimes they realize it and self correct. Sometimes it opens the line of conversation that you need, to be able to talk to them without being too confrontational to begin with. It also gives you some time to think how to best approach that particular instance and person, and better understand where they're coming from.

Some of these phrases and questions are pretty much to the point. They tell the speaker right away that you don't agree with them, or at the very least, that you need clarification. People sometimes use words because they grew up hearing them, and don't know they are hurtful. Never assume the intent of the speaker, we can't read their minds or look inside their hearts. Most of the time, the problems are lack of education or fear. And we need to address both if we want to make a better place for all.

Examples of these short comebacks are:

  • That's not OK with me

  • I find that offensive

  • Wait, I need to process what you said

  • I didn't realize you think that

  • Help me understand what you mean by that

  • I'm not comfortable with (that word), because

  • I'm sorry, what did you say?

  • What you just said is harmful

  • We don't use that vocabulary/ say things like that/ here

  • I think you meant to say (word) instead, we don't use that any more because it's hurtful/inaccurate

  • That's not funny

The whole idea is to challenge their way of thinking, and help them understand the hurt they might inflict, while being respectful and connecting at a deeper level. Conversations of this nature are very difficult, yet necessary. And we all have a part in bettering our world, a little at a time. These interrupters are also useful for other situations, such as instances of other types of discrimination, or if someone is saying things about others because that person doesn't agree with, or understands, their gender expression, or their religion, or the way they love. We need to speak up for all our friends being maligned, no matter who's the one doing so. I know I would like it if they spoke up when people said bad things about me.


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