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How To Talk Race With Your Family: Ask Code Switch

Code Switch is tackling your trickiest questions about race relations.
Code Switch is tackling your trickiest questions about race relations.

Well, we asked and then you asked. Over the past couple of weeks, dozens of you have responded to our call out — we've gotten letters from all over the country about the complex racial situations people find themselves in.

Our goal? Offer up some advice on America's race problems — from the merely awkward to the downright inappropriate — with a thing we're calling 'Ask Code Switch.'

We got questions about whiteness and wokeness. About fashion and fetishes. Oh, and family. So many questions about in-laws, Thanksgiving dinner and parents who just don't understand.

So to kick things off, we talked with Weekend Edition's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about dealing with family members who don't see eye-to-eye when it comes to racial justice. That question was by far the most common topic in the letters we got, and seems particularly relevant in the wake of Charlottesville.

Here's how Christina Cameron, of Durham, N.C., put it:

I let it slip to my mother that I was going to a Black Lives Matter rally. She kind of knew I was involved in BLM as a white person, but she didn't really know the extent.

During our call, she called me brainwashed and said that if I got hurt and ended up in the hospital, she wouldn't come see me. If I got arrested, she wouldn't come bail me out. The next week, it was a barrage of emails from my dad saying I can't stand up to the godlessness of my peers, and that I'm involved in a terrorist organization. I told them, "No, these are the principles you raised me with as a Christian." They said, "Don't tell anyone we had anything to do with the way that you are now."

We don't really talk much since then. I know that as a white person in this movement, my responsibility is to talk to other white people about race and racism. I've done that pretty well. But I just can't seem to get through to my parents. We're kind of at an impasse and I don't know where to go.

Shereen: I don't know if this is going to be popular advice, but I've been in therapy long enough to know that when you're opening up conversations like this, that you know are going to be tough, stay away from trigger words. In this case, words like racism, and bigot and bigotry. I feel like you have to have more of a soft opening with your family. And go into the discussion sideways. I just don't know if saying, "Hey, Mom and Dad, you're being racist," ever helps the conversation.

Also, know that you might never get through to your parents. And maybe you should try and have the conversation with family members who are more open to listening to you. Sometimes you don't want to hit your head against the wall over and over again. You just have to say, we agree to disagree.

Gene: Yeah, I think this is even true of conversations with your family that don't involve race at all. You have to go in with realistic, honest understandings of what your expectations are. Are you trying to have a conversation with your mom and your dad in which you want to change their worldview? That's not realistic. If you want them to understand where you're coming from, that's a long process. You're not going to resolve that in one conversation.

There are two pieces of reporting that seem relevant here. I was talking to Phillip Atiba Goff, [a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice] who works in institutional bias. And he said that the reason you confront your family members about their views, if you think they're bigoted views, is not because you want to change their minds, so much as to establish that they can't say those things without some kind of push-back. You're pushing back on things your uncle says so that your nieces and nephews understand that those views will be met with some push-back. So even if they don't change their minds, they have to consider whether those views are worth saying.

The other thing that might be relevant is that, in the wake of the election, a lot of groups that focus on white people who work in social justice spaces have been really honest about how important it is to have other white people to talk to about this stuff. Because the problems of white people in these spaces are specific to white people, right? I don't have a white parent. I don't know what it's like to have to change a parent's bigoted views about black people. So people need a space that they can go to deal with that very real feeling of being cleaved from their family when they have a big fallout over these things.

It can sometimes be cumbersome to bring those problems to a social justice space with a bunch of brown people who are dealing with their own issues. So sometimes it's helpful and useful to have a space with other white people you can commiserate with, and know that you're not alone.

What do you think? What kinds of difficult or awkward racial questions come up in your family? How have you handled it? Email us at, with the subject line, "Ask Code Switch."

And if you need some racial advice of your own, fill out this form.

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Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.
Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.
Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.