My Parents Are Awful Racists! What Can I Do?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I recently attended a family reunion (full disclosure: this was in the deep south) and was horrified to discover how closed-minded and bigoted my parents have become. My family has always been relatively conservative, but this last trip showed their true colors and ignorance. They made blatantly racist remarks, said awful things about LGBT people, and proclaimed their intent to vote against extended rights for minorities.

I was appalled, to say the least, and too shocked to speak articulately on the matter at the time. It’s 2016, and yet I felt I’d entered a time machine and been transported back to 1916!

Now that the event has passed, I’m still troubled by their elitism and hatred, and I’m left wondering if there’s anything I can do. They live in an echo chamber of their own beliefs—meaning I know their community and friends just reflect their “values.” So I’m not very optimistic about being able to open their minds, let alone change their thought patterns and attitudes. Is it possible? Should I try regardless? In some ways I feel like I’m trying to single-handedly cure people who are addicted, so ingrained are their habits and backward ideals. I wish there were interventions for racism. —In Fairness

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Dear Fairness,

Thank you for reaching out and opening this often-challenging discussion. Family can be both interesting and complicated, and when we add in hot topic discussions they become even more so.

While I deeply appreciate your desire to affect change in your family, attempting to change a deeply ingrained belief system is very challenging. As you noted, these particular family members are in an environment where those who share those beliefs surround them. When that is the case, it is extremely difficult for anything other than those beliefs to stand. In fact, there is a theory called “confirmation bias” that shows people tend to look for and interpret information in a way that supports their beliefs; anything coming their way that contradicts that may not matter.

The only thing we really have power over is ourselves. While we may attempt to impact the world and those around us, we are responsible only for our own actions. Really, no matter how hard you try, you are not responsible for “curing” them or changing their minds, thought patterns, or beliefs. The best you can do is to offer the information to them; what they do with it is in their hands. If you try to take on the burden of changing your family system, you are assuming responsibility for something that is not yours—and that is an unrealistic burden to carry.

There is a saying that being a helper is like being a lighthouse—the lighthouse just stands and shines and doesn’t go chasing boats to save. I suggest you be a lighthouse in your family and shine with justice, kindness, love, and acceptance for all people.

My suggestion is to offer the information to your family without the expectation that they can integrate it, accept it, or that it will change their beliefs. You can be a beacon of light in your family of acceptance and more progressive values, but also know that openly stating your beliefs may put you at odds with your family. You may face criticism and ridicule for stating your beliefs. Only you can determine if that’s something you’re willing to deal with in order to be a force of change. There is a chance your efforts will yield nothing, but there is a chance that others may be impacted. The trick is being able to go forward without expectations and without feeling as though changing your family is your job.

There is a saying that being a helper is like being a lighthouse—the lighthouse just stands and shines and doesn’t go chasing boats to save. I suggest you be a lighthouse in your family and shine with justice, kindness, love, and acceptance for all people. As you do so, your very presence may illuminate the dark places. When you hear your family members saying things that are racist, bigoted, or something along those lines, find ways to gently confront it. One way to call it out is when someone makes a racist, sexist, or bigoted joke, say, “I don’t get it. Can you please explain?” That way, they are forced to explicitly explain the “humor” behind the “joke,” revealing the issue. When you adopt this stance, you are not being confrontational while still illuminating the issue.

Most of all, be gentle with them and yourself. These types of thought patterns go way back and can be hard to change. While it is always worthwhile to challenge the status quo, also consider some ways in which you can make a difference for future generations. Maybe you can’t change old ways in your family, but you can work to impact how the newer generation sees the world. I’d like to commend you for your awareness and for your willingness to serve as an ally. We need more allies in this world, and your efforts are noticed and appreciated.

Sincerely,

Lisa

Lisa Vallejos
Lisa Vallejos, PhD, LPC, specializes in existential psychology. Her primary focus is helping people to be more present in their lives, more engaged with their existence, and to face the world with courage. Lisa began her career in the mental health field working in residential treatment, community mental health centers, and with adjudicated individuals before moving into private practice. She is in the process of finishing a PhD as well as advanced training in existential-humanistic psychotherapy, and provides clinical training and supervision.
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  • Tate

    Tate

    September 6th, 2016 at 2:11 PM

    I very seriously doubt that you are going to be able to change their minds about how they feel. They have obviously bought into the whole racist rhetoric that seems to be so prevalent in society today and this is the belief system that they feel best represents them. It is not a reflection on you, but it could drive a wedge between you and your family if you are going to let it. I say speak up for what you believe to be right, just knowing that you are no more going to change what they think than they would be able to change your mind.

  • Ella

    Ella

    September 7th, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    I would have a very hard time being aorund them especially if I had young children that I was worried about them being a negative influence on.

  • Petra

    Petra

    September 9th, 2016 at 2:01 PM

    The only thing that you can do is to be who you are and be a model for what you would also like for them to be. That does not mean that you will ever change their minds because for some people this is a deep seeded belief and they will never change no matter what. All you can try to do at this point is to rise above it all and be better than that because you know that that is the right thing to do.

  • martin

    martin

    September 12th, 2016 at 2:32 PM

    Do you feel stronger about having a relationship with them or for standing up for what you feel is right? That’s a tough one.

  • Norman

    Norman

    September 19th, 2016 at 2:23 PM

    I think that my kids would probably say the same thing about me so we never talk about race at home.

  • David

    David

    November 20th, 2016 at 11:55 AM

    If you met a nice African American man and gave them a grand baby, they will either disown you or embrace their grandchild. That would give them food for thought for sure. I know I know very drastic and wouldn’t expect you to do it but just the thought. :)

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