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How to Have Better Conversations About Racism with Older Loved Ones 

August 21, 2020
A card that says Black Lives Matter

Recent events across North America, including the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other countless victims of police brutality, have made it more clear than ever that we all need to actively speak out against racism when we see it. Being an ally can be particularly challenging when this involves parents, grandparents or an older loved one, while also navigating family dynamics. But to address individual and systemic racism, we all need to take impactful actions to effect change. Here are some ways to have conversations about racism and keep the dialogue as meaningful and productive as possible.

Speak Up

First, if your loved one uses racist words or ways of thinking around you, it’s time to set boundaries. Lead with “I” statements, be clear that using that type of language in your presence is not okay and don’t leave things open to interpretation. This can become particularly challenging if your loved one has a cognitive impairment like dementia that can affect judgment and behaviour. In that case, experts recommend that you always acknowledge that it was inappropriate and then redirect to a different topic.

Do Your Research

Talking about race can get heated very quickly and if you are educated and informed, the conversation is less likely to be reactive or defensive. Depending on your loved one’s beliefs, be ready to explain white privilege in an accessible way, dismantle the ‘All Lives Matter’ argument or share numbers to demonstrate that Black people are disproportionately policed.

Tailor Your Approach

Find a specific way to elicit empathy from your elderly loved one by drawing on their own values and experiences. If they are religious you can connect to the teachings of their Church; if they are a parent, ask them how they would feel if their own child was killed; or if they lived through the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrate how little has actually changed.

Allow for Space

Your elderly loved one’s perception of racism was formed in a very different time so ask them about their own understanding to learn more. What have their experiences around race been? What can you learn from them? What are their reactions to today’s protests? Try to move the conversation forward by tying their past experience to the present and hopefully their thinking will follow. Remember that this should be a discussion and not an argument or a lecture, so give them space to participate.

Take a Break

If you are feeling frustrated and angry take a step back—make an excuse to go to the washroom, get a glass of water or just take some deep breaths. Don’t end the discussion at the first sign of discomfort, because that’s where the real learning and growth will happen. Consider pausing and revisiting later if things are moving towards conflict and away from conversation.

Reach Out

If your loved one isn’t being responsive to what you have to say, try directing them to other resources. Watch a film together about racial inequality or one that features the profound contributions of Black people to society, form a reading group and suggest a book on racism or share articles and books written by Black authors. Talking about books, articles and movies is a great way to open up a conversation about racism and to keep the dialogue going.

Be Open About Your Own Learning

Share with your older loved one about how you came to your understanding of race and racism and talk about your own ignorance. “I used to say ‘I don’t see colour,’ but I now recognize how this invalidates identity and experience and also ignores the realities of systemic racism.” This shows empathy and will remind your loved one that there is always room for learning.

Manage Your Expectations

If you expect to change your loved one’s mind after a single conversation, you’re likely going to feel defeated. Start the conversation and see where it takes you. When it comes to making an impact, there’s no better place to start than at home.


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