A Family Member Made a Racist Comment and I Pushed Back — Here’s What Happened
Everyone has that uncle, aunt, mom, dad, brother, sister, or friend that just can’t seem to contain their racism. Here is my small success story.
I’ve been lucky enough to live with a family that has been pretty progressive in their views on race. With the exception of one family member, of course.
We’ll call this family member Sheelah.
Sheelah means well, but she doesn’t always understand that what she says isn’t okay. She’ll frequently say things like “Oh, I was standing behind this nice hispanic lady in the grocery checkout” or “look at that black lady over there, her shirt is so cute!” And while Sheelah means well, she always seems to insert race in places it doesn’t belong. Maybe it’s a generational thing, because Sheelah definitely grew up in a time where comments like this were considered normal. Regardless of the reasons, the racist commentary had to stop.
The change didn’t happen overnight. Family members often asked Sheelah why she phrased things in a racist manner, but no one could ever get through to Sheelah as to why what she was saying was so wrong. That is, until the Black Lives Matter movement came along. At this point our family was having a conversation to try to explain the harm of racist comments, and how her words didn’t have to be explicitly offensive to be hurtful.
To be honest, this first conversation didn’t go so well. Sheelah didn’t understand how she was coming across as racist. She said that she has black friends, which in her mind, made her an ally of the black community.
This conversation frustrated me. Just because you have a black friend doesn’t mean you are incapable of doing harm to the black community. Don’t use black friends as a shield for your racism.
But my next opportunity to correct behavior came soon enough. I was talking to Sheelah about buying a house in a lovely little area near a big city. Sheelah grew up in the area I was considering, so I asked her what she thought of the neighborhood. Sheelah said “Oh, well, the neighborhood has more black and brown folks that it did when I grew up.” She didn’t say it with any malice, but I couldn’t let it go.
So I pushed back, but I pushed gently. “What do you mean by that?” I responded. Sheelah immediately apologized and said, “you know what, I don’t know what I meant by that. I’m sorry.”
It’s not a big step, but it is a step in the right direction. And every little step in the right direction will add up over time. I’m clearly no hero, but I’d like to think that if we all pay attention, and push back little by little, we can all make a difference together.
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