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Hey, Bonita!

Do Racist Relatives Matter?

Dear Bonita,

I am at a total loss for what to say and do regarding my ignorant family members and their reactions to police violence against black people and the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m white, and when I post anything in support of Black Lives Matter or calling for justice for unarmed black people killed by police on social media, I have several family members who will comment with ignorant stuff like, “All lives matter” or just outright racist statements about how black people don’t know how to avoid police violence because they can’t help but act like criminals and break the law. It makes me so angry, and I really need some help trying to figure out how to respond.

Hey friend,

You most certainly are not alone in dealing with racist family or friends right now. I only use my Facebook account for lurking and information-gathering, but I see some real dummies actin’ up in comments and on their own profiles. A few years ago, I did a tremendous friends-list cleanout, specifically to avoid what you’re going through right now—and it’s not a simpler or easier task for me as a black person. A marginalized identity does not guarantee that a person will understand the systemic nature of racism or support radical steps to remove its influence on American life. And let’s not forget about all the white people who expected me to accept their racism because of a bond we shared in the past.

I bet some of those white people are your relatives—people made uncomfortable by the current national conversation, or even worse, people who feel threatened by the idea of a truly equal society. Figuring out what to do with these people and how to find common ground can be challenging and sometimes even impossible. Personally, I think it’s fine for someone like me to simply write off any bigots or crypto-fascists in my vicinity, but I assume that you want to continue having a relationship with these people. It’s possible, but it might not look the way your relationships have been with them in the past. 

I’m very proud of you for wanting to respond to them, and there are lots of resources out there offering pointers on how to navigate these kinds of tough conversations. A helpful citizen named Anna Edwards created an infographic on this topic that was shared far and wide on social media, and I like her suggested response to “all lives matter.” We both understand that “Black lives matter” is not a statement meant to place the value of black life over anyone else’s, but to highlight the ways in which black life in America (and around the world) is considered “less than.” That statement is meant to make one ask, “Why do we even have to say that Black lives matter?” If you wouldn’t trade places with a completely random black person in America today, then I struggle to see how declaring that Black lives matter is problematic. The value of preserving white lives has never been in question.

I don’t think I even need to point out the problem with victim-blaming when African Americans are only 13.4% of the U.S. population while also being 38% of our country’s current prison population. I can see how a racist would interpret those numbers (if only we knew how to act), but dozens of studies have been done on this disparity, and there are three recurring explanations: racist policies and practices, the role of implicit bias and stereotypes in decision-makin, and structural disadvantages in communities of color which are associated with high rates of offending and arrest. The system is designed this way, and that’s what we’re fighting to change.

Thank you for being an ally, and I don’t think you should waste too much time trying to get through to these people. Their gaslighting could fatigue some of the fight out of you, and we don’t want that. The world is changing and moving forward, and there are always people left in the dust of a revolution. I’m glad that this time it will be racists.  

Need advice? Email advice@flagpole.com, use the anonymous form at flagpole.com/getadvice, or find Bonita on twitter: @flagpolebonita.

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