Dealing with white family members that are “colorblind”

Written by Rorri Geller-Mohamed, LCSW

April 13, 2019

For white parents in multiracial families, there is often at least one white family member that doesn’t understand issues related to race and racism. They may say things like they are “colorblind”, say that you are too sensitive on issues related to race, make comments that are hurtful or do something else that shows they don’t understand the impact it has on you and your family. These events are often really triggering, upsetting, and stressful. This is often compounded with the family dynamic and relationship that we already have with this person. Sometimes we may choose to address it directly but no matter what we say they don’t seem to get it. Other times we may feel conflicted and consider ignoring it and writing it off as they are old and it was a different generation and time when they grew up. In some cases, we may choose to reduce the time we spend with them or cut off ties completely. Every situation is different but navigating family relationships around issues of race can be very challenging and many white people feel alone and confused in this process.

Here are some questions to think about when you are navigating this topic:

  • What relationships do you have in your life that have changed due to issues of race and racism?
  • What emotions has it sparked in you?
  • How are you dealing with it?
  • How has it impacted your family?
  • What relationships do you still hope to see a change in?
  • How could improving these dynamics impact your children?

Often what we really want to happen is for the person to realize what they are doing is wrong, make amends, and act differently going forward.

 

Here are a few things that are needed for a person to change their behavior:


1. Understand the impact of their negative behavior: 

This means they need to be able to identify how their behaviors are hurtful. Often it can be helpful to point out how these behavior conflict with who they actually are as a kind and caring person. Explaining how what they are saying or doing is conflicting with their own value system. It’s also often helpful to provide them with a non-judgemental environment to process it. They also need to understand systemic racism and the history of white supremacy in this country. You don’t have to feel like you have to be able to explain it all but be prepared to provide resources for them. They need to understand where and why they learned those behaviors and how come other white people around them aren’t pointing it out.

2. Learn what to do with their emotions:

Becoming aware of a conflict in your value system can lead to many mixed emotions. There could be guilt, confusion, insecurity, worry, and others. You don’t have to take on all of their emotional processes because that can be draining but direct them to spaces to process. This can include a local SURJ group, a therapist (one that has experience in this, Therapy Den is a place to start to look), or a local anti-racist organizing group (for example in Long Island, NY there is ERASE Racism and they have a book club for people to learn).

 

3. Talk about the relationship.

Remind them of the significance they play in your life. Explore what your hope is for the relationship and what you need for it to continue in a positive way. Explain what you imagine and hope for with their relationship with your children and family. Describe how meaningful it could be for your children.

 

4. Allow them the opportunity to continually improve.

Remember that as they are doing this work they may unintentionally make mistakes. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt or they aren’t trying to change. You have the power to help them recognize the harm, help them make amends, and grow from it.

Navigating relationships with family isn’t easy especially when issues of race and racism come up. Family dynamics can be complicated and sometimes working to change the family dynamic can greatly improve the relationship. But there is a lot of power in family relationships which give us the opportunity to make a big impact with white people in our families. Imagine what could change in the world around us if each of us as white parents worked to change even just one of these relationships. Let’s get to work.

To calling family in.

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