How to Talk to Black Friends and Family About Racism

talking about racism

Verywell / Laura Porter

The summer 2020 deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others has taken a toll on Black people in the United States. They are hurting, confused, and exhausted—and in need of your kindness and compassion, particularly your friends and family members.

Part of being a good ally to the Black community is recognizing the need to check in on your Black friends and family members. They need to hear from you and know that you are thinking of them—but there are some things to consider before you make that call. Here are some tips for having authentic and meaningful conversations with the people you love.

Be Open to Discussing Racism

When you hesitate to reach out or talk with your Black friends about race because you're worried about upsetting the relationship, you're actually damaging the relationship more with your silence than you would with your words. Racism in the United States is something they must wrestle with every day of their lives. Refusing to even bring up the subject can make you seem selfish and uninformed.

If you are truly a friend, you should care deeply about the things that matter most to them. Authentic relationships can only grow when people are willing to have the hard conversations about life.

Not talking to friends and family about racism communicates that you're not interested in their life experiences. It's the equivalent of ignoring the elephant in the room and allowing it to sit between the two of you taking up space.

Even though talking about race is hard, it's these deeper conversations that allow people to connect with each other through their most challenging times. As Desmond Tutu noted, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

If you refuse to listen or have a conversation, you are essentially communicating that your friend or family member's lived experience is not valid. If you want to commit to being an anti-racist, then you need to be open to having hard conversations.

Like with any sensitive topic, it's important to proceed with caution and respect your friend's boundaries. They may not want to discuss this issue with you or they may be offended at the fact that it is just coming up now.  

Consider Your Words

When talking with your Black friends, family members, and co-workers, make sure you are coming from a place of trying to understand what they are feeling right now. It is affecting us all differently and at different levels, with BIPOC folx affected more deeply when considering the historical and intergenerational trauma components.

Press Play for Advice On Dealing With Trauma

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring holistic psychologist Mariel Buqué, shares how to heal from intergenerational trauma. Click below to listen now.

Subscribe Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

What Not to Say

Statements such as I don't even know what to say right now or I feel so guilty about white privilege are not the most sensitive to your friend's or family member's feelings. The conversations should not be centered around your feelings, unless you are specifically asked about them. 

While it may not be your intention, these types of statements imply that you want your Black friend or family member to comfort you. Additionally, you need to avoid asking your Black loved ones to educate you on how to help Black communities.

This question is often posed to members of the Black community, and it can be exhausting and frustrating to always be on the receiving end of it. It's the responsibility of all of us to educate ourselves on racial injustice and understand how we can be part of the solution.

What to Say

To be an ally, you need to be willing to do some of the hard work on your own. Show some initiative and start doing some research on how you can help the Black community fight injustice. You can also do some research by reading books or watching documentaries or films from the perspectives of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx authors.

It's also important to acknowledge the pain that the Black people in your life are experiencing. Start with an apology and say things like I'm sorry for what you must be going through right now or I'm here for you if you need to talk.

Let your friends know that you want to support them and give them the freedom to tell you exactly how you can do that.

Ultimately, you need to be careful not to project your feelings about what you think the person might want or need. And, if they simply want you to give them space, then by all means, give them space.

Keep in mind, too, that if you agree to help your friend or family member in some way, you need to follow through on your promises. Saying you want to help means nothing if you don't follow through. It actually causes more pain and disappointment.

Provide Space

Be sure you are willing to give your Black friends and family members space if they want it. Keep in mind that it's not an easy time to be Black in America. It's stressful and traumatic for them to witness the ongoing racial violence in this country. People of color were also disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

If you really want to help your friends and family members, consider getting involved in the fight against injustice in other ways:

  • Support Black-owned businesses
  • Support organizations that support racial equality
  • Sign petitions

There is so much that is needed right now and you don't need your friend or family member to tell you what to do. You just need to take action.

Look for ways you can make a difference in your day to day lives—for example in your own family, community, local area, and whatever job you do. You can take small steps to do your best to ensure justice for all as much as possible. This doesn’t have to be as big of a task as going out to protest or joining organizations that support racial equality.

Listen With Empathy

If your Black friend or family member decides to open up and share a story with you or talk about their experiences, it's very important that you listen without judgment. Validate their feelings and resist the urge to fix things for them. Instead, listen and try your best to understand what they're going through. Consider saying something along the lines of "I can't even imagine what this might be like for you."

Even if you're knowledgeable about racial issues, remember that you might still have blind spots. So, try not to make any assumptions about how they feel.

Despite your intentions, doing so not only comes across like you're minimizing their experiences but may also portray you as condescending. Come from a place of humility and give your friend or family member the freedom to talk openly if they choose to.

Also, now is not the time to engage in debates or get defensive, especially if your friend or family member calls you out for your jokes, social media posts, or the articles you've been sharing. It is also not the time to try to argue the difference between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter.

Be Consistent

It's very easy to show that you care about racism in the United States when it's at the forefront of the news.

What happens when the news dies down and the protesters go home? Are you still working to fight racial injustice or have you forgotten about the issue?

It's important that you are an ally every day. When you see something happen at work or on social media that's inappropriate, say something. Stand up for your Black friends when they are treated unfairly at the grocery store. Say something when your Black friend is treated disrespectfully by a person in authority. Be consistent in your efforts to end racial injustice.

These actions communicate your care and concern just as much, if not more so, than your text asking how your Black family member or friend is doing. The fact is, it's hard work to be a good friend. And although it might require some discomfort as well as humility, it will be worth it in the end.

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that being an effective ally isn't just about reaching out when racism is trending in the United States. It requires being committed to being there for your Black friends and family members and supporting them even when racism is not the hot button issue in the country.

Remember, a huge part of oppression is the silencing that occurs alongside the racist actions. Continue to make space for your Black friends and family members to talk freely about their experiences and do your part in ending racial injustice.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.