What to Do When a Loved One Is Being Racist

Shot of a young woman having coffee with her elderly mother at home

Jeffbergen / Getty Images

Many holiday movies include one character who is a racist family member, making everyone else at the dinner table angry or uncomfortable with their ignorant and inappropriate remarks. It's a trope that is common because unfortunately, so many of us can relate to it. Over half the population thinks that race relations in the United States are generally bad, and that's a telling sign.

So many of us have seen family members consistently do or say racist things. When a loved one is acting in a racist manner, you may feel a host of challenging emotions, such as frustration, anger, fear, confusion, upset, and disappointment, and you may not know what to do or say.

If you are on an anti-racist journey yourself, you'll likely feel compelled to intervene when a loved one says or does something racist.

Even if you consider yourself anti-racist but don't take actions around racism regularly in your daily life, you'll probably consider a family member saying something racist a serious enough issue to take action about.

We've broken down how to go about dealing with this difficult topic. Read on to learn what to do if a family member of yours is racist or exhibits racist actions.

How to Tell If a Loved One Is Behaving in a Racist Manner

Before taking any action toward another person about their behavior, you want to be sure you're approaching them about something that isn't just a minor misunderstanding.

The following are racist ways that people act in everyday life so that you can be confident that what you are witnessing in your loved one is indeed racism:

  • Avoiding public interactions with people of different races than their own
  • Telling jokes that are race-oriented or race-related
  • Speaking negatively about or stereotyping a specific ethnic group
  • Speaking negatively about entire countries or areas of the world, and the people who inhabit them
  • Giving the benefit of the doubt about intent only to people of their own race
  • Avoiding relationships, such as friendships or business relationships, with people of different ethnicities than their own
  • Prioritizing people of their own race wherever possible
  • Saying they are "colorblind," or that they don't "see" race
  • Policing the tone or words of people of color
  • Not believing what people of color say and/or victim-blaming people of color
  • Appropriating the race or culture of a social group (such as dressing up in costume)
  • Denying white privilege or claiming racism doesn't exist anymore
  • Fearing people of color

Before You Speak Up

If your loved one has done any of the above, notice how it makes you feel. It's OK to take time and space away from your loved one in order to decide how to proceed.

The following tips will help you process what happened and decide what you want to do about it.

Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

There's a saying that good things only happen outside our comfort zones, and it exists for excellent reason—personal growth occurs predominantly when we are experiencing discomfort, according to science.

Talking to a loved one about a personal topic, particularly one where you're letting them know about their harmful behavior, is bound to be uncomfortable. Don't let that detract you from this!

There is simply nothing wrong with being uncomfortable. However, you'll be best served if you're prepared for it. Don't have any wild ideas about how well a conversation will go, and instead plan on it being tough. Prepare yourself emotionally in advance, and have calming tools on hand, such as deep breathing to help you get through it and self-soothe afterward.

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is important for any type of growth, change, or healing. It's important for the person exhibiting racist behaviors, too. If we avoid discomfort, we avoid repair and growth.

By leaning into discomfort and recognizing it can make us stronger, we can expand our resilience and ability to change. This will allow us to do things differently and see different results in the future.

Temper Your Expectations

If you have a loved one who says or does racist things, unfortunately, chances are high that they have always held these beliefs. That means that it isn't probable that they will just change their mind suddenly. Know this and be clear about it before you approach them.

Go into the conversation with curiosity instead of specific expectations. Be open to planting seeds of anti-racist ideas instead of expecting a radical shift from your loved one just from one conversation.

Any progress is excellent progress when it comes to situations like these, so be prepared in advance to feel content with a progressive conversation, rather than imagining the happiness you'd feel if they completely changed their behavior and beliefs.

Be in It for the Long Haul

Racism has been prevalent in the United States for as long as it has been a country. White Americans took people from Africa against their will, enslaved them, and treated them as less than human.

We abolished slavery over one hundred fifty years ago, but we are still dealing with the systemic and institutional racism that continues to take serious tolls on the lives and mental health of BIPOC groups in the United States.

We all need to fight racism with regularity, and that won't be stopping soon. A loved one who behaves in a racist manner is no different.

Prepare to deal with this issue in different ways at different times, as you have the energy and ability to do so. Make sure to take care of yourself so you don't burn out, and no matter what the outcome, be gentle with yourself and keep doing what feels true for you.

What to Do Next: Speak Up

When a loved one says or does something racist, you may want to ask them about their behavior and let them know why it isn't appropriate to behave that way. Remember, though, it's essential to "connect before you correct." This means taking a few minutes to understand where this person is coming from, listen to them, and share your own experiences from a place of care and concern.

It is normal to feel angry or triggered, and it is also important for you to take time to regulate as you need to before further relating and responding.

If you don't connect with the other person before trying to correct them, the conversation might become an argument or debate, which isn't effective.

Follow these tips to give the conversation the best chance of going well.

Be Empathetic

We all feel our best when we feel understood by others. And feeling that can also make us more open to change, too.

In order to get the best results from talking to a loved one about their racism, come from an empathetic place. Imagine yourself in your loved one's shoes. Approach them with curiosity. How have they come to believe what they believe?

Remember why you are having this conversation with them: Because you care about them, you care about your relationship with them, and you care about how it feels to be in a relationship with them.

Share how what they are saying or doing makes you feel, and, as much as possible, approach them from a place of love and care instead of judgment or shaming.

Be Curious and Don't Make Assumptions

Sometimes we think we know people's intentions, but we actually don't. Assuming that a person's intent is harmful is not helpful.

Ask questions about your loved one's actions and sentiments, rather than simply telling them they're racist.

Learn their intent so that you can work with it; if they are intending to be racist, you can be more forthright, but if they aren't, you'll benefit from treading more gently. Operate from a place of curiosity, where you genuinely want to understand their perspective.

Don't Advise

One thing that can be off-putting for many people is being given unsolicited advice. After you've talked about your loved one's intentions, if you're still feeling that their behavior was racist, you can tell them why.

You can ask them if they are open to advice or suggestions, and share if there is an opening to do so.

Inform Rather Than Direct

Instead of saying "you should" or "you can't" or "you have to," choose phrasing that is more positive and less instructive. For example, "That idea can be hurtful because..." or "That behavior makes life harder for people because..." are examples of phrasing that aren't instructive, but instead are simply informative.

Remember, racism works on a spectrum. It can be helpful for everyone to reflect on where their words, actions, and beliefs fall on this spectrum in order to deepen awareness and make sustainable changes. You can view yourself and your loved one as being on this journey together.

What to Do After You Have the Initial Conversation

It's a given that these conversations won't always go well. In a perfect world, after you've explained to your loved one why their behavior was problematic, they'll listen and change. But even in that best-case scenario, they are unlikely to change all of their racist views all at once.

Whether the conversation goes well or poorly, you're in this for the long haul. You can continue to hold your loved one dear and have a positive relationship with them indefinitely—and you can also continue to call them out on their racism, as gently as needed and as often as is warranted. It's possible for both of these to coexist together.

What to Do If Your Loved One Refuses to Change

Ideally, change will occur, even if slowly, after you talk with your loved one about their behavior. However, sometimes that just isn't the case. In that situation, you have the following options. To decide which is right for you, listen to your instincts, put your own mental health first, and enforce your boundaries.

Set Ground Rules Around Racism

Even if your loved one refuses to hear you out, that doesn't mean you need to tolerate racism. Set ground rules about what you will and won't tolerate with your loved one, informing them gently but clearly.

For example, you might say, "it's harmful to me to hear you speak about people this way. If you can't stop that when I'm in the room, I'll leave."

You are free to choose what behaviors are outside your comfort zone. You can be firm about what you're willing to listen to and be part of. In this situation, it's imperative that once you've detailed the consequences of certain actions, you carry them out if they happen.

Cut Ties

Sometimes, a loved one simply behaves too harmfully for our mental wellness to bear it. In this instance, you have every right to limit engagement with someone. You can reduce the amount of time you spend together, or stop engaging with them, period, if you need to.

Be clear and straightforward about why you are limiting contact. You can also cut ties and eagerly invite change and let them know that should change ever occur, you're happy to resume your previous relationship with them.

Let It Go

Occasionally, we love someone so much that we decide to tolerate their toxic behavior. This is an individual decision, and it's not right or wrong morally. If the loved one is a parent or a sibling, cutting them off for behaving in a racist way may be too painful and you may not be willing to release this relationship.

In these situations, you may choose to just ignore their racist behavior when it continues after your talk. This isn't an ideal outcome, and understand that this may be taxing to your mental health. You can consider seeing a therapist if you need help managing your feelings.

Before deciding to let go of continuous efforts to address their racist actions or behaviors, be sure that the relationship is so important to you that this is the right choice for you at this time.

A Word From Verywell

When a loved one behaves in a racist way, it can affect us quite negatively. This is all the more true for people from mixed race families, who may bear the brunt of their family member's racism and be directly impacted by it.

If a loved one is racist and you are finding it hurtful, you have every right to step away from that relationship. There is no need to allow that behavior, and your boundaries around it may make them reconsider their words and actions, especially if it impacts their relationship with and access to you.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pew Research Center. Race in America 2019.

  2. Massi B, Donahue CH, Lee D. Volatility facilitates value updating in the prefrontal cortex. Neuron. 2018 Aug 8;99(3):598-608.e4.

  3. National Museum of African American History and Culture. Historical foundations of race.

By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.