How to speak up to the people closest to you, those you love the most, whether in response to a single instance or an ongoing pattern.
Power and history come into play in such moments, affecting how comfortable or unsettling it feels to speak up.
Who holds power in the family? Who sets the tone for family interaction? What roles do elders and children play, and how might their words carry more weight or impact?
And other questions take shape: Was bigotry a part of daily life in the home you grew up in? Do you continue to accept that as the norm? Do you forgive bigotry in some family members more than others? Do the "rules" about what gets said — and what doesn't — change from one home to another? Who shares your views opposing such bigotry? Working together, will you find greater success in speaking out?
Appealing to shared values can be a way to begin discussions at home or with relatives. Try saying, "Our family is too important to let bigotry tear it apart." Or, "Our family always has stood for fairness, and the comments you're making are terribly unfair."
Or, simply, "Is this what our family stands for?"
A woman's young son tells a racist "joke" at dinner that he had heard on the playground earlier that day. "I immediately discussed with him how inappropriate it was. I asked him to put himself in the place of the person in the 'joke.' How would he feel? I discussed with him the feeling of empathy."
A New Jersey woman writes: "My young daughter wrapped a towel around her head and said she wanted to be a terrorist for Halloween — 'like that man down the street.'" The man is a Sikh who wears a turban for religious reasons. The woman asks, "What do I tell my daughter?"
Focus on empathy.
When a child says or does something that reflects biases or embraces stereotypes, point it out: "What makes that 'joke' funny?" Guide the conversation toward empathy and respect: "How do you think our neighbor would feel if he heard you call him a terrorist?"
Look critically at how your child defines "normal." Help to expand the definition: "Our neighbor is a Sikh, not a terrorist. Let's learn about his religion." Create opportunities for children to spend time with and learn about people who are different from themselves.
Prepare for the predictable.
Every year, Halloween becomes a magnet for stereotypes. Children and adults dress as "psychos" or "bums," perpetuating biased representations of people with mental illness or people who are homeless. Others wear masks steeped in stereotypical features or misrepresentations. Seek costumes that don't embrace stereotypes. Have fun on the holiday without turning it into an exercise in bigotry and bias.
Be a role model.
If parents treat people unfairly based on differences, children likely will repeat what they see. Be conscious of your own dealings with others.
A woman's father-in-law routinely tells racist "jokes" at family gatherings. "It made me very uncomfortable," she writes, "though at first I didn't say anything to him about it." After having children, however, she felt compelled to speak up.
Arriving for her next visit, she said to her father-in-law, "I know I can't control what you do in your own house. Your racist 'jokes' are offensive to me, and I will not allow my children to be subjected to them. If you choose to continue with them, I will take the children and leave. And I'm informing you that racist 'jokes' or comments will not be allowed in my own home."
Describe your family's values.
Your spouse's/partner's family may well embrace bigoted "humor" as part of familial culture. Explain why that isn't the case in your home; explain that principles like tolerance and respect for others guide your immediate family's interactions and attitudes.
Although you may not be able to change your in-laws' attitudes, you can set limits on their behavior in your own home: "I will not allow bigoted 'jokes' to be told in my home."
In this case, during her next visit, the woman and her children left when the father-in-law began to tell such a "joke." She did that two more times, at later family gatherings, before her father-in-law finally refrained.
My Own Biases
An African American woman is raising her teenage niece. The niece joined the basketball team, came home and said, "Auntie, there are 12 girls on the team, and six are lesbians."
The woman recalls the moment:
"I thought I wasn't homophobic, but, boy, I had to sleep on that one. I was thinking, you know, they're going to recruit her. And here I thought I was cool. It used to be my fear — and I hate to say this, but it's true — it used to be my fear that she would come home with a white man. Now I'm asking myself, 'Would I be more upset if she came home with a white man or a black woman?'"
Seek feedback and advice.
Ask family members to help you work through your biases. Families that work through these difficult emotions in healthy ways often are stronger for it.
State your goals — out loud.
Say, "You know, I've really got some work to do here, to understand why I feel and think the way I do." Such admissions can be powerful in modeling behavior for others.
Commit to learn more.
Education, exposure and awareness are key factors in moving from prejudice to understanding and acceptance. Create such opportunities for yourself.
Select a date — a couple of weeks or months away — and mark it on a calendar. When the date arrives, reflect on what you've learned, how your behavior has changed and what's left to do. Reach out again for feedback on your behavior.
A woman writes: "My mother uses racial and ethnic terminology — the Mexican checkout clerk, the black saleslady — in casual stories in which race and ethnicity are not factors. Of course, if the person is white, she never bothers to mention it."
A man continually refers to the largest nuts in cans of mixed nuts as "nigger toes." His grown children speak up whenever they hear him use the term, but he persists.
A man writes, "My father says he has nothing against homosexuals, but they shouldn't allow them to lead in a church. I didn't know what to say."
Speak up without 'talking back.'
Repeat information, removing unnecessary racial or ethnic descriptions: "What did the checkout clerk do next, Mom?" Or, "Yes, I like these mixed nuts, too." Subtly model bias-free language.
Appeal to parental values.
Call upon the principles that guided your childhood home. "Dad, when I was growing up, you taught me to treat others the way I wanted to be treated. And I just don't think that term is very nice."
Ask clarifying questions: "Why do you feel that way?" "Are you saying everyone should feel this way?" Articulate your view: "You know, Dad, I see this differently. Here's why." Strive for common ground: "What can we agree on here?"
Anticipate and rehearse.
When you know bias is likely to arise, practice possible responses in front of a mirror beforehand. Figure out what works best for you, what feels the most comfortable. Become confident in your responses, and use them.
A woman is vacationing with her mother and two brothers. One morning, her brother says he wants to give his car "a Jewish car wash," which he describes as "taking soap out when it's raining to wash your car, so you don't waste money on water." He says he learned the phrase from their stepfather.
She asks, "Why is that funny?" He laughs and says, "Don't you get it? It's the whole Jewish-cheap thing." She responds, "Well, I don't think it's funny." He says, "What do you care? You're not Jewish."
That evening, over dinner, her other brother makes similar remarks.
"It pains me and embarrasses me that this is a pervasive culture in my own family, that they consider this part of their 'humor,'" she says. "I feel like an outsider. I feel confused. Where have I been? Is this my family?"
Sibling relationships involve long-established habits, shared experiences and expectations. In crafting a response to bias from a brother or sister, consider your history together. Was bigoted language and "humor" allowed or even encouraged in your childhood home? Or, is this behavior something new? Does you sibling see him- or herself as the sibling leader? Or does another sibling hold that role? The following suggestions might help frame your response:
Honor the past.
If such behavior wasn't accepted in your growing-up years, remind your sibling of your shared past: "I remember when we were kids, Mom went out of her way to make sure we embraced differences. I'm not sure when or why that changed for you, but it hasn't changed for me."
Change the present.
If bigoted behavior was accepted in your childhood home, explain to your siblings that you've changed: "I know when we were growing up that we all used to tell 'jokes' about Jews. As an adult, though, I advocate respect for others."
Appeal to family ties.
"I value our relationship so much, and we've always been so close. Those anti-Semitic remarks are putting a lot of distance between us, and I don't want to feel distanced from you."
Feedback about bias is sometimes hard to hear. Who is your sibling most likely to listen to? A spouse? A parent? A child? Seek out other relatives who can help deliver the message.
A young Arizona woman says her father and uncle know how much she opposes racist or homophobic "jokes." "I've told them that all the time, and they just keep telling 'jokes' to make me mad, to push my buttons and get a reaction. They know I hate it. It used to make me so angry I'd cry and leave the house. Now I just try not to react."
A Maryland man shares a similar story: "My cousin used to come visit me whenever he was doing business in town. One time he was over and used the N-word, and I said, 'I don't use that word,' but he still used it a few more times. I finally said, 'Don't use that word. If you're going to use that word, I'm going to ask you to find somewhere else to stay.' It was like a game to him, to use the word to see how I'd react."
Describe what is happening.
Define the offense, and describe the pattern of behavior. "Every time I come over, you tell 'jokes' I find offensive. While some people might laugh along with you, I don't. I've asked you not to tell them, but you keep doing it anyway."
Describe how you are feeling.
"I love you so much, and I know you love me, too. I wonder why you choose to keep hurting me with your comments and 'jokes.'"
Appeal to family ties.
"Your 'jokes' are putting unnecessary distance between us; I worry they'll end up doing irreparable harm. I want to make sure those 'jokes' don't damage our relationship."
State values, set limits.
"You know that respect and tolerance are important values in my life, and, while I understand that you have a right to say what you want, I'm asking you to show a little more respect for me by not telling these 'jokes' when I'm around."
Ask for a response.
"I don't want this rift to get worse, and I want us to have a good relationship. What should we do?"
Broaden the discussion.
Consider including sympathetic family members — and not-so-sympathetic family members — in the discussion so everyone can work to help the family find common ground.
Put it in writing.
If spoken words and actions don't have an effect, consider writing a note, letter or email. Often, people "hear" things more clearly that way.