(Originally posted 01/08/2021)
I am from a non-traditional, sometimes dysfunctional family. My mother was only a few months short of her 40th birthday when she gave birth to me in 1969. She was the youngest of nine children, was supposed to be a twin, and was born to my 45-year-old grandmother—in 1929. My mother had three sisters 15 or more years older than her, and they had very different lives, in part because the women’s suffrage movement occurred between their births. There are so many unique stories in my family. Some of them are fun, like my uncle who worked in the Department of State and lived in Ecuador and Japan. Some are sad, like the deaths of two of my aunts, when they were children, and my grandfather’s suicide. Others are embarrassing, like my aunt’s racist remarks—sometimes in front of her home health aide, who was a sweet woman of color who we all loved dearly.
Unfortunately, I had a lot of experience being uncomfortable when my older family members used outdated language describing minorities or discussing sensitive social topics. Yet, in many ways, this is what drove me into conflict resolution. In my elementary school years, I was simply confused by the comments about my “little n***** friend” because I didn’t know what that meant. I tried to ignore the teasing and just felt bad, not fully understanding why. I still don’t know if it was because I was being teased or because my family was making fun of my friend.
In my teenage years, I was far less diplomatic and probably rebellious at times. When my mother threatened to send me to military school because I was talking on the phone to a mixed-race boy I was hoping to date, it only made me more interested in him, which makes me sad because my relationship with him became less about what a great guy he was. I planned to change my appearance and run away, but the guy chose to stop talking to me before I made such a drastic move. That left me challenging my mom with my sharp tongue and biting questions. Eventually, she either started to see that she was being unfair and racist in her prejudgments, or she learned to control them better. I honestly think she tried to overcome the thoughts and beliefs she was taught from an early age, but it was not easy for her to undo nearly 60 years of conditioning. As she met more of my friends from various racial, religious, and gender identities, she opened her heart to them and seemed to tell fewer jokes, make fewer comments, and correct herself when she slipped.
It got easier in my adult years and after my mother got cancer the first of three times. It didn’t hurt that my sister married a black man, or that the boyfriend we thought I’d marry came out as gay. More and more, my family started to see the commonalities among various people who had seemed different. It almost seems like a lot just went away, but your inquiry made me remember how long of a game we played to overcome ineffective brain patterning that was reinforced by much of the society around us, from our still largely-segregated communities to television and media.
Is there a way to talk about this and educate our elders?
Yes. But they might not understand immediately, and you lecturing them probably won’t get you very far. You might have to navigate an argument (or a few), but it will be worth it, especially if you stand in a space of compassion and try to understand how they developed the language they are using. I found it helpful to focus on my mother’s big heart and love for people of all races, when she was at work, in the store, etc. I asked her what was different in other situations. We had difficult conversations that made us both think more deeply. We became better friends as a result, and it was rich. I wish I could talk to her about this submission today; she died in February 2018.
The best ways to talk about this stuff without it getting emotional and feelings being hurt are:
- Prepare by getting clear on what you want from the relationship and why it is important that your elders stop using outdated language. Are you willing to play a long game to get the best result?
- Ask questions about where they learned the language they use and what it was like for them growing up. Is their language a bad habit from the past, or is it something they adopted recently? Do they think it’s funny, or are they hostile?
- Remind them of hurtful stereotypes and language used to describe people seemingly like them. Do they remember the pain? Why would they want to hurt others the same way?
- Love them for who they are and who they aren’t, giving them room to reconsider things that might have been with them for decades. Trust that they can and will still grow.