Hailey Magee
Hailey Magee

As the Black Lives Matter movement gains traction across the nation and the world, many of us are being called to use the skills we’ve learned to improve ourselves — such as speaking our truth, setting boundaries and breaking the people-pleasing pattern — to improve our communities, our countries and our world.

Those of us who are allies are conveniently positioned to have conversations about racial justice with our family members, friends and coworkers. Historically, however, many of us have balked at these conversations out of fear of our own awkwardness, others’ anger or the possibility of creating rifts in relationships.

In the past, I’ve done a subpar job of asserting my boundaries with racist relatives. Instead of saying, “Hey, that thing you just said was really racist,” I usually opted to stay silent. I justified my silence with one or all of the following excuses:

• “I can’t change their mind.”

• “They won’t listen to me anyway.”

• “It’ll just start an argument.”

• “If this becomes a debate, I don’t know enough facts to justify my side.”

Now, I’ve come to understand that silence is violence — and that complicity in racism is racism. 

Some activists assert that allies are most useful when we advocate for racial justice with our racist relatives. Others caution that getting into embittered arguments with racist relatives is a waste of energy — energy that could be better-devoted to creating real change for people of color.

Whether you choose to take an offensive stance by proactively engaging your racist relatives in conversations about race or a defensive stance by speaking out against racist relatives who make racist comments, knowing how to set boundaries with those family members is critically important. When conversations become ineffective or toxic, we need to know how to stand in our power and create safety for ourselves. 

These four tools can help you set empowered boundaries with racist relatives and maintain the emotional energy you need to avoid burnout and continue engaging in anti-racist work.

1. Clarify the values that empower you to speak up

When planning to have a difficult conversation, we can find motivation and strength in our values. Our values are our basic, fundamental beliefs that help us determine what is important to us.

For example, my core values include integrity and authenticity. I’m passionate about speaking from the heart, being honest, and acting in a moral manner. 

When it comes to having difficult conversations with family members about race, I ask myself: What would it look like to act in integrity here? What would it mean to be fully authentic in this conversation? For me, this means not going silent in difficult conversations, addressing racist jokes and comments the moment they’re spoken, and holding firm to my beliefs, even in the face of others’ anger.

What are your core values? Honesty? Loyalty? Generosity? Compassion? Consider how those values align with your intention to speak out against racial injustice. When those conversations get difficult, find solace in the truth that you’re living in alignment with your fundamental beliefs.

(If you want to discover your most deeply-held values but aren’t sure where to begin, Scott Jeffrey’s Core Value List of over 200 personal values is a great place to start.)

2. Come prepared with specific language

Boundary-setting discussions — especially with relatives — are among the most challenging conversations we can have. To reduce the pressure we may feel to summon the perfect words at the perfect time, it’s helpful to come prepared with a few key phrases we can use to set, and re-assert, our boundaries.

In a recent Instagram post, trauma and relationship therapist Jordan Pickell offered some excellent suggestions for how to tell someone you love that they’re being racist. It included suggestions like:

• In the moment, you can say “That is really racist/offensive/ignorant.”

• Set a boundary that you will not accept racist comments: “Don’t make racist jokes around me. If you do, I’m leaving.”

• Focus on the feelings/impact of their words: “When you say that, it makes me feel angry/disgusted/confused.”

• You can also go back to it after the fact: “What you said the other day isn’t sitting well with me.”

Remember that boundaries are statements of what we will or will not accept. The goal of a boundary is not necessarily to change another’s behavior, but to create safety and integrity for ourselves. The most perfectly-crafted boundary might not stop Uncle Joe from making racist jokes, but it can protect you, your children, your mental energy or your home.

Examples of simple boundaries in this vein include:

• “I will not speak to you when you make racist comments.”

• “If you make racist comments, I will hang up the phone.”

• “If you continue to make racist comments, I will not bring my children to your home.”

• “I cannot tolerate your racism and I no longer want to be in touch with you.”

3. Use the Broken Record Technique 

When our boundaries are met with defensiveness, we may find ourselves drawn into circular and long-winded arguments. Your relatives may say,

• “You can’t tell me what to do!”

• “You’re taking this too seriously. Lighten up.”

• “Show me the numbers. Prove it.”

Remember: you don’t need to justify your boundary. You don’t need to explain yourself, to recite the most recent statistics on police brutality, or to appeal to this person’s heart of hearts that racism is actually really, really bad. Instead, try the Broken Record Technique.

Created by Richard Lavoie, a national expert on classroom management, the broken record technique is a simple yet effective way to reassert your boundary without getting mired in distracting arguments. To deploy this technique, simply repeat the same message three times, calmly yet assertively—regardless of how the recipient responds.

Here’s an example:

You: “Bob, I will not participate in conversations with you when you’re being racist.”

Bob: “Oh come on, lighten up! You’re taking this too seriously.”

You: “I will not participate in conversations with you when you’re being racist.”

Bob: “Racist? That’s ridiculous. You know what’s really racist? Affirmative action.”

You: “I will not participate in conversations with you when you’re being racist.”

Bob: “Alright, whatever. I’m outta here.”

As you can see, when you repeat the same message calmly and assertively, you simultaneously limit Bob’s power while preserving your own mental and emotional energy. 

4. Post-boundary self-care

Especially if this is your first time addressing racism in your family, setting these boundaries may feel particularly difficult. It may feel like an enormous emotional upheaval — and it is! You’re breaking a silence that you’ve held for months, years or even decades, and that is serious emotional work.

After setting your boundary, you may feel fear, guilt or shame — even though, intellectually, you know that setting this boundary was important and righteous. If you grew up in an environment where you were punished, harmed or neglected when you disagreed with a family member, learning the art of honest expression in the family is a radical act.

Post-boundary self-care helps you avoid burnout and replenish your resources so that you can continue engaging in anti-racist activism in your family and community. Personally, I really need rest after a conversation like this. My nervous system gets overloaded and frayed, and a nap or cozy evening at home is an important way to come home to myself. If I’m feeling guilty, I contact a trusted friend who can reaffirm the righteousness of my boundary and keep me on the course.

When we set boundaries with our racist relatives, we create personal, zero-tolerance zones where we are no longer complicit in our relatives’ racism. It is difficult and demanding work, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to be true allies with black folks fighting for their right to exist safely in this world.

— P.S. Do you feel like you’re the only one facing a particular challenge or struggle? Or perhaps you have a question you’d like to see answered? E-mail me at hailey@haileymagee.com for the chance to have it included here.