How to talk about racism with friends and family

While for months social media has been awash with conversations about racism in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing talks about Indigenous rights to land, it’s just as important to confront this difficult topic in person, with people you know.

It may get awkward, but it’s better to speak up

People gathered in downtown Saskatoon over the summer to raise awareness that it’s wrong to associate Chinese community members with spreading the COVID-19 virus. (CBC)

While for months social media has been awash with conversations about racism in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing talks about Indigenous rights to land, it's just as important to confront this difficult topic in person, with people you know. 

When we let these racist comments go by unchecked, as subtle as they can be, we are perpetuating stereotypes; we allow the other person to keep thinking these views are right and justified. Our inaction also fails to show support for those around us who face racism.

That said, talking about racism can potentially lead to conflict. To ensure these conversations with family and friends feel productive while maintaining those relationships, here are a few things to keep in mind.

 A note: This guide is written from my experience as a white-passing Michif. I find it important to take up this type of work dealing with racism as I benefit from white privilege and believe I can use this privilege to bring issues like this to the table.

1. Do some research

It is important with any sensitive topic to make sure you can back up what you're saying. Listen to what People of Colour (POC) in your life have to say. 

Be wary of who you go to for advice and questions, though, and how much. Chances are the POC in your life are more than willing to help, but know that they may be having such discussions often. It is emotionally and physically draining to have to defend your existence and rights daily.

To avoid burning out friends, you can also seek out trusted voices online. 

Hundreds gathered for rallies in Regina this summer, showing solidarity for Black Lives Matter and widespread demonstrations against police brutality and racism in the United States and Canada. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

2. Address racist incidents — no matter how small — in the moment

Often, the best time to call out racism is when you see it — don't wait, even if it is subtle. Maybe a friend wants to cross the street when they see a POC coming the other way. Maybe you notice a coworker is continually being 'forgotten' about when invites go out for an after-work drink. 

3. Approach the subject with caution

Quite often people who have a negative racial bias will get defensive when confronted about it. To avoid this impulsive, unproductive reaction, you might have to be subtle about your own response. Do not get mad or frustrated. Think back to a time where you got in trouble as a kid: more than likely you were yelled at, and more than likely the message didn't register. 

Using gentle questioning can help a person question their own thought process. Ask them why that colleague didn't get invited or why they wanted to cross the street. You might get a dissatisfying or evasive answer, but the key is to keep asking those questions. Hopefully, they'll eventually admit racism or prejudices were guiding their behaviour or they'll at least begin to re-evaluate their thinking.

Supporters at the Saskatchewan legislature for a Black Lives Matter rally in June. (Alex Soloducha/CBC)

Avoid spouting statistics. You don't want to sound superior or condescending: that will only increase the chances they will block you out or become defensive. 

Instead, try using real-world anecdotes: get them to relate to a marginalized person. These stories can be from a friend or drawn from your research.

Common phrases and how to respond

"I don't see colour."

When someone says they don't see colour, that usually indicates they are imposing their idea of an "average person" on the situation. When I picture an "average person," I think of a white man in his 30s or 40s, with an office job and who plays golf on the weekends. 

This completely erases the identity and lived experiences of nearly every person I have come to know. 


2 years ago
Duration 2:46
Peace Akintade performs her poem "Rainbow".

"They only got hired because they are a POC."

As Rhonda Rosenberg, the executive director of the Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan, so perfectly put it, when equitable strategies are put in place to uplift and present opportunities for minorities, the people benefiting from white privilege often feel they are being oppressed. It is important to remind ourselves, and them, that this is not oppression; this is allowing space for voices that have been silenced for so long in workplaces, the government and other organizations. 

In response, you could point out the POC's accomplishments and certifications in their field of work. 

"This is reverse racism."

People of Colour have been oppressed by white people through the racist privileges that were created to uplift the white majority and keep them in power above anyone who is not white. This in turns makes it impossible for oppressed POC to rise in power and privilege to oppress the white majority. 

"I'm white, and my life was still hard."

No one is dismissing your struggle; we are simply saying that being white on its own did not intrinsically make your life harder. 

This is where discussions of intersectionality come into play, that is, examining other types of privilege such as class, age, geography, gender, sex, etc. 

"All lives matter."

Trust me when I say everyone knows all lives matter. The problem is that institutions and systems of power are not designed around Black lives mattering. This speaks to systemic racism. 

Without bringing to attention the disproportionate rates of neglect and violence our Black friends, neighbours and coworkers face, we allow these injustices and inequities to keep happening. Do we uplift Black lives and voices, and call out injustice, or do we uplift everyone in hopes that injustices are just dealt with as a by-product?

It is through these conversations with our friends and families that we begin the work of progressing our world to one where we value one another and all of our lived experiences. We are not erasing our cultures and histories to be the same.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Nicholas Bage is a Michif whose family connects to the Cayer settlement, the Assiniboine settlements and the Red River. His family lines are the Neaults, Lépines, Laderoutes, St. Germains, Fleury, Pritchards and so much more. Bage is currently in his fourth year of studies with the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teaching Education Program (SUNTEP) at the University of Regina. He was the recipient of the 2019 Multicultural Youth Leadership Award Winner and a 2020 Order of Gabriel Dumont Inductee.