My Parents Are Racist—Here’s How I Deal With It

It took me years to realize that growing up in pre-apartheid South Africa explains my parent's racism but it doesn't excuse it.

Growing up as a White person in pre-apartheid South Africa in the late 80s and 90s, issues around race have played a big role in my family for my entire life. On the surface you’d never know it—my parents never talked about it with my brother and me—but the racism was always there lurking beneath the surface. (Here’s the psychology behind how children learn racism.)

I was born in a small town outside Johannesburg but we moved into the city when it was time to start school. Like most White children, we lived in an all-White area and were sent to a private school separate from the Black children. My parents tried to keep us very sheltered from all the racial tensions building in the country at that time but it was difficult to ignore. Even as a small child I remember my parents stocking up on food and supplies because they were afraid that the Black majority in the country would rise up and attack the White people. These fears peaked right before the 1994 elections which formally ended apartheid. We moved to Australia just two years later because my parents said they wanted to escape the rising crime and “the political situation.”

Starting over as refugees—the “good kind”

In Australia, race was less prominent of an issue but there were still problems with racism in my family and my community. For example, despite my parents leaving South Africa because of the crime and political instability, they are, to this day, firmly against “bad” refugees coming to Australia after fleeing their home countries for similar reasons. They continue to say that “those people” should “go back to their countries” and apply to come “the right way”—assuming everyone has the same opportunities they had. (Racism can be subtle; this is why it took one woman 34 years to realize she was racist.)

One reason they cite frequently is saying that crime is linked to people and communities of color. There is a big crime issue in some areas of Melbourne and my parents would point to the Somali communities and say that everyone there should be deported because they’re “not Australian.” It didn’t help when my older brother became a police officer and came to embrace those views as well, because he only sees the negative, criminal side of those communities.

As a child, I didn’t really recognize the things my parents said as racist, particularly because they were careful not to be overtly discriminatory and if asked would say they were “open-minded” about the topic. I was 23 years old when I finally realized they were not open-minded about racism at all. (Check out these small ways you can fight racism every day.)

Seeing the world changed everything for me

I left home and spent several years abroad, studying and living in Canada and New Zealand. There, for the first time, I was exposed to people of different races, cultures, and religions. I met many people of color and as I became close friends with them, they began to open my eyes to how systemic racism happens and how harmful my parent’s beliefs really are. Eventually, I came to believe the exact opposite of what I’d been taught growing up. I also met my husband, who shared my political views, during that time.

My parents noticed the changes when I went home to visit, teasing me about becoming a “hippie” or a socialist. At first, I didn’t really challenge their beliefs because I felt I wasn’t confident or knowledgeable enough yet. That changed when my husband and I moved back to Australia.

Confronting my parent’s racism

Things felt much different to me as a 30-year-old woman who’d lived all over the world than they had when I’d left. I was no longer comfortable letting them say racist things unchecked. We would start having discussions and my father would expect me to agree with him but I started pushing back and challenging more and more. This led to a lot of awkwardness and the beginnings of a family rift. My family doesn’t do well with confrontation so any questioning of my parents and my brothers’ beliefs would end up with my mother or father calling me a lot of names and then refusing to speak to me.

When the Black Lives Matter movement started in America earlier this year, I could immediately see the parallels between the effects of slavery there and the effects of British colonialism in Australia. I felt inspired and motivated to change my own community. (Want to help your community? Here are some things Black people would like their White friends to do.)

My parents, on the other hand, are firmly in the camp that racism is strictly an American problem and the BLM ideals don’t apply here because Australia “isn’t as bad.” I pointed out what is happening now in underprivileged communities of color in Australia but their racist ideas are so deeply ingrained that they can’t see past that. They keep saying that what happens in America should stay in America. It’s been incredibly frustrating for my husband and me. (For more info on Black Lives Matter, start with these 15 essential books for understanding race relations in America.)

How I handle my racist parents

It eventually got so bad that my husband wanted to cut off all contact with my family because of a number of very racist conversations. Despite their issues, I still love them deeply and I wasn’t ready for that. We decided to pull away for a few months to calm things down. We’ve reconnected with them now and are learning to navigate this new relationship.

Our first step is simply not to bring up politics and race as much as possible. We recognize that we are in opposing camps and my parents will not change. That doesn’t mean that we let racist comments slide, though. If they bring it up, we try to challenge them in a calm, logical way, rather than fighting. For instance, I recently tried to explain the BLM movement to my parents again by explaining systemic racism and while I don’t think I changed their minds, they seemed more open to listening and we had a real conversation about it. Unfortunately, that’s not the norm.

As things have heated up politically around the globe, I’ve instituted a new policy of letting them talk a bit, stating my view, and then simply ending the conversation. This means that I say a lot of things like, “This conversation is not doing either of us any favors, can we please move on?” or, “This conversation is not good for my mental health right now. Let’s focus on something else more positive.” I will not fight with them about it anymore. They’ve learned to respect that if they want to maintain a relationship with my husband and me and our five-year-old son.

Each generation gets better

One of the most important things I’m doing to deal with my parent’s ingrained racism is to not pass it on by teaching my son to be actively anti-racist. Unlike my family, where we just didn’t talk about those things, I have many conversations with him about issues surrounding race and what’s happening in the world. I also make sure to expose him to a wide variety of people, especially those with different skin colors, cultures, and religions. For instance, he goes to a kindergarten where his teacher is Chinese and he learns how to make Chinese food and about Chinese traditions. Other teachers are from Zimbabwe and Pakistan and his classmates are very diverse. We don’t ignore their differences, we discuss them; I think keeping the conversation open is so important. (Another way to help is to support black-owned businesses in your community.)

It’s important to me to keep the conversation open with my parents as well. I think my parents, like many from their generation, are very scared and that’s fueling their racist beliefs. I also think it has a lot to do with the fact that admitting you were wrong to your kids is hard. I know that I have learned a lot this year about race and about how to be an ally and I want to make sure that my son and my parents know that it’s good to learn new things and change your mind and adjust your perspective. I love my family deeply and it’s because of that love that I will keep trying to have these important conversations.

Ready to start? Here’s how you can support the Black Lives Matter movement and become anti-racist.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].

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