An idea we keep hearing regarding the fight for racial justice is that it's a marathon, not a sprint. Strong white allyship requires having conversations about race and racism not just once, but over and over again.
It also means talking about topics including police brutality or the school-to-prison pipeline, or calling out racist comments or ways of thinking, with people you might not normally have those conversations with — including your family.
Maybe you talk about race within your friend group or in your relationship often. (If not, start.) But talking to your family about it can feel different, harder. "A lot of white families, they're not really building this resilience to talk about racism actively," Moraya Seeger DeGeare, licensed marriage and family therapist and the co-owner of BFF Therapy in Beacon, NY, explains to Refinery29. "That's one of the biggest things we're noticing now, that white people are burning out after a couple days."
This kind of burnout has another name: white fatigue, according to Joseph Flynn, PhD, the associate director for academic affairs at the Center for Black Studies at Northern Illinois University. This is "a quasi-form of white resistance, in which white folks are understanding that racism is wrong, but get tired and frustrated with conversations about race because of their complexity," he says.
We must speak up about racism, however, especially with those closest to us. To refrain from joining this conversation is not a neutral action; it's actively harmful. "It is a choice to avoid discomfort," echoes Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, psychologist, author, founder of mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project, and host of the podcast "Couched in Color with Dr. Alfiee. "Black people don't have that choice to avoid discomfort. No matter what, on some level, you're always dealing with it."
When talking about breaking down white fatigue, DeGeare compares it to exercising a muscle. Depending on your family's history of talking about race, at first, a fairly simple comment you make to correct someone's use of a racist term, or a straightforward conversation about systemic racism or the current protests might feel fraught. But if you keep at it, you may be able to have more productive, effective, and perspective-shifting discussions. "If you're going to commit to this, you can't say something once every three times [someone makes a racist or uninformed comment]. It has to be every time," DeGeare says. "Annoy the crap out of your family."
So step one: Commit to speaking up, regularly and frequently. Next, manage your expectations, suggests Dr. Breland-Noble. "If your goal is to change someone's mind, you're going to walk away from the conversation frustrated," she stresses. “More than likely, you’re not going to convince [your family member] without them going through some drastic lived experience."
That doesn’t mean that if someone reacts defensively during your first conversation, you should never open this subject with them again. But maybe your goal, especially at first, becomes simply to have a family member hear you say, "I don't like that you don't support Black Lives Matter," or, "I don't like that the fact that your response to me is 'all lives matter.'"
Also smart: Consider doing some extra research about the topic you want to bring up — how to explain white privilege in an easy-to-understand way, for instance — so you can go into the conversation feeling a little more confident. Then, be prepared to listen to your family member's response, even if they say something you don't agree with. You're trying to have a discussion, not a fight, so give them space to express themselves. In a previous conversation with Refinery29, Dr. Breland-Noble had recommended using active listening: "Summarize what your partner is saying, then think and take a moment before you respond."
Finally, set a time limit for your first few conversations. "The longer you're talking, the more frustrated that you might get, and that's with any serious conversation," Dr. Breland-Noble says. Remember, as you continue to have these conversations, you may be able to talk a little longer or dig a little deeper.
If your family member responds in an abusive way, or doesn't make an effort to listen to what you say, you're within your rights to take a break from that relationship. "Generally we cannot “dump” our family members," Dr. Breland-Noble acknowledges. "But, we can absolutely determine how much, or how little, we engage. If you cannot physically avoid them — maybe you care for an aging parent or you had to move back home after college — stop having conversations about race," she advises. "If they can’t love you enough to be anti-racist around you, you engaging in a conversation will likely not be the thing to change their minds."
But for many white people, opening up the topic of race within their family units is a highly effective way to pave the road to real change. “A white voice in these white rooms saying something about racism has so much more power in so many ways than a Black voice in that room, or what someone is reading about on the news,” DeGeare notes. Yes, it may be uncomfortable. But that's a good thing. After all, our comfort is the thing supporting the harmful experience that Black people have to go through each and every day.