Trying to navigate distancing from racist family
June 5, 2020 4:33 AM   Subscribe

I can no longer ignore or pretend I can change the incredible racism of my aging parents. They are blocked from contacting me for now but I will probably need to continue this... indefinitely? I am overwhelmed by both anger and grief. Please share any advice you may have for navigating through this situation.

My husband and I are both white, though my family immigrated from a non-English speaking country outside the US. We are both strongly on the same page when it comes to social issues, including racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and others. We are not shy about letting other people know what we stand for. I am so thankful for his presence and support.

Most of my family lives nearby. His is in another country and we are definitely more comfortable with them.

The recent protests and calls to action have sparked a painful conversation between me and my own parents, with them voicing concerns about property above lives. Explanations about who is doing the looting vs the protesting has fallen on deaf ears. Links to videos of "sympathetic" white people explaining current events (historians, journalists, etc.) have been met with selective videos of Black people in MAGA hats in return. When I pointed out specific instances of my parents' racist behavior stretching back to when I was a very young child and as recently as last winter, I was heatedly told that I was entitled to my own opinion with no admitting of actual wrongdoing. (These were awful instances that are completely clear-cut.)

I think this is the last straw. This is on top of racist videos of Obama when he was in office, on top of tears and drama over a tiny rainbow sticker on my car (when I was thinking I may finally come out as bi to my family), on top of actual physical and emotional abuse when I was growing up that we just never acknowledge. I used to read about other people distancing family for similar reasons and think, "One day this is probably going to be me." But here I am, and I feel completely unprepared for What Now.

I don't want to see them again. I don't want to sit at a holiday table pretending I can't hear half of the conversations. I don't want to start another mundane phone call that becomes sprinkled with things I vehemently disagree with. But they are my confusing parents and if they are in a hospital I guess I will be there.

Is that "all" there is to it? Trying to define these new boundaries for myself and see what I can actually stand. They are the martyr type who are 100% willing to induce guilt if an inch is given, without any breathing room for actual conversation.

I'm so lost at this new reality.

I am also willing to accept therapy as one of the answers, but I think hearing from people who have gone through a similar event/choice would really help right now.

Thank you so much for reading.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not trying to talk you down from this completely justified ledge or be all "Okay they're racists but they're you're parents!" I just want to make sure you know that low contact is an option. You don't have to sit at a holiday table with them ever again. You can visit them in hospital. It doesn't need to be all or nothing. You should do what's best for you.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:49 AM on June 5, 2020 [44 favorites]

I would also add that you don't have to make an immutable decision now. You can very well decide that you're not going to be in contact with them for now and periodically reevaluate. It can help in the moment to feel like this is not a massive life shift that you can't ever come back from.

Every time you reevaluate you have the option of staying no contact (ad infinitum) but you can also give yourself permission to reach out, or respond, or send a letter if that's what you feel you need then. It might make your decision now feel less daunting.
posted by lydhre at 5:02 AM on June 5, 2020 [24 favorites]

I will suggest therapy, but only as an adjunct to helping you feel more comfortable and confident in whatever you decide to do. These are immensely dark and troubled waters you are swimming in.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:10 AM on June 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

This is really hard and I'm sorry you're going through it.

I've found (after 20+ years as an adult...) that a useful way to reframe this is to recognize, and point out if the opportunity arises, that if your parents want you in their lives, it is up to them to treat you with respect. That includes refraining from baiting you for sport.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:58 AM on June 5, 2020 [25 favorites]

As a daughter of a man who thought performing racism for me was hilarious because it was just so cute how I got so darn mad - I feel your pain.

As a sister of two brothers so racist I barely spoke to them after I reached adulthood, I definitely feel it.

As DarlingBri says above, there are options other than no-contact. One of the things that makes it easy for overtly racist people to get away with being overtly racist is that they've trained us to be silent about it -- and about anything in our lives that diverges from the main family narrative. That narrative is why they get to be loud racists/homophobes/MAGA-hat-people, and we get to be scared and sad about losing our place in the family.

I personally handled my dad -- who I deeply loved and could never have cut off, in a million years -- by refusing to be quiet about the things that are true for me. He never minded causing drama by saying something casually racist or homophobic or sexist; I responded by coming out to him as bi, and fighting him to a standstill every time he said something racist, homophobic or sexist.

To be clear, this worked only because he loved me more than he loved the narrative. I don't think he ever got less racist or sexist. But eventually, he stopped starting shit with me because it was exhausting him. And happily, he eventually changed his views on sexuality, so that was a bonus. The last few years I had with him were pretty peaceful and happy.

On the other hand - I did not love my brothers enough to put up with their racist bullshit, and essentially ended my relationship with both of them without bothering to argue. I spent 20 years being polite on the phone when it was unavoidable - when they picked up when I called my dad's house - and never going a word beyond "Hey, how's it going. Is Dad around? Thanks." One of them I eventually had to cut off completely because of his behavior. I feel guilty about it sometimes, but that's still way better than I felt when I was still talking to him occasionally.

I just want to make it clear that there are a lot of ways to handle family racism. Families are complicated. And while you do have to deal with the racism when it rears its head, even when it's not convenient or pleasant to do it, there's no rule that says you have to utterly divorce your racist family to be a good ally. And there's no rule that says you have to treat every racist member of your family the same way.
posted by invincible summer at 6:09 AM on June 5, 2020 [14 favorites]

Just so you know, you are not alone in this awful situation. I literally could have written your question, complete with supportive and wonderful husband - the only difference being that Husband and I are both American-born. Aside from that? It's my parents to a T.

For now, I have been taking the low-contact approach linked by DarlingBri above. I don't like it; I absolutely hate the fact that this is what my family relationships have come to, but for about the past year or so my father literally cannot have a conversation without it somehow turning into howling about the liberals and the gays and on and on ad nauseum. Every time I would get off the phone with him, I would literally be shaking and just...sad.

And the thing is, I love my dad. My parents gave me the best childhood that they possibly could, and I was very lucky in very many ways to have them to raise me and my brother. I know they love me, and it pains me to give them pain. I do often feel like a shitty ungrateful child, and it sucks. But, I have to tell myself, my father is a grown ass adult who is educated and quite successful in his field - it is not as though he is a helpless toddler who just can't understand why the grownups don't want to listen to the tantrum. He surely has the mental acumen to figure out that I'm not interested in the slightest in hearing this nonsense, sooo....? (I am a cis woman btw, whether or not that is relevant).

So, it's my father's birthday on Sunday and I definitely plan to give him a call. I have been dreading this for many days now. Depending on how that goes, decisions will be made for future interactions. I wish I could give you a more concrete course of action, but I'm in the same boat as you - I feel lost and I just don't know ho wit's going to go until I do it.

I'm so sorry you're going through this and I just want you to know you're not alone. It's yet another piece of collateral damage from this horrifying administration - families divided and alienated from each other and it never had to be this way. Echoing above commenters who advise not making a huge all-or-nothing decision right now. At this time of year, there are no major holidays even remotely close, so you do have breathing room before you make a definite decision about, say, Thanksgiving. Be kind to yourself and just remember that none of this is your fault, and you're not alone. Best wishes to you!
posted by deep thought sunstar at 6:17 AM on June 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

Low contact with one of my parents here. In my case it's racism combined with creepy conspiracy theory stuff. My time is too valuable to hear about George Soros plotting to take over the world. I love them, I care about them, I also make sure to keep in some contact instead of a lot of contact.
posted by huskerdont at 6:53 AM on June 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

invincible summer has very good advice.

There is no reason to not state your beliefs, especially on racism and bias. Either your parents will be civil or they will not. Learning how to shape it into a productive conversation, versus a trading of memes (videos of sympathetic whites vs people of color in MAGA hats) is important.

But if it can't be a civil conversation, you have to make that choice in the end. I have, as well, told my parents that their latent racism is not acceptable. Even my children (teenage boys now) have commented on it. If they press, we pack up and leave or end the conversation stating their views are unacceptable to us.

We are not silent on the issue, nor 'endure' it. They can try to guilt us by saying they don't get to see us or the kids, but in the end, that is all on them, not us.

Mostly, and sadly, my parents have provided my children an example of how not to be. And also sadly, my children are quite aware of it, all on their own. My parents do care and love us, but not in a overly healthy or functioning way that works.
posted by rich at 6:53 AM on June 5, 2020 [5 favorites]

I went no contact with my racist, homophobic parents for about a year—no phone calls, no holidays, nothing. Afterwards as I slowly came back to having some contact, they shut up about racism, homophobia, politics of any kind. They do not ever talk about these things around me. In the past 7 years I’ve heard probably two comments about Democrats to my grandpa in my earshot but they steered away quickly.

I don’t know if that’s what you want. It’s a negative peace. More like a truce, really. But that could be one option. I can’t guarantee your parents will learn the way mine did after a year or more of no contact (there was also more drama involved with me, as I moved out without permission 5 days after I turned 18), but going no contact doesn’t have to be forever.
posted by brook horse at 7:06 AM on June 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

They can try to guilt us by saying they don't get to see us or the kids, but in the end, that is all on them, not us.

Put that sentence on little plaques and stick them up all over your house.
posted by flabdablet at 7:20 AM on June 5, 2020 [5 favorites]

Hi OP, reading your question, I was hoping to message you directly, but you posted anonymously. If you see this maybe you have a temporary email acct you could add to the thread? I understand where you're coming from.
posted by elgee at 8:57 AM on June 5, 2020

One little thing I've had pointed out to me recently is that our parents are in charge of forming our relationships with them. Like, they have this whole entire chance while we are children to shape how we relate to them and how they relate to us and, yes, as we grow up it's certainly on us not to be jerks, but there's something really powerful in understanding that they had years to sort out their racism or any other aspect of how they relate to you and the world and they just didn't.

So at this point they are refusing to do this emotional work that is, by all rights, THEIR WORK TO DO, and you are suffering for it, and it is okay to walk away and not feel like you're doing a terrible thing. They very, very much brought this on themselves, not just with their racist behavior, but also with their failure to grow and change to have a good and healthy relationship with you from the moment you were born.

I mostly share this because it helps with the guilt, I think. Even when they're shitty, it can feel like abandonment to keep distance from a parent who loves you, but sometimes it is absolutely the best, healthiest thing you can do for yourself.
posted by hought20 at 9:41 AM on June 5, 2020 [10 favorites]

I am a cis white woman, almost 40 years old, in the US. It has been 2 years since I went no contact with my very conservative parents. It was brewing for a long time before that. There were some other issues before then where I had to set some serious boundaries, but I had been making the (emotionally draining) effort to maintain a relationship with them. The day my father looked at me (after I stepped in to stop a racist uncle's slur filled tirade) and said "how the fuck did I raise a feminist?" was the day that I knew he did not care about any of the things that are an integral part of who I am and how I live my life. My mother refuses to disagree with my father on anything. When I told them that my roomate and I don't allow racist, sexist, or homophobic people in our house, they said they wouldn't be visiting, and hung up on me. If these people were not my parents, there is no way that I would ever give them my time, energy, or attention. If I was not their child, they would very much consider me "the enemy".

The whole situation sucks. Some days I am really sad that they are so wrong about so many things and their response is to double down on it. Some days I am so angry about exactly the same thing. Most days, I am glad that dealing with them is not something I have to subject myself to anymore. I hold out hope that they can grow and change, but I also know that all the work I have put in with them in trying to have productive conversations about these things have gone nowhere and mean nothing.

Some people I know have told me that I am taking too hard of a stance on this. But the reality is that they buy into some flavor of hate that directly impacts the safety and humanity of every single person that I care about. I would not want any of my friends to be in the same room as them. My close friends have affirmed my consistency in standing firm in my beliefs and actions. I am incredibly grateful for their support.

My dad has cancer. It's not a great situation, and I occasionally get updates from my sister, who I maintain a friendly relationship with. We usually just don't talk about my parents. He had the diagnosis before I broke contact. I get that there are probably people in my extended family who think I am terrible because I am not going to the hospital (pre covid) or helping with his home care. I try to run through scenarios of what I will do when he dies, but I still don't know the answer to that.

While there can be a lot of emotions for me in all of this, ultimately, I wish I had cut contact earlier than I did. There is no longer the dread of seeing their number on the caller id. I don't have to emotionally prepare for holidays or visits. I don't have to worry that they will drop in to my place of employment or to my house. I don't have to "tone down" the parts of me that they find unacceptable.

Be kind to yourself. Find the people in your life who understand and support you. Leave the door open for them if they decide to change, but understand that you can't force that change to happen.
posted by August Fury at 10:10 AM on June 5, 2020 [12 favorites]

I am in the same boat. Like brook horse, I have managed to broker a détente with my parents where we just DO NOT discuss anything related to politics, policy, social issues. They don't mention anything or send me anything, and I don't mention anything or send them anything. Occasionally one of us slips up and it gets tense and we retreat back into compartmentalizing. It has worked for us for the last 4-5 years. Before that I was barely able to be in their presence, and now we have a (limited, but respectful) relationship. I only see them 2-3 times a year and talk to them once a month or so (plus regular texting on a family thread), so it's easier because I'm not trying to enjoy their company socially. It is possible to be in contact and just severely restrict what you talk about.

But they have to be on board, too - they need to stop making comments or sending you things. It doesn't work for you to have to hold the patient silence. Both sides need to agree to make these topics off-limits in your interactions.
posted by amaire at 11:13 AM on June 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

lydhre: I would also add that you don't have to make an immutable decision now. You can very well decide that you're not going to be in contact with them for now and periodically reevaluate. It can help in the moment to feel like this is not a massive life shift that you can't ever come back from.

100% this. I imagine that your rightful anger and pain is saying something like "NEVER TALK TO THESE PEOPLE AGAIN" while your anxiety is saying "but never is so long and they're family and what if they NEEEED me?" and it all becomes a kind of whirlwind in your heart, doesn't it?

So, try it in small chunks. "I'm not going to contact or respond to them today" or "... this week". When that time's done, whatever time frame you set, look at how you feel, decide if you can or want to talk to them now and, if not, set a new timer, maybe for a little longer, maybe not. Repeat that cycle for a while, then sit back and look at how you feel and what you want to do.

It's scary and hard and you're incredibly brave for having done what you've already done.
posted by hanov3r at 3:48 PM on June 5, 2020 [5 favorites]

If you do Reddit at all, there is /r/JustNoFamily which is people struggling with their families, how to create and maintain boundaries (for a variety of reasons), going no contact, etc. One of the first posts I see is someone trying to process their family's racism. While this subreddit (and others of the "just no" umbrella) tend to give pretty much only one kind of advice, there are probably some useful things in there about resisting guilt trips, giving boring answers when your parents want to have a fight, how to enforce consequences for shitty behavior, and coming to terms with the fact that the parents you wish for may not be the parents you have. That kind of thing.

Sorry this has happened.
posted by automatic cabinet at 3:59 PM on June 5, 2020

Just so you know I'm not being flippant, I was an only child who lived with my mother and aunt who off and on over the years spent time in mental hospitals (luckily not at the same time). I sometimes had to choose between agreeing with insanity for love/expediency or pushing back to avoid consequences.

As I eventually grew up I developed a "policy" to use with friends, coworkers, distant relatives, etc. If they showed up one day without an arm, and I asked them "were you in an accident?" and they said "no", I would never ask them again, nor would I discuss the matter with anyone else. I see it as giving the other person their "privacy". I would also use that as an explanation if I was being pressed for why I may not have the same opinions or behavior as them. I explained my policy and ask that they extend me the same courtesy. By stating it in such extreme terms I was hopeful they would get the idea that I value privacy and respect very highly. This is not easy, but it avoids the slippery slope of argumentation and second-guessing and the frustration of pointing out logical fallacies and irrational suppositions. There's nothing but dragons there. I recently stumbled on this article about why it's usually pointless to argue about diametrically opposed positions.

There is also a quote by C. S. Lewis that I reference when it comes to dealing with insufferable close family from 60 years ago!!!

“We hear a great deal about the rudeness of the rising generation. I am an oldster myself and might be expected to take the oldsters' side, but in fact I have been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parents. Who has not been the embarrassed guest at family meals where the father or mother treated their grown-up offspring with an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance? Dogmatic assertions on matters which the children understand and their elders don't, ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously ---sometimes of their religion--- insulting references to their friends, all provide an easy answer to the question "Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?" Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?” ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (1960)

I hope that the combination of all the advice offered in this thread will bring you peace or help you move in that direction.
posted by forthright at 5:45 PM on June 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

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