Discussing/Negating the Idea of Reverse Racism with Parents
September 27, 2020 1:00 AM   Subscribe

I am having a hard time processing something about my parents and their shared attitude about reverse racism. This view comes from their lived experiences, but it is harmful, and racist, and I'm perseverating over it. Can you help?

My parents have both expressed that Black coworkers impeded their ability to move forward in their careers and that my own black colleagues might do the same to me.

My father's direct supervisor (or maybe supervisor once removed, details are fuzzy), was black, and repeatedly hired, favored, and promoted other black men over my father. My dad says that this supervisor would claim racism if anyone called him out on these choices, and as such, no one stepped in to give my dad the raises he deserved based on his tenure and contributions to his workplace. My father has also mentioned that this supervisor was punitive towards him but not towards his black cohorts. This experience left my father deeply bitter and angry, and eventually became the impetus for my dad retiring early but in a messy, upsetting way. My mother supports his perspective and agrees with him that my father experienced reverse racism, and our family suffered financially and emotionally because of it. (It's true, we really did, but I strongly disagree with the why.)

Today my mother and I were discussing a new colleague of mine and I stupidly mentioned that he is black while recounting a negative experience with him. (He talks over people during meetings in a way that makes me frustrated and discouraged.) My mom jumped on this and said that this coworker is likely never challenged on this behavior because he is black, especially right now. I pushed back, because the way he operates as a person in the workplace is NOT because he is black. It's how he operates, for whatever reason, and it's counterproductive. But obviously I'm still working through my internalized racism since before I went into any details I prefaced our convo with "he's black." I'm mad at myself for making that a talking point. My mom repeated that it would be dangerous to even say something like, "Hey, I need to complete that thought before we move on, please," because again, this colleague is black, and he "could retaliate." I've been sick to my stomach ever since we got off the phone.

I am at a loss on how to process this. Talking about LGBTQIA+ rights? Easy, my parents have always been supportive of that, especially now that they know I'm not straight. This is different. We're white, middle class people. My parents were teens during the Watts Riots and witnessee the riots firsthand. That left them traumatized. My mom supports BLM and talks frequently about how the US has committed atrocities for which justice is overdue. I'm not sure where my dad falls on this spectrum and I don't want to ask. I don't know if they view themselves as racist, but they do double down on racist views when they trigger flashbacks from those lived experiences. It makes them angry and defensive. I empathize, but I cannot accept what they're saying as true.

I'm sorry that this has gotten long. How can I push back on their views without completely invalidating the things that have clouded their minds about this issue? I don't want to hold some family meeting about it or anything. I'd like to just... Find a way to maybe get them to reflect on these things in a different way?

Thank you.
posted by Kitchen Witch to Human Relations (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
All the defaults, here: my friends who are angry about losing default privilege don't see their privilege and still have to process their fear and other feelings related to this (perceived) loss of power. I think your LGBTQIA+ outlook is really helpful to talk about living in powerless fear -- something I see on my horizon having played my part taking gains from all those default characteristics ... my comeuppance is deservedly frightening.

Some thought in there is that my "in-group" status will be revealed as the ambivalence it really is: co-workers, the police are meeting their own needs to do what they think it's right within the system. My considered response (or second or third thought) is that we have to build communities of people who do care about us, not who are forced to defer to us. Those communities always form for unpredictable reasons and aren't aligned to protected or default characteristics -- so how socialised is your Dad?

Additionally, I don't pay attention to news that says there should be a cultural war or that I have to do them before they do me (I was raised to do unto others as you'd have them do to you). This might be an aggravating factor to your conversations.
posted by k3ninho at 2:39 AM on September 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I mean, I wouldn't get too in the weeds with structural racism vs. individual bias and just point out that white people being all weird like that is exactly why your dad's former boss felt the need to act the way he did, and you don't want to be part of that problem. People know when you act differently around them. People know when you're patronizing them. And is a way better way to start workplace conflict than respecting them enough to be level with them when they're coming across as a jerk.

I'm also LGBTQIA and white. I've been on both sides of this. It feels bad to be singled out, even if it's for nominally 'better' treatment. Just treat people normal.
posted by Zalzidrax at 5:59 AM on September 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I appreciate the way in which Ibram X. Kendi frames racism/antiracism in "How to be an antiracist". Structural racism and reserve racism are hard to discuss with white people like your parents. Kendi frames the discussion of racism around whether you engage in racism or antiracism - there is no such thing as non-racism. One of my interpretations of the book is that anyone (black, white, or other) can be a racist if they attribute individual actions to entire races. (This isn't to say that structural racism isn't real nor does it dismiss it as an endemic problem.) So from the examples you give, your parents are engaged in "racist" thinking because they attribute individual's actions to their specific race. Now as far as the manager only hiring black men and women over your father being an example of "reverse racism" - that's not really a thing because it is either "racist" or "anti-racist". In this case it may be true that the manager attributed racial characteristics to individuals in the company - but we cannot know this for certain. The question then is less about the manager or your colleague (neither of whom you can control anyway) but about antiracism in yourself (and possibly your parents whom you are trying to convince.) So, my strategy would be to reflect on how I can strive to be an antiracist, and possibly shine a mirror to your parents that attributing individual acts to entire races is not the way to be antiracist.
posted by turtlefu at 6:04 AM on September 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Maybe you address it as a problem of irrational generalization? Entertain the possibility that on the details of your dad's particular work experience, he could possibly be right; his old supervisor/superior might have engaged in a pattern of unfair choices based on race. The problem comes in where your parents base their broad expectations of a huge class of people on (their understanding of) the behavior of one single solitary individual. That makes no sense at all, and by allowing themselves to fall for that sort of sloppy thinking they're fostering exactly the kind of damage in the world that they themselves felt so burned by.
posted by jon1270 at 6:06 AM on September 27, 2020 [27 favorites]

My parents have both expressed that Black coworkers impeded their ability to move forward in their careers and that my own black colleagues might do the same to me.

Okay? Maybe that will be a thing, and that's fine. That's appropriate. That's fair. Affirmative action writ large through individual action is still a greater good. The fact that it comes with a price tag paid for by the individuals being dis-affirmed is the fair cost of generations of privilege.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:57 AM on September 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

I find sometimes it helps to zoom out and identify the larger systemic problems that both contribute to and are upheld by racism, and that often rely on “divide and conquer” strategies to function. This could help shift your parents’ thinking away from “Black people have screwed us over” to “the systems of capitalism, and the normalizing of competition, individualism, and scapegoating in the workplace caused us to feel as though we were pitted against our Black colleagues/supervisors and vice versa. It may help to join with your dad around his feelings of powerlessness and being screwed over, but help him understand that both he and his supervisor were just doing what they needed to do to survive in a system that actively pits people against each other and then stokes racial tensions to deflect blame. It may also be worth asking your dad why he found it more convenient to blame his supervisor rather than advocating/standing up for himself and asking for the raises/promotions he felt he deserved - was the supervisor really holding him back or was the system designed to keep your dad in his place?
posted by sleepingwithcats at 8:13 AM on September 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and maybe also point out that white supervisors exclusively hire/promote white staff all the time and that is almost never attributed to preferential treatment based on race - it’s just considered “normal” (since white privilege is the default normal).
posted by sleepingwithcats at 8:21 AM on September 27, 2020 [19 favorites]

Are both your parents retired? If so, the biggest problem here is that their negativity will affect the way you interact with your black coworker. Just don't talk to them about this guy unless you're willing to hear them talk about their own racial issues (although you can always just shut them down by telling them that if you have to talk anymore about race, you'll hang up because you're tired of taking about it).

Trying to "convert" them out of their own experiences is more likely to get them to double down on them IMO.
posted by kingdead at 11:25 AM on September 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

The decision to step back and look at the bigger picture instead of honing in on one's own hurt and resentment is not one that can be forced.

You can:
1. Be clear about where you stand
2. Set boundaries as far as what you are willing to discuss
3. Be sympathetic to your parents' feelings without agreeing on the source of the problem. It does hurt to be passed over, even if it's for the best of reasons and for the greater good, and you can acknowledge that. You can genuinely say "It must have been really frustrating and disappointing" without signing on to a racist argument.
4. If any part of their hurt feelings are tied to a sense that they weren't able to do as much as they wanted for you, as a kid, you can reassure them on that point.
5. Be clear about your own plans for your career, whether that's "I don't mind being passed over for promotion if that's how we can help end systemic racism," or "if I believe I'm unfairly passed over I'll do X and Y."

The other thing you could try is a slow logic, perhaps over multiple conversations.
* do you agree that systemic racism is an issue?
* do you agree that people are passed over for jobs or promotions because of skin color?
* what do you think is the way to fix that?

And since your mom at least is a supporter of BLM, you could lean in to that and have conversations about what actions she's taking or might be interested in, share articles, etc.

Different people are different. Some people will reflect and change their minds if confronted with facts and sound arguments, or persuasion from someone they trust. Some need to work through their feelings before they can see the bigger picture and be open to other ideas. Some dig in their heels the more they are pushed. Think about their past behavior if you aren't sure.
posted by bunderful at 11:42 AM on September 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

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