How To Set Boundaries With Your Racist Relatives

Image Credit: Tiny Buddha

By Hailee Magee | Tiny Buddha

As the Black Lives Matter movement gains traction across the nation and the world, many of us are being called to use the skills we’ve learned to improve ourselves⁠—such as speaking our truth, setting boundaries, and breaking the people-pleasing pattern⁠—to improve our communities, our countries, and our world.

Those of us who are allies are conveniently positioned to have conversations about racial justice with our family members, friends, and coworkers. However, historically, many of us have balked at these conversations out of fear of our own awkwardness, others’ anger, or the possibility of creating rifts in relationships.

In the past, I’ve done a subpar job of asserting my boundaries with racist relatives. Instead of saying, “Hey, that thing you just said was really racist,” I usually opted to stay silent. I justified my silence with one or all of the following excuses:

  • “I can’t change their mind.”
  • “They won’t listen to me anyway.”
  • “It’ll just start an argument.”
  • “If this becomes a debate, I don’t know enough facts to justify my side.”

Now, I’ve come to understand that silence is violence⁠—and that complicity in racism is racism.
Some activists assert that allies are most useful when we advocate for racial justice with our racist relatives. Others caution that getting into embittered arguments with racist relatives is a waste of energy⁠—energy that could be better-devoted to creating real change for black folks.

Whether you choose to take an offensive stance (proactively engaging your racist relatives in conversations about race) or defensive stance (speaking out against racist relatives who make racist comments), knowing how to set boundaries with racist family members is critically important. When conversations become ineffective or toxic, we need to know how to stand in our power and create safety for ourselves.

These four tools can help you set empowered boundaries with your racist relatives and maintain the emotional energy you need to avoid burnout and continue engaging in anti-racist work.

1. Clarify the values that empower you to speak up.

When planning to have a difficult conversation, we can find motivation and strength in our values. Our values are our basic, fundamental beliefs that help us determine what is important to us.

For example, my core values include integrity and authenticity. I’m passionate about speaking from the heart, being honest, and acting in a moral manner.

When it comes to having difficult conversations with family members about race, I ask myself: What would it look like to act in integrity here? What would it mean to be fully authentic in this conversation? For me, this means not going silent in difficult conversations, addressing racist jokes and comments the moment they’re spoken, and holding firm to my beliefs, even in the face of others’ anger.

What are your core values? Honesty? Loyalty? Generosity? Compassion? Consider how those values align with your intention to speak out against racial injustice. When those conversations get difficult, find solace in the truth that you’re living in alignment with your fundamental beliefs.

(If you want to discover your most deeply-held values but aren’t sure where to begin, Scott Jeffrey’s Core Value List of over 200 personal values is a great place to start.)

2. Come prepared with specific language.

Boundary-setting discussions, especially with relatives, are among the most challenging conversations we can have. To reduce the pressure we may feel to summon the perfect words at the perfect time, it’s helpful to come prepared with a few key phrases we can use to set, and re-assert, our boundaries.

In a recent Instagram post, trauma and relationship therapist Jordan Pickell offered some excellent suggestions for how to tell someone you love that they’re being racist. It included suggestions like:

  • In the moment, you can say “That is really racist/offensive/ignorant.”
  • Set a boundary that you will not accept racist comments: “Don’t make racist jokes around me. If you do, I’m leaving.”
  • Focus on the feelings/impact of their words: “When you say that, it makes me feel angry/disgusted/confused.”
  • You can also go back to it after the fact: “What you said the other day isn’t sitting well with me.”


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