Difficult conversations with my family about race

Difficult conversations about race

Experiences talking to my family about racism during this time have been, on the whole, about as successful as my attempts at playing chess – hopelessly difficult and far more complicated than black and white.

The general consensus amongst most of my aunts and uncles on my white side has been that my mixed-race identity somehow renders the conversation about Black Lives Matter irrelevant, because “this doesn’t affect you, does it?”. One aunt pointed out “but you’re half white!”, as if that makes me incapable of experiencing racism, or worse, not black enough to warrant protest of issues other people of colour face.

My uncle thought it would be best to merely suggest that “racism occurs all over the world” – an obvious fact, but an entirely invalid point; I felt misunderstood, and undermined. By far the most well-read of my uncles, he had in one comment, limited my experience of racism to somewhat of an inevitability that I should simply get over.

One of the worst responses was from another uncle who, when I described to him the premise of a programme about dismantling racial biases, decided to ignore what I was saying, and look, eyes glazed, at a bush in the garden as if he didn’t hear me. The conversation was then followed up by “I’m tired of hearing about race…” and “I know all of this already, lots of my friends on WhatsApp are very ‘PC’”. I took this moment to recall a few weeks earlier when these WhatsApp friends had also shared an apparently hilarious homophobic joke, which my uncle had adamantly defended.

I dare not even discuss it with the last of my uncles, not because we are less close, but because his pro-Brexit sentiments and sexist jokes in the family group chat make it too uncomfortable a conversation for me and my lack of testicles to bring up.

The only person who has been remotely open to a proper dialogue is my mother, perhaps forced to by our insanely close proximity over these past few months. That is not to say our discussions around race and the Black Lives Matter movement did not have their ferociousness, and that she did not occasionally say “I always remember thinking racism was bad, even as a child” – congrats!

Family having a conversation

Image credit: @dnnsbrndl

But even she now admits learning a great deal in this time, about how me and my sister experience the world differently because of our skin colour, not only in our blackness but also our privileged mixedness. I returned to London comfortable in our relationship and happy that our house now has two Black Lives Matter signs visible from the road (a nice compliment to the neighbour’s St. Georges flag that makes regular appearances).

Of course, many of my white cousins in London are less in need of such discussions with me, as the generational gap between us and our parents is comparable to a deep chasm on the topic of race. Even in my older cousins, there is solace in knowing they are well informed even if we don’t have these conversations.

But I think of other mixed-race friends with less liberal white families, and my problems with 3 or 4 aunts and uncles seem small in comparison. I think of the ones whose white family members had shared #Whitepride posts on Facebook, or believed George Floyd was a drug addict with a criminal record, and therefore that his life was worth less at the hands of police than that of a more upstanding member of society.

‘Why I am no longer talking to my white family about race’ may be a slight overreaction considering I could have been it a lot worse. However, as I sit here in the middle of the night writing this out of sheer frustration, I certainly feel the exhaustion so many activists of colour talk about after attempting to have these difficult conversations.

I look at my white family and see displays of ignorance similar to those Keir Starmer showed on a Good Morning Britain interview just a few days ago. It is truly scary to see a politician missing the point of the Black Lives Matter movement, labelling it is as simply a reactionary “moment” to the death of George Floyd, which just to clarify may have been the catalyst but is, and never was, the sole reason for the protests. By this point, it’s painful to see such a lack of understanding from my own family, and such ignorance from those I depend on to solve the problem.

I recall now, during a difficult period for my dad, his strong reaction to an apparently racist doctor. He came home distraught, and I barely understood what exactly had even happened when he told his story, but I watched my mum disagree with him, and tell him he probably misread the situation in his already erratic state. Whether my dad was right or not, my mum’s words understandably did little to soothe the situation, and so looking at him I said the only thing that would end the situation “Even if he was being racist, what could you possibly do about it?”

And that’s the thing, right? My Dad, as a semi-homeless, unemployed African man with a bad back, would never be taken seriously if he tried to make an allegation of racism. Even at 16 (and even earlier) I was aware that my experiences would not be sympathised with, that I would never feel comfortable in my environment, and that racism was just something to try your best to ignore.

Since then, and away from the heavily white area I grew up in, I now have the small balls to begin to talk about my experiences, although as anyone who’s experienced racism will know, speaking out is uncomfortable. Even attempting to call out a friend who suggested “I wasn’t really black” and made the presumption I didn’t know my dad was a difficult thing to do, and so some of my far worse experiences still remain unaddressed.

I now watch as my childhood rural area holds Black Lives Matter protests, and as a girl I know talks of being called the n-word on the way home from school by a boy in her class – an all too familiar story. Her bravery is something I want, and in an all-white area, is certainly necessary.

What angers me the most is that in order to be taken seriously, even by my own family, standing up and providing evidence of my own personal and traumatic experiences of racism is a requirement. As if mine and a million other people’s proclamations that the UK is racist, is not enough to take action, without hearing “but you’ve never experienced racism, have you?”.

It’s almost 1am, I’m in bed, tired but unable to sleep, plagued by the fear that my older white family may never understand how I view the world, let alone someone less privileged than myself. Worried that they view these extraordinary times as just “a moment”, and that just because “we’ve come a long way since then”, the same issues don’t persist now. These people, my family, are not racist, they are simply oblivious to my experiences, disconnected from the issue. And I have to admit, with my newly found balls, sometimes I do hate them because of that.

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Jutalla Coulibaly-Willis

Jutalla Coulibaly-Willis is a politics and international relations student at SOAS uni, half Senegalese, half British, but 100% groovy.