Families navigate hard discussions about race, police and civil rights

Insults are hurled, people become defensive. Following a few guidelines can build trust and help families grow.
Tate Leigh, in cap and orange vest, protests police brutality as part of a group of bicyclists stopping traffic in St. Petersburg on June 11. Leigh is among those who are finding it difficult talking to family about race and police following the death of George Floyd.
Tate Leigh, in cap and orange vest, protests police brutality as part of a group of bicyclists stopping traffic in St. Petersburg on June 11. Leigh is among those who are finding it difficult talking to family about race and police following the death of George Floyd. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 10, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Lauren Steinsdorfer felt compelled to protest in the streets following the death of George Floyd.

The 30-year-old travel nurse from California came to St. Petersburg this summer to visit with family and friends. But when Floyd died May 25 in Minneapolis police custody, things took a turn.

“I felt this greater sense of responsibility, that I needed to be doing this,” said Steinsdorfer, who is white. “I started protesting right away.”

She said her mother and sister didn’t understand. Her trip was supposed to be about quality time with them. Instead, Steinsdorfer was picking up signs and shouting in the streets with people she had never met.

The conversations that followed were intense, emotional and overwhelming.

“You don’t want to cause an uproar with your family, but sometimes you have to,” Steinsdorfer said. “It was unpleasant initially, but I felt compelled to do it. I can’t just talk about things that don’t matter right now.”

Conversations about race, policing, protests and civil rights have been playing out on social media feeds and in living rooms across the country for the past three months.

Often, they don’t go well. Insults are hurled. People become defensive. An impasse is reached. Someone shakes their head, wondering how a friend or family member can seem so off base.

These conversations seem difficult because they are linked to core values, how people see the world, said Steve Wilson, a communications professor at the University of South Florida.

The discussions become particularly tricky to navigate when they take place within families. That’s because people are trying to make a point while also maintaining a relationship with someone they care about, Wilson said. Doing both at once can seem near impossible.

“It’s not like you’re debating someone on the street, a stranger or even an acquaintance or friend,” said Brittani Morris, clinical associate professor at the University of Southern California. “We want to be on the same accord with our family, and it really pains us when we’re not or when someone is seeing it from a different perspective.”

Black, Latino, Asian American and other families of color don’t really have a choice but to talk about race, especially as their kids navigate new experiences, Wilson said. But for many white families, these conversations might be one of the first times relatives directly address the topic.

Maintaining family harmony makes Dennis Fox, 70, hesitant to talk with his children about protests, race or police. Fox, who is white and describes himself as conservative, said he’s had tense conversations in the past with one of his daughters and her husband. He describes them as liberal. He said he’s more likely to talk about current events with older family members who share his views or with others who aren’t family.

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“Other people, acquaintances, they’re not blood,” Fox said. “There’s more at stake if someone walks off in a huff if it’s one of your kids.”

People tend to tolerate a smaller range of opinions when the discussion is about core values like equality or stewardship, Wilson said. They’re more likely to become defensive.

“These topics get at our notions of justice and fairness and other values that are core to who we are,” he said. “We’re sure we’re right and the other person is wrong. That’s not typically going to go really well, especially if you think about the context of family.”

Family dynamics introduce extra layers. Things can escalate even quicker when there is a history of past anger or hurt, Morris said. “You’re bringing in baggage and pain from other times when you felt hurt or disrespected or not heard.”

Fox said he doesn’t know exactly what his kids believe about the fallout from the death of George Floyd, but he avoids bringing up current events because of past arguments over divisive subjects.

“I don’t so much hesitate with other people, but with family, I walk on eggshells,” Fox said. “We get along really well, but it’s because I keep my mouth shut. ... I think they know where I’m coming from and they don’t want to get me riled up, and I’m kind of the same way I guess.”

Tate Leigh, 29, said it was important to her for mom to understand why Leigh was out marching every day in St. Petersburg. Her mom, who lives in a small Kentucky town, had seen news coverage of rioting and looting during protests in Louisville and begged her not to go out and protest.

“I had to have some very difficult conversations with her,” said Leigh, who is white. “They are conversations that are uncomfortable, but they have to happen.”

Leigh eventually persuaded her mom to attend a small protest in a nearby town. She encouraged her to sit in her car where she could witness things from a distance. She said her mom texted her the entire time. Leigh said she spelled out why people shouted or why they lay on the ground.

“After explaining it and after her seeing it, it made more sense to her,” Leigh said. “These are conversations that we don’t want to have, because it might seem like it’s pointless and we’re not getting through to people, but we have to talk to our families and our friends and our neighbors.”

Morris, who teaches at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, said social change and activism often starts at the dinner table and within family units. Think about what might happen if family members spoke up at Thanksgiving and told one other when they felt offended or disagreed, she said.

“What an amazing opportunity if people would be able to exchange in those kinds of conversations and be heard and could listen in a civil way,” Morris said.

Many families feel a sense of connection, unity and the responsibility to support each other, Wilson said. But the connection varies among families, as does the emphasis on the importance of shared beliefs. For some, shared values are important, Wilson said. For others, it’s important to express individuality and challenge one another.

It can be particularly tough when parents and adult children disagree.

“I do think that notion of, ‘Is this the way I raised you?’ probably becomes relevant,” Wilson said. “Or, ‘What do I do if I love my parents and I know they raised me, but I look at them now and think, ‘How can you think that?’”

Wilson and Morris shared techniques that can help family members discuss protests, race and other difficult topics without storming from the table.

Identify the purpose of the conversation. “I’ve had conversations like these and they’re very challenging,” Wilson said. “If I can come away getting the other person to reflect on something they might not have thought about before and also understanding them better, that’s often a win.” Wilson suggested trying to first define what a conversation “win” looks like, even if it’s as simple as refraining from yelling at one another and getting a better understanding of each person’s beliefs.

Ask to learn more about a position instead of just disagreeing. This one can be hard with relatives, who know each other deeply and assume they already know what’s behind one another’s feelings.

Set ground rules. Often, people launch into conversations about divisive pics in response to an event, news coverage, something they saw on social media, or some other external force. Taking a second to acknowledge you’re about to enter a hard conversation and setting some ground rules can go a long way in keeping the discussion on track, Morris said. “There needs to be some sort of universal language or some way to say, ‘This is what we’re not going to do in our household,’” Morris said. “We’re not going to yell, we’re not going to scream or curse or storm away.' Most families don’t have these guidelines, and it’s really important.”

Look for common ground. Family is its own social identity, whether relatives agree about everything or not, Wilson said. Relatives have history, they care about one other and they often feel an obligation toward one other, even if the relationship is rocky. People can rely on their shared identity when disagreements arise. Look for the common ground. “Even if we determine justice somewhat differently, we can agree that we both care about it,” Wilson said.

Admit when you’re uncomfortable. Conversations can go awry when people don’t indicate when they’re beginning to feel uncomfortable, Morris said. Things start out fairly cordial, but when a corner is turned and people become overwhelmed, their usual response is to become defensive. That’s when things can escalate, Morris said. She suggested having some language ready to say, “I’m really uncomfortable right now, and it may influence what I’m saying” or that you need a break from the topic.

Allow yourselves to disagree. It can be healthy to acknowledge a disagreement that exists between two family members, including recognizing that some boundaries may never be crossed entirely. Consider saying something like, “I’ll never fully understand, but I want to try to as best I can.”

Be ready to walk away, at least for the day. Sometimes, avoiding a topic is a good idea, Wilson said. “We have a stereotype in our culture of equating openness with being a good family,” he said. “That’s oversimplified. If there is a pattern of conversations that haven’t gone well, people can come away angry, defensive and feeling ignored.” If that’s the case, continuing the same conversation probably isn’t wise, he said.

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.