How to navigate racist interactions with family members this Christmas

Christmas is a time that is steeped in emotion, but this year may be particularly tumultuous.

We have been pushed to our emotional limits, not only be because of the Covid situation and the last-minute changes of plans, but also the political mood of the moment.

Black Lives Matter and racial injustice has been on the news agenda this year, with arguments over the significance of taking the knee, posting black squares on social media, and the value of protesting during a pandemic.

The possibility of clashes on these issues might be even higher if you are unexpectedly spending Christmas with different people this year. Maybe you’re stuck in a bubble with your in-laws, you might be sitting down for turkey with housemates you barely know, or navigating off-hand remarks on the family Zoom.

So, how should you react if someone says something problematic or openly racist around the Christmas dinner table?

It can be hard to know when to stand up against it and when to let things slide – either to keep the peace, or to conserve your own energy.

But no one should have to ignore or tolerate racism or racist behaviour in order to have a harmonious and enjoyable Christmas. Psychologist Dr Roberta Babb says actively ignoring racist comments during this time skirts over the underlying issues and ultimately doesn’t resolve anything.

‘With everything that 2020 has seen, ignoring racism within the family may no longer be an option, and you may be seeing racism in new, previously unseen places,’ Dr Babb tells

‘It is important to recognise and remember that you are not alone. It can feel very lonely, embarrassing, frustrating and anxiety provoking to witness racism within your family. One way to cope with this is to realise what you can control and what you cannot control.’

When should you speak out against racism?

‘Speaking up and discussing or challenging racism within your family is never going to be an easy experience,’ says Dr Babb.

‘When deciding whether or not to speak up, it is important to consider how robust and resilient, or emotional and vulnerable you may be feeling at the time. 2020 has been a hard and long year, and one characterised by relentless change and distress which has taken energy to manage.

‘Racism is an emotional topic and it takes courage and energy to speak up against it, especially among people you love and family members.’

She adds that there may be costs involved in you speaking up – such as ruptures in your relationships – that should be considered.

‘It is important that you balance the short-term and long-term costs and benefits of speaking up, and speaking up at that time,’ she says.

There are certain things you might want to consider before you take the plunge and start calling people out.

‘How many people are you speaking up against, and what are their roles within the family? It may be easier to say something to one person, rather than six or seven family members,’ says Dr Babb.

‘How long will you be in the situation? If you are staying at someone’s home for two weeks, or you are dependent upon someone else to travel, you may not want to say something on the first day, as you still have a lot of time with them to manage.’

Dr Babb adds that sometimes it can be more constructive to speak up after an event, such as doing a phone call in the new year, as there may be less emotional heat or defensiveness.

She says: ‘What is the nature of the issue? It may be easier to speak up about a family members use of racist language, than to speak up about a family member’s belief about people from a particular racial group.’

In the heat of the moment, it isn’t always possible to mentally weigh up all of these pros and cons in a matter of seconds. Having to do that is also a burden on people of colour, in addition to experiencing racism.

If you get angry without thinking about the consequences, or if you choose to stay quiet when you feel you should have said something – don’t beat yourself up or feel too guilty. The onus to resolve these difficult situations shouldn’t fall solely on people of colour.

How should you confront racism with family members?

There are different approaches you can take, and it doesn’t always have to result in a blazing row.

‘The key thing to remember is that for many people, racism is an emotional rather than a rational subject,’ says Professor Binna Kandola, co-founder and senior partner at Pearn Kandola. 

‘This means that rational arguments aren’t always going to get you very far. For those who don’t have many friends who are Black or Asian, it can be difficult to empathise with their experiences.’ 

Professor Kandola suggests asking the person who made the comment to put themselves in your shoes, to imagine that they’re on the receiving end of discriminatory behaviour.

‘Try to get them to take the perspective of someone different to themselves and imagine how those individuals must feel in that situation,’ he suggests.

‘It’s also important to bear in mind the relationship you have with this person. If this happens, for example, with your in-laws, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect some support from your partner. Doing it together like this may not get people to change their mind, but it will help to know that your partner is on the same side at least.’

It’s important to remember that racism is an emotional issue, on both sides of any argument. Professor Kandola suggests having an awareness of how your own emotions might impact your response.

‘Might you be reacting in an emotional way without trying to understand the other person’s point of view?’ he asks. ‘Can you appreciate why they may have reached that conclusion? Trying to find some common ground between one another is a good way of having a constructive discussion.

‘You might also want to rehearse a few possible situations in which you’re confronted with racist behaviour and decide how you might best respond. This isn’t to spend hours practicing the scenarios, but instead to run them through your head and prepare yourself in the event that it does occur.’

One strategy would be to think about situations in the past where you have effectively dealt with people making racist remarks.

‘What were the tactics that you employed? What words did you use? How did you manage to engage the others in a conversation?’ asks Professor Kandola.

‘Alternatively, you might want to think about those situations where it escalated and think about why that happened, and how you can prevent that happening again.’

How to protect yourself at Christmas

Experiencing racism within intimate family settings can be emotionally distressing.

‘People may experience a wide range of emotions including feeling hurt, sad, angry, guilty, anxious, rejected and confused,’ suggests Dr Babb. ‘It can also lead people to question their sense of self, and their actions, but also their sense of belonging and connections with their family.

‘However, although experiencing racism in family settings can be hurtful, it can also be a liberating experience. For some people it is a time when things that have been hidden or alluded to, can finally be spoken about and for many resolved which can feel empowering, connective and a relief.’

During this period, it is really important that you take steps to protect your mental health, energy and overall wellbeing, so that you don’t end the festive period feeling burnt out and emotionally depleted.

Dr Babb has shared her top tips for self-protection that people of colour can employ in the face of racism at Christmas:

Be comfortable in who you are and your antiracist position

You can then decide on your boundaries. What are you not prepared to listen to, witness or experience? What can you tolerate for a short time and address then or later, and what can be left?

Validate your emotional responses

Emotions are important, they give us information about a situation. It is important to let yourself feel the emotional response you do, and to not let it consume you.


Think about how you may want to communicate your position. If you are going to speak up, it is more helpful for you to engage in courageous conversation, rather than a difficult dialogue – like an argument.

Be direct, and identify and name one thing at a time.

Using ‘I’ statements and naming emotions rather than thoughts, can be helpful as it can help people hear what you are saying, as you are owning your response.

When we say ‘you’, people immediately become defensive as it is accusatory and blaming, and can also be emotionally distressing or shaming which can close down, rather than open a conversation.

You can then name what you would like to happen so there is an invitation to the other person to change and do something different.

E.g: ‘When you said *, I felt *, please could you *’.

Radial acceptance.

You will not be able to challenge every instance of racism, and you may not be able to change your family members racist viewpoints, comments or behaviours. However, this does not mean that you are colluding or condoning their actions, it may be more of a reflection of the fact that you are recognising what is in your control and what is not, and looking after yourself.

Remember you have a choice

You can decide which issues to speak up about, challenge, or make a note of to be addressed another day.

Remember to stop, step back and take a deep breath.

Observe what is going on (in your mind, your body and the situation), and then proceed mindfully.


It is important that you look after yourself during the Holiday season.

Try to take regular breaks from family environments or situations that are distressing. You can go for a walk, or into another room.

Be mindful. Engaging in mindfulness practice such as breathing can be helpful during emotional stressful times.

Find an ally or someone who can support you during this challenging time. This may or may not be someone in the immediate area or family, but someone you trust, who you feel can understand you and who you can talk to.

Speak to a professional (psychologist, psychotherapist or counsellor) about your experiences, and challenges. Talking to a professional can help you understand what is happening, and help identify and process the impact of the situation or experiences upon you.

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