How Do We Talk To Our Elderly Parents About Race?

President Obama, speaking about the spate of recent violence our country has experienced, said, “What I hope is that my voice has tried to get all of us as Americans to understand the difficult legacy of race. If my voice has been true, and positive, then my hope would be that it may not fix everything right away, but it surfaces problems, it frames them, it allows us to wrestle with these issues.”

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 12.57.05 PMWrestle these issues we must. How else do we move forward except to seek to understand, to replace hate with hope, to talk and keep the conversation open? And that conversation must extend to our oldest residents, the people we care for, who have feelings and beliefs rooted in an America before we were born.

So how do we talk to our elderly parents about race? We might hope our aging parents aren’t watching the news – it’s too upsetting we think – our first instincts to shield them. But in most cases, it’s rather difficult to avoid what’s happening and really, isn’t their perspective valuable? If we are going to move forward, don’t we need to understand where we have been?

Here are some suggestions for talking to our elderly parents about race.

Listen. We can start by listening. What are our parents’ experiences? What have they witnessed in their lifetime? What can we learn from them?

Educate. We can use conversation to educate our parents. So much has changed in their lifetime. Have their points of view kept up with our rapidly changing world? What can we teach them?

Correct, but don’t attack. What if your parent’s views are racist? Correct them, but don’t attack them. You may need to explain that what they were raised to consider acceptable, is not. Ask them to be respectful, but don’t shame them. If your elderly parent says something offensive in front of someone else – your child, a home health worker, a doctor – a simple, “That is inappropriate,” will help. You may not change your parent’s beliefs but you will establish your own boundaries and signal to the third party that you understand the comment to be offensive.

Practice forgiveness. If your parent suffers from dementia, know that it can affect his or her personality and that you may be talking to the disease rather than the person.

Examine your own prejudice. In any conversation about race, think about your own feelings and beliefs. What have you picked up from your own experiences, from your own family? How will those beliefs harm or help?

I have only one lens – my own – so tell me, how do you recommend we talk to our elderly parents about race?

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10 comments on “How Do We Talk To Our Elderly Parents About Race?”

  1. Carla Reply

    This is fascinating because I have many friends struggling with this very thing. My lefty liberal hippie parents aren’t an issue 🙂 but I’m sending this to a number of friends after I hit submit.

  2. Beth Ann Chiles Reply

    This is so good—-I never thought of my mother as a racist at all but as she ages and the filters come off I have observed her saying things that could be construed as racist and I am unsure how to react. I have tried to address it by making comments about stereotypes, etc. but I do not want to alienate her so I have been treading fairly softly. Your post helps me with a bit more of a direction and I am grateful for that. Thank you!

    • admin Reply

      Thanks for the note Beth Ann. I think we need to set personal boundaries, support people who are experiencing pain and alienation, but not attack our aging parents who are dealing with so much change.

  3. Haralee Reply

    This is interesting. I think asking for clarification on their prejudices is a good starting point. Is it from personal history or personal bias or media influenced? With a dementia loved one there is not much to be done as they truly won’t remember but it goes to show how deep prejudices run.

  4. Anne Louise Bannon Reply

    I agree. My folks swear they aren’t racist but then worry about me living in a mixed-race neighborhood. It’s tough to help them understand that they don’t necessarily get it.

  5. Erykah1307 Reply

    I’m currently having to navigate my Mother In Law. It would be difficult to describe her as loving, but I simply assumed she had no emotion to her son marrying out of his racial construct. I didn’t know it would be an issue. But as I’ve become older and 17 years married, I look back and just become aggravated with what I’ve endured. And worse, when I know something is wrong and I’m told “Be the bigger person, she’s old.” “Her medication is probably making her edgy.” When really it is “She has always been this way and no one ever wanted to start the fight to correct her. I will not allow my marriage to fall apart over this, but nothing says I need to have a relationship with my MIL, and neither do my sons. I will not force this.

    I’ve asked my husband for years to address this. And I’ll admit, recently with our political climate, the filters have simple dissolved. And I’m done.

    Any advice?

    • admin Reply

      Sorry you are dealing with this. Decide how you want to be, how you want to behave, what lessons you want to teach your children, and then act on that vs. reacting to her.

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