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.”
Wrestle 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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