How people of colour are working through family conversations about anti-Black racism

In Daniella Dela Pena’s family, important conversations often begin at the dinner table. It was there, one night in the summer of 2020, that she wanted to talk about the death of George Floyd, and anti-Black racism in the U.S. and Canada.

But when the topic came up, the atmosphere in the room changed.

“We had a heated conversation and no one ended up eating,” Dela Pena, who is based in Milton, Ont., told Tapestry’s Arman Aghbali.

The 22-year-old said her parents were concerned the spotlight on movements like Black Lives Matter was overshadowing conversations about anti-Asian racism that they had experienced.

“Everyone had something to say … like, ‘What about us? What about the Filipinos?'” she recalled.

“One thing my dad said to me during this conversation is that, like, I experience these things, but we’re not going to tell you. Out of just, like, protection, and making sure your child knows that everything’s fine.”

For people of colour, talking to family about racism in Canada can be uniquely complicated.

It’s been further complicated by the last year, as Black Lives Matter protests peaked across North America, following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States and Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto.

George Floyd’s cousin Shareeduh Tate and aunt Angela Harrelson hold a banner as they march with others during the One Year, What’s Changed? rally hosted by the George Floyd Global Memorial to commemorate the first anniversary of his death in Minneapolis on May 23. (Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters)

This week marks a year since Floyd’s killing. The officer who pinned Floyd to the pavement and pushed his knee into the Black man’s neck has since been convicted of murder and manslaughter.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also put other permutations of racism into sharp focus. Chinese Canadians and other people of Asian descent have been harassed and attacked fuelled because the first outbreaks were in China.

For Dela Pena, the biggest challenge was persuading her parents that racism isn’t an either-or debate.

“Just because the Black Lives Matter movement talk is happening right now doesn’t cancel out … the oppression the Asian community faced at the beginning of the pandemic.”

It ‘isn’t your fight.’ Or is it?

Dela Pena’s friend Ally Enrile, who is also Filipino, had a similar experience with her family in Vaughan, Ont.

“It had been a couple of days after a lot of the protests had started. And when things started to kind of get a little more violent and out of hand, I remember my dad saying that he supports the cause, [but] he just doesn’t support what they’re doing,” said Enrile, 24.

“I try my best not to get emotional about it … but I think it’s also just really hard recognizing that people you care about, and people you’re close to, might not value the same things you do.”

When Enrile first broached the topic, her father, Hermogenes (Gene) Enrile, said his knee-jerk reaction was: “Why should I bother with it, when I’m not really getting impacted directly?”

Even so, he continued the conversation.

“I think as a family, we’ve always been aware of it, but we’ve never really addressed it.”

Ally Enrile, centre, with her parents Myla Enrile, left, and Gene Enrile, right. (Submitted by Ally Enrile)

He said he worries that when anti-racist movements become high profile and vocal, people with racist views go underground — and re-emerge stronger. He pointed to the rise of former U.S. president Donald Trump and his supporters as an example.

“It’s still something that needs to be discussed, and some people need to be educated properly in terms of how that discussion should be,” he said.

Dela Pena’s parents were also worried she might “get dragged into” the Black Lives Matter discussion and controversies — “something that technically isn’t your fight,” she recalled them saying.

She sees things differently from her point of view as a person of colour and child with immigrant parents.

“It is a conversation that I need to take part in,” she said.

Generational divide

Language and cultural differences between generations within families of colour may make it difficult to discuss racism with the necessary nuance, according to investigative journalist Steven Zhou. He called the latest wave of Black Lives Matter “a valuable wake-up call” for other communities of colour “to question how their racist bias affects the world around them.”

Older people in particular may have an “insular headspace,” he explained, if they live comfortably on their own without wider connections to other communities.

Investigative journalist Steven Zhou has written about his encounters with anti-Black racism in the Chinese Canadian community and other communities of colour. (Ilyas Ally)

“If you have a secure suburban lifestyle with a job and your family … that’s all you care about. And there’s no sense of … broader efforts at harmony that come from learning about the other,” he said.

At the same time, Zhou noted, the younger generation may not have “the kind of patience to actually speak to members of their family” without quickly getting frustrated.

The tools to talk race

Salma Hindy found guidance on these difficult conversations in a workshop titled Shut it, Uncle Bob: How to Speak to Your Racist Uncle run by equity educator Rania El Mugammar. 

Salma Hindy, a clinical engineer and stand-up comedian in Toronto, found a ‘huge human compassion component’ to the issue after taking a workshop. (Submitted by Salma Hindy)

Hindy, a clinical engineer and stand-up comedian based in Toronto, said anti-Blackness had always simmered in the background in her conservative, Muslim, Egyptian family.

She attended the workshop thinking she would learn ways to shut down her relatives’ racist comments.

“But then … there was just a huge human compassion component to it,” she said.

El Mugammar recommended talking to relatives in the language they are most comfortable with — such as sending research articles to analytical relatives, or documentaries to family members who connect to more emotional narratives.

“She was basically saying, you know, be patient with them. Like, it’s not gonna happen overnight,” Hindy recalled.

Ongoing conversations, no easy path

Dela Pena and Enrile have continued to have these conversations with their families. It’s been uncomfortable at times, but they feel they’ve made some progress — while also learning more about their parents’ positions.

“They understand that my perspectives are different and they’re still valid as opposed to [saying], ‘You’re too young, you don’t know what you’re talking about,'” said Ally Enrile.

Gene Enrile said he’s learned more about the conversations around racism now than a year ago, adding that he will support his daughter.

“She’s the next generation that will drive the change, right?”

Despite the rough patches, Dela Pena feels it’s important that the line of dialogue remains open with her loved ones.

“Maybe at the end of the day, you’re not going to all be on the same page, but at least it was talked about,” she said. “At least I know I shared some genuine conversations.”

Written by Jonathan Ore. Documentary “The Struggle at Home” produced by Arman Aghbali.

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