(Image: Gorkie/Private Media)

In Both Sides Now, author and ethicist Leslie Cannold presents two sides of an argument. Then it’s over to you: what do you think is true, and what do you think Cannold really believes?

Today: should we confront our family members about their racist beliefs, regardless of the consequences and potential for long-term relationship damage?

Yes: We must speak our truth, even if relationships are fractured. No: Being self-righteous changes nothing. You must stay in a relationship for any hope of change to be realised over time.


Racism is Australia’s dirty little secret. Perhaps more accurately, it’s a secret to the 66% of Australians who didn’t experience racism on public transport or on the street, or the 68% who didn’t cop it at work or school.

For everyone else, be they of Aboriginal, African, Asian or Muslim backgrounds, Australia’s casual racism is a fact of life.

Racism hurts. Slurs and insults degrade and dehumanise. When issued in public — on the bus or at the office — they injure personal pride and civic dignity, too. The impact on self-confidence can be devastating.

Racism harms. Discrimination deprives people of colour the opportunities they worked as hard as (if not harder than) others to create for themselves, while a 2015 systematic review found associations between racism and poor mental and physical health.

These facts compel decisive action. Particularly from privileged witnesses, and regardless of whether a person of colour is around.

Let’s face it, if ignoring your uncle’s racist slurs or the racist jokes told by your colleague helped to end racism, it would have ended long ago.

In fact — and this has been the case for some time — racist attitudes towards some groups in Australia are on the rise. Speaking out against racism may be one of the few interventions that helps everyone, from the bystander to the victim (who doesn’t feel forsaken and abandoned) and the offender themselves, who — having come to understand that their prejudice is not the norm — may stop expressing it. They may even learn something, or at least be instructive to those looking on.

The other way is not peace but guilt and complicity. As the late Adele Horin once confessed movingly, her own experience of refraining from calling out a racist joke left her torn and conflicted. Which is how all good people feel when we fall short of our moral standards and leave the vulnerable to fend for themselves.

There is no choice. We can’t be silent under the guise of forgiveness or made complicit by pussyfooting around. Our job is to call out the racists loudly and clearly, and let the chips fall where they may. It’s not our job but that of the racist to turn him or herself around.


Family relationships matter. While it’s one thing to write off a stranger on the internet who holds racist views, you only get one family of origin. If someone you know and love has been made monstrous by racism, the only hope of bringing them back within the circle of humanity is to stay calm, express disapproval without provoking a defensive reaction and, whatever happens, stay in connection.

We all want to believe that the world is fair, that we deserve what we have, and that we’re basically good people. Everyone knows racism is wrong and, for many people, any suggestion that they have done the wrong thing — especially one made in front of other people — will throw up every defence mechanism in the book, blocking all hope of personal growth and change.

That helps no one, not the victim or perpetrator of racism, and not the person calling it out, who is just as likely to be the one banned from the next family gathering for being confrontational as the offender himself. It also severs the grandstander from someone she may love bar the racist blind spot: a grandmother who picked her up after school for years during a parent’s extended illness, or an uncle who paid for college when a family’s finances turned bad.

We don’t choose our family but are uniquely placed to help them, and if others have disengaged because of their racist views, we may be the only ones who can.

So, what should we do? Don’t argue. It never works, particularly rational argument, though as an academic it pains me to admit that. Don’t disengage or express disappointment either, it’s patronising.

The best advice for dealing with racist comments around the dinner table is to appeal to shared values. Try saying, “our family is too important to let bigotry tear it apart”. Or, “our family always has stood for fairness, and the comments you’re making are terribly unfair”.

If that fails, take the person who made the comment aside and inform them that you found the comment hurtful and unacceptable. Say you don’t want such things to be said in front of you again and explain what you will do — take the children and leave, for example — if it happens again.

Then, move on and if it does repeat, do what you said you would until it stops.

And if it doesn’t stop? Feminist philosopher Barrett Emerick argues that if we can stay safe and honour our own values while staying in a relationship with a racist family member, this is the path we should take. Why? Because to do so makes it uncomfortable for them to continue to hold their racist beliefs, and we are obliged to create such “epistemological friction” to avoid complicity and because that is what love requires.

“None of us are moral agents in isolation,” Emerick says. “We all need others in our moral community to help us to act rightly.”