Ask Lisa Advice: Seeking Peace with (or in Spite of) Toxic Family Members

This week I’m addressing a theme that’s come up a lot lately: Toxic Family Members and how to handle their race-based rejections.

Hi everyone. I came back from my hiatus to discover several questions involving toxic family members and their racist views. Here’s an example:

Dear Lisa,

My aunt is racist in my opinion. Though she never puts my daughters down (I am a White, single mom and my daughters are Black), my aunt (also White) spoils her White grandchildren with gifts and outings, while barely giving my children the time of day. I want to spare my kids (who are as yet too little to notice) and cut my mother out of our lives, at least until she can learn to treat them with the love they deserve.

Thoughts?

JB

Dear JB,

Toxic family members. We all have them: People who have hurt us, who claim our very existence is an affront to them. People who reject us because of who we are or whom we love. For Multiracial people, the toxicity tends to be race-related. The disconnect between multiracial people and their very racist family members is a common theme among my readers and the people I see in my private practice. Sometimes it’s a parent who won’t accept the person their adult child has chosen. Other times it’s someone like your aunt, who favors the kids in the family who match her racial background over the multiracial ones. Sometimes it’s an entire wing of a Multiracial person’s family, who won’t speak to anyone from the other side.

In the world of family therapy, we call these “cut-offs,” where communication between family members is literally “cut off” due to differences. My grandmother was similar to your aunt. She never accepted my mother’s marriage to my father. She couldn’t abide the notion of a grandchild who was not white. My grandmother had the opportunity to meet me when I was a year old. She’d visited my mother when my father was at work, so she wouldn’t have to lay eyes on the “schvartze” (essentially, Yiddish for the n-word). The visit was brief. I was asleep in a crib on the far side of the room. My grandmother would not cross the living room to take a gander at me, much less hold me. She said goodbye to my mother and left. And that was pretty much the end of my mother’s communication with her until she was dying.

My mother knew her mother was not going to change. My mother was not going to stop being my father’s wife or my mother. My parents populated their lives, and later mine with other people: loving, accepting friends who became family-by-choice. They became my extended family and I never wanted for the grandmother who would never want me.

Mom visited her mother and spent time with her before she died, but there was no discussion of me or my father or what my grandmother had done. There was no apology, no forgiveness, no resolution of any kind.

Here’s another example of such a cut-off in real time, the story of a couple I saw in my practice several years ago. (Details altered for confidentiality.)

Shannon (not her real name), a twenty-seven-year-old White, southern woman was engaged to Miles (not his real name), a twenty-seven-year-old Black man from New York, whom she had been dating since college. Though Shannon’s siblings were thrilled for the couple, having known Miles for nearly as long as Shannon had, everyone feared that the union would lead to a huge rift with her parents. Shannon admitted that her father held very racist views and that her mother “basically went along with him.” Still, Shannon believed her mother would want her to be happy and wouldn’t be able to pass up a chance to help plan a wedding—even if the groom was black. Shannon also felt confident that Miles would be able to win her mother over if only they could meet.

With the support of her closest sister, Shannon informed their mother of the engagement. When Mom was teary with delight, hugging both daughters, the younger women provided the supplemental detail of Shannon’s fiancé’s race. To Shannon’s surprise, Mom didn’t flinch. She hugged her again and said, “You let me work on Daddy.”

A few weeks later, over an introductory brunch, Shannon’s Mom quickly became a Miles fan. But as the meal was drawing to a close, Shannon’s mother confessed that she had not found the strength to tell her husband about the engagement. The wedding could still happen, Mom said. She would still attend and pay for everything she could without “Daddy” knowing, but she didn’t see him ever accepting the situation.

Miles, the oldest son of a large, intact family was glad to meet Shannon’s mother and says he wouldn’t care about her dad’s opinion except for the fact that it hurts Shannon. He doesn’t like being the reason Shannon is cut off from her father. As for Shannon, it hurts her to contemplate a future where her father is cut out of her life. But it will be her father’s choice. Miles is the love of her life and there is no changing that.

I anticipate that the pending nuptials may also cause a rift between her parents, unless Mom has more power than she realizes.

So, what should we do about toxic, racist family members? How to forgive the unforgivable, especially when race is in the mix? Seek peace. With ourselves and our own lives and choices. If possible, with the relative in question, though we must also make peace with the notion that reconciliation may not be possible. This is easier said than done.

Here’s an informal guide to Seeking Peace With (or In Spite of) Toxic Relatives.

  • Self -Love: separate yourself from the narrative the toxic relative has of you. In your case, provide your children with a narrative that celebrates them and their Black heritage—to counter your aunt’s slights. Shannon and Miles will need to do this for their children too, especially if Shannon’s father remains cut-off. Their children will need to understand that his absence has nothing to do with them or with Miles, but only with their grandfather’s prejudices.
  • Self-care: Identify what you need in terms of the cut-off. Is your goal reconciliation? Or peaceful distance? Soul-search. What is realistic? What would the consequences be for other family relationships? This is something Shannon and Miles still need to decide. If Shannon’s father doesn’t come to the wedding or acknowledge the union, how and when (if at all) will they attempt to open the door to communication with him? That’s a big TBD.
  • Don’t deny yourself participation in activities—such as family gatherings—that the toxic relative attends. Find allies who will support you and have your back and stand up for you, as needed.
  • On the other hand, give yourself permission not to attend those events that will be too painful or awkward. But do remain connected and continue to nurture relationships with other family members or family friends. If you have hopes of reconciling, set the scene for the best odds. Choose a neutral place. A family therapist’s office, a restaurant. The home of a neutral relative.
  • Decide on who should be there. Whom do you trust? Who has been in your corner in the past? Will it be better to start one on one, especially if the discord is primarily between you and a specific family member? Will this be a full-blown, having-it-out confrontation? Or a quiet, test-the-waters tea?

Lastly, make sure the time to embark on a journey to reunion is right … for you. This is about being true to yourself and listening to your instincts. Don’t rush yourself. In time you will know what is right, whether it is better for you to attempt to reconcile or to pick up the pieces and move on.

 

Best Wishes

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