Reacting to a Racist Family Member

Authored by John Bell, M. Div.

As I followed the news about Charlottesville, I came across a story of a family coming to grips with the revelation that their son participated in the organized rally of white nationalists.  I’ve decided not to reprint their names.  The story is about a father who published a letter online in response to his son’s participation in the rally.  In the letter, the father repudiates the son’s beliefs and behavior.  The father tells the son that he is not welcomed home until he changes his ways.

Here is my takeaway from the letter.

First, the letter is a written on behalf of the entire family.  It is a common practice for families to issue a joint statement to the media.  However, my research into family systems leads me to conclude that, when families are anxious, they function as a unit –  expressing the same thoughts and feelings.  There are evolutionary roots for this behavior.  In times of danger, it is advantageous for social groups like families to respond as a unit to effectively eliminate a threat.  For humans, the psychological process complicates the assessment process and makes it difficult to know when a threat is real and when it is perceived.

A cousin issued a second letter/statement.  It’s a good example of what Dr. Bowen called the family projection process – seeing the problem in someone else.  I don’t have time to go into that idea here.  But the two statements offer a glimpse into a family history of struggle and conflict.

Second, beliefs function to maintain closeness and distance in the relationship system.  One does not become a white nationalist overnight.  We often categorize conflict and violence as being about ideological differences.  Also, we assume that outsiders are to blame when a family member touts an outrageous belief.  But beliefs are prone to be hijacked by an emotional process (the way family members manage closeness and distance).  Beliefs are fluid and often serve at the mercy of the relationship system.  If we emotionally need to be close to someone, we tend to agree with them and they with us.  If we need to create distance, we disagree which can lead to arguments, conflict, and even violence.  Conflict and violence are indicators of an inability to manage closeness and distance to others.  Most humans want to believe it’s about beliefs, but it’s really about a multigenerational family process.  Sure, some beliefs are dangerous.  That’s true.  But what if good engagement shifted people’s beliefs to be less violent?  What if this is a real possibility?  What if white nationalist beliefs function to manage the closeness and distances in families?  What are the implications of thinking about this differently?

Third, this is not the family’s fault, but it is a family problem.  Behavior driven by a radical ideology is linked to a multigenerational family emotional process.  One way to resolve it is through the family emotional process.  It requires a leader in the family who is interested in understanding how beliefs are formed in the family, seeing how one plays a part in the problems that arise, and then taking steps to change one’s functional position in the family.  As much as I understand the reaction of the father (and by proxy, the family) to the son, addressing the problem requires engagement, not banishment.  To the extent to which a family leader can engage a problem thoughtfully, through the relationship system, the family will do better, and the problem will more than likely be resolved.

Finally, this leads me to the concept of cutoff.  Unwelcoming a family member (the father’s response to the son) suggests that this family has a history of emotional cutoff.  In my work with homeless people, being unwelcome or feeling unwelcomed went hand in hand with a multigenerational history of cutoff in the family.  Many scientific studies show how isolation contributes to behavioral problems.  When we isolate someone, we never get the outcomes we intend.  Over the long-term, cutoff creates more problems and makes the current problem more intense.

So, what now?  Should the family immediately welcome the son home with open arms?  Well, not exactly.  I don’t think it’s an either-or proposition.  There is a third way, but it requires thinking.  Why is someone’s status in the family equated to the way they think?  Is it not the case that one’s status in the family increases one’s capacity to think?  Why can’t we both welcome and disagree, or welcome and correct?  Can’t we invite and also restrict?  Why isn’t engagement the best course of action?  All relationship systems, including congregations, grapple with this on a regular basis.

What would it look like for a family leader to welcome the son home, take responsibility for their part of the problem (by learning to self-regulate their reactivity), and engage the son using what Dr. Murray Bowen called differentiation of self?  Why must it be my way or the high way?  Again, I am not suggesting for a moment that white nationalism is an acceptable belief or ideology.  It is not and never will be.  Extremist views are the result of problems in the family emotional process.  Do a better job managing one’s reactivity to anxiety in the family, and the extremist views will dissipate.  I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think I am.

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