How to Have Difficult Conversations About COVID and Race Relations

Experts from the University’s department of counseling and behavioral health offer tips on navigating divisive topics with loved ones.

In these emotionally charged times, you may find yourself having difficult conversations with loved ones regarding both the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread reactions sparked by the killing of George Floyd through the lens of race relations in America.

This can manifest itself in disagreements about wanting to be in close proximity to those who don’t think it’s necessary to wear masks around at-risk relatives, dissension about the nature of the protests going on across the country, and a litany of other topics with which we’re collectively grappling.

To help mitigate the potential damage to personal relationships, we turned to three experts in Jefferson’s department of counseling and behavioral health. Drs. George James, Nicole Johnson and Angelle Richardson shared their thoughts on how best on how to handle these troubling situations.

It’s difficult, but you need to call out people on what they say. You must be willing to draw boundaries. —Dr. George James

What follows is a collection their tips:


— When talking about race, people have strong viewpoints or want to completely avoid those conversations. With racism, some people might want to believe this doesn’t happen, that people are playing it up, that it’s real but they don’t have anything to do with it. So, they avoid talking about it. It’s about getting family members to the point that they want to see it and want to do the work to better understand it.

— People need to be willing to face their own anxieties and nervousness about these topics. We already have these preconceived notions. How do we explore things like respect versus speaking your truth? It’s the internal battle: Do I want to do the work to help? In this case, it’s about truth and the willingness to step in the ring to do the work.

— It’s difficult, but you need to call out people on what they say. The words. The slurs. The condescending jokes. You must be willing to draw boundaries.

— I once had a white male professor who had to confront his father about these very things. He didn’t want to continue that, so he told his father directly that if this continued, he wouldn’t be able to be around our children. That can be difficult. Younger adults, or teens, might not feel that they have the power to do that, but they do. It gets complicated, the ability to challenge family members about justice, racism and hate. You have to say that’s not tolerated in our house.

Difficult conversations
In these emotionally charged times, many Americans find themselves at philosophical odds with loved ones about how to deal with safety amid the pandemic and their views on the protests enveloping the nation.

— Sometimes, it’s about picking battles, specifically picking the timing of those battles. Maybe it’s not good for the dinner table, but at other times, they’re more open to conversations. If family members put up walls, saying, “This is my perspective and where I am,” you may just have to accept that.

— Some people who believed in a just society don’t recognize how much they had privilege. Some in that category didn’t see it before but are willing to see it now. There are some people who very strongly don’t believe in racism and they’ll never get there. Some might change only when it comes home to them, such as if a family member happens to marry someone of a different ethnic group.

— Unfortunately, it’s so embedded in our systems and policies, government and educational system, where people live. It will take a major restructuring, and people have to be willing to lose a lot. I have a lot of hope, but I don’t feel like we’re there yet.


— In this current culture, we have many multi-generational families living under one roof, with grandparents who lived through the Civil Rights Movement with younger generations. The sharing of lived experience among families may already have set the tone for conflict even before it begins.

We need to find a way to come together and find common ground on the generalities. —Dr. Nicole Johnson

— The best way to handle conflict is to take a step back and realize each person has different perspectives and life experiences. We need to find a way to come together and find common ground on the generalities.

— With COVID, we can focus on how to keep each other safe. We all agree we want to keep Grandmom and Grandpop alive, so how can we come together on doing that, whether it’s masks, washing hands and other safe practices. How are we best going to care for each other as we go through the pandemic? It moves the conversation from “right or wrong” to “what can I do to keep my loved ones safe?” If someone isn’t comfortable with a mask, stay 6 feet away and don’t touch or handle anything.

— I work with several mental health organizations in Philadelphia, with direct care staff and patients with severe mental illnesses. One of the challenges they face is the fear of a mask. It’s a constant reminder that a severe, deadly disease is out there. I’ve encouraged them to have patients make their own masks. They made it an art project, which is something you can do with kids, too, to make it a fun activity. It helps get over the fear of wearing a mask.

— With families, some people tend to think they’re all right or all wrong. Either for us or against us. Well, it’s difficult, because there are nuances. When it comes to the protests, families and friends can find a great divide: They agree with the protests but not the looting. It’s good to talk about this, because it brings about awareness.

— Take a step back from the specifics of the issue in order to join with family on common ground. How do we feel about people being harmed? How do we feel about human rights? How do we feel about police? Few deny the benefit of having law enforcement, but we differ on how it should be carried out. It’s not about policing, it’s about humanity. Bringing humanity into how we treat one another.

Difficult conversations
As the COVID-19 era heads into summer, people find themselves at odds with relatives who don't abide by masking recommendations.

— We react more than we respond, and that’s one of the challenges with family members. We can be so reactionary, so emotional. People don’t sit back and think about how best to respond. Once you say words, you cannot take them back. I always tell professionals that if they’re angry, that’s not the best time to write an email. It won’t speak to what you’re really trying to say.

— Families should come together and decide how they will have conversations about heated issues. Families should be open and honest about these conversations. Young adults might be more action-driven than older relatives who just donate to causes. Parents shouldn’t hold their children back from their plans to act. Parents should share their concerns and fears. Talk about why you’re coming from your perspective and allow children to do the same.

— Perspective sharing. Perspective taking. Thinking about those larger themes, and the goodness of a person, their wellness, your wellness and the wellness of mankind. At the end of the day, we’re all the same, which is difficult for some to understand these days.

— Human beings should get back to a place where we honored and respected each other. In counselling, we get to the core of the person. Everybody has something that makes them smile and afraid. Everybody wants to live well and be happy. There are common things that we all want within families and society, what we want for ourselves and for our common man, and that’s what we have to get back to.

— This is about the things we learned in elementary school. At mine, we used to have a Citizenship Award for students who were kind and helped out their classmates. We all wanted to get that award. In the purest sense, it’s about, “I want the best for me, the best for you, the best for us.” That’s the basics we need to get to. In wanting the best for us, only “us” can decide what’s best for us. It will take conversation and collaboration, but that’s what we need to do.


— Part of engaging in meaningful conversations with relatives who disagree with your views is to set ground rules. Establish that the conversation needs to be respectful, even if people disagree. If it becomes disrespectful, the conversation should end.

It’s also helpful to use words that children can understand, rather than explaining things from an adult perspective. —Dr. Angelle Richardson

–Decide upfront what each person feels is disrespectful so there are no misunderstandings about boundaries.

— Designate a safe word to say when someone feels the conversation is getting too intense so it can stop before feelings are hurt and relationships injured.

— Many children may be feeling fear and confusion. It’s helpful for children if we as adults normalize their feelings and provide assurance that we will provide them with safety and as much clarity as possible around current events.

— It’s also helpful to use words that children can understand, rather than explaining things from an adult perspective. In addition, provide children with action steps, so they know how we will proceed so things don’t feel so scary for them.

— When it comes to the civil unrest, we can talk about the history of oppression and discuss changes being made, what we’re doing to stay safe and what we as a family are doing to create change or how they can be kind to others.

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Life at Jefferson