How to Radicalize Your Parents

BY MARY RETTA

ILLUSTRATION BY CATHRYN VIRGINIA

If you’re hoping your relatives will embrace frameworks like prison abolition and anti-capitalism, start small, be patient, and set boundaries.

The events of the last year—including the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the growing white nationalist violence due to Joe Biden winning the presidential election—have caused many people who were previously ignorant or uninterested in radical politics to dive in head first. 

Radical politics is a desire for policies that upend our current political system and create wide, sweeping change, rather than working within our political machine to make smaller, incremental changes. Today, radicals typically support frameworks like anti-capitalism, socialism, or abolition, ideologies which are rapidly gaining mainstream popularity. In the last year, sales of anti-racist books on topics like reparations and prison abolition have soared, and many folks who had never even heard the term “defund the police” before June showed up in scores to protests in support of disbanding American police forces. Support for other anti-capitalist demands like higher minimum wages and single payer healthcare also increased this year.  

The increase in people expressing interest in radical politics is exciting, but data suggests that not everyone is likely to take to anti-capitalist frameworks with the same enthusiasm. According to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, boomers and Generation X—so, people who were born between 1946-1980—are far more likely to express conservative political views than millennials and Generation Z. For many families, this can mean that while the younger generations are spending their time learning about anti-capitalism, abolition, and defunding the police, older generations are more hesitant to embrace these ideas.

While many people (including older generations like baby boomers, though mostly younger folks) are opening up to radical politics, others—and maybe even your own parents—are tightening their hold on liberal positions like police reform. Though it can feel disheartening to listen to your parents or other older relatives preach politics that are so different from yours, it’s important to remember that no significant civil rights in this country were gained without intergenerational organizing. It is important that everyone, regardless of age, have access to proper political education, a crucial step for anyone looking to understand and destroy systems of power. If you are looking to explain radical politics to your older liberal or conservative relatives, this is the guide for you.

Recognize the task you’re taking on: providing political education.

If you want to radicalize your older family members, it is imperative that you provide them with proper political education. “Political education should be designed to help people understand and critically analyze systems of political power that shape their lives and future through a lens of race, class, gender, and national origin,” Deborah Menkart, the executive director of Teaching for Change and co-director of the Zinn Education Project, explained to VICE. “It requires a look at history outside a traditional textbook to answer questions about the roots of our current condition. It allows people to learn about systems of oppression and stories of organized resistance—gaining inspiration, strategies, and courage. There is no neutral education.” Traditional history education can be either too both-sides or too affirmational of the “winners” of history, which can allow it to glide over issues of systemic injustice and leave gaping holes in discussions of race or class.  

Political education usually involves unlearning what is taught to you by traditional school and the media in order to learn about radical revolutionary politics. Since American schools, textbooks, and often media use a liberal or conservative view to frame history and current events, political education typically happens in more casual spaces—online, on social media, or in conversation with established radicals, or people who have more knowledge on anti-capitalism… like yourself. 

Look at where your relatives are currently getting information, and use that as a jumping-off point.

Most boomers and Gen X-ers get their news from the same select outlets: studies show that CNNMSNBC, and Fox News have a target audience between 50 and 60 years old. These news outlets tend to have more liberal or conservative framing rather than showing a wider range of perspectives or including radical viewpoints. Fox News in particular tends to spread large amounts of misinformation, especially when it comes to issues of race or policing. For this reason, many young people have found that watching the news together with their parents has been a great entryway into starting discussions about more radical politics by using each news segment to discuss current events in a way that feels natural.

Melody Magly, a law student from New Jersey, told VICEthat she was able to radicalize her mother over the last year by watching local news together over dinner each night and having a discussion about each story. “There were a lot of reactionary frames used in regards to the protests this summer, and when we watched the news together I would always push back against that,” said Magly. “When the news [negatively] reported on looting, I would say something like, ‘compared to the police killing someone, how bad is that broken glass?’ Later, our discussions progressed to ‘have the police ever actually helped you, or have they only harmed you?’” Magley noted that while her mother previously identified as a Democrat, she now more openly criticizes the Democratic party, admits that capitalism is harmful, and describes herself as a socialist. 

Start small.

When trying to educate older relatives about radical politics, it’s important to remember that you don’t need to—and in, fact, shouldn’t—get everything done in one discussion. It’s much better to start with one topic and branch out from there. Many radical frameworks and policy issues such as prison abolition, defunding the police, decriminalizing sex work, and raising the minimum wage, are related and strongly interconnected. If you can get your relatives on board with one idea, it can be easier to convince them of the next one. 

“Something that really helped me while speaking to my parents about abolition was breaking things up into smaller conversations,” Alex said. “This especially taught me the sort of counter arguments to be prepared for and what false solutions I’d have to argue against. For instance, in later discussions I learned to teach my parents not to be excited by ‘community policing’ or ‘mandatory rehab instead of jail’ type solutions that just shift what person acts as a cop or what building a person is detained in against their will.”

When selecting the issue you want to use to springboard a conversation about radical politics, choose a topic that’s of particular interest to your relative. Do you have an aunt who identifies as a feminist, but typically only ever expresses liberal feminist takes? Think about the values that make her pro-choice—a desire for women to have bodily autonomy and financial freedom, for example—and explain the fight for decriminalizing sex work in the same terms. Do you have relatives who work as teachers, in retail, or in the service industry? Talk to them about the strikes happening in their field right now, and educate them about the history of the labor movement. If your relatives can feel implicated in grassroots struggles, they are more likely to want to get involved in organizing. 

“Connect the conversations to their own life history,” Menkart said. “Find the stories and periods in history that most interest them. Make a list of questions that you both have about that historic period or event. Then identify the resources to go beyond the traditional narrative about that period or event. Uncover the history together.”

Be sure you’re armed with the right sources. 

If your relative seems willing, you can also introduce them to more openly leftist or anti-capitalist books, documentaries, news sources, and other resources that can challenge their previous liberal or conservative views. 

News sources

News sites like Black Agenda ReportBreakthrough News, and Democracy Now provide accurate reporting from an anti-capitalist and leftist lens. Ideally, your relatives will start reading more progressive sites like these regularly in addition to (or instead of) more traditional news sites. If you want to convince your parents to branch out, you can try sending them articles from these sites on a regular basis, and take time to discuss their thoughts.  

Articles

Thorough, helpful articles can be useful to explain concepts that might not seem intuitive to your relatives at first, like prison abolition or defunding the police. Publications like Bitch Media and Wear Your Voice Magazine regularly report on these topics and can be a good place to start. Some articles to bookmark include:

Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police by Mariame Kaba

Abolishing Prisons is Within Our Grasp by Reina Sultan

Uncaging Humanity: Rethinking Accountability in the Age of Abolition by Mariame Kaba, Josie Duffy Rice, and Reina Sultan

How I Became A Police Abolitionist by Derecka Purnell 

Class Solidarity Is Our Only Hope for Survival by Kim Kelly

If You Eat Fast Food, You Should Support Its Industry Workers by Kim Kelly

Raising The Minimum Wage Is A Women’s Issue by Rep. Pramiya Jayapal and Rep. Ayanna Pressley 

Books

If you are looking for materials that can reteach your relatives about the history of race and class in America, Are Prisons Obsolete and Pedagogy of the Oppressed are an excellent place to start.

Documentaries

Not everyone has the time or willingness to read a book, but they might be open to watching a film. 13th by Ava Duvernay is one eye-opening and accessible film about the history of race, prisons, and policing in the United States.

Other Resources

#8toabolition, a campaign created by abolitionists across the United States in June, also has a great deal of anti-capitalist resources on its website. And if your relatives are online, social media accounts like @ZinnEdProject provide leftist retellings of important historical events.

Though these materials can all be helpful, it’s often not enough to give your relatives a book suggestion and expect them to follow through. Instead, try to work through these materials together. Set up times to discuss the abolitionist texts you’re reading, or watch a documentary on policing together. Alex, a New Yorker who preferred not to use their real name for privacy reasons, said that reading the materials on the 8toabolition website armed them with the history and current policy knowledge to have thoughtful discussions when speaking about abolition and defunding the police with their liberal parents. “The incredibly straightforward resources were so useful,” they said. “The critical resistance ‘abolitionist solutions vs reformist reforms’ chart really stuck with my dad.”

Recognize why your older relatives might be resistant to learning from you. 

When trying to teach your parents or older relatives about something they are unfamiliar with, how you speak can be just as important as what you say. There is often shame and embarrassment that comes with admitting you were wrong about something, particularly when you have to say this to someone younger than you, or even someone you raised. Be patient as your relatives start to let go of this shame. 

Patrice, a spa attendant and massage therapy student based in New York City, toldVICE that one of the biggest obstacles she faced when trying to radicalize her parents was combatting their belief that they were automatically more knowledgeable on certain topics because of their age. “We had to work on smashing their belief that by being older, they must have a better grip on how reality will unfold compared to anyone with less life experience, like me,” she said. However, having consistent discussions allowed everyone in her family to learn each other’s rhythm and perspective, and Patrice said political conversations tend to go much more smoothly now. “I think our discussions are more delicate and respectful now than ever before,” Patrice said. “The dynamic between parent and kid is always going to have some inequality or condescension, but as we all get older, maybe my accumulated knowledge will seem valuable and I will take their stubborn approach less personally.”

Often, intergenerational conversations around social justice issues can be difficult because younger generations use different vernacular to discuss issues of race and class than their elders do. This can cause a divide, as older generations might feel too worried about looking ignorant to engage. For example, though the word “queer” has been reclaimed and destigmatized, it was considered a slur until rather recently, and so some older folks might feel confused by hearing LGBTQ people identify themselves that way today. Similarly, many older generations used terms like “African-American” or “Hispanic” rather than “Black” or “Latinx.” It might take some time for your older relatives to feel more accustomed to the language you are using.

Katherine, a civil engineer in Texas, said that this was something she had to work through when educating her parents about white supremacy. “Translate the language of social justice into their language,” she suggested. “Conversations around anti-racism, queerness, and privilege are often so steeped in semantics that are a large learning curve to overcome. Listen to what they’re trying to say, not what they’re saying. Repeat back to them what they just said in your own words and give them a chance to clarify what they mean.”

Be patient, but know your limits.

Above all, when attempting to radicalize your parents, it’s important to remember that it’s OK to have boundaries. If you are not in the mood for certain conversations, or want specific topics to be off-limits, that is fine. And if you’ve tried a few times and it doesn’t seem like your relatives are open, it’s also reasonable to table discussions until everyone is ready. 

“Just for your own sanity, you have to remember that you can’t change everybody’s mind,” Geoff Simons, a film director and organizer with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education, told VICE. “If someone is resisting too much and the conversations aren’t productive, it’s just going to stress you out. Go build with actual comrades, or people who are open and willing to learn. And maybe, in time, your relatives who used to be more stubborn will be more willing to listen.” 

“Remember that you didn’t always know what you knew, and be gentle with people who genuinely mean well,” said Alex. “Think about what points helped get through to you.” 

SOURCE: vice