Ask Sahaj: My mom calls me ‘argumentative’ when I confront her racism


Q: I am the child of a White mother and an Asian immigrant father (who have been divorced most of my life). I have faced racism at various times in my life, but the most hurtful instances are when I’ve dealt with comments from my mother. She has a lot of implicit biases, and she seems unwilling to address them when I’ve brought them up. Even when I try to politely enlighten her, I’m the one who gets called “argumentative.” It hurts, especially because I don’t have many people in my life whom I feel comfortable sharing this with. How can I better protect my own peace when dealing with my mother’s racism without rocking the boat too much with her?

– The Olive Branch?

A: I am sorry that you are experiencing racism from your own mother. That is disappointing and upsetting, and it’s not okay. You can’t change your mom, but you can change the way you interact with her.

When you said you don’t want to rock the boat too much with your mom, it made me wonder: Where does this narrative come from? What are you afraid of? What does “rocking the boat” mean to you? It sounds like you’re scared to upset your mom, and if that’s the case, it will make it that much harder to self-advocate. Remind yourself that speaking up for yourself, or ultimately deciding to set boundaries around your relationship with your mom, is not “argumentative.”

Your mom is highly reactive, which means that she has historically been unable to manage or regulate her own emotions. This makes it more difficult to talk about something that makes her feel uncomfortable. No matter how “politely” you try to enlighten your mom, she gets defensive because she feels like she’s being told what to do. It’s not your place to manage her emotions or control how she feels.

Instead manage your expectations. You can’t keep trying to have the same conversation with her again and again while wondering why nothing is changing. Because your mom is not responding well to you trying to “enlighten her,” consider approaching conversations with curiosity. This may sound like “I wonder if you’re aware of the impact of your words on me.” Or “Where did you learn to believe or think that?”

I also wonder if your mom realizes how harmful her comments are to your identity development and confidence. You can address this more specifically: “Every time you make that comment, it makes me feel shame for being half-Asian.” I can only imagine that being biracial and dealing with racism from your own mom may be causing internalized shame about your identity. It’s critical for you to explore how you can maintain pride in who you are and how you identify.

Here’s the critical issue: Protecting your peace requires setting boundaries. And to do that, you will have to reflect on – and decide – what you are willing to tolerate and what you aren’t.

This isn’t about changing the other person, but, rather, it’s about setting parameters around your capacity and energy. Boundaries can sound like a “bad word” if you were never taught how to set them, or were expected to accept certain behaviors. But they are a necessary part of relationships, and your lack of them may be a sign that this relationship dynamic hasn’t been healthy for you.

You don’t owe your mom your energy or your attention, especially if she is being repeatedly hurtful toward you. You can disengage when she makes inappropriate comments. This may sound like “I am not going to talk about this with you.” Or “It’s hurtful when you say things like that to me. If you don’t stop, I’m going to go upstairs.”

Because your mom hasn’t shown any indication of changing, you may have to establish consequences for her behavior toward you. This may be difficult, but you have to send the message that you will not tolerate her racism and she may lose access to you if she doesn’t change.

Be consistent and repetitive, and use trial and error to figure out what works for you. For example, if verbal boundaries are hard at first, consider behavioral boundaries. Can you set boundaries for how often you talk to or visit your mom? Explore what you’re comfortable trying and practice to develop the strength to protect your peace. You may want to consider professional care to assist you in this process.

If your mom continues to harm you, you will really have to consider whether and how the relationship is serving you. It’s extremely painful to have to protect ourselves from people who should love us fully, but loving someone shouldn’t mean enduring trauma from them.

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Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo: cropped Twitter @SahajKohli

Sahaj Kaur Kohli is a mental health professional and the creator of Brown Girl Therapy and Culturally Enough, communities focused on people with bicultural identities and immigrant parents. You can submit questions here:





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