WELL THIS IS AWKWARD: How to deal with racist relatives

holiday dinner table - how to deal with racist relatives over the holidays

It’s game time for people who care about social justice issues. For most of the year we can work on being better activists and allies in the company of like-minded people who share the sense that an inclusive society is a better society and that racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism have no place in the 21st century. But now it’s time to visit the relatives. And not all of them share the utopian dream.

This is where values get put to the test. We know that politics don’t just happen at the top levels of government—they happen in our homes, at our dinner tables. They’re happening right now. Our 94-year-old grandmother has just pulled out a homophobic slur from the ‘40s to describe the guy she buys her groceries from. We should ask her to stop, team. We really, really should. Do we? What do we say? Our white uncle is on a tear about how the country is going to hell because… brown people (the specifics are… a little vague…). Where do we even start? And what do we do now that everyone in the room is staring at us for making a scene?

Ju-u-u-ust in case you’re thinking about carrying your activism to a family get together for the first time, I’ll mention that people who call out, say, sexist or racist relatives when they’re being sexist and racist are likely to get skewered in some way because sexist and racist people don’t like it when they’re called out for being sexist and racist. Usually this skewering is some kind of counterattack where whatever scene is created becomes the fault of whoever pointed out that racism and sexism were happening. If you haven’t yet heard phrases such as “it was just a joke,” “you’re taking this too seriously,” or “we’re just trying to have a nice time—can’t we leave politics out of it,” get ready. You will.

This is nonsense.

Feminist critic Sara Ahmed reminds us that for people with anti-racist or feminist sentiments to talk about sexism or racism is not to introduce a serious downer into the conversation (that honour goes to whoever made the racist joke, sexist comment, etc.) but to reveal that sexism and racism were there all along. This becomes a problem for the group because identifying racism and sexism in everyday conversation also reveals that everybody else was ignoring it for the sake of harmony, and that that harmony was built at the expense of a minority group. That makes everybody feel defensive and crappy.

The bigger problem, Ahmed says, is that in these conversations, the person revealing the racism or sexism (not the racism or sexism itself) tends to be seen as the source of the tension that results, especially if that person gets angry. So anyone who would prefer not to hear, say, racists revelling in their own crapulence faces a real catch-22. Not pointing out racism when it happens isn’t productive, but pointing out racism also isn’t necessarily productive because we can be read as making anti-racist arguments because we’re angry, not as being angry because racism is right here among us.

How do we get out of this trap?

Some people are socially adept, and that lets them make contentious points and then just smooth it all out. Hats off to you if you can pull that off. In my case, even the term “staircase wit” is too generous because I’m usually in the parking lot before a snappy remark comes to me. I need to plan ahead so I don’t end up being a sputtering mess in the face of casual homophobia. In case you and I share that, here are some things we could all try this year. Some of them come courtesy of Franchesca Ramsey, who is amazing:

  1. Just say you don’t care for homophobia (or sexism, or ableism or racism). Might be worth a try to see if asking that homophobic relative to stop being homophobic will get you anywhere.
  2. Make the relative telling the sexist joke walk you through why it’s funny. Nothing kills a joke like having to explain it step by step. As a bonus, they’ll also be walking you through why they’re an idiot. That could be very funny.
  3. Have some stats on hand. If you know in your heart of hearts that you’re going to have to sit through some discussion of why letting refugees into the country is a bad idea because… terrorism, gather some fun facts and figures to disprove your relative(s)’ 100 per cent unfounded ideas. Knowing your shit is a good way to make sure you keep your shit together.
  4. Ask if you can talk about it later. If there’s one person at the dinner table trying to hold court about the gay agenda, offer to discuss it after dinner when you can both give it your full attention. Upside: you get some time to rally your points. Downside: you have to follow up.
  5. Offer some resources. Telling a relative that they should really check out [insert your author of choice here] if they want a different perspective on the issue of abortion puts the onus on them to explain why they’re not interested in hearing other people’s points of view. I mean, don’t be an ass about it—offer an article or podcast or something. Don’t offer a 500 page philosophical text to your vision-challenged grandfather.

Whichever method you choose, keep in mind Jay Smooth’s advice that the conversation you have with your relative(s) should be about why what they said was offensive, not why they themselves are, say, ableist. This is not because your relative(s) aren’t ableist, but because turning the conversation into an argument about who they are as a person derails the discussion and lets them off the hook for what they said. Holiday get togethers are high stakes situations when it comes to uncomfortable conversations because we probably actually care about the consequences of confronting our relative(s) about their problematic beliefs. That’s what makes it so important. If we can’t work to eliminate prejudice with the people we love, what chance do we have at eliminating prejudice in the larger world?

by Cindy McMann
image: holiday dinner via Shutterstock
Posted by × December 6, 2015 at 2:33 PM

One Comment

  1. Some really good advice you offer on a challenging issue that people regularly confront! Family get togethers are a really good opportunity to discuss issues that normally wouldn’t be talked about.

    I’ve made some observations from gatherings with racist (or otherwise prejudicial) people. I used to take on any and all arguments, but as you pointed out, quite often we can be labelled angry and written off or worse, we could expend so much energy arguing a point but the others’ state of cognitive dissonance sparks their minds to rationalize any sort of ridiculousness in order to get them to believe their way of thinking is OK.

    For me, it’s all about taking action in a way that’s effective. When thrown into a situation with people who are just out to trash everyone else but their kin, I tend to ask myself who is more likely to change before opening my mouth. I probably wouldn’t bother saying something back to the 94 year old’s racist remark because I know they’ve grown up with racism and have been thinking that way for 94 years and likely isn’t going to change. I’m not saying youth determines one’s ability to change, because there are a lot of inflexible, racist young people, but it’s just more likely.

    I agree it’s good to take action, but there are several ways to do that. In the 94 year old example, I find it’s more effective to show pictures of friends of different ethnicities or to show travel pictures of foreign lands that show the people are not much different and that the differences they have are good things, then talk about those good qualities (e.g. resilience, resourcefulness, efficiency, strength, lack of waste, innovation among people from developing countries). In a sense, it’s about living as an example and hoping others recognize that… because we surely can’t change anyone–they have to want to change themselves.

    Another point I thought about while reading this, and one I often think about (particularly after the Charlie Hebdo incident), is questioning the many grey areas in humour. Take a look any joke website and you’ll find that most jokes are directed towards someone in particular: blondes, racial, nationality, lawyer, spouses, etc. It’s hard to deny the importance humour plays in our world. I couldn’t imagine a world without humour. So what do we do when confronted with the jokester relative who likes to get people laughing? They will more than likely be directing their jokes are certain groups of people.

    The way I look at it is that there’s an issue if someone is singling out a particular group and joking about them. On the other hand, good humour either avoids singling anyone out or spreads the jokes around to all groups (the latter being far more common because even when comedians and actors joke about themselves they’re still making fun of themselves or their acting depicts a particular group in society). That way if we’re all getting made fun of in one way or another we can all take ourselves a little less seriously, which is a really good thing.

    I hear the “it’s just a joke” remark a lot. It’s a dangerous one because people hide behind humour to say whatever they want. If the person truly is just making jokes to be funny without ill intent and spreading it around to all groups I leave it alone, but if the intent to damage is there I’d take some sort of action: either saying something or when I think speaking out would be pointless, taking myself out of the action as absence sometimes speaks better than words.

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