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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 percent 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?

image: holiday dinner via Shutterstock

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