Photo: Amanda Wood
The nice thing about getting together with family for the holidays is catching up with loved ones you haven’t seen since last year. It’s lovely to hear about your sister’s new job, watch the kids play with their cousins, and grit your teeth through your racist relatives’ awful comments. OK, wait — that’s actually not very fun. In fact, it can be rather distressing and depressing.
How to deal, you ask? Depending on your goals, you’ve got four options.
A totally unscientific survey of friends with racist relatives shows that this is the vastly preferred method of dealing with conversation about “these people,” welfare queens, or my favourite, the faux outrage about blue lives mattering. What’s the point of engaging in an argument, the thinking goes — no one is going to say, “Oh you’re right! I now do totally understand that Black Lives Matter is a legitimate protest movement calling attention to police brutality, and not a race-based extremist group murdering cops!” because you out-debated them at Thanksgiving. For the older members of your family, if there’s no hope in changing minds, this might be the best strategy.
For those of us with more pugilistic temperaments, letting racist comments slide is hard. If you feel like you need to combat statements about “illegals” and the vast conspiracy of voter fraud with facts and reason — voter fraud is not a thing; what is a thing is voter suppression — then be prepared to stay calm. I’m convinced that racists are open about their repugnant views largely because they like to get a rise out of people. I myself am not much of a debater — I get enraged too easily — but if you’ve got the skills, go for it. A good friend of mine firmly believes that standing up to racists, even if you love them, is a responsibility we have to any children who might be present. They aren’t going to learn how to stand up to racists themselves if no one models it for them.
I will also say that if you’re white and dealing with white relatives, and if you have a child, partner, or guest who is a person of colour, you have an absolute moral responsibility to vocally confront hateful statements and then leave the gathering. You must protect your family and guests from hate speech, and especially if the target is your child or partner, you must demonstrate in no uncertain terms that you will stand up for them even in the most uncomfortable or difficult circumstances.
Totally legitimate. A good friend messaged me that she simply doesn’t celebrate holidays with her racist relatives anymore. At the last dinner, hosted by a problematic sister and brother-in-law a couple of years ago, she says, “We went so we could also see my parents, but they were awful trips — all strain and fake Midwestern smiles, dead silence mixed with insults and racist and homophobic comments. Obvious choice: no more holidays with them.”
The deciding factor was her son’s obvious confusion at her silence in the face of vitriol: “My son was watching me sit through their BS, trying to play nice for my parents’ sake, and trying to piece together why none of these adults he respected were standing up for all the things we talk about the rest of the year. I know I lost his respect for that, and there really is no good way to explain that.”
If you can’t change their minds, staying away might be the only bearable solution.
Last fall, right after the 2016 US election, I interviewed a former Jesuit missionary about how to engage productively with people who hold very different cultural values. His primary instructions were to practice reflective listening (“it sounds like you’re really worried about immigration”), to “meet people where they are,” and most importantly, to not expect to change anyone’s mind in a day.
He briefly described what bad missionaries do – operate with a kind of tone-deaf pushiness – and emphasised showing generosity to even the most repugnant worldviews. I myself am firmly convinced that a kind of (social, not religious) missionary work is what’s needed to combat the the country’s social divisions. In the long run, maintaining relationships with people with ugly views isn’t condoning those views, it’s letting people know that there is another way to live (again, especially important for children).
Will you enter the new year with newly non-racist relatives? Likely not. But keep giving it your best shot.