Many of us living in (and being repulsed by) Trump’s America have found ourselves in quite the pickle: Knowing that bigoted rhetoric—like the kind that spews from the president daily—can have very real consequences, what do you do if your relatives have a history of making derogatory jokes, using slurs, or bemoaning “political correctness”?
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Maureen Dowd wrote, “For those that believe this is a national emergency, severing ties may feel like a moral imperative.” Does that mean you boycott holiday festivities, block your relatives on Facebook, and amputate them from your life like a gangrenous limb? Do you ban politics from your dinner-table discussions? Do you silently fondle your green beans while your uncle complains about Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ad? Do you talk to your right-wing family members and probe the foundations of their belief systems? Or is trying to communicate utterly hopeless?
It might be! It can certainly feel like wasted effort. In the introduction to an “Angry Uncle” interactive chat-bot tool for the New York Times, former psychiatrist and Smart Politics founder Dr. Karin Tamerius says, “Our political attitudes and beliefs are intertwined with our most basic human needs—needs for safety, belonging, identity, self-esteem, and purpose—and when they’re threatened, we’re biologically wired to respond as if we’re in physical peril.” Discussing politics with anyone whose beliefs are diametrically opposed to your own is work, and discussing politics with family members—the people who literally created and raised you—can be even more complex and emotionally charged.
But there are several good reasons for engaging with relatives who let casual racism, sexism, or homophobia slip into the conversation: Unlike strangers on the internet, you have history with these people. If their worldview is being molded by Sean Hannity and Alex Jones, yours might be the only alternative they’ll hear. And if you benefit from the privilege granted by white supremacy (and the capitalist, patriarchal society it supports), it’s unfair to expect marginalized groups to continue doing all the work of defending their own humanity. Even if your racist uncle is beyond help at this point, how do you know your younger cousin isn’t listening?
That said, there’s no easy way to navigate conversations about politics with family; it’s important to have a game plan and load up on resources beforehand.
Arguing with Family Sucks. Why Bother?
There’s an old adage that sex, politics, and religion should be avoided in polite conversations, like the ones you’d probably have at your holiday dinner table, because those topics are fertile grounds for debate, disagreement, and hurt feelings. And it’s uncomfortable to have conflicts with family—especially family you might not see very often—at what’s supposed to be a celebration.
But over the past two years, bigoted rhetoric has gotten a shiny new megaphone in the form of Trump, and this language is being used to dehumanize entire populations of people and justify their inhumane treatment. Just look at the link between the president’s xenophobic Twitter rants and his administration’s detainment of migrant children in cages on the southern border. For those who still aren’t convinced: According to new data, the number of hate crimes in America reported to the FBI rose by 17 percent last year, and more than half of those instances were motivated by race, ethnicity, or ancestry.
Prepare Some Talking Points.
It’s easy to get tongue-tied when con- versations go rogue, but there are a couple of great resources for this: The New York Times' “Angry Uncle Bot” lets you plot out a hypothetical conversation and gives feedback about the responses you choose. For the third year in a row, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is also offering a holiday bot hotline—just text SOS to 82623 and you’ll be sent talking points on topics like immigration, national anthem protests, and the origins of Thanksgiving. It’s important to note that SURJ is an anti-racist organization led by white people and therefore has some pretty jumbo problems (for more on that, read poet/activist DiDi Delgado’s Huffington Post op-ed about how “anti-racism work with a white lens is inherently flawed”). There are also plenty of podcasts that meditate on whose responsibility it is to call out bigotry in family settings, like Code Switch’s late 2017 episodes “A Code Switch Thanksgiving Feast” and “Black Atheists, White Santas, and a Feast for the Deceased.”
Beware the Civility Hot Potato.
The line between discussion and argument can blur when people are passionate, but if someone tries to invalidate your point of view based on the way it’s being delivered, be aware that it’s a tactic. Since the 2016 election, many have mourned the “lost art of civility” and the ability of both sides of the political spectrum to talk respectfully with each other. But in a new Motherboard op-ed, professors Whitney Phillips and Ryan M Milner explain how calling for civility can be used to deflect blame: “Sidestepping the content of a critique in order to police the tone of that critique... serves to falsely equate civility with politeness, and politeness with the democratic ideal. In short: You are being civil when you don’t ruffle my feathers, which is to say, when I don’t have to hear your grievance.”
One of the things I always do when a family member makes a bigoted joke is to earnestly ask, “Why is that funny?” Make them explain the punchline.
According to Dr. Karin Tamerius, “Questions are powerful because they make people feel safe, demonstrate respect, gather useful information, contribute to understanding, elicit empathy, build relationships, and encourage self-reflection. Asking people about their own experiences in a nonjudgmental way is an especially good opening because it gives them an opportunity to talk about a subject they care and know more about: themselves.”
Everybody is the hero in their own head. In my experience, telling someone they’re the villain—even if you really, really think they are—is only going to deepen the divide and, potentially, their prejudices. And that’s okay, if you decide that you do want some distance from family whose beliefs make you feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. But if you choose to be in the company of relatives whose comments give you pause, rather than letting these awkward moments wash over you without acknowledgment, recognize that they’re an opportunity for change at a personal level. Even if these conversations don’t feel fruitful in the moment, you’ll have planted seeds—maybe they’ll grow into something, maybe not. But when things feel this dire, it’s important to try anyway.