For many of us, going home for the holidays is anxiety provoking. Ever witnessed a relative making a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc. comment during a family gathering? What do you do? Avoid the whole situation? Go in with your fists up? Drink enough to kill a small horse? Xanax?
This post is in response to this post on Feministe. This is post is framed around race. I have a lot of white privilege and its the issue I feel most responsible for. However, these tips can apply to any “ism” or fucked-up comment.
I am trying to work on calling out racist family members, but confronting it is still a struggle for me. I believe it is (my) white people’s responsibility to confront/educate other whites, especially relatives. POCs should not be burdened with the sole responsibility to confront racism and/or educate white folks. They have enough shit to deal with.
It may not change a relative’s mind to call them out on a racist comment, but they may think twice about saying something racist in front of you again. Second, by calling a family member out, everyone else in the room sees that it is not okay to say racist (or other fucked-up) shit. This includes family members who are also likely to say racists things, thought it was racist but didn’t say anything and most importantly, young folks in the room. I want my nieces and nephew to know a comment is racist, that it’s not okay to say racist things, that they too can confront racism. I want to help them develop good race politics.
Different situation require different strategies. Is the racism blatant or more covert? Was the comment malicious in intent or just ignorant (like grandma talking about that “nice oriental woman” who does her nails)? Did a family a member present one of the tenants of being an “open-minded” non-racist white person? (color blindness, positive stereotypes/myths, etc) All of these happen in varying degrees in our families and they are all problematic.
So your ___(fill in the blank) says something racist at the dinner table. What do you do?
1) Pull aside
-Calling someone out in front of the rest of your family may not be possible or productive. Who wants to be publicly shamed? You might want to talk to a family member after the fact. Pull them aside and address the issue.
-Explain why their comment was racist.
2) Name it
-Be very careful how you approach this one. Using the word “racist” immediately makes people defensive. Remember to frame as an action, not their being. “what you said is racist” vs. “you are racist” (Jay Smooth on this distinction:
-Explain why their comment was racist
-Let the other person know that talk like that makes you uncomfortable or bothers you. Let them see your emotions, even let yourself cry. Explain why their words are so hurtful.
4) Offer information
-Casually offer up information. “Its funny you mention that, I actually just read an article about welfare statistics. The largest racial group is white people and most women have 1 or 2 children.” This may help reduce defensiveness. It’s also informational!
-Along these lines, you could also give an alternative explanation or perspective. (ex. Cousin Binsey: “All immigrants should go back to their own country” You: “Some people have been in this country their whole life, their parents brought them when they were babies. This IS their country.” or something along those lines)
5) Ask them to cite their source
-This is the alternate to ‘offer information.’ If the racist comment is an untrue fact or myth you could ask your family member where they heard that info or if they can prove their statement. This is especially helpful if you know what they said was wrong/racist but don’t personally know much about the issue. If they can back up their statement, give them the benefit of the doubt, go look it up, and revisit the issue
6) Make a point or relate it to some value they hold true
-Ex. If a family member makes a derogatory comment about immigrants mention that their grandmother was an immigrant. If your sister is married to a black man ask your parents if they think their son-in-law fits that stereotype, etc.
-Connect how what they are saying goes against one of their deeply held beliefs Aren’t we all God’s children? Does that follow the Golden Rule? Don’t you believe in free speech? Isn’t that what Democracy is about? Etc
7) Pretend not to understand
-ask them to explain what they mean by their comment -many times this results in embarrassment
8 ) Ignore
– If someone directly asks you a question or makes a statement that is racist just ignore them.
-You may not have power in a situation and cannot call someone out but do NOT play along with them. Don’t laugh at their jokes or agree with problematic sentiments.
-Pretend you didn’t hear or understand them. If the conversation is about Obama being a terrorist, for instance, start inserting totally unrelated statements into the conversation as though that is what we are talking about: “I completely agree – Zimbabwe’s inflation rate is really a problem.” It will throw people off enough to change the subject, or at the very least annoy them. (Thanks for this one feministe commenter Rita!)
9) Get a Holiday Buddy! (use this one in tandem with other strategies)
-It is helpful if you have an ally at the table. Do you have a cool aunt that might back you up? A sibling, cousin? Take advantage of that support.
-Keep a friend on speed-dial, someone who you can call if you need support or to vent when you are infuriated with your family.
10) Leave! (or Don’t Go At All!)
-This may be the only option when you have exhausted your other options, a last-ditch effort if you will. This option may be easier for some than others, depending on how close you are to your family and if they have things to hold over you (like paying your tuition or if you are a teen and have less autonomy). If you do get to the point where you need to leave or refrain from going at all, the most important thing is make sure your family knows WHY you are leaving or not coming. A boycott doesn’t work if no one knows about it.
Things to keep in mind:
(obviously these are not universal, different people and situations require different things)
1) Try to be as non-judgmental as possible. After all, you are not perfect and have probably said or done racist things in your life too.
2) Speak from personal experiences (use ‘I’ statements). Explain that you are still working on being less racist, that its hard but necessary work.
3) Avoid “should”ing people (“you should___”)
4) Be careful about policing language, especially when folks are just starting out. Let them make some mistakes. Analyze intention.
5) This doesn’t need to be an hour conversation. You can refute what they are saying and then change the subject to something else. It can be casual.
6) It helps to understand where people are coming from. Someone may have had a negative experience with a person of color (maybe they believed they were passed over for a job because of affirmative action for instance) and project those feelings onto a whole race of people. This doesn’t make it okay obviously, but it may help you to reach them. Validating how they feel may help them come around to the issue.
7) Be kind. Stay calm. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. If you get in a yelling match with someone don’t expect them to come around to your side.
8 ) Offer support -“If you ever need to talk about this or need support, let me know.”
9) Be aware of your body language. Use open, non-threatening/defensive body language.
10) Relate the situation to some oppression that person may experience (gender, sexuality) or some marginalized group they identify with
11) Listen, Listen, Listen
12) Take care of yourself. Don’t beat yourself up to much.
13) This a marathon, not a sprint. You aren’t going to change your relatives in the span of one Thanksgiving meal.
>>>This list is a work in progress, as am I. If you have constructive criticism or suggestions I would love to hear them. Tips to add? Let me know!<<<
***I have collected these suggestions from various outlets as well as my own experience. These sources include a Whites Confronting Racism Workshop though Training for Change, my work in Whites In Anti-Racist Solidarity (WIARS), and the tips and suggestions from the comments section of the Feministe post.***