Before I begin, I have to say a couple of things by way of disclaimer/explanation:
First of all, as many of my followers likely know, I’m black and my husband’s side of the family is white. I’ve been part of his family for 14 years at the time of this writing. I’ve spent the past 13 holiday seasons with them and they have not made me feel uncomfortable.
Secondly, this post is written primarily to white people with the assumption that the racially insensitive family members are also white. This advice can apply in any situation, though. People of any ethnic persuasion should be able to follow most of this advice.
Surviving the Holidays with your racially insensitive family
Spending the holidays with family often produces a range of emotions. If your family is anything like mine, you probably love them to pieces but wonder why on earth God placed perfectly sane you in with a bunch of crazies.
But we ain’t talmbout my crazy family. We’re talmbout your crazy family. In particular, the member (or members, or entire branch if you’re truly blessed) of the family that is racially insensitive.
Maybe it’s your uncle who is frustrated about all the “illegals” flooding into America and taking jobs away from hardworking Americans.
Maybe it’s your aunt who is suspicious of the family of color that moved into her once lily white neighborhood.
Maybe your grandma uses racial slurs freely.
Maybe your parents don’t like that they made George Washington black in Hamilton.
It can be difficult to navigate such sentiments at the best of times. So what on earth do you do during the holidays? Do you speak out when someone is racially insensitive? Should you? What do you say?
1. You need to understand how culture affects your family values.
It is my understanding/experience that white people often value some measure of politeness and comfort over confrontation. Especially with extended family. There are exceptions to this of course, but generally speaking, white people will tolerate and even ignore problematic behavior in the name of keeping the peace.
This value is good when Cousin Paisley throws a temper tantrum because she hates the dress Grandma Phyllis bought her for Christmas. As much as you think that your cousin is a spoiled and entitled brat, it’s probably best not to call that out in the heat of the moment.
The value placed on politeness is not so good when Uncle Butch starts making Islamaphobic comments at the dinner table during your Thanksgiving meal.
Your family culture may be different. People may have short fuses and be extremely emotional. Your family may value bluntness and honesty.
The point is, you need to go in with an understanding of how your family works and why people act the way that they do so that you can figure out what will and won’t work with them.
2. You need to count the cost.
As a member of a minority group, it’s easy for me to say, “Look. You need to address your racist Aunt Norma when she starts popping off,” because it costs me literally nothing. But this is your family. You have to live with these people for the rest of your life.
Don’t jump bad to Aunt Norma if you ain’t ready handle that she might get mad at you and even cut you off. Don’t call somebody out if you ain’t ready for your family to turn on you like them Hyenas turned on Scar. Do not hold The Armchair Commentary responsible for any feelings you or others might catch as the result of speaking out against racism.
With that said, there are people watching you. I’m talking specifically about your own children and/or younger relatives.
Prejudice is taught. Racism/prejudice/discrimination…whatever you want to call it…is taught and normalized largely within the family system.
Don’t think for a moment that racially insensitive tirades don’t affect those who hear them. Especially those with impressionable minds. How you respond will speak volumes. Make sure you’re broadcasting a message that you can live with.
3. Don’t pick a fight.
For real. Don’t be that person who belligerently forces their views on every unsuspecting person without invitation or warning. If people aren’t saying or doing anything racially insensitive, there’s no reason for you to bring it up.
Christmas dinner is not the time to rage about the preschool-to-prison-pipeline or to harangue your family about white privilege.
4. Know your endgame
Don’t engage your racially insensitive relatives without some sort of endgame in mind. You need to ask yourself what outcome you desire.
My opinion is that in the family holiday celebration setting, your concerns should be:
- To stop the dissemination of racially problematic ideas to those who are impressionable, i.e. kids and young adults.
- To gently diffuse any racially insensitive talk/incidents
Your family dynamics should determine your endgame.
If your entire family is racially insensitive, you aren’t going to shut that down during one family dinner.
Your family culture may be such that you aren’t able to able to confront an elder directly.
Certain members of your family may be “untouchable” and will draw ire from others if you confront them.
These are all things that you must consider when approaching these topics with your family. It doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t say anything; it means that you need to go in with realistic expectations.
You may not make any tangible headway, but you don’t know the impression that you might make. Your racially insensitive relatives might feel a check in their spirit the next time they get ready to spout off something wrong and decide not to say it because of something you said. A child might not get teased in school because you refused to normalize racism for your younger relatives.
5. There’s no need to debate
I strongly discourage you from engaging in any kind of debate if you can at all avoid it.
All of your words should be seasoned with salt, but also gentle and in the spirit of bringing enlightenment. Acting superior and spoiling for a fight will only serve to alienate you from your family.
If someone uses a racial slur or refers to a marginalized person or group in an insensitive way, tell them it’s not ok and try to move along. Sometimes the mere expression of disapproval will shut people down. If you can, find a light-hearted way to point out that they’ve said something unacceptable.
6. Realize that you might have to set it off
I think that it’s important in a setting like a holiday gathering or meal to keep things as nonchalant as you possibly can. Going back and forth with a relative about their wrong ideas isn’t the best way to spend the holiday. The truth is, you probably aren’t going to change their mind.
It’s usually best to take a calm tack…
However, you may find yourself in a situation where a beloved family member decides to completely lose their mind. They may become so abusive and/or vitriolic in their statements that it requires a stern rebuke. If this happens, don’t be afraid to pop off.
The goal isn’t to cause strife with your family. It’s to help them understand that their insensitivity is wrong. Don’t go nuclear if there’s no reason to go nuclear. Looking for confrontation will get you nowhere, but if confrontation finds you, don’t be afraid to speak your mind.
7. Know when to be silent
Sometimes, you might find yourself in a situation where you can’t or shouldn’t take on a family member for various reasons. The reason could be family politics, or perhaps you’re simply not in an appropriate venue to speak your mind.
Whatever the reason, you can still fight the good fight without saying a word. I generally encourage people to use their voices, because I believe that our voices can be powerful, but I recognize that it simply may not be appropriate in every situation.
You can still communicate your displeasure with something that’s being said even when you’re choosing to be silent. Here are some things you can do:
- If a group strikes up an inappropriate conversation, walk away without saying a word
- If the dinner conversation gets dicey, excuse yourself from the table
- If someone says something inappropriate, give them a dirty look
- Loudly clear your throat, gasp, or utter an “oh my” if someone uses a pejorative term
- Refuse to acknowledge someone who starts an inappropriate conversation
8. Don’t be afraid of ‘ruining’ the festivities
Unless you act like a belligerent jerk, get into fisticuffs with someone, or otherwise show out in an undignified way, you can not and will not ruin your family festivities.
Inappropriate behavior of any kind shouldn’t be tolerated. Racially insensitive talk is wholly inappropriate and shouldn’t be tolerated. Especially in the family context where impressionable hearts and minds are being shaped.
Your family may make you feel like you’ve done something wrong in addressing their problematic behavior. You haven’t. There may be ways that you can improve your communication style, but your cause is just. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Your family’s ‘hurt feelings’ or ‘disappointment’ says more about them than it does you.
Your family didn’t become racially insensitive overnight. You may have even held some of the same views at one point. Maybe you wouldn’t have ever considered your family to be racially insensitive until you started learning more about racial injustice and it’s forced you to unlearn some things you were taught.
Don’t expect for your family’s racially insensitive ways to be mended overnight. People tend to feel safe venting their unsavory views in the context of a family gathering because there is usually an expectation of unconditional acceptance.
Racially insensitive views are often taught and cultivated within this context. People are often able to say things at the family dinner table that they can’t say around the water cooler at work.
Understand that when you speak up, you’re taking away that family member’s safe place and they just may feel violated and act out accordingly (ironically, this same family member may have something to say about ‘safe places’).
The issue is that your family’s safe place to vent their views can make the rest of the world dangerous for minorities. Armed with this knowledge, don’t be afraid to stand your ground.
The family unit is a greenhouse for the dissemination of values. Those values are then carried into the public sphere. What we learn within the family system can have a profound effect on how we interact within the public sphere. It’s possible for one to cultivate a new set of values, but those original values tend to be the brain’s default setting.
When racially insensitive values are carried into the public sphere, it opens the door for minorities to experience discrimination, bigotry, and prejudices. It props up racist structures. Your family members are members of this society and their personal values help to shape the climate within their respective spheres of influence.
Words have power. Words shape attitudes. Words justify actions. Words can change hearts.
Use your words to give life.
Don’t let people use their words to destroy.