How to Talk to Your Family About Prejudice this Thanksgiving: A Guide to Difficult Conversations

Family members don’t agree on everything, and it’s easy to get into heated arguments. It’s no secret that arguments, yelling, and excommunication aren’t the best way to have an open dialogue.

I worked for several years as a science ethics teaching assistant and writing tutor, it was part of my job to point out micro aggressions in way that didn’t make people defensive. I know firsthand that this isn’t easy, and I wasn’t always successful. After many of my own heated discussions about politics and human rights issues, and some extensive reading and research*, I’ve compiled a list of more productive ways to have these conversations than blocking Aunt Gurdy on Facebook.

Why Bother?

It’s a lot easier to opt out of conversations about race, gender, and your family’s bigotry than it is to engage. You are one of the only people good old racist (voting) Uncle Earl might listen to. You are family. Maybe you won’t change any minds, but it’s worth a try. Name calling, interrupting, and food throwing won’t work. Being kind and understanding might.

Realistically, you might not make great grandma Helen not racist. But you might make her think a little, and your little sister, or cousin might hear you. You might make your liberal aunt consider the dangers of white feminism, or you might help your brother understand why some mascots are racist (autobiographical).

I’ve been lucky enough to have a very understanding and open-minded family, who make these conversations easy. In my own life, most of the difficult conversations happen with acquaintances, coworkers, and friends and they aren’t always successful (read: rarely). But it’s still important to speak to the best of your ability on the behalf of people who don’t have access to that audience.

On that note, here are a few things to keep in mind when having these conversations:

Respect

It can be tempting to yell, be rude, or sling names, but ultimately that’s an ineffective conversation tool. You might say “but Maddy, I don’t want to dignify racism with conversation and respect!” and that’s totally valid. But you aren’t going to change anyone’s mind by sinking to the level of name calling, and it’s important to remember that we all have held and hold problematic views. In high school, I used to think that Affirmative Action was unnecessary, and that it was possible to be racist against white people, and I would probably still think that today if someone hadn’t taken the time to sit down with me and challenge that without calling me stupid, or a dumb kid, or racist. I needed that person. Be that person.

People are never going to feel comfortable engaging you in conversation if you jump to calling them a racist. For me, someone giving me a chance to ask questions without judgement for my ignorance was huge.

(Quick note: This does not apply to people on issues that affect them personally. If an issue that threatens your own human rights no one expects you to hand hold.)

Patience

You’re not going to change anyone’s mind with one conversation. You probably won’t change it at all, especially if someone doesn’t want to change their mind. What you might do, if you are respectful, and patient, and open, is open a door for a dialogue about difficult questions so good old Aunt Alice feels safe asking you “what is a bisexual” or “is Nancy Pelosi satan” or “will you explain why you’re so mad about this Brett Kavanaugh thing?”. You’re only going to get the opportunity to answer these questions if you’re patient and kind. Is it fair? Maybe not. But it’s effective.

Here is a sample conversation for thought:

Mascots:

Bad:

 Uncle Earl: I just don’t understand why people get so upset about the Redskins Mascot. It’s just football. People shouldn’t take sports so seriously.

 You: Funny cause that’s not what you thought when you CRIED because the Packers lost to the Lions. Also. That’s racist. You’re a racist. [Throws mashed potatoes].

 Better:

 Uncle Earl: I just don’t understand why people get so upset about the Redskins Mascot. It’s just football. People shouldn’t take sports so seriously.

 You: Hmm. I hear what you’re saying, but don’t you find it a little terrible that most other mascots are animals, and this one is a caricature of a group of people?

 Uncle Earl: Doesn’t bother me.

 You: But it bothers an entire group of people. Do you think that they’re making up that they’re affected by that symbol?

 Uncle Earl: I think people are too sensitive these days.

 You: That’s an interesting thought, and I understand why you might feel that way. But remember when Grandma Pam told you look old, and then told you she meant it as a compliment?

 Uncle Earl: Yes.

 You: Didn’t that make you feel bad, even though she didn’t mean it to?

 Uncle Earl: Yes.

 You: It’s sort of the same thing with the mascots. It doesn’t matter if you don’t find it offensive or hurtful—someone else, a whole group of people—is telling you that it is.

Listen

Actually allow Great Aunt Gurdy to speak. Aunt Gurdy isn’t going to want to listen to you if you don’t listen to her. Let her finish her horrible, biased thought, and thenreply calmly. Say things like “I hear you,” and “I see where you’re coming from,” rather than “burn in Hell,” and “I hope the president takes your rights away”.

Colin Kaepernick:

Bad:

Aunt Ethel: That man has no respect for the flag.

You: Oh yeah? I have a thong with the American flag on it, how does that make you feel about respecting the flag?

 Better:

 Aunt Ethel: That man has no respect for the flag.

You: How so? Isn’t it peaceful protest?

Aunt Ethel: [Says something about the troops, probably. Long winded.]

You: I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think Kaepernick has ever disrespected the troops or said that he meant to.

Aunt Ethel: Doesn’t matter. The troops are disrespected.

You: I hear what you’re saying. But the troops fight to protect human rights, like those in the Bill of Rights. Including freedom of speech and right to peaceful protest. I don’t think there is anything more American than protecting freedom of speech, which Kaepernick is exercising.

Ask Questions

The more you ask, the more Uncle Earl will feel that you care about his perspective, and maybe he’ll care about yours too. Questions are also the easiest way to get people to see problems in their own thinking. If someone reaches a new conclusion on their own, it’s a lot easier to accept than if you tell them what they should think.

Affirmative Action

Bad:

Aunt Jackie: I just feel like affirmative action is racist against white people.

You: Well that’s racist as all hell.

Aunt Jackie: What? Now I can’t have an opinion?

You: You can’t have that one in front of me you lazy piece of lard. Why don’t you go back to your farm in Hicksville, USA and snuggle up to your MAGA hat and never speak to me again?!

Better:

Aunt Jackie: I just feel like affirmative action is racist against white people.

[Now there’s a lot to unpack there, and you can only fight one battle at a time.]

You: That’s an interesting perspective Aunt Jackie. Help me understand your thinking?

Aunt Jackie: Why should black kids get a free pass into school just because they’re black? Meanwhile, white girls like you are working hard every day and get disadvantaged.

You: Hmm, I hear you, but I don’t feel disadvantaged. I think a lot of black people feel racism every day and it affects every aspect of their lives. I think colleges need to consider that in admissions. Doesn’t it concern you that people with advanced degrees aren’t representative of diversity within the population? Shouldn’t there be a representative number of people of color in colleges? If the population of an area is 40% people of color, shouldn’t the college also be 40% people of color?

[Aunt Jackie probably won’t let you talk that long, but let me dream.]

Aunt Jackie: No, it’s not my problem.

You: I just feel like everyone’s perspective is so unique and important that I want the voices of people who are different than me to have a say in science and politics too.

Maybe this won’t work and won’t be effective. But the less defensive you are, and more you remind Aunt Jackie that this is about people, real actual humans, not just the group she has lumped them into, the more luck you might have.

Remind them that this about human rights

Make it an issue about people. At the heart of all of these conversations is human rights. Remind your family that this is an issue about people’s voices being heard and respected equally. When your friend from high school says something homophobic, remind her that gay and trans people have human rights. They just do. It doesn’t matter that it makes her uncomfortable. Her opinion should not be so important that it threatens lives.


 

It’s okay if you don’t feel educated enough on issues of race to speak about them (I generally don’t), but don’t let the fear of making a mistake keep you from speaking.There are abundant resources on the interweb to educate on these issues.

UPDATE (11/19/18): Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, one of my favorite writers, wrote a similar article linked here that I also recommend you check out with answers and dialogue that is wayyyy more articulate than mine!

*Sources:

A lot of this content is inspired by personal experience, but I wasn’t born with decent opinions, and I probably still have some shitty ones. Here are some pieces and educators I have learned from:

People who are better spoken on these issues than I am:

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, When Feminism is White Supremacy in Heels

Bani Amor, Queering the Environmental Movement

Layla F. Saad, I need to talk to spiritual white women

Bani Amor, Ten Travel Books by People of Color

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, This Photo of Me at the Womens March Went Viral and Changed My Activism Forever

Cali (instagram: @caliwolf), Through Her Native Eyes (blog)

People who helped me write this:

Grandma Pam, who sat down with me to read this and asked me questions about things she didn’t understand (and let me make fun of her and use her name in writing)

Mom, always more patient with me than am with her, and for telling me I should share the techniques I use to talk about these sort of things

YOU**

 

**This is a conversation, and I am still learning. If you have advice, comments, questions, concerns, or would like me to make any changes to this article, please let me know! This isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of conversation, and these ideas are mostly just what has worked for me. There is a comment box on this page, and my Instagram dms are wide open! (If you dm me something really patronizing or a personal attack you will end up on my IG story.)

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