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.)

Mist, Cliffs, and Lake Superior: A Photo Essay

Minnesota’s North Shore is interesting; it’s draw is not in sandy beaches or warm water— you don’t go there to work on your tan. This shore line is not soft; the North Shore is hard. Miles of rugged cliff lines, conifers, and the rolling remains of the Sawtooth Mountains. It’s got icy cold water— so cold that shipwrecks are perfectly preserved. It’s got biting flies and red rocky beaches. The North Shore has character. It is a different kind of beautiful—tougher, with more grit. Difficult and stubborn. More wild, less comfortable, less predictable, more rewarding. 

I have never jumped in water so cold and so clean. I never imagined I could be damp, cold, and swarmed by biting flies and still appreciate where I am so entirely. I didn’t expect to have my knees shake ten feet from a cliffs edge while tendrils of fog snaked snaked along the lake below me. I didn’t expect to feel complete overwhelmed and quieted at the foot of a waterfall, mist sticking to me, roar and rush silencing any thoughts of my hurting ankle, my hunger, how I was tired, silencing any thoughts at all. 

Up here, they say that the Lake is the boss— she controls the weather, the air pressure, the cliffs, the direction of rivers. She pulls down rocks and ultimately, she can control you a little too.

On Planning: College Campuses are Petri Dishes

I’m writing this a little tongue-in-cheek partly because that’s my default, and partly because I’m bummed, and hanging on to a good sense of humor helps keep my head up.

I’m a big plans kind of person—long elaborate plans or short weekend ones, color coded planner and all that jazz. I had plans for this spring break (that glorious week when college students get to not be in class and maybe go do something fun) but alas, I have fallen ill.

Really, actually sick, not just a cold or a stomach bug. I have mono—one of those fun persistent American college diseases that is a bi-byproduct of sharing drinks and food with everyone you know and living in an actual petri dish. You can google it if you want, it’s pretty gross. I’m pretty much out of commission, can’t really get outside, missing class and work sick. And I hate that, because I had plans to be at work those days, and be at class, and I had plans to not spend my one free week on the couch worried about all the class I missed. And as much as it sucks that I’m missing out, here’s where it doesn’t:

Things just don’t always go as planned. You can write something in your planner in ink, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, and you have a lot less control than you think you do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; just a fact.

Sure, I knew this before I got mono, and had some minor plans foiled in a minor way, but at the end of the day pulling out plans B and C is always a good learning experience.

I am so very lucky to have my health—mono sucks, sure. And I’m out of commission for a bit, sure. But I am going to better in the next month or two. I can walk, and run, and two weeks of being really sick is still only two weeks. That’s more than a lot of people can say.

Unless it ends up being three to four weeks. Then I’m going to go The Shining level crazy. Send help.

I’m building immunity—now that I’ve had mono, I’m immune to it! Whoo-hoo! Okay, this is a dumb one. I’ll take it off this list.

IMG_3950
Me, staying positive 🙂

I’ve got such great friends and family. Seriously, thanks guys—for bringing me not one, not two, but 32 protein shakes, for sitting with me in the ER till 3 am, for listening to me complain ad nauseam, for picking up my shifts at work. Also mom, here’s that shout out you’re always after, love you, thanks for driving me around and hanging out with me.

I now understand karma. I’m not really a “knock on wood” kind of person, but I am not kidding when I tell you not three days before I got sick I was bragging to several people not only about how I hadn’t been sick in years, but how I hadn’t had missed a shift at work (my teaching job, not the tutoring one) ever. Now I’m not superstitious, but that might have been a bad call.

 

So yeah, being sick is no fun, and I’m missing out on lots and messed up my schedule for a bit, but I’m still really really lucky. All that’s left to do now is make up for the work I missed and try and get back to 100%.

What Makes You Happy

I am going to tell you a story. It’s probably a familiar story—you’ve heard it from your mother, or aunt, or your older friend. It’s probably a story you will live if you haven’t already.

This isn’t the story of how I figured out what I want in life, because I haven’t, and it isn’t the story of how I woke up one day and realized what my “calling” is. It isn’t even the story of how you need to find yourself and follow your heart, because I’m not sure I believe that story either.

This is the story of how I realized what I don’t want in life. It’s the story of how I realized that whatever you are doing, you have to do it for you.

“Do what makes you happy”

People tell you that your whole life, and a few years ago I thought what would make me happy was medical school. I volunteered in the emergency room two years ago to get clinical experience, and ended up changing my mind about what made me happy.

I thought I wanted to help people and make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I still do, but I changed my mind about how I wanted to help people after actually working with the sick and injured.

My worst shift in the hospital was bad— I got cursed at by a patient, cried with another whose wife had just died, and heard that the little girl who came in the day before and I had played with had died. I cried the whole way home and wanted to quit that job more than I’ve ever wanted to quit anything before. I didn’t quit, because I said I would work through August, so I was going to work through August.

A few weeks after that day, I had a run in with a patient’s family member who was not pleased with my coffee making skills—in his defense, I was not pleased with my coffee making skills either. I tried to avoid him, but ended up spilling another coffee all over myself.

A woman laughed at me from her hospital bed.

“Seems like you’re having a rough day,” she smiled. She was alone and kind, and had heard me get yelled at earlier. I came back to her room between coffee rounds and cleaning, and she told me about her son, about her grandkids living in Africa, about the novel she had written. She told me not to worry about grouchy people in hospitals, and that I was doing a good job and shouldn’t let it get to me. Then she told me about what it was like to grow up in a segregated Alabama, and a story about her brother jumping a fence and ripping his pants when they were kids. This stranger told me stories, and we laughed, and smiled, and connected. After that I didn’t hate the emergency room so much, and whenever I could, I would ask people to tell me their stories, because I loved to hear, and a lot of people need someone to listen.

Stories and listening made me happy more than syringes and the Krebs cycle, so I tweaked my life agenda a bit. Ultimately, I think stories make a difference and help people too.

I still haven’t got what I want to “do” fine-tuned, but I like to think I’m heading in the right direction.

Starting College: The Dos and Don’ts of Planning Your Future

There is a lot of pressure on high school graduates to choose their career path and set up their lives right away, and maybe you’re feeling that right now, and that’s why you’re here. I know I felt that pressure 4 years ago, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

It wasn’t a straight path for me—I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and after a few months volunteering in the ER and vomiting at the sight of blood, I realized that I didn’t. Then I thought I wanted to be a professor, but then I looked at the years and years more of school I would have to complete, and that didn’t seem right either.

I still don’t know “what I want to do”, and I will be graduating in less than a year—which believe me is scary to write.

While I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life, I do know what my immediate options are, which is a much easier and arguably better way to look at it. More importantly, I know how to cope with stress and actually plan these things better than I used to, which is why I am laying this out here.

DO: Explore Majors

People will inevitably tell you what major is the best, and what you should do to be successful. Keep in mind all people give advice based their own experience, and no one knows just how many majors and different paths might be available to you. Attend your college events, meet with different advisors, and talk to upper classmen—the more people you talk to, the better sense you’ll have of all the opportunities available.

Estee and I: Tahquamenon Falls
My roommate and best friend of 15 years  and I on our Spring Break mini- Road Trip

DON’T: Be Stubborn

It took me a long time to fully admit that I didn’t want to be a doctor, because I had already told people that I did. In the long run, this hurt me more than helped, and I spent a lot of time, money, and effort on classes I wasn’t interested in and I probably won’t need.

My advice? Don’t even declare a major until you’ve got a good sense of all of the majors available—and don’t hang onto a major just because your friends and family think that you should.

DO: Get Involved

Everyone will tell you this, but go to club meetings, join the IM soccer team, attend events. Not only is this a great way to meet people, but this also lets explore your campus.

Another perk of getting involved— you end up meeting a lot of upperclassmen who can give you advice specific to your school and maybe even your major.

IMG_9888.JPG
Claire, my sister, about to skip into her freshman year

DON’T: Assume There is Only One Right Way

One of the biggest issues, for both me and many of my friends was assuming that there is only one right way to do things— there’s not. Take a gap year, go to a community college for a few years, it’s not the end of the world. And if college isn’t right for you, that’s okay too.

Two of the most successful people I know either took a gap year or transferred from a community college. Just because people “usually” go straight to a four year university, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way or that it’s the right way for you.

DO: Get a Job

The cool thing about college campuses is that you can get a career-relevant paid position, but you have to put yourself out there.

My freshman year, I went out on a limb and emailed the campus Writing Center to see if they needed tutors. I’ve worked there for two years now, and it funneled into my second job, where I act as a peer mentor and teach writing to freshman science majors—to whom I impart all of my life advice that doesn’t make it on to this blog.

My sister’s freshman year, she emailed 6 professors to see if they needed an undergraduate researcher. Only 1 of the 6 even replied, but this professor gave her a paid position this summer in his lab working on solar panels—I’m pretty sure she just gets coffee and cleans beakers, but still. I have another friend whose freshman lab experience got her an internship at a National Park. In contrast, most of the people I know who have put off getting jobs and getting involved are having trouble finding jobs after graduation.

Your freshman or sophomore job, be it in a cafeteria or a research position, can lead to bigger opportunities down the road, but you have to be willing to put yourself out there.

IMG_6428-1.jpg
Hannah, one of the first friends I made at college, and I at Pyramid Point

DON’T: Try and Plan Your Life in One Day

You might feel like you need to figure it out today, or tomorrow, but I promise you don’t. I’m not necessarily saying put off everything forever, but you don’t need to choose a major, or a career path right away.

Instead, focus on trying out classes and going to club meetings. That way, when it comes time to make decisions, you have a good idea of what your options are.

DO: Make Your Own Path

Don’t choose a major or career just because your parents did it that way, or all your friends are doing it that way— you have to do it for you. At the end of the day, you’re going to be a lot happier and more successful if you do something you actually like than you will be if you live your life to make someone else happy.

DON’T: Stress

You’ve got time. Whether you’re going to be a senior in high school and don’t know what major in, or a senior in college and don’t know what to do with your whole life (me), or anywhere in-between, it’s going to work out.

 

 

The Time I (almost) Got Frostbite

I created a blog literally so that I could tell this story. Not even kidding. This happened and I thought to myself, Wow you idiot, this is really a teachable moment. So here I am, basking in my own idiocracy.

On Saturday, March 4th, 2017, my long time friend Estee and I executed a day long road trip that we had been planning for two months. From our base camp in Antrim, MI, we would drive three hours up to the Tahquamenon Falls, hike around, and then drive south back over the bridge and hit the Headlands Dark Sky Park for sunset. And when I say we had planned, I mean down to the second. I had looked up gas stations, drive times, restaurants, and potential side trips in advance. I had packed 3 pairs of extra socks, and extra jacket, a raincoat, food, coffee, water, and extra water. I printed out maps, and memorized road names. I had even been to the Dark Sky Park before. All of that preparation did not make a difference, because I chose to wear hiking boots instead of snow boots.

The Headlands Dark Sky Park is in up in Mackinaw, and is a pretty good place for viewing the stars. It’s right on the beach, and has a path lined with small glow lights and cutouts of astronomers. Those cutouts can be pretty creepy in the dark.

We got to the dark sky park at 6:00 pm, a half hour before sunset. If you park where you’re supposed to park in the summer, it’s probably about 3/4 a mile walk to the beach; if you park at the water’s edge, you watch the stars right by your car.

We parked where we remembered parking in the summer, walked in from there, and set up camp on the frozen bay in Lake Michigan— another mistake. Camp consisted of a blanket to sit on, a tripod, and a backpack with a flashlight, bandaids, fresh socks, clothes, and rope inside.

It was after the sun set and I started messing with my camera that things started to go a little wrong.

First, ice started to form on my camera lens. We had been at a waterfall earlier that day, there had been spray and I hadn’t been careful. Then, the zipper on my coat broke. I struggled with it for a few minutes, and eventually gave up because I wasn’t that cold anyway— it was only 20 degrees, 11 at the coldest with windchill. So I tore through my bag trying to find an extra layer to make up for an un-zippable coat, wading though calf-deep snow.

Recall the hiking boots? Hiking boots do not cover your calves; hiking boots stop at your ankles. So while I was doing this, snow was balling up around said ankles. By the time I sat back down, the snow began to melt into my boots. We had been sitting on the lake now for an hour and a half, and were only now beginning to see stars.

I remembered reading in a Michelle Paver book as a kid that it’s not really the cold you have to worry about, it’s the wet. This crossed my mind several times as I was wiggling my toes and playing with my shutter speed.

It was around this time that Estee leaned in closer to me. “Do you see that?” she asked.

“See what?” I scanned the ice out in front of us. It was dimly lit by the sun’s afterglow, but I made out two dog like figures moving across the ice about 200 yards from us.

“It’s probably just deer,” I told Estee. “We don’t have wolves this far south.”

She nodded. “They don’t look like deer.”

We sat and watched the two animals walk across the ice and I forgot about the cold for a little while. One of the things that always strikes me about being in nature is how outside of time you can feel. Several thousand years ago, those two animals could have walked on the ice in that bay just past sunset and looked much the same as they did in March 2017. I didn’t take a picture of this. It would have ruin how still and surreal the moment felt.

The animals left, and it got darker, and my feet started to hurt. But it was only 8:30, and I wasn’t really satisfied with any of the pictures I took yet. I changed into a dry pair of socks, which helped for a little, then I dropped a hint.

“I’m pretty cold.”

“Oh, thank God, me too,” Estee said. We both laughed a little about how stubborn we were, and I jammed a bunch of frozen gloves and scarves into my backpack and snapped one more picture of the stars— the header image— and we started our walk back to the car. By now, there were other people at the park.

I didn’t even make it a quarter mile back before I realized how cold I was. I was feeling a little lightheaded, and my feet had moved on from hurting to being clumsy and numb. That would have been one thing— I could push through numb feet, but it was getting to the point were I couldn’t walk.

I didn’t want to, but I swallowed my pride and said something to Estee. The rest is a little blurry, because I started shivering and panicking, but she found a nice couple—Michelle and John bless their hearts—to drive us back to the parking lot. I owe John and Michelle, and Estee my toes— which I am happy to say I have all of.

I suppose the moral of the story is that you can prepare as much as you want, but however smart you think you’re being, you’re not immune to mistakes. That and don’t walk out anywhere you’re not 100% sure you can walk back. Or maybe pack appropriate footwear.