Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“How Should I Deal With Racist Family on Thanksgiving?”

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Do you have tips (or a guide) to surviving Thanksgiving with racist in-laws/relatives? Is it all about the extra glass of wine, or is there ever an appropriate time to pipe up? Thanksgiving this year is at my and my husband’s home, and I’m wondering if I can set polite boundaries to casual and frequent racist remarks without making it awkward in the future… — No Racism Please

You know what’s really awkward? Racist remarks. You know what isn’t as awkward? Letting people know that in your home you will not tolerate racist remarks. While you may not have as much leeway setting boundaries when Aunt Margaret hosts turkey day, when the festivities are in your own home, you have more control. Yes, more wine helps. Humor also helps. And so does being firm. Here’s an idea — you could place a “Rules of the House” sign prominently — maybe in the kitchen or near the entrance — with some silly “rules,” like “No empty wine glasses allowed,” or “No bad jokes from Uncle Bob until after the turkey has been sliced,” mixed in with more serious and practical rules, like, “If you’re too drunk to drive, don’t,” and “Racist remarks will not be tolerated.” Then, if someone makes a racist comment, you can point to the rule board, remind the offender that you don’t tolerate that kind of language in your home, and say that a second offense results in no pie. I think the key is keeping it light — well, as light as you can keep potential racism in your home — while also being firm and vocal and consistent.

How do other people handle this sort of thing at family gatherings? Do you ignore it? Speak up? Pour yourself more wine? I imagine with the recent grand jury decision in Ferguson to not indict officer Darren Wilson, followed by riots across the nation, the topic of race relationships could be a big one at gatherings this Thanksgiving, where family members’ political and cultural viewpoints are bound to differ and collide. How do YOU handle these differences at holiday get-togethers, especially when viewpoints aren’t always expressed respectfully?

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12 comments… add one
  • Kate B.

    Kate B. November 25, 2014, 3:07 pm

    Well, my racist FIL lives across the country from me, so it’s easy for me to ignore him. However, I was visiting my brother and really had to restrain myself from punching him in the face. I felt it would be rude to start a fistfight in my brother’s home. My family is very divided, and the only solution we have found is simply not to talk about certain things. They are off-limits. Period. The only other option that works for us is not to see each other. I realize this won’t work for everybody but it literally is the best solution for us.

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    • avatar

      jlyfsh November 25, 2014, 3:24 pm

      Yeah we have a similar certain things aren’t discussed when I go home. It’s frustrating and I haven’t figured out a better way to deal with it. The times that we have discussed I’ve been so upset about I had to leave. I’ve tried to gently discuss and offer my view point but there is mainly one family member who has a my viewpoint is the only valid one the rest of you are idiots mentality and it drives me batty.

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  • avatar

    SpaceySteph November 25, 2014, 3:20 pm

    I agree with Wendy that in your house you can politely set the boundaries. I have a few family members with unacceptable views (sexist grandfather, gun-nut-super-conservative-racist Uncle) and I am not one to sit quietly and listen to their bullshit.

    When I was in high school I faced off against my grandfather over his sexist views when, at the completion of a holiday meal, he asked my sister and I– but not my brother– to help my grandmother clear the table. “Why do only the women have to clear the table?” I asked and then refused to help until he made my brother help too. Not my finest.

    So yeah, you can do it but you have to do it in the right way. I’m a big fan of
    1. Call them out quietly and as privately as possible.
    (If you confront people publicly, they will often decide to justify their views, thereby escalating the conversation. Saying it semi-privately or privately doesn’t give them the floor to argue back.)
    2. Refuse to engage in a discussion about it.
    (They will try a “but-” or a “don’t you agree–” type retort. Shut them down.)
    3. Change subject/change who you’re talking to/get up to check on [something]
    (If its before or after the main meal it’s easy to walk away. During dinner if you’re seated next to them* it’s harder to walk away, but you can still turn physically to your other side and go “So, Aunt Mary, tell me about your trip last month…”)
    4. Repeat as necessary.

    *Since it’s your house, you can control this by putting out placecards. You can put these people far away from you with people who are used to their repugnant views, or you can sit them next to you to protect other guests from their stupidity.

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    • avatar

      jlyfsh November 25, 2014, 3:25 pm

      it’s not funny but I laughed because your description of your uncle is pretty spot on for my family member as well!

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  • avatar

    gozissou November 25, 2014, 4:21 pm

    Thank you, Wendy. I was indeed prompted to write in because of Ferguson. My brother in law is a former small town cop with a very “skewed” view of the world. He – as well as his grown kids – have said quite offensive things in the past. My dad is Fox News-level racist, so I understand my husband’s embarrassment. It’s just way easier to stand up to my own family than someone else’s. Good luck, everyone!

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  • mandalee

    mandalee November 25, 2014, 4:24 pm

    Thankfully we are hosting Thanksgiving this year, so I plan on establishing a “no politics, no racism, sexism, homophobia, etc” rule nicely but firmly early on in their visit. My in-laws are just so far off in crazy racist world I wonder every day how they raised such an open minded son.
    But as a back drop to the nice, firm ground rule I plan on drowning myself in sangria if need be. I had to suffer through a Christmas at their house where they debated out loud if homosexuality was catchable and whether premartial sex was setting us back centuries. The only, only thing that helped those 3 days go faster was a secret bottle of wine in the guest bedroom haha So, I don’t condone avoiding all problems with wine or other forms of alcohol, sometimes it really is the only thing that makes crazy relatives more pleasant.

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  • FireStar

    FireStar November 25, 2014, 4:57 pm

    I couldn’t even imagine what I would do if someone was racist or sexist in my home. Thank goodness these things don’t happen to me. I have zero tact. When I was in university I used to make any male that was over put back down the toilet seat… since didn’t he find it that way? I think I would just tell whoever it was “oh my goodness – is it time for you to leave already?” I knew a guy that literally opened his door and threw people shoes and coats outside on his porch and told them “get out” I can’t even remember the infraction now. Not exactly host of the year but at least he got his point across.

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  • Diablo

    Diablo November 25, 2014, 5:37 pm

    I always think of the Flight of the Conchords episode where the Indian fruit vendors would not sell to Bret and Jemaine because they were Kiwis. The Indians had a number of oddly prejudiced ideas about Kiwis, like “you’ve all got tartar on your teeth!” It was a way for the show to introduce the ridiculousness of racism by using cultures that don’t typically victimize each other. So I have done that, just made up bigoted beliefs that were ridiculous. It can be anything silly – people from Kansas all have two left hands, people from [rival town] all keep milk past the expiry date, eat dinner with salad forks, whatever. How about “I heard that hetero couples don’t believe in sex after marriage”? Solid gold! The tactic allows you to mock the stupidity of the beliefs indirectly. It allows you to stay light because you are clearly being silly. It allows you to commandeer the conversation and get laughs, while taking up conversation space that could be filled with real bigotry. Then you can change the subject. You don’t have to confront directly. You don’t shame anyone directly. You don’t get directly high-handed. That’s for when i am at someone else’s house. Anyone who knows me would know before they came into my house that i would not let anything bigoted go, ever. Anyone who is overtly racist in my house can GTFO now, relative or no. (My immediate family is crazy, but non-racist, but there are peripheral people who are, and know not to cross lines.)

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    • meadowphoenix

      meadowphoenix December 2, 2014, 11:38 am

      Actually South Asians and Australians don’t have very good relationships in Australia.

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  • something random

    something random November 25, 2014, 5:41 pm

    Sometimes your dealing with someone who wants a reaction badly. In this case, deep breathing. Ignore the bait. Walk around or trade seats with someone. That nonsense is so boring and pathetic you can’t be bothered with it. Don’t worry about hurting feelings or offending through disinterest. Sometimes its the best option available.

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  • muchachaenlaventana

    muchachaenlaventana November 26, 2014, 9:07 am

    Honestly if people already know your stance on their remarks, it will be easier (for example if you have butted heads about it in the past). I have had family members make racist remarks around me, and usually just a kind of terse one off of “Please do not talk like that around me, I think we should change the topic so things stay pleasant” does the trick. Like last night I was home for basically 20 minutes and my very conservative father started to comment about the news coming out of Ferguson and I just said “I really do not think we should even broach this topic, because we are not going to see eye to eye and a fight will ensue” and he was a little like gruff but respected it and didn’t mention it again while I was home. Of course this comes after YEARS of having blow out fights with mainly my grandmother about things like this and politics with my dad and religion, so we kind of all know now that a fight about that will ruin our night and it is better to just change the subject. Anyways just be pretty blunt about that boundary–this is more or less what has worked for me.

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  • mylaray

    mylaray November 26, 2014, 1:36 pm

    I think my answer depends on if someone is saying something racist to you/about you, or if it’s more in general about other races. I don’t tolerate racism period, and do typically say something, but sometimes there is that crazy relative I just ignore. But if someone said something about me, there’s no way I would let that go.

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