Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Parents Have Racist Decor in Their House. Should I Refuse to Stay There When I Visit?”

From the forums:​

My mother is what you might call “low key racist.” She’s a nice white lady who grew up in the blue collar Midwest. She’s outwardly polite and friendly to people of all different backgrounds, but occasionally she’ll say something that really reveals how little she thinks of people of color. I didn’t notice this much when I was younger, but now that I’m an adult and living several states away from her, I do notice and I do try to speak up to express my disapproval.

When I visited my parents’ place last year, I noticed some racist decorations in their home. My mom decorated the house in a very retro 1950’s style, so I believe she picked up these pieces on eBay or at local antique shops because she thought they would work with the retro look. I’m quite sure she wouldn’t characterize these items as racist – she tends to be ignorant about these things – but I don’t think it matters much *why* she bought them.

While I was visiting last year, I decided not to say anything to her because I didn’t want to start an argument while I was staying in her home. (My mother is *very* defensive. She doesn’t take criticism well at all.) But now, my husband and I are thinking about booking plane tickets to visit family again in a few months. If I am to stay with my parents again, I feel I have to talk to her about this.

I’m thinking about telling her that while I’m sure she bought these decorations because she thought they looked nice, that doesn’t change the fact that they *are* racist and I would like her to remove them (ideally, get rid of them altogether) before I come to visit again. And if she refuses to do that, well, then I’m considering whether I should refuse to stay at her house at all.

Does this seem like a reasonable course of action? I hope she will agree to get rid of the items, even if she does just to appease me. But I’m not expecting this conversation to go over well. I want to do the right thing. I don’t want to pretend like I’m not horrified or offended every time I see the racist imagery in her house. But…I also love my mother and I don’t want to overreact or create more damage to our relationship than is necessary. — Horrified By Racist Decor

When looking at any issue that tugs on your moral compass, in which you have an opportunity to speak up, you have to ask yourself three questions: whst do you hope to accomplish or gain by speaking up; what do you risk by speaking up; does the potential gain outweigh the potential pain? It doesn’t matter how great or how small the offense is, the answer to these three questions can help a person objectively decide the best course of action against the offense. Only you can answer these questions for yourself, but as an outsider, I see more potential pain than gain in this situation if you act in the way you have suggested (demanding that your mother remove the offending decor or you will refuse to stay at her home).

I’m not sure if your objective is to rid your parents’ home of any decor that may cause you discomfort, or if you hope to open your parents’ minds to the racist messages their decor symbolizes, but, either way, it is hard to imagine that demanding that your parents put their Mammy cookie jars away or else doesn’t strike me as helpful. Instead, what I would do, if I were you, is engage in a conversation about the offending pieces, starting with something positive. As you said, your parents probably don’t realize the racist undertones of their decorative pieces. Here’s a sample script: “Your home really reflects a retro 50s style – I can tell how hard you must have worked to find authentic pieces that fit that theme! I’m imagining lots of trips to antique stores and visits to eBay. I noticed these cookie jars the last time I was here. You probably aren’t aware of their history and some of the pain they reflect for lots of Americans.” And then you can give a brief synopsis and see what your parents’ reaction to that is. At this point, you’ve made no request or demands or threats; you are simply engaging in a conversation and sharing information that your parents are probably ignorant of. Your parents may respond defensively, but their defense will be against facts that you can prove and not against criticism that you are overtly making. It’s much easier to defend facts than defend subjective criticism.

Next, read the room. If your parents have not completely shut you down, and it seems a higher likelihood of your reaching a gain (like getting your parents to get rid of the racist decor) than suffering some pain (fracturing your relationship with your parents), ask them if they’d consider replacing the Mammy cookie jars with something more neutral but still in keeping with their decor theme. Framing your request in this way gives them agency, doesn’t come off as a threat, and even invites a search for more crap on eBay and inantique stores, which is probably your mom’s jam. You could even volunteer to go shopping with your mom while you’re in town. All of this sounds a lot better/friendlier/more loving/less hostile than saying, “I’m not staying in your home until you get rid of the racist stuff.”

I totally understand the urge to be a warrior of social change, especially when it comes to people you love (whom you might believe you have the most sway over), but it’s also with the people you love whom you risk the most in acting against injustice and misinformation. That absolutely doesn’t mean that one should refrain from acting, but it means you need to be especially thoughtful in your approach and realistic about what you stand to gain or lose. Good luck!

***************

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy​(AT)​dearwendy.com.

12 comments… add one
  • GertietheDino

    GertietheDino December 10, 2018, 10:57 am

    I get it. But it’s not your house. Let it lie unless speaking up will actually change something.

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      dinoceros December 10, 2018, 6:07 pm

      It might change something, though…

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    brise December 10, 2018, 11:10 am

    Agree with Wendy. You can’t impose a condition now while you said nothing when you were there. This is not fair – however horrified you rightly are.
    Do speak about it when you are there, with your husband, and say that this is shocking for guests. It inflicts them conflicting political opinion when a home should just be welcoming. Plus, an important argument: if you have children, you can’t imagine taking them in a home where there are racist messages. This is a no go, the very contrary of an education.
    Give your parents (your father is also concerned, right?) some time to digest your comments. And say that you hope they will remove this stuff eventually.
    Don’t address it in a horrified way, more in a concerned way towards older people who are getting out of the way.

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    Moe December 10, 2018, 1:13 pm

    I feel like the objects themselves are not the offensive thing, but a representation of values or at least ignorance that lead to their purchase. Even if they got rid of the decor…threw them out on the spot because you asked them to, unless the conversation is authentic, then nothing really has changed except that you are not forced to look at their racist beliefs or ignorance. I think it would be more productive to have the conversation about the objects and the removal of them is not as important as the conversation itself.

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      keyblade December 10, 2018, 11:18 pm

      I agree that it isn’t the objects themselves but what they represent which is the issue. I’m not sure the letter writer is objecting to the potential of such items to cause pain or judgement towards her mom, nor the potential of the cookie jar to illicit an emotional reaction in someone who has been substantially exploited by the culture which produced the objects.

      I think she is ashamed of her mother’s low-key bigotry as demonstrated by her mom’s willingness to politely tolerate her grandparents direct bigotry. I think the art symbolizes her mother’s defensiveness over the safety of her current attitude of soft bigotry.

      If this is the case, it really isn’t about trying to educate her mother, the letter writer may have reason to assume her mother is no more open to listening to the letter writer than the the letter writer is open to hearing her mother.

      The objective may be to be to a gentle ally. It may be more of a child asserting to her disappointment in her mother. There is not a good way to do that while also being a gracious guest, hence her desire to simply stay in a hotel rather than directly initiate the conversation.

      I think Wendy’s advice is good advice. The letter writer should think long and carefully about what she hopes to get out of this exchange. Probably a gentle conversation about the history of mammy figurines is the easiest way to maintain her relationship with her mom while also acknowledging the disappointment she feels. I happen to agree that soft bigotry still has impact, the largest of which is a diminished opinion of character of her mother by her grown daughter.

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  • CurlyQue

    CurlyQue December 10, 2018, 1:58 pm

    I agree that in no way should you call up your mother “asking” her to remove the offensive items or you won’t stay in her home. This opens up a lot of drama and then ropes in other family members as you’d plan to stay with them instead. It also comes off as bizarre considering last year you didn’t say anything.

    Stay with your parents. If the items are still there, broach the subject gently as Wendy suggested. Long held beliefs take time to change. Let the conversation percolate and see what happens next year. You could also find an equally retro but less offensive cookie jar and bring it as a gift.

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  • bittergaymark

    Bittergaymark December 10, 2018, 2:17 pm

    What kinda of art are you talking about? Old advertising campaigns like those for Aunt Jemima? Or something far worse? It’s hard for me to weigh in without the offensive pieces. That said, I would bring it up in person. Calmly and rationally.

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    • avatar

      Poppy December 10, 2018, 2:33 pm

      @BMG thos is what she responded to when asked in the advice forums.
      “You’re correct—they are mammy figurines.

      I don’t *want* this to be a hill to die on. But I keep thinking: if she had Nazi paraphernalia or a Confederate flag on the wall, what would I do? And are mammy figurines really any different/better?

      And say I do broach the subject and she refuses to get rid of them: then how should I respond?”

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  • avatar

    Northern Star December 10, 2018, 2:32 pm

    “I also love my mother and I don’t want to overreact or create more damage to our relationship than is necessary.”

    I guarantee you that telling your mother you won’t stay in her home unless she gets rid of her knick knacks will damage your relationship. The only way to get what you want (no more decor, a nice relationship with Mom) is to visit and bring up the subject when you’re there in a very, “Hey, did you know this is an issue? I know YOU don’t mean it that way, but…” non-judgmental, non-angry way. You have to be very tactful if you truly want a good relationship AND the removal of said objects.

    Confronting your mother with an ultimatum does not combat low-key racism in the slightest.

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    dinoceros December 10, 2018, 6:11 pm

    I agree with Wendy’s advice. I have a friend who has asked my advice a couple of times when she has the option of telling an older person that something they said was racist or not saying anything. She says, “Well, they’re old, so…” And I ask, “…and?” People have this view that older people are totally clueless and have never had any exposure to the concept that racism exist, etc. They know. The reason they say and do things is because everyone lets it slide.

    You may not be able to change someone’s mind, but at least you can make them feel like it’s not acceptable to do or say racist things. Silence is complicity, as they say. I also tend to speak up just on principle because a lot of white folks leave the speaking up to people of color, who are not only tired of doing it but also face a greater risk in doing so and receive worse backlash.

    Awkward conversations are awkward, but sometimes they are worth it. Even just to know that you tried.

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  • avatar

    Amerre December 11, 2018, 10:15 am

    Wow Wendy’s advice is perfect and inspiring for other situations.
    A response to something mentioned in the forums on this topic: figurines aren’t like nazi stuff (even if mammy figurines are possibly more hurtful for some) because nazi stuff is always about inciting violence. Being racist does hurt people but is not the same as having a world view of promoting genocide. Thus Wendy’s approach is wonderful; it’s not as if you are pressed for time to change your moms mind, she’s not about to physically hurt anyone. And a slow and steady is usually a better approach to change someone’s mind.

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  • avatar

    PhilS December 12, 2018, 12:01 pm

    I have terrible news, LW. You cannot satisfy both your moral compass and your desire for family harmony. But that’s not your fault. It’s the fault of your mother and her racism.

    Here’s a script: “Hey, ma, your racist mammy figures make me really uncomfortable and I’m not going to stay with you if you keep them.” End of conversation. She’ll get very upset because you implied she is racist (which, as you said, SHE IS) but you have drawn the line that you will no longer enable her racist behavior. She’ll probably say something “low key” racist in the future. Call her on it.

    Racism is inherently illogical. If calm, quiet conversation about the facts could fix the problem, it would be fixed. You’ll never be able to fix your mother’s toxic thought process, but you can stand up to her and show her the direct consequences of her bad behavior – less access to you.

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