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