Avoiding political* conversations at family gatherings is commonly joked about, but obviously it stems from what many consider to be good advice. We don’t want to bring up controversial topics with our relatives lest we ruin an otherwise peaceful get-together. This leads to inevitable tongue-biting as your “sweet” great-aunt Lucy makes some borderline (or blatantly) racist remarks and recites sound bytes from her favorite political commentator. In my culture, as in many cultures around the world, respect for our elders is of the utmost importance, so when stuff like this happens we are taught to smile and keep our mouths shut. Does our silence make us complicit in the toxic, and deadly, mentality that continues to plague our world? And if so, when and how do we speak up?
The dining room a completely different battleground from the protests on the streets. No violence to document. No brutality to record. Just people who (allegedly) love each other, but have different ideas about the way the world is.
If we go out guns blazing, waving a flag of righteousness, and throwing out accusations of racism, not only will the conversation escalate very quickly into a senseless argument, you will also likely lose the respect of those you hoped to convince. Getting kicked-out or shunned by your family may feel righteous in the moment, and good for you for standing up for what you believe is right, but how does that help? You just cut-off any potential for having a meaningful conversation.
Self-identity is a simultaneously sensitive and stubborn thing. I guarantee your family members do not identify as racists (that doesn’t mean they are not), and so calling them something they are not only (or that they don’t consider themselves to be) puts them on the defensive right off the bat. They will be too busy defending their character to even consider what you have to say.
Instead, try to find common ground. See where your values align, and from there figure out where you values diverge. If they are family, they likely had a hand in raising you and thus played some role in your moral development. Appeal to that. They believe in equality and equity? Great! They think that murder is bad? Awesome! They don’t believe in institutionalized and systemic racism? Ok, let’s talk about that.
Be humble, but unwavering in your resolve. Keep in mind that however strong your beliefs, they likely have the same fervor (if not more) for their own. If you are unwilling to find value in their argument, how do you expect them to do the same for you? That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but it does mean you have to (as hard as it may be) recognize their good intentions.
Talk to them privately. Being called out in front the whole family is embarrassing and will be taken as a sign of disrespect. Be clear with your intentions and why you think what they said it problematic. It takes a lot for someone to admit they are (in the) wrong, even to themselves.
Talking about racism and injustice is hard. Talking about it with family is even harder. There is bound to be a lot of emotion. You’re angry and frustrated, and rightfully so, but you can’t let that get the better of you, because contrary to common practice, anger does not strengthen an argument. In fact, that’s exactly what great-aunt Lucy will be looking for, because from her perspective she is talking to an immature child, no matter how old are. That’s the truth, and she will look for any and every opportunity to label your argument invalid because it’s based on emotion rather than logic.
As such, the success of all of this depends on one crucial factor: knowing your shit. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s probably is better for you to stay quiet for the time being (again different from witnessing injustice on the streets), because if your aunties and uncles are anything like mine, they’ve got Fox news running in the background 24/7 and are full of talking points as to why racism is not an issue in America.
That doesn’t mean you should give up. Educate yourself. Learn about the issues. Come back armed with evidence.
Your family is not evil (hopefully), but their outdated and evil attitudes have been developed over years and years of harmful narratives, galvanized by propaganda and the silence of those too timid to speak up. And those attitudes are zealously safeguarded by the preservation of their personal worldview. So who are you, a mere child with zero life experience (comparatively), to tell them that their life is a lie?
Don’t expect to change their beliefs right then and there. Changing hearts and minds takes time. But give them the facts. Give them new information… something new to think about. In the end there’s a good chance no amount of evidence or passion will change them, and you may decide to agree to disagree for the sake of your relationship. That doesn’t mean you lost, because you have a crucial advantage – the power of youth (a la Might Guy). The fight doesn’t end at the dinner table. You have the opportunity to live your truth and act against injustice in your community for years to come. So use it. Talk your shit. Fight for a better world now and in the future.
*wanting to end racism and murder should not be matters of politics