Thanksgiving arguments about politics promise to be especially grueling this year, now that our future Pussygrabber-in-Chief has mainstreamed the kind of discourse typically only spouted by white supremacists and misogynist Twitter trolls.
Whether you’re going home to Bay Ridge, Boise, or Birmingham, how do you have productive conversations about gender and race with your relatives? Can you avoid throwing a turkey leg at Aunt Becky when she clucks, “All lives matter!”? What do you say to Uncle Brad when he mansplains why Hillary Clinton would’ve been more likable if she’d smiled more? When Dad rants that Trump “made a lot of sense” about banning Muslim immigrants and reviving stop-and-frisk, can you resist flipping over the table like some leftist Real Housewife?
It won’t be easy, but it’s crucial to try. Progress doesn’t only happen through protest and policy, it requires changing hearts and minds. Conversations about “othered” groups are proven to reduce prejudice, and can change attitudes, behavior, and voting patterns: A UC Berkeley study found that a ten-minute, nonconfrontational conversation asking five hundred Floridians to empathize with transgender people’s lives increased their likelihood to support trans-rights legislation.
These uncomfortable conversations are integral to building power and moving forward. “Our country [is] at a critical moment,” Race Forward president Rinku Sen said at the organization’s racial justice conference last week. “Fascism is coming in this moment. The only thing that is going to stop it is us.” That’s not hyperbole. White nationalist groups used Trump as a recruitment device; membership soared. The Southern Poverty Law Center has already documented more than three hundred acts of violence, harassment, and intimidation against people of color, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, women, and LGBTQ people — often referencing the president-elect.
So where do you begin? Face-planting in the sweet potatoes would probably feel less awkward than calling attention to your aunt’s unintentional racism or your brother’s aggressive victim-blaming. While the tips below can help anyone regardless of race or gender, using them now is a particular obligation for white people and men, with other white people and men: the demographic groups who overwhelmingly voted for a KKK-approved sexual predator. Here’s how to navigate this difficult but important terrain.
MAKE IT PERSONAL: Anger, however valid, won’t help you here. Share feelings, not accusations; this will let the people you love hear you. “I can’t believe my own cousin could say something so stupid/vote for someone that evil/be such a jerk!” are nonstarters, but the lines of communication open up when you say, “I’m [or ‘My friend is’] a sexual assault survivor, so when you trivialize Trump bragging about groping women, it makes me think you don’t care about my/our safety.” Hearing how they’ve hurt you may prompt needed soul-searching.
LEAD WITH EMPATHY: This requires painful emotional labor, but if you want your relatives to understand why you support Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ rights (and if you wish to persuade them to do so too), you need to ask about their beliefs — and really listen. How do they feel these movements affect their own lives? What’s at the root of their opposition to freedom and dignity for people from different racial backgrounds, sexual orientations, or countries? What would it take to change their minds? (“Mom, can you imagine what it would be like to constantly fear that I’d be killed by police?”) Are they well-intentioned but misinformed by corporate media or Facebook? Is there a disconnect between their stances and underlying values? (“You always valued fairness and hard work, but Trump didn’t pay his contractors, and used loopholes to avoid ever paying his fair share of taxes. Help me understand why that’s OK.”)
CALL IN, NOT OUT: Name-calling makes people stop listening; identity can exacerbate this tendency. White people shut down when they’re called racist, a frustrating condition What Does It Mean to Be White? author Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” Once it kicks in they may refuse to hear any further critique, explanation, or request for accountability. Men are similarly resistant when called sexist. SURJ, a national network organizing white people for racial justice, encourages members to “call in” instead of shaming. When facts and figures don’t resonate, tell engaging stories. (“Grandpa, you struggled for years to provide for us. Think about how hard it must be for poor parents of color in Flint after the local government poisoned their water.”) Help your relatives understand that when you discuss institutional discrimination, you’re not saying they have racism or sexism in their hearts; you’re talking about historical, systemic biases.
IMPACT, NOT INTENT: Ditch defensiveness. Many say they voted for Trump despite — not because of — his bigotry. Explain that you’re discussing the impact of their actions, not calling them bad people. “I know you weren’t motivated by hate. Still, your vote endangered our rights and safety, and put me and my friends at risk. The consequences terrify me.”
STAY CALM AND SET BOUNDARIES: If relatives like pushing your buttons, deprive them of the rise they seek. Shut down offensive “jokes” with eye contact and even tones. Kindly but firmly state that stereotypes are not acceptable in your home. (Not at home? Say you’ll leave if it continues.) Draw them in: “I know you love me, but this is damaging our relationship.” “This is hard to say, but I can’t let my kids spend time with someone who speaks this way.”
PREPARE: Nervous? Write down a few persuasive points and practice them out loud. Before facing off against an antagonistic host or fellow guest, I ask a friend to role-play as Bill O’Reilly, pelting me with disgusting and inaccurate statements until I can consistently respond calmly and confidently. This can help you deflect triggers and keep you focused.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF FIRST: If your family is abusive or bullying, it’s not your responsibility to jeopardize your mental and emotional health debating them. In a toxic family, the strongest dissent might be to go no-contact.
You can’t control the outcome. Change happens over time, not overnight. Some relatives may eventually feel safer backing you up, bringing home an interracial or queer partner, protesting Trump, or voting differently because of your courage and vulnerability. Don’t give up. Something you say this Thanksgiving may influence your family for years to come.