Few things give me more anxiety than thinking about spending the holidays with my entire extended family. Don’t get me wrong; I love them! And much of our time together each year is joyful and loving.
But inevitably someone is going to say something idiotic (read: racist, sexist, heterosexist/homophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-choice, religiously bigoted, or otherwise infuriatingly offensive). And for years, I’ve struggled with how to navigate these family spaces.
After all, confronting the bigotry directly has been known to lead to all-out Christmas or Thanksgiving verbal brawls with shouting and crying and people walking out.
And I know full well that calling my anti-immigrant uncle out and starting verbal wrestlemania isn’t going to change his mind. He revels in pissing people off with his political beliefs. He’s the ultimate internet troll (except that he’s sitting on my grandmother’s couch).
Yet as I walk the precarious path in trying to be an accountable ally, I feel a calling and responsibility to address this stuff. It’s tough to know what to do.
When talking with a friend the other night about whether or not to engage, I couldn’t help but think of a quote from the controversial but surely-quotable Tim Wise:
“The power of resistance is to set an example: not necessarily to change the person with whom you disagree, but to empower the one who is watching and whose growth is not yet completed, whose path is not at all clear, whose direction is still very much up in the proverbial air.”
As I think about whether to engage, I should consider less whether I want to fight with my trolling uncle than about who is listening.
Because I’m not going to change his mind, but I very well may plant the seeds of resistance in the minds of my young nieces and nephews. They are listening. And at 3, 5, and 7, few times of their lives will be more formative in their development of self and in their construction of “other.”
Further, I might empower someone else in the family to speak up. Maybe they’ve been just as fed up with the nastiness and bigotry but felt alone at family gatherings.
Inclusiveness CAN Be a Family Value
And while a resistance to bigotry and a commitment to seeking justice are currently not family traditions or ethics, but they certainly can be.
When I saw Cornel West speak at the 2013 CIRCLE Conference, one of the many parts of his talk that stuck with me came in the Q&A. I can’t remember exactly what question was asked, but he spoke to the need for an ethic of allyship and solidarity as a value. He talked of needing to highlight more White allies in history, and he talked of needing more vocal allies working with others who share their identity to shift tides of oppression.
But that doesn’t just happen by buying our kids gender-neutral toys or books with fantastic messages. Instilling inclusiveness as a family value requires some tough conversations. Yes, these conversations should be respectful and carried out with love, but they need to happen, and they need to be public so that everyone in the family can understand that it is okay and encouraged to challenge someone on a statement that furthers oppression and marginalization.
But it’s also about timing. If my uncle corners me alone in the kitchen to goad me into a a debate about how Phil Robertson is a perfect example of how Christians are the oppressed minority in the United States today, I’m probably not going to take the trolling bait.
But if during the meal, someone makes a statement about how immigrants are ruining our country, I need to find a way to challenge it and call them in to a discussion.
And while doing so might cause a collective family meltdown, the risk is worth it if we manage to have a powerful conversation that sets the precedent that we can talk through the tough things in our family. After all, doing so makes it clear to those little ones that our family is one that engages, not disengages, with the harsh realities that are the context both inside and outside the walls of our family celebration.