The Holiday Family Freakout: Calling Family In to Dialogue About Justice

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.


Gift Giving and Gender Socialization

One thing I will never understand is how completely wed so many of us are to traditional gender norms, particularly in the way we raise children.  Even progressive folks who would never say “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” freak out when a little boy is in a pink outfit or when a little girl is given a GI Joe instead of a Barbie.

This is never more frustrating to me than during the holidays.  My nieces and nephew (on another note, is there a gender-neutral term for my sibling’s children?) are awesome but slightly spoiled.  Each and every family member showers them in gifts to the point that they can’t decide what to play with . . . there are too many options.  Some of these gifts are awesomely-gender-neutral like the shopping carts that the kids (boys and girls alike) loved to fill with toys and push around the house.  Others were as gendered as you can get (also note their outfits):

Aiden on His "Cat" Car

Abbie on Her "Princess" Car

At one point, Aiden climbed onto the “Princess” car, and one person in the family exclaimed, “Aiden!  You can’t ride that car!  That one’s for girls!”  Then his older sisters (5 and 3) started echoing the sentiment.

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Less-Than-Black Friday: Ideas for a More Socially-Just and Sustainable Holiday

The other day, my friend Zach said, “I have a great idea for a bumper sticker!  It will say (excuse the language), “Fuck Black Friday.  Give thanks again!”

I’ve never really understood the hyper-consumerism that accompanies the holidays.  Even though I’ve often had a strained relationship with my family, I still love them, and I see them as the focus of the holiday season.  I just don’t quite understand why we’re expected to show our love for our families through rampant consumerism.  “Buy More Stuff.  That’s the way to celebrate the holidays.”

Though in some ways, I will undoubtedly participate in that consumerism (there are a few small things that I want to give to family and that I hope to receive), I also recognize that there are lots of ways to participate in this dance more responsibly.

Thus, here’s my 2nd Annual list of ways to celebrate in a more Socially Just and Sustainable way.

1.  Since I spent the other day baking tasty vegan rolls and vegan gravy for Thanksgiving, the idea of food in the holidays is definitely on my mind.  I love to eat.  I love to eat well.  And I am incredibly privileged to eat super well!  I also recognize the privilege that comes with being a vegetarian, and while I hope that folks reduce their meat consumption, I also don’t really see any sense in trying to convince everyone to stop eating meat.  However, in that, I am mindful of the environmental impact of meat consumption.  Eating turkey is wildly unsustainable (and the turkey-production industry really screws the farmers)!  How about beef or ham?  Well, if you choose to eat those, it’s like dumping 2400 gallons of water down the drain and burning 55 square feet of rainforest.  Thus, this holiday season, I encourage you to consider a vegetarian holiday meal!  Or perhaps consider having all-vegetarian sides with your turkey or ham or pot roast.

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