America’s White community is in the midst of an identity crisis. As White people were the only racial group that gave a majority of its votes to Donald Trump last Tuesday, the folks in the White community who didn’t vote for Trump are experiencing a sense of dread. They totally blew it when their non-White friends needed them most, and in ten days their culture requires that they make an annual pilgrimage to their respective places of birth, where they sacrifice a large bird and consume it along with the fruits of the most recent harvest. This ritual sometimes goes by its more colloquial name:
For racism-averse White people who want to avoid “politics” at the Thanksgiving table, I have bad news: you have a responsibility to talk to your people. White people are the reason that Donald Trump is about to be president. It’s your job to make sure that shit never happens again, and that things don't get worse for people of color in the meantime. Black folks, women in particular, turned out with astonishing clarity to repudiate the White supremacy that ran through Trump’s campaign. Only through the complicity of our family members are this man’s hands resting on the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
The only silver lining is this: not all of your relatives are as overtly racist as that one uncle whose loud bullying is stressing you out right now. This guide is designed to help you talk to most of them.
As you prepare for your conversation about race at the Thanksgiving table, you should get used to thinking of racism as a spectrum, wherein every White person sits at a locus somewhere between “Racist As Fuck” and “John Brown Reincarnated as a Ninja Assassin.” We’ll get back to your racist AF uncle, but first let’s examine family members elsewhere on the racism spectrum, and figure out how to deal with them.
Cousin Wokey McWokerson
Cousin Wokey is so woke, and he wants everyone to know it. When he’s not posting Audre Lorde and James Baldwin quotes on his Facebook wall, he’s reminding his twitter followers to abolish the patriarchy. Wokey works for a nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated youth, but he realizes that racism is intersectional, so he’s about all of the issues.
While Cousin Wokey’s heart is in the right place, he needs to be held accountable. If he’s a real “ally” or “co-conspirator,” which he is insistent on becoming, he knows that he shouldn’t get “cookies" just for doing the right thing. Ask him how many of his less-woke white friends he’s engaged lately, and what he plans to do now that it’s clear that his dope Instagram game didn’t swing the election. Also, because Cousin Wokey is “intersectional AF” in his thinking, make sure he doesn’t get distracted from anti-racist work by myriad other issues attractive to White radicals.
[NB: I’m tough on Wokey, because: it me. It’s easy to talk big about anti-racism work, and it’s a lot harder to take action on a day to day basis. I struggle and am a work in progress. When I say that Wokey needs to be held accountable, I also mean that I need to be held accountable.]
Auntie Feel Good
Auntie Feel Good was the one who told you that America was a “beautiful melting pot” when you were a kid. She said this while rearranging the glass orbs in her yoga garden. She’s upset right now, because she wants the world to be colorblind. She wishes we could go back to the time when we all got along, which was in the two-year window between the pilot episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and the verdict in the trial of the police officers who beat Rodney King. If we could all just get along, Auntie Feel Good reminds you, as she passes the mashed potatoes, race wouldn’t matter anymore.
Auntie Feel Good needs to be reminded that her vision of a post-racial world has never been a reality, even during the heady, colorblind fantasy days of the 1980s. Because she is White, your Auntie has been shielded from experiencing the heinous acts of racism faced by people of color. Her optimism, while admirable, bleeds into complacency. She should be pushed to confront the reality of the world. She might enjoy Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, which is a touching, first-person account of contemporary anti-racism work. Given the empathy Auntie Feelgood evinces, I wonder if she has friends of color, or at the very least, acquaintances? Maybe you suggest to her that she invite one of her friends of color to join her for coffee. Assure her that you were once colorblind as well, but you’ve been awakened to the realities of the world by your personal relationships.
Your cousin married the Overcomplicator, and everyone realizes how smart she is. She’s opinionated, and everything she talks about is more “nuanced” and “complex” than you’re acknowledging. Sure, race was a factor in the presidential election, she says, but the real reason that Trump won, she insists, is that there’s significant economic anxiety in the Rust Belt. She advises that you should stop making everything about race and figure out how to engage regular, White Americans. The Overcomplicator draws her power from the silence of people who are unwilling, or unable, to stand up to her reasoning. She quotes facts, many of which are unsourced, but she says them with such conviction! Her superpower is to reference “smart pundits” who share her beliefs, and she thinks that snarky jokes by late-night comedians are the purest form of political resistance. You might know this person better as her male counterpart, the Mansplainer-in-Law
The Overcomplicator should be approached with equal and opposite conviction. If you believe that racism is indeed a problem – and perhaps the simplest explanation for how Trump assembled such a stunning electoral college win – you have to be ready to fight fire with fire. The Overcomplicator whips out facts like a set of flaming nunchuks, so you should have your own ammunition ready.
“The election was about economic anxiety,” she fires at you, to which you respond, “If this was about economic anxiety, why didn’t poor people of color vote for Trump?”
“The people who voted for Trump aren’t racist or complicit in racism, they were just voting for their working class interests,” she blasts off, to which you respond, “If tolerating xenophobia and racism are side effects of economic hardship, why were most of Trump’s supporters in the top income brackets?”
And so on.
In the course of making your argument, be sure to reference Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” which was published in The Atlantic, a source that erudite White people agree cannot be dismissed. For this purpose, see also: The Economist, John Oliver, The New Yorker, and 90% of the columnists at The New York Times. Not Roger Cohen, though. Ugh, #norelation.
Grandma has been around racist shit her whole life, and she doesn’t understand why it’s suddenly a big deal. She was born into a world with de jure segregation, and she has friends that use the n-word without blinking an eye. She probably says things in private that would make the family blush, but she knows better than to pipe up with anything raw at the dinner table.
The thing to remember about Grandma is that she loves you more than anything in the world. More than her comfortable chair and her bridge group. She also has never taken a college level course in critical race theory, so she thinks that racism is just cartoonish, Ku Klux Klan stuff. If you explain to her why you’re so passionate about anti-racism, she’s probably going to listen. Maybe you have friends whose stories you can share with her? Remember that one boy from middle school, Grandma?
Will Grandma change her mind about anything at this point in her life? Probably not, but she should know how much you care about this work, and you should be confident enough in your convictions to express that to her.
Racist-Ass Mother Fucking Uncle (RAMFU)
RAMFU is just a straight bigot. He flies a Confederate flag outside of his house, but he lives in New Hampshire, so it’s hard to argue that the symbolism has anything to do with “heritage.” He uses slurs, and he makes fun of you for being sensitive when he does so. He’s a big fucking bully. RAMFU does terrible things, then blames everyone else for being sensitive, rather than take responsibility for his own shitbaggery. He’s an older guy, so he dresses up his racism as wisdom. The implication of his sagacity is that you’re a “liberal sissy” by comparison, who doesn’t understand how the “real world” works.
Maybe RAMFU had a terrible childhood, and now he’s taking his repressed anger out on the rest of the world. Maybe some talk radio host told him to blame “the Blacks” for stealing his job a quarter century ago. Whatever made RAMFU so damned prejudiced in the first place, your job is not to change RAMFU’s mind. It’s not gonna happen, at least not over a single Thanksgiving dinner.
Your job is to neutralize and marginalize him. He’s a bully. People are scared of him, so he’s influential at the table. He will derail the conversation; he’ll belittle you; he might even be physically threatening. Never laugh with him when he makes a joke. Laugh at him if you can do it without fear. Fight RAMFU to a draw, because while you will not change RAMFU’s mind, your passion and conviction will be instrumental in helping Auntie Feelgood, Grandma, and the less cartoonish family members find their consciences the next time RAMFU tries to pwn the dinner table.
Remember: you’re establishing new ground rules for the family, which is for the dinner table to become a place where racism is not acceptable. Most bullies don’t know what to do when someone fights back, and even fewer can handle when people start laughing at them. RAMFU’s beliefs are dangerous, because he’s the reason you now have to deal with our final character …
Right under your nose, your brother has become an Alt-Right Bro. He lives in Orange County, likes slim-fitting flannel shirts, has an inexplicable attachment to cargo shorts, and drinks brown liquor. He seems cool and confident. He’s also totally into White supremacy (although everyone in the family seems comfortable using the term “alt-right” as a euphemism).
Alt-Right Bro has lots of sympathy for men accused of rape, but very little interest in hearing the perspectives of the victims of sexual assault. He uses “social justice warrior” and “cuck” as slurs, which nobody else really understands. He’s super into bad-boy commentators like Mike Cernovich and Milo Yiannpolous, who your bro insists can’t be racist, because he’s gay.
Let’s be 100% clear about something: there is no difference between Alt-Right Bro and RAMFU. Alt-Right Bro is a thinner, younger, Brooks Brothers-clad version of your racist ass uncle … just as Yiannopoulus is a telegenic Rush Limbaugh. Part of the reason your bro fell victim to this new, hip brand of racism is that RAMFU ran the table at the last five Thanksgivings. Your impressionable brother realized that men like RAMFU demand attention, which is appealing to young men looking for an identity. While you were quietly acquiescing to hate speech last Thanksgiving, RAMFU was recruiting the next generation. Now look what happened to your bro, bro.
But hey, not all is lost. You have a sister who seems reasonable. But you know what? She’s fixing to become Alt-Right Sis, because in Trump’s America, racism is threatening to become cool again.
Whoever sits at your table next Thursday, there are some simple things to remember:
- Organize your younger relatives before dinner, as polling suggests that they are more likely to share your perspectives.
- Ask a lot of questions at the table, which will be more effective than getting into a shouting match.
- Be prepared, and establish a community of like-minded White people that can support your anti-racism work.
Jessie Daniels is a sociologist who writes about race issues in the White community, and her advice is simple:
The family members listed above were caricatures – by definition – but the people in your family are real. Their complicity in racism is quite literally a mater of life or death for non-White people in this country, so the absolute least you can do is speak up as you slice the turkey.