A Portrait of the White People You’re About to Encounter at Your Thanksgiving Table

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.

The Overcomplicator

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 …

Alt-Right Bro

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:

  1. Organize your younger relatives before dinner, as polling suggests that they are more likely to share your perspectives.
  2. Ask a lot of questions at the table, which will be more effective than getting into a shouting match.
  3. 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.

Advice for White Folks in the Wake of the Police Murder of a Black Person

Yesterday, Alton Sterling was executed by a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The video of the encounter is gruesome, and it should shake you to your core, no matter the color of your skin. The police tackled him to the ground, pinned him, and shot him at close range. By definition, this is an extrajudicial killing. It’s not dissimilar to what happened to Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and a long line of Black people who have lost their lives at the hands of a corrupt and racist criminal justice system. We know their names, and it’s up to us to say them.

I feel an extraordinary amount of anger and sadness today, but that pain cannot compare to what our Black friends and colleagues are experiencing. As a White person, I will never know the extent of this sort of pain. I can, however, offer some modest advice to other White folks who are trying to figure out how to be good allies on a day like today.

1.  If you’re White, don’t look to your friends of color for answers today. If you haven’t already grappled with the extent to which our criminal justice system - from the police to prosecutors to prisons - treats Black people differently than they treat you, today is not the day to start reaching out. If you’re eager to learn, talk to other White people who have been engaged in this work, as one of their primary roles as allies is to lessen the burden that people of color have for the education process around issues of justice. Now also is a good time to do some independent reading and research. If data moves you, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which catalogues the extent to which the American criminal justice system disproportionately, and unjustly, punishes Black people. Once you've spent some time educating yourself, then you should have some conversations with friends of color, but you should spend most of the time listening to them.

2.  What happened to Alton Sterling is, in fact, about race. If you are tempted to change the subject to something else, please resist that urge. Police kill Black people at a rate disproportionate to both criminal activity and their presence in the population at large. Campaign Zero has done an extraordinary job of cataloging both the extent of this problem, and its relationship to race. What happened to Alton Sterling does not happen to White people.

3. Be aware of a few standard, and racist, media tropes about Black victims. In the wake of police executions, you are bound to hear a few things that distract from the real issues. One of those storylines is that “he was no angel,” wherein the media will outline the various ways in which the victim behaved inappropriately in the past. None of this matters, and it certainly does not change the fact that the police killed the person outside of any legal process. I smoked pot when I was in high school, for example, and if the police used that as justification to murder me, that would be ludicrous. The second narrative that will emerge is that the killing of Alton Sterling is part of the “Ferguson effect,” wherein police killings are linked to increases in crime. This is not true, as there is no statistical connection between local crime rates and police killings:

The final storyline to avoid believing is the notion that the real problem is “Black on Black” crime. Bringing this up is an attempt to change the subject away from the extrajudicial killing of Black people by the police. Not to mention, the vast majority of crimes are committed within racial groups, so “White on White” crime is just as prevalent as “Black on Black” crime.

4. As a White person, you are in a unique position to influence the perspectives of other White people. If the illegal killing of Black people by the police bothers you, as it should, talk to your White friends about it. There are many nuances and ambiguities in institutional racism, but the police committing murder is not one of them. In many cases, having these conversations will not be easy. The more you talk about race, however, the easier it will become. You might even change some minds, particularly among family members. If you’re already spending time talking to other White people about race, now is a good time to help other White people develop their skills.

It is never too late to make a personal commitment to being a more active ally in the movement for Black lives. A year ago this month, folks were fighting to take down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol, after the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. A year ago this month we started wondering what happened to Sandra Bland. Correcting these injustices is the work of generations, not years or months. If you’re a White person on the sidelines, we need you in the fight. Please raise your voice, particularly today.

Hi, Justin Timberlake: Let's Have the White Guy Version of "The Talk"

Hi Justin Timberlake. It’s me, Justin Cohen. You probably don’t know that I exist, but I certainly know about you. I think it’s time for us to have a chat.

You and I were born the same year, with the same name, with the same skin color, and with strikingly similar hair. Here’s us wearing identical white turtleneck sweaters (though yours was probably more expensive), sporting similarly ill-advised earrings: 

You, admittedly, are a LOT more attractive than I am. You also are better at both singing and dancing, while I am a little better at writing and thinking about social justice.

Our similarities don’t stop there, Justin Timberlake. We were born in the same country, one with the same history of conferring shitloads of unearned privilege upon people with our particular skin color. That history relied upon the appropriation of Black lives and culture. For example, here are pictures of both of us wearing hairstyles that we appropriated directly from people of color. While we were both young and ignorant when we did this, I was not the most visible member of an internationally acclaimed musical group. Nobody would have seen this picture of me if I hadn't decide to share it, but I didn’t think I could have “the talk” with you unless I shared my own historical racial ineptitude:

Justin, let’s admit it, we knew we were appropriating Black culture when we wore our hair that way. In my case, braiding my hair was a flight of fancy during a summer vacation, and I was ridiculed for it, by my family and friends. Your case is a little different. You established an entertainment career on art forms created by the Black community and won oodles of both Grammy and Emmy awards for that career.

You clearly are aware of Blackness and Black culture. It seems, though, that your appreciation may have stopped at appropriation. That’s the only way I can explain the series of tweets you sent in response to Jesse Williams’s brilliant speech at the BET Awards, including this one:

Justin Timberlake, while you and I may be the same – the gaps in both our physical attractiveness and relative levels of commercial success notwithstanding – you and Black America are not the same.  At all. While Black folks in this country do not owe it to you to explain why you are so wrong about this, I think it is incumbent upon White folks to educate their brethren. As such, I’m taking one for the team and confronting you, although I always had hoped we would meet under more cordial circumstances, like maybe a lip-sync contest. I want you to think about three things:

1. Based on everything we have in common, I think I can assume that you were raised under the pernicious – and uniquely 1980s – notion of “colorblindness.” Colorblindness only applies to white people that were raised during that specific period of time. At no point, even in the 1980s, did people of color experience colorblindness. In fact, the racialized experiences of our Black peers who lived through the era of colorblindness were exacerbated by the fact that we – i.e. White people – were so committed to the idea that race didn’t exist anymore. Shitty, racially motivated injustices were happening all around us, Justin, but because our culture had settled on raising children as “colorblind,” we ignored those things and pretended that racism was something that “happened in the past.”

2. Remaining colorblind is way easier than accepting your privilege. That’s why Ta-Nehisi Coates calls us the dreamers; this is not a compliment. When I realized that my childhood of colorblindness was an illusion, I had a very hard time letting go of that fantasy. I was emotionally attached to the idea that I have lived a childhood free of prejudice. That fantasy is hard to dismiss not just because of our emotional attachment to it, but also because that fantasy comes with nice things like: a sense of superiority, preferential treatment from public officials, the freedom to drive while being White, not being killed by police officers, and better chances of living a life free of poverty. While the history of this country is intertwined with an ongoing struggle to erase that unearned privilege, White folks benefit everyday from the preservation of the fantasy. Someone recently took that fantasy all the way to the Supreme Court, rather than give it up, that’s how powerful it is. The faster you give up the idea of colorblindness, Justin Timberlake, the better off we’ll all be.

3. White people should talk to other white people about racial injustice; they shouldn’t hide behind false equivalence:

Yeah, that’s literally what you said, Justin Timberlake. As a White person, particularly one with unusual access to the media, you could be using your perch to educate other White folks about racism. I also wish that we lived in a post-racial society, but there is not one shred of evidence that we live in anything close to a post-racial world. Until we live in that world, it would be helpful if our most visible White folks did not actively perpetuate a misunderstanding about the world in which we live.

Justin Timberlake, I know that parts of this note were a little snarky, but I hope you take this as I intended it. We need you in the fight for racial justice. There is a long history of White folks who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with leaders of color in the struggle for true equity. There also is a counter-history of White entertainers who benefitted from appropriating the artistic creations of the Black community without reciprocating. It’s your choice, and I hope you make the right one.

Justin Cohen

Watch Whiteness Work

As I mentioned in the Reading List this morning, Chalkbeat is covering a group of “Concerned Parents” in New York City who have organized to prevent their local public school from moving locations:

… private communications provide a window into how a group of parents at a high-performing school in an affluent neighborhood has tried to block a move that is supported by school faculty members, and would give the school more space and a more diverse student body. The proposal would shift P.S. 452 into a building on 61st Street that sits across from a public-housing development, which would likely lead it to enroll more low-income families.

Public data shows that P.S. 452 enrolls a population that is 64% white, 13% free and reduced lunch, and 2% English language learners. Let’s see how that compares to NYC as a whole:


To summarize, P.S. 452 is one of the whitest, richest schools in a city whose school system serves mostly nonwhite, low-income communities. My instinct is that this organizing is an effort at protecting privilege, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions. The Chalkbeat article outlines the various strategies and talking points that the parents of P.S. 452 are deploying to justify their opposition. Gothamist reported on one of those messages, featured on a sign in the lobby of the “Schwab House,” a building where the average unit sells for over $3 million:

“There is a consideration to move the school to a neighborhood (61st and Amsterdam) that has a very different demographic makeup,” read the message, which urged residents to call their elected officials. “THIS CAN GREATLY IMPACT THE VALUE OF OUR HOMES. The great schools are part of what makes this area very desirable.”

Welp! I can throw “benefit of the doubt” out of the window after reading that!

While some parents are pushing back on the more extreme rhetoric, the entire effort reeks of White America’s tendency to wall itself off from everyone else, using pecuniary excuses to justify segregationist behavior. The Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein details the various ways in which White America has used property rights to justify both residential segregation and exclusive public schooling throughout history. Ta-Nehisi Coates also looks at how exclusionary housing, zoning policies, and schools segregation have been intertwined throughout time.

While the “Concerned Parents” of P.S. 452 might not know how closely their behavior hews to the worst tendencies of the past, that doesn’t mean we should let them off the hook. This is how privilege works, as individuals justify personal behavior based on the fact that their status – whether race- or class-based – entitles them to something "more." In this case, the “Concerned Parents” argue that their ability to afford expensive condos entitles their kids to an elite educational experience. Moreover, they’re arguing that offering that experience to students with less privilege will inevitably diminish not just their own privileged children’s experience, but also their property values.

If there’s another way to construe this, I can’t see it. If you find yourself sympathizing with the “Concerned Parents,” I am not implying that you are a racist, or a classist, or a jerk. I am saying, though, that you should interrogate your own behavior and mindsets. These are the exact same mindsets that drove the overtly racist segregation of schools before the 1950s, and the covertly racist “white flight” in the aftermath of integration efforts. We white folks have found cleverer, less racist ways of describing the manifestation of those mindsets, but the aggregate result of the individual privileged decisions is segregated schools in segregated neighborhoods.

Nobody wants to stand up and say, “I’m a racist.” We are all, however, participating in a system that was set up to perpetuate discrimination based on race. The Concerned Parents of P.S. 452, whether they mean to or not, are perpetuating that system in a particularly egregious manner right now. They shouldn’t be able to launder that behavior through the euphemism of protecting their property values and children's educational privilege.