How to Discuss Racism at the Holiday Table

Ugh, that recordscratch moment when you’re enjoying family dinner — or hoping that this year, you can dodge the racist Aunt Sally bullet — and a relative says something horrible.

In the coming weeks, many of us will fan out across the country to eat delicious food in the company of relatives we may have varying degrees of affection for. Unfortunately, it’s pretty probable that if you’re white, there’s going to be some racism on the menu — especially if people decide to start talking politics, though we do have some tips for avoiding political conversation at the table.

Maybe you’ve gritted your teeth and let offensive comments slide in the interest of family harmony in the past, but this year, it’s time to speak up. Don’t be scared: Taking on racism doesn’t have to be an epic confrontation, and there are a lot of ways to do it gracefully.

Start by considering your approach. If you call out a distasteful statment the minute you hear it, you can send a clear message to a room full of people, including the people of color in your family.But, if you approach your relative in private, you might have a more receptive audience — and endure fewer reactionary or defensive responses.

Weigh these strategies, because while stopping a questionable conversation in the moment can have a powerful impact, sometimes it doesn’t get the same results as privately pulling a relative aside later to talk.

Next, listen.

Yes, it’s painful to hear racist remarks, but listen for the attitudes behind them. Racism has a context, and getting to the heart of what’s going on will help you have a more productive conversation. Sometimes, you can use empathy and understanding to get where “wow, that’s super racist, Uncle Phil” will not.

For example: Uncle Phil says he’s all for a ban on Muslim immigration, or making Muslims register with the government or putting Muslims in camps. Ask him why. Is he worried about crime?

Point out that research shows immigrants — and refugees — are actually less likely to commit crimes! Note that many refugees are fleeing war-torn countries! Stress that there are eight million children from all over the world seeking refugee status! That refugees undergo incredibly strict background checks!

Is he convinced Sharia will descend upon the land? Tell him it won’t, but more to the point, stress that Islam includes values like charitable work and respect. If you know the issue is likely to come up, arm yourself with the names of prominent Muslim people he admires, even if he doesn’t know it.

Next, use plain, accessible language.

While you may live in a delightful liberal bubble where people talk about structural racism and privilege on a regular basis, your relatives may not. Jargon tends to put people’s backs up, so find a simpler, more accessible way of expressing your sentiments.

If you can, find a way to relate: Cite Fox News, not Mother Jones — you might actually be surprised by what you can find on conservative channels. For that matter, take a look at publications like the National Review to get a sense of what smart, thoughtful conservatives are considering and how they’re approaching issues.

But be aware of the “backfire effect,” in which factual corrections paradoxically make people cling harder to their beliefs.

If your relative becomes combative when you present facts, try personalizing — think less rattling off percentages and more finding something they can relate to. “Refugees,” for example, are an abstract mass.

Do you know any refugees? Are there people your relative knows who are refugees, or who have spoken positively about people from refugee backgrounds? A story sometimes goes further than an actual fact, because it humanizes what’s happening.

Science supports this: Sometimes a brief, empathetic conversation can change minds.

Finally, stay frosty, as the kids say.

If a discussion is really just not going well or you’re feeling reactionary and frustrated, trying to stick it out won’t change your relative’s mind. It’s okay to say “I can see that you don’t really want to talk about this right now, if you’re ever interested in the future, I’d love to tell you more” or “I think we are talking at cross purposes, and I hope that after some time to reflect on what I said, you can understand why saying that Black Lives Matter is a racist organization isn’t an accurate characterization.”

Maybe that relative will come around later. Maybe you have another person to add to your “nope, definitely not invited to the wedding” list. You have spoken up, and you’ve put in a good faith effort. Maybe the next person who talks to your relative about the issue will have an easier time because of your efforts. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

This isn’t about “keeping things nice and pleasant for our family gathering” or “not rocking the boat.” When people are fighting, they’re not going to have a conversation that will change hearts and minds.

Regardless as to whether the discussion is making other people feel uncomfortable, it’s no longer serving its original purpose. Sometimes, it’s time to walk away — and remember, you may have lost the battle, but that doesn’t mean you should stop fighting the war.

If you really get stuck, text SOS to 82623, and one of the splendid people at Showing Up for Racial Justice can provide you with some helpful talking points, or even hop on the phone for a minute if you want some additional coaching.

Photo Credit: Josh Evnin/Flickr


Chen B
Chen Boon Fook2 years ago

thank you for posting

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Chad Anderson
Chad A2 years ago

Cato Institute discusses crime by immigrants:

I have not lived in the US for some time but have been divided from family by politics so I am not sure what the best way is to deal with violent disagreement. I am not sure that the best way is direct confrontation.

Janne O.
Janne O2 years ago

"Point out that research shows immigrants — and refugees — are actually less likely to commit crimes! " lol no they're not. The asylum seekers we have here from Muslim countries are far more likely to be guilty of assault rape. Almost all assault rapes here are committed by Muslims. They are over represented in that statistics. And then we have the 'lovely' youth who set fire to cars and commit a lot of vandalism. And I haven't even touched on the terror aspect yet. Yeah go ahead and lie to your fictive uncle. Retards not care for facts.

Janne O.
Janne O2 years ago

"Unfortunately, it’s pretty probable that if you’re white, there’s going to be some racism on the menu" The irony is that you don't even see how racist and prejudiced that remark is. Do you understand it now? "Unfortunately, it’s pretty probable that if you’re Muslim, there’s going to be some racism on the menu"

Muff-Anne York-Haley

Why would this be Thanksgiving conversation?

Janet B.
Janet B2 years ago


Janis K.
Janis K2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Magdalen B.
Magdalen B2 years ago

Good advice. As Paul Cater writes of his host, "nothing will persuade him he's wrong".

David F.
David F2 years ago

Bill Eagle you just explained you frequent post of misinformation, tell your wife your not going to be hen pecked any more.