Social justice

How To Deal With Bigotry Among Family and Friends

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Picard facepalm cookies
is Picard facepalming your bigotry? (Photo credit: justjenn)

Definition of Bigotry:

What bigotry is: Painting a group of people with common (usually negative) attributes based on race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, or similar classification. Also called ‘prejudice’. Discrimination is the individual decision to act on these broad assumptions. Racism (or other ‘-isms’) is the institutional tendency to design elements of a society (legal system, educational system, media, etc.) based on those assumptions.

What bigotry is not: Criticizing an individual or organized group of individuals for making broad statements such as the ones described, for engaging in discrimination, or for supporting or condoning racist (or other -ist) institutions.

My family history of bigotry

I grew up in a family with the soft, Northern bigotry that smiles at you and accepts you while you’re in the same room, and makes ‘jokes’ about your race or sexual orientation or national origin or religion the minute your back is turned.

My husband’s family’s bigotry is more of the direct, Southern sort. His people feel comfortable snubbing you to your face for any of the reasons listed above, and feel self righteous and superior while doing so. Based on recent news stories, Paula Deen would feel right at home with my husband’s people.

In both cases, those of us who strive to be allies, who work hard to erase our privileges and create an equal world, find ourselves ‘behind the curtain’ with people (often people we love dearly) who hold and state opinions we find harmful and ignorant.

On one memorable occasion over a decade ago, one of the members of my parents’ generation (we call her ‘Grandma Bigot’) managed in one day to go on lengthy screeds about the Chinese, Native Americans, Black folks (she used the ‘n’ word), Liberals, Gays (she said ‘faggots’) and Hispanics (‘Mexicans’) without hardly taking a breath. It was this particular episode in my life that cleared my head about what to do when this happens.

I live many miles away from my nearest blood relative. My husband, on the other hand, is surrounded by dozens of family members within easy driving distance, many of them with opinions as ill thought out and offensive as “Grandma Bigot’s”.

This means we spend a lot of time with relatives who have bigoted opinions (disclaimer: not all of Husband’s family are bigoted, or even necessarily a majority. But some.) Some of those relatives feel quite comfortable airing those opinions within the family fold. Some of them bring friends to family gatherings equally comfortable with those opinions.

When the incident highlighted above happened, my oldest son was roughly thirteen, and my youngest was roughly six. This incident happened in their presence. For additional context, my oldest son, who comes from a previous marriage, is a member of the Cherokee tribe, though he ‘passes’ for white.

My oldest son actually began the response. He looked at this relative, after hearing her go on in length about how Native Americans are all drunken, long haired, and lazy, and if they would just straighten up and ‘get off the reservation’ everything would be just dandy, and said “My grandfather (who is full blooded Cherokee) has short hair, doesn’t drink, and just retired from a position with the Federal government as the head of a department after forty years”. Of course, this didn’t phase her. She exceptionalized my son’s grandfather (who is, in fact, a remarkable man) and kept on with her bigoted statements.

I tried several times to cut her off or redirect her, but she continued to cluelessly spout her garbage, certain in her righteousness and in the general acceptance of her views. Unfortunately, it was a small enough gathering that I couldn’t simply find someone else to engage in conversation.

I had had enough. This was not healthy for either of my sons to hear. Husband had retreated with another relative to another part of the house, leaving me to deal with this relative. I hunted up Husband and informed him that he had two minutes to make his goodbyes and leave, or I would leave him stranded, as I was not going to subject my sons to any more of this. We left. Husband objected some to my ‘rudeness’, but I pointed out to him that I would continue to be ‘rude’ in the exact same manner at all family gatherings if we couldn’t figure out a better way. We went home and hashed it out.

How to deal with bigotry

This is what we came up with:

  • Before family or friend gatherings where there were likely to be displays of open bigotry, we agreed beforehand that if smaller measures didn’t work, either one of us was entitled to pull the ‘nuclear option’ of simply leaving, regardless of the importance of the occasion, if we can’t get a remedy.
  • We agreed to support one another in quietly pulling aside the person in question and asking him or her to please refrain from the topic at hand (if feasable).
  • We agreed that primary responses after this point would be to walk away, engage in education with the person who holds bigoted beliefs, or to ignore the person. Punching the person in the nose was simply not allowed.
  • We agreed to never bring friends to family gatherings where they were likely to be subjected to this sort of bigotry as one of the minorities in question, unless we could ensure their emotional safety.
  • We agreed to re-examine (if necessary) how many family and/or friend gatherings we were willing to attend that also invited this person (these people).

Over the years, this has worked well. Often, a simply stated ‘I don’t agree, and can we please change the subject’, or its more subtle cousin, simply changing the subject, works well. Sometimes phase two (avoid the person/ignore the person) needs to go into effect. But now that it is known that we will leave gatherings where bigotry is openly condoned, it is much less of a problem. It doesn’t hurt that my husband is a very friendly guy and everyone loves him, or that even when I’m angry my professional training usually kicks in and I am able to stay cool.

Things to keep in mind when dealing with bigotry:

Some questions to ask yourself when this situation arises for you:

  • How important is this relationship to you? Are you willing to walk away from it?
  • Are you willing to walk away from other relationships that are attached to this one?
  • Are you willing or able to work to educate this person or those who defend this person (preferably one on one, away from gatherings)?
  • How comfortable are you speaking up?
  • Do you have children you need to protect from this?
  • Are you able to manage your emotions on this?
  • Is there someone in this circle who is an ally you can ask for support?
  • Do you have a dependent relationship with anyone who voices opinions you find bigoted?
  • Do you have a mentoring or parental relationship with anyone who voices opinions you find bigoted?

The basic principles are pretty simple: set boundaries, keep your cool, evaluate whether you can (or want to) educate the person, and employ self care. The specifics are, of course, unique to your circumstance. Feel free to share your stories of how you’ve dealt with this situation in the comments.

A final note, in case it isn’t clear: I don’t ask that people agree with me on issues. I only ask that people don’t make unfounded statements about groups of people that have no basis of fact in my presence, or the presence of my children. This goes along the premise of “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I choose not to expose myself or my children to this sort of negativity. Your mileage may vary.

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