This weekend I will be going to my fiancé’s parents’ place for Thanksgiving dinner. She has a large extended family and last year there were a lot of “jokes” at the table that I thought were pretty offensive. In particular, she has an uncle who would rival Donald Trump in the racism department. My girlfriend isn’t like that at all. She said that with her extended family (and with racist uncle in particular), she has always just ignored the problem, because she only sees them a couple times a year. Last year, when we were still a relatively new couple I did the whole “grin and bare it thing,” but this year I’m not sure I can or want to. So I wonder—any tips on dealing with obnoxious relatives that won’t leave me as persona non grata come Christmas dinner?
Ahhhhh, the “Racist Uncle.” Right up there with the “Kookie Aunt”, the “Goth Cousin” and the “Withholding Pet” as far as family stereotypes go, and from the sounds of it—you’re about to spend the holiday weekend with all of them. To make matters more interesting, it’s not just any holiday weekend: It’s the Fall of 2016, with the world’s most contentious dinner party fodder—the American election—in the foreground. Literally. The second presidential election starts on Sunday night at 9 pm, which means your turkey won’t even be fully digested by the time Hillary and Donald get in the ring for round two.
I’m not trying to scare you. It’s just that if last year was bad, this year is likely to be brutal, what with Black Lives Matter and Burkinis and building a wall between America and Mexico—all topics on which Racist Uncle probably has some really strong (and really wrong) opinions. So how do you handle him?
Assuming you and your gf are thinking long term, I think you’re right that it’s time to drop the polite “grin and bare it” routine and get real. Or at least get realer. A lot of this depends on the specific family dynamic. When I was young, holiday dinners meant that the adults would most definitely get into it with debates around current events as essential as stuffing or cranberry sauce. Generations clashed, fists banged—to me these are wonderful memories and what the holidays are all about.
If your gf’s family engages in this kind of lively debate then challenging Racist Uncle won’t feel totally out of place. On the other hand, if your future family are the non-confrontational, let-everything-simmer-under-the-surface sort, you will want to temper your, well, temper accordingly. Note this does not mean staying quiet.
Because while I understand what your girlfriend is saying re. only seeing them a few times a year and all that, I also think that when we don’t voice our objections to bigotry we are supporting it with our silence. I know, I know—that’s kind of heavy.
The good news is that there is no need to turn turkey day into WW3. Sarcasm can be a great way to voice your objection in a relatively casual way. Like, say R.U. says something about Trump’s proposed “stop and frisk” laws. You can counter with something along the lines of, “Oh right. Because there’s nothing wrong with assuming that everyone who isn’t white is a criminal.” Or if he says something about how women are too emotional to be world (is it unfair for me to assume that Racist Uncle is also Sexist Uncle?), you could turn to your fiancé and say, “Honey—I got this. Because we all know you are too fragile to defend yourself.” Don’t worry about fine-tuning the perfect zinger. Nobody’s asking you to be John Oliver here. Just roll your eyes and be done with it.
Another option is a breezy but firm, “Come on!” after Racist Uncle says such and such a group should “go back to their own country”. Follow up with something along the lines of, “You can’t possibly believe that,” which will but him on the defensive.
Not that this necessarily needs to be combative. If your not comfortable with either of the above approaches, you can always go with the honest route, which is just to say that you find those kinds of sentiments really upsetting. If you feel comfortable, you could even take a stab at explaining to R.U. why his views are outdated and terribly offensive. Just don’t get your hopes up. People like Racist Uncle don’t get that way over night, and the goal of reprogramming over a single holiday gathering may be ambitious.
Before exiting you can always make a “no hard feelings” crack, just to let everyone know that they don’t need to put you two at separate tables next year. Then again, if Trump (the patron saint of racist uncles everywhere) gets in—building a wall between you and R.U. may not be such a bad idea.