Maybe you too have been hit with acute disappointment watching childhood heroes melt a little before you at the dinner table? You’re sitting amidst swirling tension as you realize that the relative across from you subscribes to bigotry that you actively condemn and fear. The indication could come from a remark under the breath or a blatant endorsement, either way it’s obvious, and it’s uncomfortable to see someone you’ve grown up around say something so ugly. What can one do in that situation? How can we respond when someone jabs at a part of us so intensely personal and political? Should “keeping the peace” be the utmost goal, or is that standard breached as soon as the offensive remark is made? When the town or state or coast we live on sets the standard for the cultural values we align ourselves with, it can be hard to tackle the divide in moments of forced interaction with extended family from other places.
There’s no One Right Way, but we think it’s necessary to have this conversation in the open—to dismantle the racist heteropatriarchy we must first acknowledge that it exists, then share our own experiences, either challenging it or opting out. We interviewed some of our closest friends from both blue and red states to discuss conflict with family, and how we navigate around (or straight through) it.
Casey, 18, Connecticut
College freshman, actor, and musician.
How do you feel when you know a holiday where you’ll see extended family is coming up? Do you go to family events willingly?
I am lucky to have family that makes efforts to support me politically, but because many of my family members hold different views than I do—that, whether they realize or not, endanger me, my friends, fellow human beings—I naturally have some anxiety before family events. I go to events willingly, but not always with the intention of discussing politics, because it is invariably a source of contention. Given that, if political discussion arises, I do my best to recognize that I have an opportunity to explain a different perspective to my more conservative relatives that they might not be accustomed to hearing. It’s never fun, but always important—to help me strengthen my own debate skills, and to advocate for groups often silenced by my family members’ politics.
What is your family’s attitude toward “controversial” topics at the dinner table? Who in your family brings up political issues? Have recent political events changed this?
Political issues used to be a sort of taboo at the dinner table before the recent election cycle, which I recognize both as a manifestation of my family’s privilege, and a result of my own naïve, albeit forgivable, lack of political engagement as a child. As my younger sister and I matured, our interest in politics and justice matured, too. We have reached points now where to not engage would be to find comfort in our privilege and feed into white supremacy. Now, both of us seek out discussions with the intention of debating across political backgrounds and generational differences.
Do you think it’s more effective to bite your tongue or to start a discussion with a family member whom you disagree with? Does the answer change depending on the scenario, and are there any specific factors that go into your decision? It sounds like you lean more toward the latter.
I am a firm believer in the importance of me initiating and participating in potentially uncomfortable discussions—that’s the only way change is made! It can be difficult to debate touchy subjects with family, because their insensitivity resonates much deeper than the insensitivity of a friend or stranger, so it is important to recognize in yourself when you feel the need to step back. Especially as a young millennial, it is important to also recognize when a family member might respond to you with seemingly unfounded aggression and condescension, and recognize that as a signal of the end of productive conversation.
Have you ever had an encounter where a family member goes against your views? How did you handle it? And what advice do you have for other teenagers who might find themselves in similar situations?
Absolutely! Solely on the basis of conversing with older, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men, I am bound to encounter some conflicting opinions, to say the least. Especially opinions that they have not yet considered as a result of their own internalized (and, frankly, external) sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, et cetera. I have found that remaining calm and logical, to the best of my abilities, is difficult but crucial in these conversations. When I stray from reason into emotion I am easily dismissed. The rejection of emotion as valid grounds for making claims is a serious issue and a byproduct of our culture, but I realize that I cannot fight all these battles at once.
As young people we have to arm ourselves with an arsenal of facts and be able to cite specific instances and policies that support our views AND that undermine the opposing view. There are few things more empowering than a logically infallible argument when dealing with someone who readily discounts your intellectual capabilities!