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Dealing with my racist grandma.
August 4, 2006 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Looking for advice on dealing with my racist grandmother.

My grandmother found out that my brother is dating a Korean woman. She refused to hug him and walked out of the house. My mother told her to grow up.

She's dealt with my uncle marrying a non-Jew, but they live on the other side of the country now. She seems allright with me dating a non-Jew, but I suspect it would get rough if we got engaged.

I thought this would cool down after a while, but it's been three weeks and no progress. She says "I always wondered what I'd die of and now I know- a broken heart." She also refers to my brother's girlfriend as a "Chinamen" (not to her face, thank god, they haven't met) and says "They all look the same." It's like she's been reading the 1975 edition of "Bigot's Best Quotes."

My grandmother is not an easy woman to deal with and my mother is perfectly fine with leaving her out of family stuff until she can act more maturely. I'd be okay with this strategy except that she's an 89 year old widow with no friends (her only friend was dumped after she told my grandmother that no one at the mahjong club liked her), and will probably die without a social network. Despite all this bullshit, I do love my grandmother and would rather her not die ostracized and alone.

Anyone been through something like this? Any practical advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.
posted by brevator to Human Relations (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm assuming your grandmother is a Jew...

Does your brother know about her bigotry? Does his girlfriend? I think presents could win her over. Find out what your grandmother really covets and buy her off with that.
posted by mhuckaba at 7:32 AM on August 4, 2006 [1 favorite]


Avoid the subject and move on quickly when it comes up. Disagree with her if she asks you, chastise her if she attacks the girlfriend to her face, and accept you aren't going to change her mind.

My friend's grandmother is racist. He's dated a black woman and an Asian woman. Her response to the black woman was "At least she's not Asian" (who knows what she thought when he started dating his Asian girlfriend!), but she mentioned that "It's not that I have a problem with black people, it's just that, well, interracial children get teased." My great-aunt, Jesus, don't get her started on immigrants. Did you know everyone south of Texas is Mexican? No, I'm not kidding.

But y'know, I don't fight it. I make non-committal noises and change the subject, and rather than getting upset I see it as a chance to give me something to laugh about with my friends later on.
posted by schroedinger at 7:35 AM on August 4, 2006


I'd be okay with this strategy except that she's an 89 year old widow with no friends (her only friend was dumped after she told my grandmother that no one at the mahjong club liked her), and will probably die without a social network. Despite all this bullshit, I do love my grandmother and would rather her not die ostracized and alone.

She's a bitter miserable person whom you would have nothing to do with if she weren't related to you, especially if she were your age. She is causing nothing but pain and acrimony, and she deserves nothing in return.

The way I see it, there are three strategies here.

First, you can completely ignore and exclude her, as your mother suggests. Not kind, but gets the job done and message across.

Second, you can try to show her the error of her ways, which probably won't work, in my experience. She's 89 and from a culturally segregated group (my grandmother was Italian and very similar), and is very set in her ways. She could easily trot out those old chestnuts about youngsters respecting elders, etc. etc. and never once even consider what you're saying. The fact that she dumped her only friend because the friend upset her delicate social balance also implies that she would be not at all receptive.

Third, you can ignore her racism and treat her with love and respect, which would placate her, but also validate her racism and make you feel terrible.

None of these are ideal situations. I struggled with similar old relatives for years and never once found a good solution, so I did a combination of 2 and 3. If I were a stronger person, I would have done 1.
posted by The Michael The at 7:38 AM on August 4, 2006 [1 favorite]


You can't save everybody - some people don't want to be saved. My grandparents made some untoward statements when my cousin got engaged to a black woman (who's also a pediatric ER surgeon), and the whole family laid into them at once. A number of us threatened to ostracise them. THat got the grandparents to thinking that maybe their opinions needed changed. Perhaps the whole family needs to just leave her be for a bit.

Also, I find it interesting that she's complaining about "chinamen" but plays mahjong.
posted by notsnot at 7:39 AM on August 4, 2006 [1 favorite]


I used to deal with the issue by just saying, "... is family, I love him/her and I'd rather not hear trash talk about him/her." Then change the subject.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:39 AM on August 4, 2006


Well, I think it's safe to assume that nobody's gonna change grandma's opinions at this point. So, I suggest you get together with your brother and his girlfriend (and other family members, if necessary) and decide how you want to deal with it: he doesn't bring his girlfriend around Grandma, he does bring her but understands Grandma's gonna be a bitch, etc.
posted by tippiedog at 7:44 AM on August 4, 2006


If this were the movies, you could arrange some sort of life-altering experience, or have some deep all-night conversation, and she would suddenly see the error of her beliefs, and realize that what is important is the person, not their race or ethnicity.

This aint the movies. She's 89. She's obviously very stubborn, and she's not going to change. But she's a person, too, and deserves to receive the love you still feel for her. I second schroedinger -- never bring the subject up, and if it comes up, indicate your displeasure and move on to something else. One last thing to remember -- it's difficult to be that bitter and angry towards large segments of society. Her bigotry has almost certainly taken its toll on the level of happiness she's been able to achieve in life. I don't think now is the time to abandon her.
posted by pardonyou? at 7:46 AM on August 4, 2006


Third, you can ignore her racism and treat her with love and respect, which would placate her, but also validate her racism and make you feel terrible.

I completely disagree that treating her with love and respect validates her racism and would make the OP feel terrible.

A person can be valued and respected for their innate worth as a human being, without valuing and respecting and validating their behavior.

In fact, I would suggest that treating her with love and respect (assuming this is how you've always treated her anyway) is exactly the right thing to do.

I think KirkJobSluder's answer is the way to go. You can still include her in whatever family functions you always have, with the stipulation that there will be no trash-talking. If she doesn't like that, she has the choice to not be involved or to hold her tongue.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:53 AM on August 4, 2006 [2 favorites]


Did the racist stuff start recently, or has it been lifelong? There may be some mental or neurological issues going on. Paranoia is a common pre-Alzheimer's symptom, and being afraid of people who don't look or act like they do can be a manifestation. FWIW, there's a sharp difference between a Jewish grandmother not wanting her kids to marry outside of the faith, and pure racism. Neither is defensible, but the former is at least understandable. The latter indicates that something else is going on.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:54 AM on August 4, 2006


My father got similar treatment from his mother when marrying my mom who's jewish (funny how arbitrary these prejudices are).

The ultimatum route worked. His mother wasn't 89, but emotionally your grandma and my grandma seem about 5 years old, at best.

Well anyway, my grandma was pretty awful, e.g., slurs and refusing to take down picture of my father's first wife who was catholic gold in my grandma's eyes. My father told her he would never visit or talk to her until she straightened up. Threw the gaunlet down, so to speak. And it worked relatively well.

Personally, I've found that talking to/trying to refute racists on their own terms rarely works. It just validates their position. You either have to ignore it or make ultimatums.

If your grandma refuses to give up this crap, even in the face of losing much of her family, she obviously cares more about her bigotry than her own family, which is just so very sad.
posted by milarepa at 7:54 AM on August 4, 2006


Yeah, my gramma was like this. Because we're a fairly vocal family, what we did was ignore some of the smaller bizarre stuff ("I'm sweating like a Turk!") and call her on the bigger stuff. When she says something hateful or acts in a backwards, ignorant way, feel free to say so. She needs you now, and there is always a bond of family, but we were pretty blunt with my grandmother that certain things just would not be tolerated and we'd let her know when she crossed a line.
posted by klangklangston at 7:56 AM on August 4, 2006


My grandmother is thankfully incredibly accepting of my Asian man (we're white)--in fact she adores him--but she does sometimes say very inappropriate and mean things regarding other family members' significant others, just because she doesn't like them (not race-related).

A firm "CUT that shit out or I'm leaving right now!" usually does the trick. I think it's best to just be firm about expressing how inappropriate her comments are, without addressing the folly in the content in the comments, if that makes any sense. You don't have to explain yourself--you don't want to hear it, so if you can't spend time together without her bringing it up, then you can't spend time together. You can still treat her lovingly when she's not acting like a jerk.
posted by lampoil at 8:09 AM on August 4, 2006


Y'know, you might want to point out that mahjongg is, y'know' an Asian game.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:14 AM on August 4, 2006 [3 favorites]


Appeal to her vanity. If you make remarks likening her attitude to a very unapealing situation. eg saying things like 'Gramma must be getting senile, she was never like that before'. Sort of a reverse phycology approach. I'm only saying that old people, like the rest of us, don't like to be assumed to be something that they're not. If she thinks that her actions/words make her appear to be the 'senile old biddy' she may not like it and straighten out her act.
posted by Gungho at 8:30 AM on August 4, 2006


I have dealt with a similar situation in my past.

I have an uncle who is a serious, died-in-the-wool bigot. Think Archie Bunker - an old-time, blue collar Irishman from New York City. The kind of guy that wouldn't burn a cross on your lawn, but if he were to walk by when one was burning, he might toast a marshmallow on it. (quote shamelessly stolen from an old episode of All In The Family, incidentally.)

Rewind to 13 years ago, when my sweetie and I first got together. My uncle was visiting my mother (I still lived with her at the time), and the N word was flowing freely from his lips, as it usually did whenever he had a beer or 2 in him. I was watching the Knicks game on TV, which meant that he had PLENTY of opportunity to use that word.

When he referred to basketball as "N----r handball", I had had enough. I got up, went to my room, and returned with a picture of me, with my sweetie, who is a beautiful black woman.

I said "Hey, Uncle Tom" (no shortage of irony there) "Check this out", and I handed him the photograph. He took one look, and just about dropped his beer.

Then, I said - "yep, she's a N----r all right, and if I ever hear you use that word around me again, I'll put you through a fucking wall, you tired old racist bastard."

And he never did. In fact, 13 years later, he's one of the very few of my relatives that still sends my sweetie and I Christmas cards.

My point here (and this is how it applies to your grandmother) is that most racists just have to be called out once. Once they've been exposed in a particularly humiliating manner, they tend to STFU pretty damn quick.
posted by deadmessenger at 8:30 AM on August 4, 2006 [10 favorites]


"Grandmom, I'm having a problem and I need to talk about it with you. I love you very much. I love my brother very much too. And you're treating him horribly, in a disrespectful manner. Your refusal to hug him and your insulting references to his girlfriend's race made me feel so angry with you. And I really don't like to feel that way."

"I know that you're older and that the world we now live in is very different from the one in which you grew up. I also know that change can be very scary and upsetting. At the same time, we are a family and each one of us is entitled to respect. Not agreement. Not unconditional acceptance of everything we do. Just respect. I need you to show my brother the respect he's entitled to. You don't have to like his decision. You don't have to like people from other ethnic backgrounds. Just show him some basic respect. That's all."

Just a suggestion. I don't think asking her to ditch those sorts of attitudes at her age is a realistic goal. Maybe appealing to family solidarity and the need to respect the feelings of other family members might work better. Or not.

In any event, I'm sorry that you're going through this right now. Hope it works out well for you.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:41 AM on August 4, 2006 [3 favorites]


Is it possible that this is the first symptom of Alzheimers? In any case, about all you can do is make sure she knows that racist remarks are off-limits in your company.

My mother told her to grow up.

I like your mom.
posted by LarryC at 9:03 AM on August 4, 2006


I am from South Carolina, so all my relatives are racists. The younger ones have at least gotten to the point where they don't say that shit to my face, but the older ones are too old to change and don't want to. They also seem to be absolutely unable to not actively be racists in my presence. I don't like broccoli, but I don't have to mention it constantly. Anyway, it is not a great situation. For me, it is always weird, and always a struggle. You have to draw a line between standing up for things that you believe in, and not alienating people that you love and respect (other than their bigotry) especially when it won't do any good for anybody anyway. Maybe it is just the compromises that come with growing up, but I tend to lean towards the noncommittal noises and changing the subject (as said above) much more now that I did when I was younger. There has been a lot of good advice in this thread and all really mature. The fact of the matter is that no matter how you decide to handle it, it is going to suck to some degree or another. There isn't going to be any advice in this thread, or anything that you can do, to make it all okay with your grandmother, your brother, your mom, and your brother's girlfriend. Just try to make the best of it, and try to bring out the best in your grandmother. My favorite thing to do with old people is to ask them about the old days. They will talk about it at the drop of a hat, because to a lot of old people the past is more real than the present, and when they are talking about them, I like them best, and I feel like I am taking advantage of a resource that is finite and valuable: a first hand account of history. So, the next time your grandmother starts talking about how your brother dating Chinamen is going to kill her, ask her about the town she grew up in. I promise that she would rather talk about that, and you would rather hear about it. For any old people reading this, I know that I am generalizing and stereotyping old people. In case you didn't read the above, I am from South Carolina. Generalizing and stereotyping is what I do. Old people like to talk about the Great Depression. It is just a fact.
posted by ND¢ at 9:14 AM on August 4, 2006 [3 favorites]


Confronting an 89 year old probably won't do much. She's undoubtedly quite set in her ways. Best to just let it go - if she insists on leaving family events, so be it. Don't acknowledge her racist remarks, but don't avoid bringing your girlfriend to family events because of it. Perhaps she'll come around enough to at least be in the same room without being too uncivil.

I have an ancient great uncle who is patently racist all the time. He talks about "darkies" and "toots" constantly. I didn't get the last term until I realized that it's short for "tootsie" as in Tootsie Roll. His racist attitudes are so ingrained he uses offensive terms that I don't even know. There's no changing him.

He went in for open heart surgery a while back. My family and I sent him a card and wished him well. Just because he's an old bastard doesn't meant that we can't rise above it.
posted by aladfar at 9:22 AM on August 4, 2006


Avoid the subject and move on quickly when it comes up.

Yes. She's 89, you're not going to change her; all you can do is upset her, and what's the point of that? (And give me a break with the "validate her racism" stuff—loving your relatives almost always involves letting stuff slide, which doesn't mean "validating" it.) My 90-year-old mother-in-law sometimes starts ranting about immigrants, people who speak Spanish, Jews who are (in her opinion) too observant (she's Jewish), etc. etc. I change the subject and move on. On rare occasions she asks me a direct question ("Why do people hate Israel so much?") and I feel I might be able to do a little educating, so I provide a brief summary of the history; next day she's forgotten it all.

ND¢'s comment is superb; I especially want to emphasize this:

My favorite thing to do with old people is to ask them about the old days. They will talk about it at the drop of a hat, because to a lot of old people the past is more real than the present, and when they are talking about them, I like them best, and I feel like I am taking advantage of a resource that is finite and valuable: a first hand account of history. So, the next time your grandmother starts talking about how your brother dating Chinamen is going to kill her, ask her about the town she grew up in. I promise that she would rather talk about that, and you would rather hear about it.


So true, so very true.
posted by languagehat at 9:24 AM on August 4, 2006


I have a cousin-in-law who is hates Jews. I was unaware of this until he hatefully and unfairly lambasted them as a group.

Through my suprise and in spite of it, I rattled off a bunch of Jewish philanthropists, scientists, and moral leaders and then asked him what HE had done?! Since, he has been noticably more tolerant.

Ditto a former employee, whose "nigger" comments netted him an invite to unemployment if he ever even slipped up and accidentally repeated them again. While he actually IS now a former employee, his racism is kept to himself these days.

I think some people are using these comments as trial balloons to ferret out whether someone has similar feelings. Immediately showing them that they are not in compatible company helps shut it down.

You could also turn the tables and invent the category of '89 year old cranky jewish grandma' and invent some discriminatory sanction for her and ask her how she'd like that?

Point is.... silence is acquiescence in this area. You HAVE to speak up.
posted by FauxScot at 9:46 AM on August 4, 2006


deadmessenger, I love your story. That is just fantastic.
posted by orangemiles at 9:46 AM on August 4, 2006


If your brother is dating a Korean who is somewhat traditional, she'll be mortified to find out she's not liked. The Korean culture is such that the older generation is venerated, and their thoughts and attitudes are generally to be taken seriously. Note that this is traditional, so modern Koreans vary in their adherence to the traditions, but thought it was worth pointing out.
You might also want to point out to Grandma that Koreans think that the younger generation should care for and support the older generation. And traditionally daughter in laws are somewhat judged upon their relationship with their mother-in-law (and to some extent grand mother-in-law).
posted by forforf at 9:47 AM on August 4, 2006


She's 89, you're not going to change her; all you can do is upset her, and what's the point of that?

It's better to treat your grandmother badly because of her conduct and choices than it is to stand by and allow her to treat your sweetie badly because of her race. If your grandmother is acting like that, she should be upset as a more-or-less natural consequence of behaving terribly.

I frankly don't buy the idea that she's 89 and gets a free pass. She's probably not going to change in her heart. But who gives a shit what secret hatreds she's nursing in her heart? What matters is how she treats people, and I assure you that unless she actually has serious mental problems, she can very quickly learn to keep her fucking mouth shut about those undesirable races.

I can imagine putting up with it so long as your grandma is only doing this to you and not to your sweetie's face. But I can't imagine putting up her actually being nasty to your sweetie.

I don't know what you do about it. Laying into her and then leaving when she mouths off seems appropriate.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:57 AM on August 4, 2006


I can imagine putting up with it so long as your grandma is only doing this to you and not to your sweetie's face. But I can't imagine putting up her actually being nasty to your sweetie.

Oh, I agree. My advice was predicated on the idea that she wouldn't have anything to do with the brother's girlfriend. If they're going to be in contact, then yes, you're going to have to make it clear she has to act nice, whatever she thinks.
posted by languagehat at 10:05 AM on August 4, 2006


Just as it's important to let young children understand the consequences of their actions, Grandma need to, also.

I think it's important the rest of your family agrees on this, and will have no problem driving her home when she mouths off, or everybody leaving immediately.

Don't let her get away with any shit.
posted by Pocahontas at 10:22 AM on August 4, 2006


I've dealt with similar situations. When the person in question says something racist in my presence I say something short and simple like "I don't like that" or "I don't appreciate that". If it happens in the presence of someone who belongs to the target group I tell that person I'm sorry (in the sense of "I'm sorry we/you had to hear that"). Nothing more. It may or may not change their behavior but if it doesn't I doubt anything will. If it bothers me enough I change my behavior in that I spend as little time with them as possible.
posted by Carbolic at 10:25 AM on August 4, 2006


"Olympia is a compendium of domestic virtues: faithful, admiring, and racist."
posted by xod at 11:34 AM on August 4, 2006


Don't let her get away with any shit

Have you ever actually known any old people?
posted by languagehat at 11:51 AM on August 4, 2006


I have a similar relative 3 years older than your grandmother. I'm not going to mention what race she is and what ones she doesn't like but lets just say she's not what you might stereotypically think.

She's a reflection of an earlier era and child of her times. She says stuff she's heard her whole life and while growing up. She was in the prime of life in the '40's and 50's and when the 60's rolled around wasn't ready for a generation of scraggly, drug-taking, free-loving hippie kids to teach her anything. You have a little window there into how a lot of folks really were back in the day. So forget about this being anything personal or something you're going to change, it ain't and you're not.

Remaking your grandmother into another person is out of scope. Best you can do is keep her away from the subject but when it comes up and she says something nasty just tell her you don't agree and you like -insert name-, you think shes a good person and you enjoy her company, then change the subject, and remember to her tell when she's made you happy too. I wouldn't be too hard on her about it in any case, it sounds like a generally negative outlook is causing her enough suffering already.
posted by scheptech at 12:58 PM on August 4, 2006


I guess I'm sticking with the whole "lead by example" thing. I can love her despite her faults and she should love my brother despite his "transgression."

Thanks for your help guys.
posted by brevator at 1:25 PM on August 4, 2006


It might serve to remind you that her racist attitudes are similar to those that resulted in the distinct minority of any Jews her age from Poland, Germany, Ukraine, Hungary, Czech republic, Romania, France, Italy, the Netherlands, etc
posted by Megafly at 2:29 PM on August 4, 2006


"Grandma, I'll put you through a fucking wall, you tired old racist bastard."

Seriously, though, I dunno. I think you've settled on the appropriate answer. She's 89, and for better or for worse, that's her personality. Sounds like she just has a flair for the dramatic.
posted by hoborg at 3:24 PM on August 4, 2006


I think many of our grandchildren will find certain beliefs of ours archaic or even abhorrent. Or are we so progressive -- and therefore correct -- that this is impossible?

Sure, some people adapt to changing mores easily. Others, obviously, don't. I had a grandfather who would refer to "Japs" at the slightest provocation. My annoyance with this was tempered when I learned what he went through in WWII.

Flat-out racism is pretty much impossible to excuse, but ostracising an 89 year-old widow ain't exactly classy either.

Your brother should tell her he loves her and wants her to be around, but that shit ain't gonna fly. And she will not win.
posted by raider at 6:21 PM on August 4, 2006


I've heard plenty of "she's 89 and not going to change" but no explanation for that attitude -- it's because she was RAISED that way. It's the way she was taught, and early teachings are extremely hard to change.

My father-in-law, who's in his early 80s, is a quiet, mild bigot. He doesn't take much stock in Catholics or blacks, but you will never hear a derogatory name from him, except occasionally he'll refer to "Japs" when telling a war story (outside of WWII, they're always "Japanese"...after all, they're not enemies anymore). He has no problem getting to know individuals of any race or ethnicity -- his favorite boss ever was black -- but he does tend to be prejudiced against groups. And we can't change him. It's just something we try to avoid.
posted by lhauser at 12:03 AM on August 5, 2006


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