How do I deal with casual racism at family gatherings?
January 30, 2010 11:22 AM   Subscribe

My brothers-in-law tell racist and homophobic jokes at family gatherings. This makes me and my husband uncomfortable. What should we do?

I am pretty sure they'd never say anything to someone's face, or commit overt acts against someone. I say this not to excuse their behavior but to delineate them from someone who is openly oppressive, like a neo-Nazi or a Klan member.

If we say something, there will be no support from anyone else. My sisters roll their eyes and sigh but otherwise don't do anything to curb this behavior. They will leap to the defense of their husbands. My parents don't have any reaction whatsoever to these remarks and their default mentality is "don't rock the boat." My father doesn't like their general sense of humor because it's crude, and I think he lumps the racist stuff in with that. My parents are very conservative (they asked for "Going Rogue" for Christmas) but they don't discuss politics in front of me or my husband. We're the liberals of the family.

Another reason we haven't said anything is that they're heavy drinkers. One is known to get into bar fights. They're bigger than my husband, and although it's unlikely they'd hit him, alcohol makes you do stupid stuff. It's more likely that they'd act incredulous at our offense (especially because we've let this go on too long) and dismiss us as lacking a sense of humor. Relations would be strained, to put it mildly.

I want to say something because it's wrong in general and makes us uncomfortable, but also because they both have young children. I haven't seen the kids pick up on this yet but it seems inevitable especially now that they're in school and presumably there are kids of other races there. If one of the kids turns out to be gay/lesbian, his/her dad's remarks are sure to have a profound effect on him/her.

We see them about every other month, almost exclusively at my parents' house. We hardly ever hang out with them on their own. My husband wants to say something to my parents along the lines of if this continues, we're not coming over anymore. I'm not sure what to say. I'm embarrassed that I've let this go for years, they were in the picture long before I met my husband. What do we do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (36 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
There's some good advice on the subject here.
posted by deadmessenger at 11:30 AM on January 30, 2010

I'd definitely have a conversation, probably in private, with your brother-in-law when he's sober. And though you'd be totally in the right to call him a bad person, you're likely to get farther if you just frame it as "this behavior really upsets me, and probably upsets other people who aren't willing or able to speak up too, so please stop."
posted by you're a kitty! at 11:30 AM on January 30, 2010

You won't get them to change their minds. Nobody will. So you're left with the option of either tolerating it, or not being around it.

Tell your parents that you're not visiting while the 'phobes are around. You could still go while they aren't there. But this isn't your house - you don't get to set the rules there. Your father doesn't seem to want to do anything, so you're left avoiding them.

Only see your parents when they aren't there. And quit hanging out with them when you don't have to.
posted by Solomon at 11:31 AM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

You won't get them to change their minds. Nobody will. So you're left with the option of either tolerating it, or not being around it.

Exactly this. Your brothers-in-law are primarily cutting themselves off from social, family, and business opportunities. You, like many other people, can shun them without feeling guilty about it. Also, drunks are boring. Really, really boring. So it probably isn't just the jokes that makes them unbearable.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:37 AM on January 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

Likely nothing you do or say will change their conduct; don't even bother trying. Your parents are the only ones in position to dictate conduct appropriate in their home. "If this continues, we're not coming over anymore" is a rather harsh ultimatum, asking "this makes us uncomfortable, would you ask them if they'd stop the crude humor at our gatherings?" is a much gentler way to broach this. Failing that, you have to decide whether simply being uncomfortable is worth sacrificing the family gatherings. Sometimes you just have to let things slide even if the principle really goads you because your ability to change others is always far, far less than we wish it were.

I understand your prospective concerns about their children, but attempting to point out their fathers' folly to the kids is a shark tank that you dasn't put your hand in as you will get bitten badly. If you want to try to effect change, talk to your sisters, but don't expect much as they seem to have largely given up on the matter.
posted by fydfyd at 11:40 AM on January 30, 2010

I don't have anything particularly wise to say. But what is so bad about them thinking that you are uptight and easily offended with no sense of humor?

How do these guys deal with people they think are uptight in other ways? Say, an elderly aunt who can't tolerate people talking badly about the Pope. Odds are, no matter what they think of the Pope, they'll can it around her even if they scoff internally. In these other situations, does it cause a family feud?

And if your parents really are all about not rocking the boat, depending on how you deal with it, their pressure against boat-rocking might come down on the brothers-in-law for getting you worked up.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:42 AM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

By saying nothing, and remaining in the room, you condone the behavior.

I had a brother-in-law like this. When he would begin the jokes, I would pack up the wife and kids and leave.

I didn't change a damn thing, but my kids didn't have to listen to it and my holidays became much more pleasant.
posted by HuronBob at 11:47 AM on January 30, 2010 [21 favorites]

The best way to deal with this is also the most personally unsatisfying. Freeze. Lose your smile, and stare. Say a few loud but frigid words, such as "Excuse me," or "I don't understand that to be the case." Then brisk yourself off with the kids to another part of the room, or something such. Do this correctly and you'll drop the temperature ten degrees without ever having done anything rude as such. It's important that your kids see that, because they are the rude ones, not you.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:50 AM on January 30, 2010

"I'm not comfortable with that."
posted by bluedaisy at 11:51 AM on January 30, 2010

Another way to deal with it is to pretend to be stupid.

"I'm sorry, I don't get the joke. Are you saying that black people are stupid?" And then if they try to explain it, you can say, "Actually I know a lot of smart black people."

The reason they tell jokes is to get a laugh. If, every time they tell a joke, you ask for an explanation, there won't be any laughter, and they'll get tired of telling jokes they have to explain.

Of course they can't really complain about your behavior, because you're "just asking for an explanation," just as they are "just telling jokes."
posted by musofire at 11:58 AM on January 30, 2010 [26 favorites]

My husband wants to say something to my parents along the lines of if this continues, we're not coming over anymore.

I'm with this. The only behavior you can control is your own, and the only thing you can do is to say "We're not going to put ourselves in this position, so we're not coming over while they're there."

Personally, I think it should be you that talks to your parents. Because if your hubby initiates it, it might turn into "Oh, that outsider causing trouble int he family". If you do it, it's blood-kin to blood-kin, and that's harder to ignore or brush off.

You should go to your parents and say "Unless you rein in your sons-in-laws behavior while under your roof, we will not be coming by when their here. You are the elders of the tribe, it is your responsibility to enforce proper behavior or expel the offenders. Otherwise, you're implicitly endorsing their behavior by your silence.

"I love you, I love my sisters, and I'm not going to sit here and listen to their husbands drunken, hateful ranting. We will come by and visit when they're not here. If they show up, we will leave.

"And I will 100% call the police and press charges if they get drunk and swing on my husband, or anyone else for that matter".

Be explicit about that last part. Because if they're drunks and one of them is prone to starting street fights, that will eventually make it's way home. The bartender says never trust a violent drunkard to do the right thing when drinking.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 12:02 PM on January 30, 2010

The excellent blog Racialicious has some suggestions on how to deal with racist cokes told by co-workers (a different situation, but helpful).
posted by bluedaisy at 12:04 PM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

My husband wants to say something to my parents along the lines of if this continues, we're not coming over anymore.

This is exactly what I told my dad about my racist and homophobic aunts and uncles. We wouldn't be coming around (with the grandchildren) if people insisted on telling racist and homophobic jokes in our presence.

I have no idea what Dad said to them, but said aunts and uncles no longer tell racist and homophobic jokes around me or my kids.
posted by headspace at 12:07 PM on January 30, 2010

Handle them as you would a stinging insect. No sudden moves. Walk away. Enjoy some other corner of the garden until they fly away.

Seriously, it's hard to imagine a more clear-cut situation crying out for "do not engage."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:07 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Asking "why is that funny?" might help you get the message to your nieces and nephews that this stuff is neither funny nor acceptable. It pulls away the curtain of humor and forces the joke-teller to expose his racist/homophobic beliefs, which end up sounding both ridiculous and blatantly prejudiced. It's likely your brothers-in-law use humor because they know (1) others consider seriously stating these beliefs to be totally unacceptable, or, better (2) realize these beliefs are stupid. Then you can counter these beliefs in a rational way.
posted by sallybrown at 12:11 PM on January 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

I want to say something because it's wrong in general and makes us uncomfortable, but also because they both have young children.

I think it's important to recognize that there are really two separate problems here:

A) Making your family gatherings more tolerable for you and your husband.
B) Making your brothers-in-law into better people.

A is possible. B is nearly impossible. Attempting to do A and B together will make A impossible.

If you genuinely want to pursue A, then my suggestion is: Talk to your sisters, without your husband there, and ask them if they will do you a favor and get their husbands to chill out with the talk about X and Y groups of people. Make it a request, not a demand, and make it non-judgemental. You are not calling them racist or homophobic, you are not calling their husbands racist or homophobic. You are just asking them to help you with this favor. These conversations at the family dinners make you uncomfortable. You've tried to change your attitude, but you can't. Could they please help you out with this situation and get their husbands to chill out on the occasions when you're all together?

If they refuse, then tell them that you are sorry that you're going to have to not go to the family gatherings anymore. Ask them for suggestions as to how you should explain the situation to your parents.

If that doesn't work, tell your parents that you can't go to their house on the same night as your sisters anymore because you're having trouble getting along. Don't make the details your parents' problem.

All of this leaves room for your sisters and their husbands to save face and change their behavior in the interest of getting along, without feeling like they are being accused of being racist, homophobic, or otherwise bad people.

Alternatively, you could just tell your parents that your sisters are married to racists, and you refuse to be around them. You won't have to see them anymore, but the situation will only get worse from there, probably for the rest of your life.
posted by bingo at 12:14 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I put up with this from my father-in-law until my daughter was born. He says a lot more sexist than racist things, but still.

I figured my daughter really really needs to hear her parents standing up for what they think is right, so I don't let him get away with it anymore. So when the "typical woman" comments surface I call him on it.

"Hey Bob, that thing you just said about Hillary Clinton is completely sexist. You know I can't let a comment like that in front of my daughter slide. Hillary Clinton being a woman in no way disqualifies her from being Secretary of State. Do you really believe that your granddaughter is incapable of being Secretary of State one day?"

This would work better if you had black kids and your brother-in-law is a white guy, but you get the idea. I call him out on it. I'm not confrontational, but I let him know that he's not going to say this shit and not have to deal with the consequences.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 12:15 PM on January 30, 2010

I'm not trying to stir things up here, but this makes me think of a topic that is often discussed on MeFi - sexist and denigrating comments about women, especially when women aren't around. IMO, a large and important part of fighting the attitude that referring to women as sluts or bitches is acceptable is how other guys deal with it if they hear their male friends saying things like that. People will say offensive things about other races, genders, sexual orientation etc when they are not around any of the people they're talking about. They can then tell themselves that they aren't racist/homophobic/sexist because they would NEVER dream of saying something like that to the face of a person they're joking about. And as long as this kind of thing continues to happen when the subject of the jokes aren't around to defend themselves, the longer the perception that many people hold will continue to be perpretrated that it's okay to talk like that and that it doesn't mean they're racist/homophobic/sexist, whatever because THEY'RE NOT SAYING IT TO SOMEONE'S FACE.

IT IS NOT OKAY. Just as much as I hope that other men will step up to the plate and say something like - "hey dude, not cool" when they hear other men making derogatory statements about women; I think it's just as important for everyone else to make a point to stand up to people being assholes with their offensive jokes.

I don't think it needs to be a big thing either. If someone in my family were to make a joke, I would say - "hey, not really cool" and let it be. If they get defensive and argumentative about it, I'll just shrug and say " I just don't think it's very nice to say those kinds of things". I think it's important to not speak as if you're making a judgement call. Don't make it a thing about morality or whatever (though it is), make it a thing about social acceptability. I won't get into a big argument with them unless it looks as though they're ready to have an honest and open discussion about it (unlikely). If they're drunk and start to make like they're going to be violent - THEN leave.

Yes, it will probably make things awkward at that moment, but whether the awkwardness continues is kind of up to you. Next time you see them you can act normal - "Hey John, how you doing? How's work?" They may continue to act pissy, but they'll probably stop if you just carry on in your normal friendly way. The point is to make clear that you like THEM but you do not like their BEHAVIOR when they say nasty things and that you're willing to speak up about it without letting it affect your otherwise (hopefully decent) relationship. At the bottom of things, it's basic boundary setting. You don't accept people making racist jokes around you and if they want to be around you, they won't do it. The hope is that this would translate to the other person as it not being okay to say these kind of things, period. Which would hopefully lead to a big soul searching as to why it's not okay, even if the subjects of the jokes aren't around to hear it. But that's all past you. It's extremely difficult to make people change their beliefs, but I hope that as more people stand up and say that these kind of behaviors are not acceptable, no matter where you are or who you're around, more people will actually consider WHY it's not acceptable. Not ever saying anything is a sure way to guarantee we never get to that place.
posted by triggerfinger at 12:24 PM on January 30, 2010 [12 favorites]

Ignore it and keep going to family gathrings.

At some point, you will be able to serve as a positive example for their children. When you cut people off, you cut off your ability to influence them, which would be counter to your desire to help their children.

I have to say that you weren't raised by liberals, but now you're liberal. We aren't our parents. And the children have one parent each who disapproves of this behavior. I wouldn't say it's exactly an emergency.
posted by kathrineg at 12:27 PM on January 30, 2010

(Oh, and if you're wondering where I'm coming from, I'm mixed race and have white relatives who love to talk smack about Mexicans. It sucks and it's hurtful. But cutting yourself off from your immediate family and risking possible violence because your in-laws are being assholes is pointless.)
posted by kathrineg at 12:32 PM on January 30, 2010

Another way to deal with it is to pretend to be stupid.

"I'm sorry, I don't get the joke. Are you saying that black people are stupid?" And then if they try to explain it, you can say, "Actually I know a lot of smart black people."

The reason they tell jokes is to get a laugh. If, every time they tell a joke, you ask for an explanation, there won't be any laughter, and they'll get tired of telling jokes they have to explain.

Of course they can't really complain about your behavior, because you're "just asking for an explanation," just as they are "just telling jokes."
posted by musofire at 11:58 AM on January 30

If I could favorite this 1000 times, I would.

I am about as far away from most of my family of origin on the political spectrum as it is possible to get (me to the left and them to the right). I've taken this tack, and while it might not stop them elsewhere, it has stopped them from even trying to tell such stupid so-called jokes around me. They get tired of explaining, and *really* tired of not getting a laugh, and they start actually thinking about what's coming out of their mouths.

Of course, I've also had to just come out and say "that is some of the most racist, sexist, homophobic garbage I have ever heard, and I cannot believe it came from YOU, of all people. You should be ashamed of yourself! Don't talk like that around me or my kids anymore, or we won't be around you." Now, I wasn't dealing with anyone who would throw a punch at me, or anyone (these are mostly older family members). But it's definitely shut down the stream of crap - particularly garbage forwarded e-mail - and I am absolutely fine with that.

Your choice of tactics on this definitely depends on your circumstances. But I would for sure not continue the regular get-togethers where the brothers-in-law spout this nonsense and you just let it pass - they take your silence as consent or agreement, and you don't want that. So say *something* or do *something* and let the chips fall where they may.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 12:44 PM on January 30, 2010

I've used the "huh? I don't get it?" approach and the prissy "what an unpleasant thing to say" approach to some degree of success with my relatives. We're a pretty polite bunch, though, not prone to fisticuffs or yelling.
posted by desuetude at 12:49 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I personally wouldn't make your parents be the enforcers here against their daughters' husbands. It's their right to say certain behavior is not okay in their house, but putting them in the middle indirectly is a little unfair.

It's not a lot unfair - it would be nice if they just stood up and said that was unacceptable without outside influence - but they are who they are and they've chosen to

Personally I think the suggestions of saying "I don't get it" or "I think that's a little hateful" and not laughing is the better way to go, both so as not to put your parents in the middle of this and also to do your part for making the world a better place. You're right to worry about the influence this has on your nephews and nieces but you can't control how they raise their kids.

You can, however, provide yet another place where it's uncool for them to spew this kind of stuff. And while we wish we could snap our fingers and make this horseshit go away, we can't. But a lot of progress here happens because we force this kind of crap behavior underground.

If you make it an unpleasant experience for your family to talk this kind of crap when you're around then that's one more chunk of time when your nieces and nephews aren't being exposed to it. It's one more time when they see that this kind of talk isn't always okay to everyone. It's tempting to just close ourselves off from every situation where things are going on that we find distasteful but then how do we show folks that there's a world where everyone isn't like that?

If you really think "jeez can you imagine if little Timmy turns out gay in a house like that?" then why not show Timmy that there's people in his family that will think he's prefectly hunky dory?

Not to mention showing Uncle Bozo that just because he (doesn't think he) knows any gay people doesn't mean that his spewing nasty stuff about them doesn't hurt anyone.
posted by phearlez at 1:33 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

My uncles do this, and have done so as long as I can remember. My response has been, "Seriously? What is this 1860? Haven't you outgrown that shit yet?" They shut up. And now as an adult, they don't say that sort of thing around me.
posted by teleri025 at 1:37 PM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

We wouldn't be coming around (with the grandchildren) if people insisted on telling racist and homophobic jokes strong>in our presence.

I like the 'play dumb' approach a lot, but in the past I've used the above - and those last three words are key. Ask them politely not to tell racist or homophobic jokes when you are in the room. Then, if they ignore your polite request, firmly but politely leave the room the next time they make racist or homophobic remarks. Stay calm; it works much better that way.

Ignore it

I couldn't disagree more. Absolutely do not ignore it; you have an obligation to the kids in the room, if to no one else, to confront racism and homophobia when it shows up. Don't get angry, just say, "I think that's a horribly mean thing to say and I'd like to ask you to stop saying such awful things when we are in the room. Thanks." Then go on with your meal or whatever and forget it until the next time. If they give you shit, just repeat what you said. Don't argue, just say you'd appreciate it if they'd stop saying such awful things while you and your husband are in the room. Again, and again, and again, as necessary.
posted by mediareport at 1:39 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Meant to bold the last three words in the starting quote, sorry...
posted by mediareport at 1:40 PM on January 30, 2010

The old engineer at work (yeah, I know, work vs. family gatherings) used to love to say, nigger this nigger that. One day at lunch I blinked loudly a few times and asked him, "George, how old are you?"
"Sixty eight, why?"
"Are you on the autism spectrum?"
"No, why?"
"Because you say that word so much you sound like Rain Man crossed with a thirteen-year-old."

And then I spent the next week punctuating conversation with the number thirteen.

He stopped that shit real quick.

He's retired now, but still stops in from time to time, sometimes with his wife. He used to talk to her like you'd talk to a puppy that just pissed the rug. So I interrupted him one time to ask, "Gloria, why do you let him talk to you like that?" He stopped that nonsense, too.

Point being, be firm. Be strong. Be levelheaded, and prepared. Do not raise your voice. And make it about respect - as in, "you kiss your mom with that mouth?" Do not whine; make it clear that you respect them (or used to) and that respect is eroded. Shame is a very powerful motivator.
posted by notsnot at 2:23 PM on January 30, 2010 [8 favorites]

Say nothing.

The Thanksgiving I was 12, one of my father's brothers and his sister and their two spouses came from the Southern city where they all lived to visit us in Colorado.

As our turkey dinner with all the trimmings wound deep into the second and third helpings stage, my dad's brother, the uncle for whom I was named, partly because my uncle's only child, a son, had died at the age of 5 a few months before I was born, and the uncle who happened at that time to be sitting on the 5th Circuit, and who had had 3 or 4 drinks that afternoon, said some very offensive things about "the Nigrahs."

I slammed my glass down on the table and burst out with "you are a drunken bigot and not fit to sit on the bench."

There was a profound silence. My uncle stared at me in speechless shock; tears came to his eyes and then his face--already ruddy-- flushed an absolutely brilliant scarlet.

And then all 4 women at the table, without a word, rose as one and began to clear the table with a tremendous clatter of silver and dishes.

Nothing was said to me that afternoon or ever about what I had done, but far from striking a blow for Civil Rights, I struck a blow which severed my father's relationship with the older brother he loved, relied on, and admired, and ultimately almost completely alienated our family from his family of birth.

Ten years later after my mother died and I was away at school, my father went through just agonies of loneliness and isolation, started drinking again and died within 18 months.

Of all the great regrets I have accumulated over a lifetime of acting on impulses no matter how foolish, this one is in the top 5, at least.

Your brothers-in-law don't sound like very promising material, yet they are your sister's husbands, and could end up blood of your blood, if they are not already.

I wish with all my heart I had decided to see what loving and staying in an uncomfortable relationship could have accomplished with my uncle.
posted by jamjam at 3:30 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Allow me to quote Miss Manners, who advised a reader on a similar situation:

You are probably under the impression that etiquette forbids ever making a guest feel awkward.

Well, close. Almost never. But you have just run into an exception. People who tell racist jokes should be given the opportunity to realize the impact on civilized people — and, if possible, to redeem themselves by saying that they themselves (not their best friends) belong to the racial group that was the target of the joke.

Stony face is, in fact, the basic correct response. There is a less harsh version, however, for relatives and others with whom you may have reason to continue dealing. That is to look puzzled:

“I don’t get it. Oh, it’s supposed to show that they’re stupid? Well, I know lots of stupid people, but it seems to me that they’re from every sort of background. Smart people, too, for that matter …” and so on. You will soon reach a point where the joke teller cannot stand it any longer, and will be the one to break in with, “Yes, well tell me about your vacation.”

posted by magstheaxe at 3:31 PM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I struck a blow which severed my father's relationship with the older brother he loved, relied on, and admired, and ultimately almost completely alienated our family from his family of birth.

jamjam, if you think you were too hard on your uncle, it's okay for you to regret that. But if your father's entire relationship with his beloved older brother was utterly, irrevocably severed because his 12-year-old son said something shocking at Thanksgiving, then there other serious issues with their relationship. Nothing that happened within their relationship after your outburst was your fault.

(Also, there's a whole world of options on the scale of severity between saying nothing and making a dramatic outburst.)
posted by desuetude at 4:01 PM on January 30, 2010 [19 favorites]

They know it upsets you, and that's part of the fun. They're promoting racism, sexism, etc., and disrespecting you. You can try saying, in a jokey-buddies voice "Dude, really, that's so homophobic." You can be sincere and just say "That's offensive." You can leave the room, leave the table, every single time, and if asked, just say "I find racist/anti-gay/sexist comments really offensive." They'll probably escalate, because they won't tolerate having their beliefs questioned. You may catch a lot of heat. But if you keep tolerating it, then you're effectively condoning it. They probably have some great qualities, but this is bullying, racist, homophobic behavior. It's unfortunate that it occurs in your family. It will create problems when you address it. Address it; don't tolerate it
posted by theora55 at 4:22 PM on January 30, 2010

I am white, mr. crankylex is black. My parents are anti-everyone that doesn't look or think like them. My mother is especially virulent in her hatred and literally the only thing that has gotten her to keep her damn mouth shut with any consistency is clearly enforced boundaries. She says something offensive, and I remove myself from the conversation. I get up and leave or I hang up the phone. I did this a lot in the beginning, now I find I only have to do it once every couple of conversations. You have to be willing to do it every time otherwise it won't work.

People like my mother are bullies, and they relish making other people feel uncomfortable. Bullies and people who support them are not worth my time, regardless of whether we share some random genetic connection.
posted by crankylex at 5:10 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wish with all my heart I had decided to see what loving and staying in an uncomfortable relationship could have accomplished with my uncle.

It's time for you to forgive yourself. You were the child and they were the adults.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:28 PM on January 30, 2010 [8 favorites]

When they tell these jokes, laugh. Laugh long and hard. Inappropriately long and hard. Drag it out for a good long time, like a gag on Family Guy. Make it uncomfortable.

And if anyone says, as you wipe away the tears and get your wind back "it wasn't that funny" you can answer "no, it wasn't funny at all, was it?"
posted by adamrice at 5:54 PM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Reading through, and understanding all the good advice about playing dumb, I'll tell you what just worked two weeks ago with a relative.

Background: The aging relatives needed help with housecleaning, and have a special situation due to their pets and health. We were unable to find a company that could work within the tight parameters, and so we found one person who is perfect, but who is the one race that we were told wouldn't be acceptable. This is because others of the same race who cared for an elderly friend of theirs committed perceived transgressions, and therefore all must be tarred with the same brush in their minds. This service is a gift, and we have taken everything we can into consideration and have done our best; and after months of searching, we are not going to let skin colour ruin this opportunity. These relatives have occasionally, in the past, spoken in such a way around our kid, and while she was previously too young to really pick up on it, now she's all ears. We realized we needed to stop this, and doing as we have in the past - changing topics, offering seconds, etc. wasn't going to work and never sat well with us.

When I informed the relatives of the situation, and one of the relatives started up, I just said brightly, but hard as nails: "Oh! Didn't you get the memo? It's 2010, and it's not okay to talk like that any more. And, in the nicest way possible, I need to tell you, get with the program: You're welcome to your opinions, but not everyone wants to hear them. In this case in particular? You really need to keep it to yourself. " Since then I have heard nothing but how wonderful the house-cleaner is.

Now, of course I know it has never been okay to speak like that - but we needed to set a point from which we were on a zero-tolerance basis with these most loving relatives, who are just older people, who yes, are just that oblivious to the wrongness of so casually sprinkling conversation with derogative terms, and were raised with intolerance and prejudice as a matter of course. While we raised our discomfort in the past, it never registered that we meant "no slurs and condemnation" ever - they somehow got the impression that it only meant in each instance. We weren't clear until I said that. It worked so well it's also the plan with my own parents, who tend to condemn an entire race on the actions of news-making individuals and the reputation of certain areas of their city.
posted by peagood at 7:58 PM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Your options more or less come down to the overall standing/credibility you and your husband have in these family-gathering settings. If you've already been pegged as the "uptight Liberals," etc., then doing much else besides staying clear of these situations probably won't work. On the other hand, if, despite what appear to be some obviously political/cultural differences with the rest of the family, you and your husband are still considered on good terms with the kinfolks, then some of the more proactive options above might work. Politics and ethics run deep in this Red-State-Blue-State nation of ours, but personal connections can sometimes bridge, or at least broach, ideological divides, especially in awkward moments like you're experiencing.
posted by 5Q7 at 9:43 PM on January 30, 2010

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