I want the real deal not some biased view
December 23, 2010 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Holiday Filter: My Racist Relative! I want to both educate myself & avoid conflict. Please help.

I will be at a holiday gathering this weekend and I will see a family member (Pat) who moved to the Pacific northwest USA some years ago. I am not at all familiar with that part of the world. Pat loves to talk about how the local American Indian (Native American?) tribes are a major problem - their casinos are horrible blights, they are all drunks, they overfish, they get "special rights", they are corrupt, flout laws, etc. While I have read that some reservations have problems (such as a high rate of alcoholism) I am having trouble believing that any one group is the source of an area's ills and that every population of humans anywhere is going to have troubles as nowhere is a Utopia. Problem is, I am fairly ignorant about this part of the world. I want to learn more so that I could "prove" Pat is wrong even if, as I fear, arguing with Pat would be pointless and I will just avoid Pat when possible.
Thank you and I apologize in advance if this post sounded ignorant. I am still shaken by a recent conversation with Pat which left me all WTF.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Arguing WOULD be pointless. Avoiding them - especially at a holiday gathering is really the only way to go. Their mind is made up and there's not a high enough authority that will change it, there's an explanation or excuse for even the most irrefutable sources for those kind of people. Save your mental energy, politely disengage when they start, and you will be much, much happier in the end.
posted by lemniskate at 10:14 AM on December 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

The thing to understand about racism is that it is not some grand, social-induced schemata that can be solved with hard won logic and reasoning. Racism, in this day and age, stems from the personal and unless you know anything and everything about Pat's experiences with Native Americans and just what exactly is fueling his dislike (and it sounds like dislike, not hatred which would be a different thing entirely), there's not much you can do except to avoid conflict and politely suggest that he refrain from this kind of discourse when around you.
posted by dubusadus at 10:15 AM on December 23, 2010 [7 favorites]

There's a lot of tribes in the PNW. Do a little googling and educate yourself.

But I wouldn't bother trying to educate Pat. lemniskate has it exactly right. Just disengage.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:16 AM on December 23, 2010

Yup. Seconding a "do not engage" strategy. Be polite, and, if the subject comes up, change the subject or leave the conversation. Arguing, especially in the short term. Why exchange aggravation for the holidays?
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:16 AM on December 23, 2010

Well, part of your question is regarding avoiding conflict, so I'll address that and leave the education part to everyone else. I will openly state right now that as far as racist family is concerned, I am on the side of keeping politics (and racism) off the dinner table entirely

You avoid conflict with a racist relative by replying (never, ever open the subject) just enough to make sure you got your point across. This is a family holiday gathering, not a protest line. Pat says "those damn Indians!" and you say, in a non-aggressive, non-patronizing way "look, [INFO YOU GET IN THIS POST.]" Pat replies with "that's all bullshit, they're terrible people" and you disengage. Hit the ejector seat: switch topics, excuse yourself and go talk to Aunt Susan or get some more food. You don't want to get yourself and/or Pat riled up, nor do you want to get into a screaming match because he is, well, wrong. (And congratulate your BS detector because he is wrong, as you will shortly find out.)

One last thing: if you are asking for more information on something and are willing to let it enlighten you or even change your mind, you are never the ignorant one.
posted by griphus at 10:17 AM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, "special rights" really don't make up for having one's land stolen right out from under one. Or for forced relocation.

I would just stare at this relative as though they were farting really loudly and smellily. There's a reason they call it "shit-talking."

If you really want to demonstrate contempt for this person, laugh indulgently at them and say things like, "Oh, you!" as though they were a child talking about their imaginary friends.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:18 AM on December 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

People like this love to complain about things and feel victimized. If I were going to take on the crusade of trying to get someone like Pat be less racist, that's the tack I would take.

Maybe some of the things he says are true, like maybe some NA casinos are horrible blights, and maybe some NA people overfish & etc. I think I would try to get him complaining about all the other things that are blights, destroying his life and making him suffer too, that happen to be done by white people, etc. That way at least it would be equal opportunity.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:19 AM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Racism, in this day and age, stems from the personal

I completely disagree. I have often had the experience of someone talking shit about "those $group, they're all $negative stereotype" and when someone else says "But what about $friend? He's $group," the racist ass will be all "Oh, he's not like those other $group."

People with racist bees in their bonnet generally have total straw figures in their heads that don't correspond to anything they've encountered in their personal experience.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:21 AM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I definitely wouldn't engage. In the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar, "It's a trap!" Instead, I'd consider something seasonal, such as "During this time of year, I hate to talk bad about people less fortunate than ourselves." Alternatively, look for a suitable down home expression with more than one meaning so you can call him a jackass without appearing rude.
posted by Hylas at 10:31 AM on December 23, 2010

Is there a way to sympathize with him that could sort of re-direct his orneryness? Some of the complaints you mention kind of sound like what the residents of a college town will say about students, so for example maybe if you've lived in a college town you could talk about students having the reputation for being drunk and disruptive, but then follow up with a story about how one time you met a student and they weren't so bad... The More You Know *swish*
posted by XMLicious at 10:33 AM on December 23, 2010

If you really want to do as you say, you could reply with "Really? What research do you base your assertions on? Because I can't imagine anyone would say such horrible things about their neighbors and fellow Americans unless there were rigorous evidence to back it up."
posted by anildash at 10:34 AM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

'Gosh Pat, that sound awful for those people. What kind of volunteer organizations have you reseached to help with, since you're obviously so concerned with this issue.'
posted by k8t at 10:35 AM on December 23, 2010 [19 favorites]

People with racist bees in their bonnet generally have total straw figures in their heads that don't correspond to anything they've encountered in their personal experience.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:21 PM on December 23 [+] [!]

Whatever racism there is, it doesn't necessarily have to originate from race. It could be motivated by job loss or failed dreams or other forms of dissonance that then, because of the easy out that is racism or sexism or etc, gets redirected.

In any case, the point for the OP to understand is that it will be virtually impossible to turn racism back on its head and whatever issues are lurking in the psyche of Pat can't be resolved by a cursory holiday treatment.
posted by dubusadus at 10:37 AM on December 23, 2010

I agree with everyone who says disengage. I suppose there are answers to these kinds of statements that might make someone who says them stop saying them around you. For instance, "Yes, Pat, they do get some special rights (e.g. fishing.) If your ancestors had never left their native country, and you lived there now, presumably you'd be afforded some special rights (e.g. EU citizenship) that more recent immigrants don't have." Or you could ask for proof - ask them to recommend books or articles about the topic, because you're curious and want to learn. They might back down because they have no proof. Then again, there's a good chance it would just make it worse. It depends on the person, and either way it will be unpleasant.

There's a lot of tribes in the PNW. Do a little googling and educate yourself.

I also agree with this. You need to narrow down the area and tribe(s) involved. This stuff is pretty easy to research at a basic level (and I'd bet Pat hasn't done that.) Many (most?) tribes have websites, and even Wikipedia will probably have a fair amount of history.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:39 AM on December 23, 2010

Normally I'd say not to engage crazy relatives over the holidays, but I think it's really important to be actively anti-racist. That can be a conflict--keeping peace and calling someone out is really hard.

So you might say something that calls him out without exactly challenging his specific beliefs. Something like, "Hey, Pat, I'm really uncomfortable with the way this conversation is going. Can we keep discussion of Native Americans off the table for the holidays?"

Tweak to your own comfort, but this lets Pat know his comments aren't welcome.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:43 AM on December 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

Native American tribes in the northwest are not perfect, neither are the current residents of Seattle. Pointing out flaws and deciding that the flaws stem from race is called *drum roll please* Racist. I have the same exact thing to look forward to this Christmas.

I take one of two paths, I either turn my brain off and scream on the inside while I ignore the racist parts.

Or, and this is my favorite game to play, you have a racist off.

The goal of the game is to be more racist then the opponent. You know you have won the game when the opponent finds something you have said distasteful or they wince at your racist remarks.

A game might look like this for you:
Pat: Those bastards are stealing all of our fish- (Decidedly racist but is a political debate)
You: I totally know what you mean, those savages should all be castrated-(very racist)
Pat: well I would not go that far (conceding defeat)

I will be playing this game for Christmas, it helps me not murder my own kin. Bonus points if you can get your opponent to argue on behalf of the party they were slandering before.
posted by Felex at 10:44 AM on December 23, 2010 [10 favorites]

their casinos are horrible blights, they are all drunks, they overfish, they get "special rights", they are corrupt, flout laws, etc.

Most of these could be phrased in a much less offensive way.

-Native casinos in the PNW tend to be huge weird soulless suburban car-based developments
-alcoholism is a big problem among a lot of tribes
-tribes do often have special fishing rights, which does increase the amount of fishing
-tribes obviously do have "special rights", although there are historical reasons for that
-there have been a number of problems with corruption in tribe administration

True in all cases? Of course not. Could a reasonable person (not saying Pat is one) make those conclusions about a number of different tribes? Yes.

Anyway, my point is that you're probably not going to get very far challenging those specific points. A discussion of the causes of those problems might get you a bit farther - you could bring up informal and formal discrimination, culture, residential schools for aboriginals in Canada, etc.
posted by ripley_ at 10:45 AM on December 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

I had a now-departed relative who was kind of similar in some ways. She was an aunt, and a person of the old school - a grand-aunt, actually, as she was my granddad's sister. And she was a lovely person and very worth one's time, and sometimes (at family gatherings and such) she would drop these conversational turds into the metaphorical punchbowl. One time she asked me - I was high-school age at the time - if there were, and I quote, any colored children at my school.

Being of the age to argue that kind of point, I jumped on it, and she was able to get sort of quietly affronted, as the fashion was.

Here's the thing I didn't understand then: She knew full well what she was saying and what effect it was going to have. That's why she said it. Some people just enjoy shit-stirring once in a while.

If your relative just can't seem to stop talking about how First Nations people are all lazy awful drunks, there's a reason he's bringing it up. He's doing it to get a rise out of you, and he's willing to go out of his way to get it.

If I'd simply said "Yes" to my aunt, instead of arguing over terminology, I now realize that she'd push it by going on about how that's not the politically correct term but she doesn't see what's wrong with it, et cetera, et cetera.

If he starts, just sort of nod, give a tight-lipped smile and go, "Mm." Then change the subject.

So there's your answer about avoiding conflict. As far as educating yourself - well, read some news articles about the area. The problem is that there isn't going to be much data specifically about how local tribes aren't destroying the area, much like there won't be data about how the planet Mars has thus far failed to turn into a birthday cake - and I do mean actual data, which is to say you're not going to be able to go to a library and find an observatory's report dating back thirty years reporting every month on whether Mars has or has not turned into an enormous birthday cake yet.

This is the same problem. He's making statements which are too broad to be disproven, and also any data which favors his point will be taken as irrefutable proof, while any counterpoints will be ignored or viewed as, at best, the exception to the rule. It'd be nice to be able to demonstrate to him what an idiot he's being, but trust me: facts didn't get him where he is, and they won't budge him from there, either.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:45 AM on December 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

"Yeah, I know. Isn't it terrible? And the WORST part about the Injuns is that they have to deal with raging Anglo assholes! The horror!"

(I get the snide, enunciated "Merry CHRISTmas" from a lot of relatives that listen to too much O'Reilly, Beck, and Limbaugh. I alternate between "don't be a dick" and "what about New Years? You want me to have a *bad* New Year's?" and it's tailed off...)
posted by notsnot at 10:54 AM on December 23, 2010

Okay, sorry anonymous, I just re-read your original post and realized you actually want tips for educating yourself rather than information about how to deal with Pat. You might start by reading up on some PNW tribes via Wikipedia. The 'Further Reading' section at the bottom of each page may list some good articles and books.

Here's a list of federally recognized Native American tribes in Oregon and a list of Native American tribes in Washington state.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:55 AM on December 23, 2010

Racism, in this day and age, stems from the personal

I completely disagree. I have often had the experience of someone talking shit about "those $group, they're all $negative stereotype" and when someone else says "But what about $friend? He's $group," the racist ass will be all "Oh, he's not like those other $group."


Agreed: your relative's hate is not unique to him. Racism is systematic oppression.

I stand together with the people who WON'T keep their mouths shut. A great video about dispelling myths and confronting white privilege is called "The Color of Fear" by Lee Mun Wah. It's worth watching.
posted by Betty's Table at 10:58 AM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like talking about this kind of stuff. Calmly. Avoid telling them they're wrong, and ask why they think something and offer your point of view. You may even find some things you agree on; giant neon casinos in the middle of nowhere are a bit of an eyesore, but so are the cell phone towers that Pat takes advantage of every day. If it gets too heated be first person to politely back out and state that you'd like to change the subject.
posted by gally99 at 11:02 AM on December 23, 2010

Here's a different approach: play the long game, and listen to your relative. Ask questions. Try to understand why [he|she|Pat] believes what [he|she] believes -- not just the logical, but the emotional, the experiential, the communal -- and really, genuinely learn about that way of thinking.

Be sincere, open, not "clever" - you might try saying something like, "Well, I have to be honest with you, I've always tried to avoid those kind of statements, but I'm interested in learning about you as a person and I guess I'm genuinely interested in learning why you feel that way. I'm pretty sure I won't be able to have a lot of conversations about this -- it's hard for me since I feel so strongly that it's kind of, well, unfair -- but if you could try to tell me about your personal experiences maybe it would help me understand your part of the world better." -- but only if you mean it. If not, figure out what your real feelings are and be true to them.

Just ignoring or dismissing your relative's point of view is a common approach, and sometimes, you just have to take care of yourself and try not to go insane, but it only puts more walls up. This is why half the country thinks the other half of the country looks down on them and ignores their point of view, to the point that they're willing to follow anyone who promises to give them a voice. People need to feel heard, and this happens in just these small personal situations. Not only is listening important, but being able to demonstrate that we've listened by speaking to whatever is actually the problem, or by saying things that at least indicate that we hear and understand what people are feeling.
posted by amtho at 11:09 AM on December 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

This isn't exactly an answer, but I couldn't let this discussion pass without pointing to this great post on the subject.
posted by adamrice at 11:51 AM on December 23, 2010

Ask Pat what's GOOD about the PNW.

"It must be nice living up there with the beautiful mountains, trees and clean air. What did you guys do during the summer?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:52 AM on December 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Another idea for educating yourself:
find the website for the newspaper for Pat's hometown or larger metro area. Read a few week's worth of the news/local sections, then google farther back to find more on any topic that you think addresses the tribes/casinos/racism/etc.

I am betting that you will find one of two things:
1. Articles that support Pat's point of view.
2. Articles that mention some of the facts that Pat points out, but he has extrapolated those facts into a big agenda, and you now have the actual facts along with some others that you can use if you want to arm yourself for a discussion.

Unless of course you decide to just avoid him. Have fun.
posted by CathyG at 11:56 AM on December 23, 2010

I'm living in the pacific northwest. Seems to me that any problems associated with the tribes mainly affect the people of the tribes, and not only are they not "major problems" for the area, but in the grand scheme of things, they utterly pale next to the real problems that actually deserve attention.

So there you go; now you can reply to him and say "I heard from people living there that the tribes aren't a problem, and some fairly dismissive suggestions that some people claim otherwise as they unconsciously scapegoat others and avoid taking a good hard look at the real issues. Some who rant about tribes are just axe-grinders, but either way, they're not people whose observations carry much weight."
posted by -harlequin- at 12:19 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

You cannot reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into.
posted by Xoebe at 12:45 PM on December 23, 2010 [14 favorites]

FYI, in case others at your Christmas gathering want to know more about PNW Native Americans (obviously not your racist family member because racists are notoriously hard to reason with), each tribe in our area has a distinct and unique culture. Even though tribal members may speak English, grow up on US TV, and eat junk food like the rest of us, their culture is just as unique as visiting another country. Do they have social ill? Yep, all cultures do. Do they run casinos? Some do some don't. Do people of all races flock to these casinos? Yep. Do they get "special rights"? Yep. Do they deserve these special rights? Yep (think if the US was taken over be a foreign group and all you got was a few more fish than everyone else...not really a fair trade). If you come here in the summer you would be able to see the Tribal Journey and Makah Days which really highlight the native cultures and you would come away with a whole new appreciation of these interesting cultures. Also, some of the tribes do have museums and educational programs about their specific tribes. For a quick overview of Native culture click here.
posted by MsKim at 2:00 PM on December 23, 2010

The only way you could possibly shut this person up would be with something like, "My sister-in-law/BFF/boss is Tlingit, and s/he says..."

It doesn't seem like you have that up your sleeve, so the next best option is to ignore.

There is, however, plenty of room for eye-rolling and other forms of silent mockery.
posted by Sara C. at 2:14 PM on December 23, 2010

I'm not an expert by any means, but I've lived in Seattle for 15 years and my granmother is a native american historical scholar who has been called to testify at fish trials more than once.

An important thing to realize about the tribal fishing rights is that they aren't reparations and they're not restorative. They're what's left of the original treaties made with the tribes by representatives of the French, British, and American governments when these lands were settled. (My grandmother uses the term "invaded" rather than "settled," but that's another topic.) Despite these being fully credited international treaties, they were soundly ignored within a generation, and contemporary tribes have had to fight dearly in court for every fish. The tribal allotments now are a fractional percentage of what was originally treated.

The alcoholism problem is real and tragic. It is also not unique to PNW natives, or even Native Americans in general. Most if not all cultures that haven't coevolved alongside alcohol for thousands of years have these vulnerabilities.

As for the casinos being a blight, well, the vast majority of the customers there are non-Native, and nobody's holding a gun to their heads forcing them in. I fail to see the problem.
posted by KathrynT at 2:41 PM on December 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am fairly ignorant about this part of the world. I want to learn more so that I could "prove" Pat is wrong...

You've decided that Pat must be wrong and you're determined to find out why? That doesn't make much sense. Do you think there just can't be anything bad about Native American culture? I don't think you think that. But then, why would you want to set out to disprove Pat's statements? Different cultures have different behaviors, and they can be positive or negative. So, one culture might have a bigger problem with alcoholism than another. Are you assuming that Native Americans (or a particular tribe) don't have a particular problem with alcoholism? I don't even think you are making this assumption, since you mention high rates of alcoholism. But you've always phrased Pat's words makes it sound like Pat is a racist who thinks all Native Americans are "drunks." I don't know whether Pat actually made a more nuanced generalization that you've reworded to sound more racist.

_ripley gave more good examples of this. Maybe Pat is right to criticize their "special rights." Or maybe Pat's wrong and the special rights are a good idea. But why isn't that an interesting, legitimate debate to have? You could disagree with Pat but still have a rational discussion about this instead of deciding he's wrong when you admittedly haven't learned anything about the issue.

Again, any culture — Native Americans, white Americans, black Americans, Americans in general, Christians, Muslims, Jews, gays, straights, etc. — can have its own distinctive evils. You should not assume that a culture doesn't have anything wrong with it just because you might feel better if you didn't believe this. For instance, as a white person, I would love to believe that white Americans haven't been historically racist, but that's not true. They have been racist. And that's really sad and horrible. Anyone who set out to figure out why whites have not been racist would be on a fundamentally wrong mission. Same thing for any of the cultures I've mentioned, or any other culture. Just because Pat might be overly focused on the negative aspects of this tribe doesn't mean that anything Pat has said is untrue (which doesn't mean I agree with what you've attributed to Pat, but I haven't heard what Pat actually said).
posted by John Cohen at 3:52 PM on December 23, 2010

People are highly resistant to being deprived of their handy scapegoats, and it tends to be a tedious, frustrating and ultimately useless argument.

Personally, I'm a fan of the dismissive "Huh", as in:

Him: "Rant rant rant they're spoiling everything blah blah blah."

You: "Huh. So did you catch the game this weekend?"
posted by bunji at 11:39 AM on December 24, 2010

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