How can I deal with problematic family while being a good ally?
October 3, 2016 1:22 PM   Subscribe

As has been noted in many places, including in a recent comment I made on the Blue, this idea of cutting problematic family members loose is weighing heavily on my mind.

So my family are 98% old-school Southerners with deeply held racist and other problematic beliefs; we have benefited materially from institutional racism and I only started to really understand that after I left for college. I am white and pass for straight/feminine/Christian/etc., so I do not personally feel physically endangered. It's mostly just a verbal and textual (nonsense hateful email forwards from my 90-yo grandmother and Facebook posts from other family members) stream of casual-to-severe bigotry and I can't be complicit. But I need help.

The two solutions I see the most are 1: You cut your problematic family members out of your life, OR 2: You keep them in your life and work to forgive and educate them) are both unworkable to different degrees.

The first one: I really don't want to sever ties with problematic family members. This would leave me with like, two relatives, both on the opposite coast. And I love them, because of decades of memories and the usual family stuff.

The second one: The advice I tend to get from other liberals is to ask a certain type of rhetorical question or to present your interlocutor with facts, and that will facilitate a productive dialogue. But that approach presumes a certain openness and willingness to let me complete a sentence. For various reasons, including abusive communication styles, this type of dialogue isn't really possible. How do I "collect" my relatives when they've got short attention spans and knives out? I'm interested in sample scripts, little notes to write (??) or any tactic that might take hold in someone with the approximate personality and temperament of Donald Trump himself.

Solution #2 is difficult also for self-care reasons. My mother, for example, has a special way of asking me what she thinks are "gotcha" questions ("Liberals are always talking about tolerance, but how come you can't tolerate different opinions?") and I'm immediately overwhelmed with rage and frustration because WHERE DO I EVEN START that I kind of shut down. If I do engage, I need a day to rest and recuperate afterwards. I don't feel like it's healthy to fight every battle here.

We have a number of family events coming up, including my little sister's wedding the weekend before Election Day (what excellent timing!), and I'd like to have as much peace as possible. Previous similar Asks have had helpful advice, but this 2016 election season is a particularly nasty beast and I have a feeling attitudes may have changed over the last few months/years.
posted by witchen to Human Relations (36 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think that you have a moral obligation to cut ties with family members based even on these very serious political differences that we have in this country these days. Some people do think that you (we) have this moral obligation. You will have to make your own judgment about that.

But assuming that you don't cut ties, I would suggest: hide them from your feed on Facebook. Respond to your grandmother's emails with Snopes links, etc., and she probably won't read them but at least you tried. When anyone (such as your mother) tries to get in your face by saying things that make you mad, tell them that you would prefer to talk about something else other than things that (you all know) you disagree strongly about. If they persist in wanting an argument, walk away. If they follow you screaming, perhaps you will want to rethink the "cutting ties" thing.
posted by sheldman at 1:34 PM on October 3, 2016 [15 favorites]

I don't ask questions, I set boundaries. Here is a recent example. My brother-in-law sent me something about banning headscarves. I wrote back to him and said "I do not agree with this; I see it as racist. Please do not send me any more email like this." He persisted and I said "I'm not interested in discussing this issue with you. I don't want email in my inbox that is anti-Muslim." He said I wasn't being a good feminist and I said "My feminism includes hijab-wearing Muslim women and once again I'm going to ask you not to email me on this topic. I won't be responding to any more email about it. Love, warriorqueen."

On racist Facebook posts I will comment "I am so sad to see you posting this kind of racist remark/sexist photo. I know you are better than this. Love you, Warriorqueen." This pretty much gets me blocked but that's ok. Sometimes I block myself.

I don't think you have an obligation to change your family's minds. But if you are up for it I think standing up for what you believe, firmly but kindly, is a goodness in the world. If not, just set boundaries and see if they will at least respect you.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:35 PM on October 3, 2016 [64 favorites]

Honestly, I do not talk about politics with certain family members. I also have currently unfollowed a bunch of family on FB because of their posts. I told them in advance that it was causing me emotional distress and the ones that continued with political posts went bye bye. I don't think they are even aware that I see nothing from them. I may not start up again after the election Because I am so happy without them.

I know that isn't exactly what you are looking for. I cannot cut my family over their opinions about climate change, immigration, and all the rest. When they offend me I usually just say "oops look at the time... gotta go", or something similar.

In my family we range from conspiracy freaks to communists. We don't do politics with each other.
posted by cairnoflore at 1:38 PM on October 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Without the benefit (?) of personal experience, I think warriorqueen's tactics are good for a couple of reasons:

1. It sends the message loud and clear that you do not consider these remarks to be part of polite discourse. One of the things that this campaign has done is normalize saying stuff out loud in public that previously would have been whispered among people who you already know agree with you. Now, is it better if people are super racist secretly while otherwise in public trying not to look racist, or do we want people letting their racist flag fly? That's sort of a whole other issue but sometimes the most you can do is communicate that you, personally, consider this kind of discourse to be a lamentable social faux-pas.

2. It removes the possibility of the "pissing off a liberal" positive feedback loop. Just pissing off liberals real bad seems to be the goal of a lot of Trumpism out in the wild. Again, they may still be a horrible racist, but you won't on top of that be giving them the pleasure of blowing a gasket at them.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:47 PM on October 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm specifically interested in perspectives on my obligations as an ally, and on the need to break up with my family. When I asked one friend/acquaintance who is a queer POC, she said that she would not think kindly of someone who she found out was still keeping the company of bigots. As far as I can put myself into her shoes (I really can't, though), I sympathize with that feeling. And I want to do right by her and by everyone else, especially everyone else in my community, who's negatively affected by systems that benefit me. I will also say that we're in North Carolina, and tensions are especially high during the situation in Charlotte. This is another place where one person's "politics" are another person's "not getting murdered," and it's very hard to "calm down" or brush off a cruel remark.

On the front of taking care of myself, I think these are very helpful points and it is especially useful to hear boundary-setting as opposed to question-asking. I do send my grandmother to Snopes but her people have already spread the news that Snopes is a liberal propaganda machine. I did a thing for a while where every awful email she sent I would make a contribution in her honor to the Southern Poverty Law Center or Planned Parenthood or HRC herself, and she would get a thank-you email and a postcard in the mail. Then she outfoxed me again by subscribing me to a $35 Rush Limbaugh newsletter AND offering me $100 as a "bonus" if I actually read it. It was too sad to think of her wasting her money like that so I agreed to a truce. So the email torrents continue, and I don't want to block her address because 1/3 of her emails are legit conversations like "how's your knee?" and "do you want some needlepoint supplies?"

Same for blocking family members on Facebook--not feasible if I want to be in the loop for wedding photos and legit family interest stuff. It's not like 100% of the content is nasty junk.
posted by witchen at 1:59 PM on October 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ah, I knew ultimately this was an election question.

I'm going to invite you to join me in being an undercover sort of "silent agent for Good" during the next few months. Will you join me on this mission?

Example: When your mom says "gotcha!" things, please pretend it's not personal and she's not talking to you, because she is not talking to you. If she was talking to you, she would be listening, too! But she's not listening! So skip it, yo.

Lock down your emails and social media so that mostly everyone and everything is on mute.

There is lots of evidence that meditation (especially with binaural beats or
isochronic tones) works wonders for conditioning your nervous system and extending your patience. Your smartphone is your friend here and I am happy to relay my go to app cheats to gain "serenity now!" when I feel aggravated. This election season has been AWESOME because it's really helped me up my game and put me back on track in terms of mindfulness and personal growth stuff I had gotten a little lazy about.

For sure I'm not going to attain Buddha Consciousness, but I'm not to distracted and I am able to hang back, relax, and let the world and others evolve at their own pace.

(Drinking also helps if you are a happy type drunk. Heh. Medicinal cookies would also be in my arsenal. Both applied sparingly.)

You're not alone. You don't have to fight with anyone. You only need to hold a peaceful space for others to join you in when they are ready.
posted by jbenben at 2:07 PM on October 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I believe that going no-contact with my family, who are the same kind of kyriarchy-upholding infuriating conservatives you describe, isn't how I can be the best ally to marginalized people. I believe that engaging the relatives in ways that are safe and possible for me is the best way to be an ally.

I unfollow these relatives so that I can go to their pages when I have the time and effort and present kind logic in the face of the horribly offensive things they post, but I don't block them. If I'm engaging and I notice that I'm growing overwhelmed or otherwise losing the ability to engage with kind logic, I disengage and hope to fight the battle another day.

In person, I engage if I'm able, and change the subject if I'm not.

Now, I believe that these are fundamentally kind and intelligent people who have bought into a terrible ideology. I treat them sort of like they were brainwashed members of a cult. There are good reasons why they did buy into this ideology, even if those reasons don't make sense to me. And if I don't engage with them when I can, who will?
posted by woodvine at 2:10 PM on October 3, 2016 [7 favorites]

When I asked one friend/acquaintance who is a queer POC, she said that she would not think kindly of someone who she found out was still keeping the company of bigots.

Whaaat? That is not really her business. These people are your family and it seems like you mostly get along with them. Don't cut out your family to save face with your friends.

I understand where you are coming from. My grandma legit thinks Obama is a Muslim and my uncles are pro-Trump. We just don't discuss politics.
posted by pintapicasso at 2:10 PM on October 3, 2016 [28 favorites]

I just didn't reply at all to incredibly hateful emails that were being forwarded to me at one point. I didn't ask that they stop. I just completely ignored these emails and would only reply to other things they sent. They eventually stopped sending this shit without ever being asked. They also slowly stopped speaking to me, while swearing it was not true, they were merely "busy."

So I will suggest that if a) your relatives absolutely will not change and b) you successfully enforce boundaries, the end result may look a good bit like cutting them out of your life anyway.

As for being an ally, no one is perfect and many of the people on their high horse trying to "make the world a better place" are capable of being incredibly awful at times. You need to be responsible for your behavior, not your relatives' behavior, and try to be decent with people you personally interact with as you interact with them. If you do that fairly consistently, that will make you a better person than most people on this planet. A lot of folks who wear their goodness on their sleeves are really very toxic. A lot of people with a particular cause are incredibly callous and deaf to the suffering of others outside their own cause.

Decide your morality for yourself and if your morality includes love and caring for elderly relatives in spite of them failing to be perfect, I don't think you need to apologize for that.

I think you will find that if you really insist that everyone around you meet an incredibly high standard of morality it will turn into a very lonely road. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. But my point is that a lot of the folks telling you that putting up with your own grandmother makes you intolerable in their eyes would also fail that test of high standards if you seriously put them to it. It wouldn't be you and your SJW friends hanging together and partying. It would be you taking a very close look at your SJW friends and finding them wanting.
posted by Spanish Ash at 2:13 PM on October 3, 2016 [12 favorites]

I was typing while you were updating. Oh. Oh, no.

As far as being an ally... You can't change anyone by fighting, being mean or being as shrill as they are. Hold the space. That's your most powerful move.

Anyone who gets judgey about something you have no control over - like your ancestors' actions or your family of origin's fucuked up beliefs - is doing that fighting thing I warned you about and you can let that slide right on by without too much comment. Just keep your side of the street clean by being a decent human in all interactions large and small. That by itself is, frankly, a monumental task.

... I just read the part about your donations and your grandmother's donations... Do you see the dynamic there? Any engagement at all invites escalation. Fighting is automatically losing and that's the story there because no one is listening to the other!

You win by leading with your example. Be a good human. Be happy. Spread joy. Make them wonder about your awesome life. You can't fight fire with fire, you can not apply justice by using force.

This is one of those situations where you can only inspire others to be a better version of themselves by being the best version of yourself you can be. You gotta fix your insides, let the folks outside come to improvement on their own.

You can do this.
posted by jbenben at 2:28 PM on October 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

Are you familiar with the concept of medium chill? It is the best tool in your emotional toolbox for dealing with difficult people who are hard to fully cut out of your life, like family or co-workers. Always remember that these people are trying to raise your hackles by saying awful things and they feel successful when they get any emotional response out of you, even if it's one of anger.

Cultivate indifference instead. My favorite in-person technique when someone I know says something racist/sexist/offensive is to look them in the eye with feigned confusion, pause, and then say "oh", then slowly wander away. It's important that when you say "oh" you don't communicate anger, as in "oh, I can't believe what an unrepentant racist you are!". You need to say it in a way that conveys total boredom with them and their uninspired insights into the world and humanity, a way that doesn't provide them with any positive reinforcement that their awful words and behavior will get a reaction out of you. Imagine the reaction you'd have if one of them said "I'm really gassy after eating that Denny's Grand Slam..." and that's about the level of engagement you should be targeting. The emotional investment you put into your response should match the amount of forethought they put into their own words: none at all.
posted by scantee at 2:48 PM on October 3, 2016 [14 favorites]

When I asked one friend/acquaintance who is a queer POC, she said that she would not think kindly of someone who she found out was still keeping the company of bigots.

I respect her perspective, but I don't believe this is the only (or even necessarily the most effective) way of changing the world. I also don't see family as people you choose, necessarily. It's true I choose to continue to be in contact with and even love my family, but to me it's not the same thing as going out and choosing friends who espouse those views. That's kind of my line.

I wish you the best in finding yours.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:07 PM on October 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Another way of looking at the question whether you are morally obligated to cut off your family because of their political/racist beliefs:

Would it be morally right/ok for them to cut you off for yours? I think that you, we, and everyone nice would say "no." Right? "You are disowned because you believe in gay marriage." "You are disowned because you are voting for crooked Hillary." That's obviously crazy, right?

And there is something more behind this impulse than "well the difference is that my beliefs are good and theirs are bad." That something more, I think, is that if people love each other, then they can continue to love each other despite serious disagreements.
posted by sheldman at 3:16 PM on October 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Solution 2 is a long game.

As an ally, your job is to mitigate harm. That means derailing the conversation when it occurs in public, or somewhere it might perpetuate stereotypes. Set boundaries so that others are not hurt.

But to facilitate change, that takes a lot of patience and compassion. And that's something that an ally can provide, that a marginalized person should not. Think about the therapeutic relationship, and how it fosters change. It's not through shame or debate. It's by gently having the same conversation over and over, and gently pushing back through open ended questions.

It's being available when they want to work through this. And being able to put aside your own ego.

My dad is a huge gun toting conservative who believes that PC culture is just being too sensitive. And being his daughter, I realize that's about the fact that he's always felt invisible and that his feelings don't matter. So being bombastic and offensive is how to get attention. And he expects everyone else to have the veneer of thick skin he was taught normal people should have.

So he picks political fights for validation. The more I avoid conversation with him, the weirder the conspiracy theory he finds. It's a maladaptive response, and works poorly. But if I can step back from my natural response and realize change is hard, he generally lets down his guard and lets us have a real conversation. And while he'll always have a knee jerk reaction to Black Lives Matter, if I get past his walls, he's always deeply concerned when I talk about how difficult the media has been for my friend who adopted a black child a few years ago. So he is slowly understanding a world he is relatively antagonist towards.
posted by politikitty at 3:17 PM on October 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

Whenever someone sends political comments --- any political comments --- ignore them. Totally, entirely, flatout ignore all political emails or facebook posts or whatever. DO NOT RESPOND EVEN ONCE! Respond to emails about your sister's wedding or needlework, sure, but completely ignore anything political.

When someone says something objectionable in person --- such as your mother's 'gotchas' --- the only response is a calm "Why do you want to start a fight?" Again, do not respond to their attempts at inciting an argument: you'll never win and you'll never change their minds, so don't waste your time.

As objectionable as their opinions might be to you, it is not your place to "educate" your grandmother and mother, and any attempts to do so are just as irritating and useless as their attempts to "educate" you. Better by far to just refuse to engage in a fight in the first place. (And yes, you are allowed to get off the phone/walk away from/ignore people who are trying to piss you off.)
posted by easily confused at 3:19 PM on October 3, 2016

Take the long view. Try to find the time to talk to individual family members who you love and value. Tell them you are uncomfortable with the racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. that you see in emails and in person. Ask them nicely to leave you out of any such communication. Remind them that you love them. When you get a racist email. do a standard reply all: This joke/ meme/ story is racist/ sexist/ homophobic. I'd much rather not receive anything else of this nature. You don't have to make a big fuss, accuse anyone of anything, just call it out. Racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and related varieties of hate are blooming right now because a major celebrity is tolerant of it, and people think it's okay. By calling out the hate, you are reminding people that the hate is not okay.

I have to admit that I give some old people a bit of a pass; they grew up with different socialization. I set the bar a bit lower, but there's still a bar.

Some people who know me from an apolitical part of my life friend me on fb, and soon learn that I m political and enjoy re-posting stuff abut Black Lives Matter, Hillary, Donald, socialism, peace, really childish jokes. If they unfriend me or block me, fine.
posted by theora55 at 3:57 PM on October 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Well, there are more ways to influence your relatives than straight-up argument. And remember, you have one advantage in trying to change their minds that most other people don't have, which is that they presumably like you and might be willing to go out of their way a bit if they realize they're upsetting you. (. . . Maybe. Obviously you know them and I don't.)

One of the big tenets of the Trump-email-forwards vein of thought is that people are just "looking to be offended," or faking it somehow. So if they make a remark that makes you wince, don't hide it -- allow them to see that it bothered you. Instead of trying to argue with facts, just show that you're not okay with it, and you'll catch them on a more human level instead of a super-defended political level. Sensitive people pick up on this fast, and maybe the next time they're about to say something like to somebody else, they'll remember the reaction it got last time. You may not be able to change their overall philosophy, but if you can get them out of the habit of thinking it's totally OK and normal to make racist jokes because "most" people don't mind them, you'll still be doing the rest of the world a favor.

Obviously this requires some vulnerability on your part, so just do what you can handle, but as a relatively privileged person, you may be in a better position to handle it than other people they inflict it on! As a white person, this is one way I think of myself as being able to help with ambient societal racism -- I can try and nip shit in the bud when it's said to me, in which case it's just an awkward conversation, in order to try and keep the person from passing it on to someone else for whom it would be a seriously painful conversation.
posted by ostro at 4:10 PM on October 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

There's a place between ignoring their comments and arguing with them, and that's where your boundaries are. You are not going to talk them out of their horrible beliefs; that's never going to happen and it's pointless. But you can refuse to listen to it. You can change the subject--in an obvious way. You can say "I'm sorry, I won't listen to you say racist things. We should change the subject." And you can leave the room/gathering when they keep egging you on. Eventually, they'll either shut up around you (which, let's be clear, is your best case scenario) or stop inviting you to as many things (which would suck, but it would be them cutting you off, not vice versa).

That's the key to being an ally; you don't have to not go to Christmas dinner, and you don't have to convince them they're wrong (never gonna happen). But you can say "I won't talk about politics/the news/Muslims/gay marriage if you're going to say cruel and horrible things." Back it up by leaving. It will be very awkward for a while, and you have to stick with it through the extinction burst, and then it might get better.

Good luck!
posted by gideonfrog at 4:46 PM on October 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I get annoyed whenever I see the "if you're voting for Donald Trump, unfriend me now" type posts from my friends. Performative, useless, unconvincing. You feel better about yourself and signal something to others who agree with you, but you close off all windows to make a difference. It's not impressive, it's off-putting. As PoC we're less likely to say such things, because we would have very few friends indeed if we so easily shut out those we have issues with.

White people need to talk to white people. I'm not sure how. At the risk of being blunt, maybe y'all can figure that out based on the knowledge and insight you have, instead of leaning on us to do the work of imagining how white-white interactions go and offering up an optimal path through them. All I know is that silence is complicity, and cutting ties is effectively the same as silence.
posted by naju at 5:46 PM on October 3, 2016 [10 favorites]

When I asked one friend/acquaintance who is a queer POC, she said that she would not think kindly of someone who she found out was still keeping the company of bigots.

This line sounds like a particular kind of hyperbole that's very familiar now that we've begun having social justice discussions in public. I say it's hyperbolic because... well, one has a tendency to speak in a more idealistic, ideological fashion than one acts.

Speaking more personally, I would never allow myself the hauteur to say that my friends cannot speak to their family members because I'm queer. My family isn't perfect (hello, fellow southerner), and "keeping the company of bigots" is at least a shade true of everyone. Judge not, and all that.

I have, though, avoided contact with a bunch of my (mostly extended) family. That's just how the cookie crumbled in my personal trajectory, ya know? I can only remember making a definitive moment of this kind of cutting a family member out of my life ("I'm not talking to you again after this, and don't approach me" kind of thing) once. The rest who fall in this category seem to have pretty mutual feelings because we've more or less ghosted each other over decades.

This stuff's hard. You're admirable for asking for input on what it takes to be an ally. But be wary: asking the internet for advice can bring out some pretty polarizing, non-consensus stuff. Do what's comfortable for you.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:50 PM on October 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

When I asked one friend/acquaintance who is a queer POC, she said that she would not think kindly of someone who she found out was still keeping the company of bigots.


Many, many of my college friends hold political beliefs that I believe to be deeply dangerous and provocative of violence to me personally and my community collectively. But you know what? They don't hold those beliefs because they're trying to hurt me or my community. They believe they have the moral high ground; they don't see the end game the way I do; they don't care NEARLY as much about the issues as I do; and they're good people (just, in my view, mistaken.) And if I'd cut ties with every friend whose politics dismayed me, well then I wouldn't have been around to see many of them change their tune as they got older...

Your friend is way WAY WAY out of line to suggest that you owe it to her (!) to cut yourself off from family love and support. Making yourself lonelier would not make you a better ally; it would not improve the world; it would just be cutting off your nose to spite your face. Yes, by all means, if you have the patience, you can explain your point of view to folks who'll hear it. Yes, by all means, let them know that racism is gross and unacceptable to you. But unless your acquaintance wants to be the person you call in the night when you need help in an emergency, you do not owe her anything, and you won't be contributing anything, by forfeiting your family.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:02 PM on October 3, 2016 [8 favorites]

Re: the friend/acquaintance - I don't think she's aiming at telling anyone what to do. She's saying how she feels, honestly, since you asked. Some of us have to choose whom we befriend carefully, and we have to make those decisions the best we can, from limited information. This is in her particular calculus - that if you're pals with bigots, you might be a bigot too. It's perfectly valid and while I come to different conclusions, she's not "way out of line" for coming down on that side of the equation. It may have depended on how you asked her, too - there's a subtle difference between "should I continue to silently spend time with my bigoted family, or cut them out of my life?" and "should I speak up against the bigotry of my family, or cut them out of my life?" The first question would lead me to wonder how much you're tacitly condoning their views, while the second wouldn't.
posted by naju at 6:15 PM on October 3, 2016 [10 favorites]

You might look into Elgin's Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense books, which work to parse the hidden assumptions under verbal attacks; some of those methods are useful for political discussions that hinge on unquestioned "truths" that are really just forms of bigotry.

Although Elgin was firmly devoted to absolute (verbal and other) non-violence, these methods, like any communication tool, can be used for attacks. Examples: "I know the notion that [Mexicans are innately criminal] is common, but I'm surprised to hear it from someone as well-educated as you, [uncle]." Or, "Oh, I do understand why you would believe that. Why, anyone in your situation would probably think the same."

I don't recommend using these examples without looking into the underlying structures, unless you're ready for a potential shouting match. Even without being able to analyze the layers of shade, people can tell when they're being attacked and insulted, and they're likely to react to that, often without bothering with the actual logic of the claims.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:05 PM on October 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm specifically interested in perspectives on my obligations as an ally, and on the need to break up with my family.

I will also join in to push back on the idea that people don't change their minds, *and* throw in some pushing back on the idea that social media activism is a dilettante millennial's game!

I completely ran out of fucks to give about awkwardness with friends and family around the time of Ferguson. My forms of resistance that are visible to my friends and family include refusing to let racist/hateful comments pass me by (in person or online) without comment and elevating voices of color through social media / email / in person recommendations. These are very small things that don't take a lot of time or much (or any) risk.

In the past two years, I have noticed friends who don't follow other news became educated and vocal about a number of issues I shared; people I've confronted directly change their opinions and start sharing information themselves; every person I called out directly for using a slur or slur-type term has stopped using it around me and through social media; and so much else.

I am convinced that part of the reason this is working (albeit at a snail's pace and on people who were already disposed to it) is because I have hung in there with my loved ones after, and despite, calling them out. Yeah, I correct them, and it's really awkward. But I don't shun them. So I'm there when I'm saying "you're mistaken" (embarassing for most people), and I don't ditch them afterwards.
posted by sallybrown at 9:35 PM on October 3, 2016 [7 favorites]

I've got to second stoneweaver's pushback here. A lot of the responses read as well-meaning people in positions of privilege (note that I'm not saying how much, there are differing degrees) who've never been on one of the lowest rungs.

Take the strange readings of this:
When I asked one friend/acquaintance who is a queer POC, she said that she would not think kindly of someone who she found out was still keeping the company of bigots.

People are pushing her words entirely out of context. She did not say she'd reject someone who kept company with bigots. Her literal words were "would not think kindly". I would gently suggest that everyone who's interpreted "not thinking kindly" as "rejection" or "forcing your hand" look at their own preconceptions regarding the worth they attribute to the words of a queer woman POC.

I'm on a lower rung in the country I'm in currently. Not the lowest, there are two or three beneath me, but I am clearly and firmly at a rung where white native-born nationals do not give a fucking shit if I give them the moon. They'll take the moon and say they got it from someone else, someone who Understands The Country And Its Culture. (Note: I have a bachelor's degree with honors in studies of Country's Culture And Language and a Masters in literature with honors from it.)

Do I look askance at people who talk a good talk but then keep in touch with bigots? Absolutely. You know why? Lived experience. I can tell any number of stories about people who, when push comes to shove, will throw someone less privileged than them under a bus, and deny they've done anything of the sort. People with bigoted friends and family are the most dangerous. Why: they talk great talk and will be wonderful with the privileged... so long as nothing important has happened. But when it comes to, say, a POC being written up for being "aggressive" and "uncooperative" when the POC merely followed their manager's orders, and that manager is white, and is also the manager of the ally, and the manager asks the ally what they think of the POC and oh by the way if you don't agree with me, you'll get a bad review too? Do you REALLY think the ally is going to stand up for the POC? Because I've never seen it happen where I live. In twenty years. Will I be friendly and professional with the self-proclaimed ally? Sure, I'm like that with everyone. Will I trust them? No. Why would I? Seriously, why is it always the underprivileged who have to contort themselves to the privileged?

You choose what you want to do with your family, but for the love of god please do not tell your friends how they're supposed to feel about your choices.

Also, I do feel I have to point this out:
This would leave me with like, two relatives, both on the opposite coast. And I love them, because of decades of memories and the usual family stuff.

You do realize that there are those of us with zero relatives because of sexism, racism, and LGBTQ-phobia. Zero. And that these are relatives that we love, hold warm memories of, and wish we could have relationships with. Unfortunately people who are bigots 70% of the time with straight white people tend to also be the ones who turn violent once they feel they won't be held responsible for it (because people will still be around for them). I've also lived this experience.
posted by fraula at 2:37 AM on October 4, 2016 [21 favorites]

I really don't think that severing ties is so helpful of an approach. I'm fresh home from a visit with family, and that whole weekend was a long string of subtle racism which absolutely exhausted me. Your family is way beyond my family's level - for me, it's a lot of very polite "I know, some of Them are nice people" interspersed alongside the giant stone wall between Us and Them. And your folks aren't even going to go so far as to admit that "They" aren't all evil. But if you were to cut ties with your family, that would just be choosing to be separate, to build the Us vs Them wall higher, and you'd be on the other side of it. I feel it's part of my job as ally and/or as general sane person to continue to spend time with my family and not laugh at their racist jokes, and to laugh at some things that aren't jokes and tell them they're being ridiculous, and ask them not to say things like that, and to point out that talking about the guest singer at church and exactly how dark his skin was is neither polite nor relevant.

I can see why someone who's in the position of being constantly discriminated against would feel disappointed in a friend who seemed to only be an ally half the time, and spent the other half merrily cavorting with racist family. She's implying that you're taking the easy way out, not standing up for any of the beliefs you claim to have, and its disappointing to think you don't really hold those beliefs so strongly after all. That's not the only way to interpret it, though - walking away from the conversation and giving up your hereditary membership in "Us" isn't easy, but in a lot of ways it's a cop-out compared to actually engaging those relatives and taking some new thoughts into that walled compound.

All that said, at least the wedding is the weekend before the election, and not the weekend after.
posted by aimedwander at 7:40 AM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your post smacks of White Guilt, and that you feel compelled to Do Something. You should explore a little further what that something is, and where you can make the most impact. But it doesn't have to be cutting off your family in order to "prove" that you are on the right side of things. (You should also explore to whom you feel compelled to prove yourself to. Friends? Potential lovers?)

It was unkind of your friend to suggest that you should alienate yourself from your family on her behalf (on behalf of queers and/or POC), when you do not have an overwhelmingly toxic relationship with them (if you did that would be a different Ask, and the answers would be different). If you were dating someone who was a bigot I can see your friend asking you to rethink your relationship with them, but not with your 90yo grandmother.

I'm sure you're familiar with the saying "it's easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar". I think you stand your ground without preaching; when you interact in person you can practice the lines "I don't agree with that", "we'll have to agree to disagree then", "I'm sorry, I don't find that funny", "that hasn't been my experience at all". You aren't beating people over the head with your own political or social views, but you are setting boundaries with others that you will not participate in their bigotry. As for online or social media, you can either use the same lines, or simply not respond. You can ask people to remove you from their email distribution list, saying "you know that we disagree on this topic. Please don't send me these emails anymore." You can say "Let's agree not to label each other. We're still family even if we disagree on this topic. If you'd like to have a discussion about our differences in opinion, we can do that in person sometime".

You can counter the bad energy that they are sending into the world by posting up articles that support your opinions if you wish. If you are on FB, you have the ability to simply delete comments that you don't like on your own posts. Or you can leave them stand but not respond, or you can hide that person without unfriending them.
posted by vignettist at 7:58 AM on October 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't know if I have a great answer for you - but when I was in the South recently visiting relatives (through marriage) my go-to was that Trump didn't seem Christ-like. And I would frame my own beliefs through how I envisioned Christ behaving.

Now, I don't believe in God - but they do. And it served as a kind of bridging of my nationalist-socialist views with their Christian views in SOME way that was mutually understandable.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:46 AM on October 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: It's taken all the discipline I have not to thread-sit. To clarify about my friend: I took this question to my secret intersectional feminist group on Facebook and asked for advice a couple of weeks ago. It was not an in-person conversation. And I don't want to quote my friend directly and betray the confidentiality of the group, but it was not a combative or presumptuous comment. It was very similar to what fraula wrote. The "Come Get Your Family" clause of the social contract was mentioned. And a question was put to me that I can't answer: why their hatred of black folks feels less personal to me than their hatred of me would. And reiteration that yes, some people have cut off contact with their blood relatives over this type of thing. And it's not always voluntary.

It is telling (and further confusing) the differences in opinion I'm reading from people with a certain privilege and people without it.
posted by witchen at 8:59 AM on October 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

There are a number of eloquent articles written by Christians, conservatives, etc., talking about how Trump in particular is against the values of Christianity/conservatism. I have gotten some traction by sharing those and noting which of my cousins shows up to like/comment supportively... it helps to know you've got someone in the family on your side.

If you can, I think it is certainly helpful to make flat statements as has been suggested, especially in the moment: "that's not funny, it's racist." The danger with just ghosting on someone/cutting them off is that they think you silently agree.

Especially if your relatives are the "Christian" flavor of conservative, you may also get good results with speaking from those positions: "Jesus said that whatever we did to the least of these, we did to him. I wouldn't support a law to keep Jesus from using the bathroom."

"Jesus said to take care of the widows and orphans, so I support helping refugees."


I will say this; as a person who occupies a more privileged position, you are safe to engage with people, and to do/say things, that less privileged people are not safe to do or say. Your greatest risk is burned bridges and hurt feelings; their greatest risk is death. That is why they have to be careful who they trust, and often their only way to gauge that trust is by looking at who you interact with and how.

I say "they," by the way, and I at least in part mean "me," because I'm bi and not out to my (Southern, conservative, religious, casually racist to various degrees) family, and that also means I'm not out to anyone that I cannot absolutely trust won't tell my family, either on purpose or by accident. It also means that I have chosen to hide/unfollow certain posts from certain cousins, because if I got into that fight directly I had far more to lose than she did.
posted by oblique red at 9:05 AM on October 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

I belong to a country where the previous election was incredibly polarising (our bigoted demagogue won, btw, and things have only worsened), and am from the most socio-economically privileged stratum of society here, so I can totally relate to this question.

It can be really taxing to constantly reconcile one's feeling of not being an ally with the exhausting drama of most familial interactions that have an emotional history that makes it impossible to actually engage in a rational discussion (not that I am suggesting that one should apologise for being emotional about political issues). Often the gap in values inhered in the divide can be galling and hard to make peace with because, unlike friends, these are not people you chose and unless you have an otherwise awful rapport with them, not people you can just cut off -- the family can be an incredibly powerful tool of status quo-ist oppression. I empathise because I certainly feel this way with my mum and have experienced the rage and frustration of knowing that the person who gave birth to me can hold ideas that are really scary if taken to their logical conclusion because people don't often see their bullshit as part of a dangerous continuum. I've had the "not all ideas are equal" conversation with multiple folk who try to make it look like misogyny and feminism or racism and anti-racism are equally valid and right. Sometimes, it can also be a case of having known these people all your life as non-assholes when the occasion calls for it, so you can end up feeling like the stakes are low enough that even if they espouse problematic views, in a really bad situation they would do the right thing (riots, pogroms etc...both of which are not uncommon in my context). That may be, but that's a risk society can't and shouldn't take.

One strategy that helped me with relatives with whom arguing is pointless, is just unambiguously and calmly registering my disagreement every time something objectionable is said: "I don't agree. That's racist/sexist/prejudiced/bigoted." Then I disengage. I keep doing this every time, often nonchalantly, so that it never goes unchecked but I can preserve some sanity in daily interpersonal interactions. Of course, whenever I see a window of opportunity, I do present facts and analysis to support my viewpoint but I have become careful about who's interested in a good faith dialogue and who's just looking to provoke me because I can be pretty excitable and short-tempered. You also often need a variety of conversational tactics...I struggle with patience and being an over-educated patronising jerk so I am actively working on it, but some people respond to vaguely judgemental (of the issue, not them) sarcasm better and some to empathy training drawing on an approximate experience that you can use as a parallel. It's almost impossible with old white people but everyone has known some kind of oppression at some point and if you can appeal to that, then it makes the hard, cold data of systemic social inequality and injustice more immediate and "shameful", making the people supporting it uncomfortable at the very least. I have found that, as my country is an ex-colony, invoking the plight of the "native" during imperialist occupation helps those at the top of the hierarchy glimpse what I am trying to say. I don't know if it'll work in your context but you could try. Sure, the huge amount of labour involved in developing this "woke kit" sucks but if you feel strongly enough, you will find ways to get involved.

Also, you have to recognise your generational/educational privilege over theirs and take that into account and also know the limitations of your communication style, even as an ally. Recognise that some of this is less about standing up for the right ideas and more about feeling like a good and honourable person and there's nothing wrong with that because what's the alternative, really. Of course, we have it easier than everyone else lower down the rung but you have to ensure that your most valuable resource - you - stays somewhat intact in these battles so you can contribute to winning the war and not get burnt out and alienate people who have a chance of "seeing the light", as pretentious as that sounds.
posted by norwegianleather at 9:18 AM on October 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

"And a question was put to me that I can't answer: why their hatred of black folks feels less personal to me than their hatred of me would. And reiteration that yes, some people have cut off contact with their blood relatives over this type of thing."

I wanted to add that distancing/minimising/cutting off contact and communication is perfectly acceptable.
Over the years, I have let my mother know that her beliefs have cost her my company and time. But I do love her for everything she has done for me personally. It's a difficult thing to not excuse people and constantly call them on their shit and also have affection for them -- it's the old public/private problem. Often with friends, it's easier to just let them go.

I am not sure whether the argument about hatred works -- hatred of "you" the person is, well, "personal" and would naturally be experienced differently from hatred towards other people/groups, even outside of a political context. Sure, in as far as you are not racist, your family's hatred of other races can be seen as an attack on your values and it's up to you to decide how much weight you place on those values as being part of you, enough that you would see it as a personal attack. But unless they mistreat you or people in your immediate circle because of their racism, it can be really hard to find the motivation to actively denounce them for all time.
I'm not saying it isn't possible or one shouldn't do it if one can but only you can decide how to undertake the calculus of "they love me" vs. "they hate them" and deciding to either asserting yourself and exposing their violent belief systems while remaining in the fold or deciding to leave and make it clear once and for all.
posted by norwegianleather at 9:34 AM on October 4, 2016

A lot of very eloquent and forceful writing has been done recently, on the subject of [privileged group] fragility, and may be of use to you. Because honestly if you're really wanting to be an ally, you must become okay with some people thinking unkindly of you. And not always just those people whose opinions you do not value.

Your goal of, as you put it, doing "right by her and by everyone else, especially everyone else in my community, who's negatively affected by systems that benefit me" is a correct goal but it is unachievable (you should have it anyway). Because people who are negatively affected by these systems that privilege you are damaged by them in different ways, and sometimes diametrically opposed ways, and sometimes two people in your community will need two opposite and irreconcilable things from you. One person may need to see you fighting back against your bigoted relatives in order to trust you; another may need to see you reject those relatives entirely, forever. You won't be able to meet the needs of both those people. Sometimes there will be people by whom you will never actually be trusted or admired or appreciated for your efforts, because it's simply not enough, will never be enough. Part of being an ally is recognizing this as valid, because nobody is entitled to the trust or admiration of queer people or POC.

Ultimately, in this specific situation, you will have to make a choice grounded in your own ethics, with a lot of self-examination to distinguish your ethics from your self-interest. And you will have to accept that some consequences of that choice will be negative. This is basically what it means to relinquish privilege in the service of others: experiencing negative consequences that you might otherwise be permitted to avoid (or more likely, permitted to believe you have avoided).
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:09 AM on October 4, 2016 [13 favorites]

When I went to see Ta-Nehisi Coates speak, he got a question about how to be a "good white person" or ally. And he reminded us that you can't. That it isn't moral or value choice, but the institutions that perpetuate a corrupt system.

I'm not liberal because I'm better than my racist family. I'm liberal because I was raised in a multi-ethnic family, in the suburbs of an increasingly liberal city, and because my dad thought I was gay*, I was thrust into the social group of misfits that fostered a liberal outlook. I'm liberal because my lived experiences have informed my values. And that's true of people who come here who say "You guys changed my mind". They were in a place where they had their defenses down, and could change.

You do the best that you can do, based on the information that you have. And while it was honest and understandable of your friend to say she interprets these relationships as suspect, that doesn't mean that it is easy to hear. White fragility is a genuine human response. For me, part of being an ally is holding that pain, and not putting it back on marginalized groups.

Which is almost impossible when trying to have a conversation about how to navigate the uncomfortable feelings that come with being an ally. Because it's both something that privileged people need to figure out on their own, and something that marginalized people have a vested interest in and want to see done right.
posted by politikitty at 1:02 PM on October 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is it really better to cut them off so that all they can see and hear is other bigots? Unfortunately this election is making me realize how many more of them there are than I had thought, and that cutting off our society into two parts doesn't guarantee the bigoted part will wither and die. Having the conversation, being a visible example of another way and a person they love who does NOT agree or approve is also worth something.
posted by Lady Li at 8:24 AM on October 5, 2016

So if you grow up white in a blue collar community, and marry someone who is poor and a blue-collar worker, and grow up to work in a blue collar profession, you are supposed to repeatedly push back against the values of your community and family of origin? Until when? This is so much more doable in theory than in practice. When you don't have a lot of money you rely on your community for a LOT.
I know that people have done it. Maybe it is the right thing to do.
posted by pintapicasso at 11:28 AM on October 5, 2016

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