This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The sexist cousin, the homophobic grandfather, the aunt who refers to Brazil nuts as “n-word toes” and then laughs about it. Then there’s the dad who tosses around “that’s so gay” like he’s a dumb high school kid in 2005 and the grandmother who blames immigrants for, well, pretty much everything. Coming together for the holidays means facing the generational gap, but also the social awareness gap. With endless Trump and #MeToo headlines, it’s bound to come up this year.
When someone in your family commits one of these conversational missteps (atrocities?) you pretty much have two options: say something or don’t. I think we can all agree that standing up to bigotry is the right thing to do, but what if that means ruining a potluck or even risking a relationship?
If you’re queer or a person of color, the burden of socially enlightening someone (or trying to) shouldn’t necessarily fall on your shoulders. For white and otherwise privileged folks, it should theoretically be more of a priority. Either way, the stakes can feel uncomfortably high—especially if the goal of your evening is simply to eat and drink yourself into numbness while A Charlie Brown Christmas plays on a loop.
In the hopes that we might learn by example, VICE asked people for stories of confronting their bigoted relatives, and they shared their not-always-perfect recollections. Because sometimes Uncle Tod needs to be told.
*Names have been changed.
I've had a few sparring matches with pretty much everyone in my immediate family, but my dad is a classic troll and will say things deliberately to offend my mom or me. I’ve had varying degrees of success when dealing with him.
The most successful time was when he started making jokes about Rihanna having been assaulted. I scrunched up my face, gestured to my partner, and said, "Would that be funny if he did it to me?" and my dad shut up. The idea somehow hadn't occurred to him. I try to avoid the whole "she's somebody's daughter" rhetoric since it's a compromise to have to appeal to his love for me to get him to show basic respect for someone else. But I think it worked because he knew from the beginning that what he was saying was wrong and that the callousness of it was the whole joke. My question made it impossible for him to remove his emotions from it, and I think made him acknowledge that the situation was different to him because she was a black woman. He hasn't made as much as a Honeymooners reference since.
The least successful was at the dinner table after he made a comment about some women he worked with. I grilled him on what he meant by it (“What do you mean when you call them 'your girls'? Who do you mean when you say 'they're all' hard working?”) until it escalated to him accusing me of being judgmental and too sensitive and me accusing him of being racist, sexist, and patronizing. He went out for a rage smoke, and when he came back, I loudly explained Sara Ahmed's writing about the Feminist Killjoy to my mother without looking at him. This somehow did not open his mind to criticism.
I was on a road trip with some family and we were driving through a reservation. I forget how exactly the discussion started, but my cousin started making comments about how pointless it is for the government to be giving tax breaks and other forms of “handouts” to Indigenous people. His argument was one we’ve probably all heard before: Why should we be paying for the mistakes of our ancestors? Get over it.
I said something like, “How dare you say ‘get over it,’ given all your privilege? How can you even pretend to understand?” I was quick to accuse him of ignorance, which was definitely the wrong move since my cousin can be quite defensive if he feels like I’m playing the I-have-more-education-than-you card, which is something I’ve done before, though not proudly. My cousin continued to say that land acknowledgments are pointless, and this set me on fire all over again. I told him he needed to read up on the issue or talk to some people, before making uneducated judgments. We argued pretty intensely in the back seat as the rest of the family stayed silent upfront. I think the Tragically Hip was playing on the radio. It was all a very Canadian experience (we saw a bear later), and I ended up crying, which always happens when I argue with family.
I’ve temporarily given up discussing this issue with him. I’m probably not even the right person to do much educating when it comes to Indigenous issues because I am white, and so I will always have blind spots. I also have an otherwise great relationship with my cousin—I don’t want to damage it. He’s smart, generous, and probably kinder than me in a lot of ways. But his unwillingness to listen on this particular issue is something that constantly bothers me. I don’t know if it will ever be fixed.
When I was 14 years old, I lived with my grandmother while I was going to high school in downtown Ottawa, and during this time, she always said things in passing that were really homophobic or racist. I went to an art school and sometimes she’d pick me up and comment about how many fags there were and how she was uncomfortable about me spending time in an area with so many Pakistani and Indian people—because it was a really racially diverse area. At the time, I was privately coming to terms with the fact that I was gay, and she used to ask constantly about whether I’d be bringing home a girlfriend soon. She was worried that because I went to an art high school, I was going to turn out gay. I even had to bring friends over for dinner posing as girlfriends because it was the only way to get her off my back.
A couple years went by, and I moved away to go to college. Then I went back to Ottawa for my 20 or 21 birthday. It was also Thanksgiving, and so we went to her place. My uncle, who I hadn’t seen in about ten years and who had just been released from prison, was there and he kept looking at me weirdly the entire night. I felt super uncomfortable. Then, he went to the kitchen and told my grandmother that he thought I was gay. And so we had a very ugly conversation.
She asked me, “Is it true?” and I said, “Yes it is” because I didn’t feel like I could hide it any longer.
She looked away like she’d been stabbed or something. She was appalled, blamed my parents—primarily my mother for not making me join the military when I was a child. It was a big discussion and I haven’t spoken to her in five years because she threw me out that night—on my birthday and on Thanksgiving—because she didn’t want me in the house. I haven’t seen or heard from her in five years. She also cut ties with my family completely. She won’t speak to my mother or father. My dad even had a cancer scare last year and she screened the phone call.
I just think of it this way: If she was worth having in my life, she would be in my life. But I don’t want that kind of anger, that darkness, and hatred around me. She feels better when she’s surrounded by people who share her views, but that group is growing smaller and smaller as the times move forward.
Once, my uncle made a bad joke during Patricia Arquette's Oscar speech for the movie Boyhood when she dedicated her award to single mothers. My cousins and aunts and I rolled our eyes at the joke (which was something along the lines of boohoo, cat-ladies divorced everywhere have it so hard with incoming alimony, child support etc). We paused the show (Thank God for PVR Pause so we didn't miss any Chris Rock hosting moments), explaining that single motherhood is nothing to poke fun at and it isn't pathetic or attention-seeking for Arquette to shed light on this. It was a moment of raw, genuine reaction from both parties and ended up being a good discussion about feminism, jokes at others’ expenses, and empathy. I stress-ate a lot of Tostitos and salsa afterward, but it was well worth it.
I was at my family’s lake house for my annual vacation from stress. There’s no cell service there and no WiFi, so unless you tune into local radio on an actual radio, there’s no way to know what’s going on in the world. A few years before this trip, I’d blissfully basked in a lounge chair in the sun and I didn’t even know that Amy Winehouse had died until several days later. It means escape.
It also means a lot of swimming, napping, reading, eating, drinking, and quality time with just the family. I was with my parents and my grandmother. My grandmother was a very cool person, and I always loved getting to spend time with her; she was funny, fun and up to talk about anything. It was a heatwave, fires were burning nearby, and we were eating our late-afternoon meal of chips and cheese on the patio. We’d also been drinking for a few hours to stave off the heat and also because we like beer.
As a Vancouver resident, we were talking about what everyone can never shut up about: real estate and housing. Because I’m not a rich person, I don’t own a home—I rent. And to my grandmother, this seemed unfair.
“Why can’t you own a home?” she asked.
“Because they’re really expensive.”
“Well, we all know why.”
And then I took another sip of beer because I could only imagine what was coming next. At this point, my mom looked nervous, unsure if my calm side or angry side would emerge.
“All of these Orientals. They’re buying up everything and ruining the housing market,” she said.
I know nothing about the housing market. I’m no real estate genius, and I basically know nothing about how money works if it isn’t a transaction to purchase a new romper. But I do know that this was super racist. At first, I went the reasonable route.
“I know you’re from a different generation, but you can’t say that… What about rich white people?” I ask.
“We’re not talking about them.” Without missing a beat she goes headlong into a diatribe about rich Asian people ruining the city with their money. I barely register what she’s saying. I gulp my beer down fast.
I finish my drink and toss the beer can over the railing and start flailing my arms wildly. I can’t help myself from screaming and I knock over my chair as I get up.
“YOU’RE BEING RACIST! YOU’RE A BIGOT!”
Shaking and buzzing I stormed off down to the dock and dove through the smoky air into the cool lake. By the time we fired up the BBQ dinner everyone was pleasant, but I had to tread lightly for a long time to get there.
Follow Mica Lemiski on Twitter.