Responding to racist talk at family gatherings

A reader asks what she should do when people close to her say racist things at social events.

Dear Rinku --

There are people in my close circle of family and friends who think nothing of making blatantly racist remarks at gatherings. Sometimes, the better part of valor is to ignore the comment and let the conversation move on to other topics. But what about when it doesn't move on? What can I say or do that won't turn a friendly family gathering into something ugly?

-- Paula, facing the holidays

Dear Paula –

A great question for this time of year. First, I'll just note that saying bigoted things at family gatherings brings the ugly in. Speaking up against racist ideas brings light. The better part of valor here is always to interrupt bigots. The key to preventing an escalation into tears and yelling, which might be what you mean by “something ugly,” is to keep yourself calm, keep the intervention short, and to always be kind. You say that these are people in your close circle, so I’m going to assume that means you love or like them, or at least will see them again.

Assess the following before you act:

Is this person saying stuff that they know is racist or do they seem unaware? It’s important for you to know this because it may change the tone or the order of how you intervene. If it’s intentional, then you’ll want to focus on getting a message to the people around you. If it’s unintentional, you might be able to move the person to different behavior.

Are there any risks in intervening? Might your elders have a heart attack if you challenge them? Might someone pull out a gun to prove their point? Can you live with being disinvited from future parties? If the risk is worth taking, go for it.

What is your goal? Is it to get this person to stop believing these things, stop saying these things, or simply to make room for another perspective?

Once you’ve determined that you’re going to speak back, craft what you’re actually going to do. Some tips:

Consider doing it privately. Most folks are more defensive if they’re criticized publicly. How important this is depends on your answer to question 1.

You can intervene in the group if getting the person alone doesn’t make sense. If there are kids around, you definitely need to say something in the group; otherwise the kids will think these ideas are ok or that no one is ever brave enough to counter them.

Consider recruiting others to be aware and intervene with you. You know these things are going to happen; you can prepare for them in advance. Usually several people think it’s wrong, but we just roll our eyes and try to move on. Organize the eye rollers to stand with you.

Don’t argue with the hater. The conditions won’t be right. If they resist, simply say that you’ve stated your position and you’re not going to argue about it.

This is, roughly, the process you’ll want to follow.

Inquire – ask the person what makes them think this. Did something happen to them? Let them talk, and really listen to them. Are they upset that their neighborhood is changing? Are they unemployed and blaming that on people of color? Be prepared to find that they’ve got very little experience with whoever they’re dissing. Sometimes just asking the question is enough to undermine this person’s power and presence. If they’re making a “joke” you can ask, “Why is that funny to you?”

Recap their position – “so it sounds like you think x because y. Did I get it right?” Do not speculate on their intention, just go with what they say.

Connect – “I’m upset about the state of the world too.” “I really love you, and I know you love me too.” “I enjoy seeing you at these gatherings.” You must connect, but it has to be real.

State the impact on you and the world – “When you say these things, it makes me worry for all my Muslim friends who are Americans just like us.” “When you say these things, I figure I can never bring a person of color to one of these parties.” Data probably won’t help you much here, but stories will. Prepare your stories of racist harm beforehand.

Say what you want from them instead— “Please stop using that slur at our family gatherings.” “I’d like you to leave these issues out of our family gatherings.” “I’d like to you to learn more about x community. Want to come to this event with me next week?”

If all else fails, just register your disagreement – “I don’t appreciate you bringing racist ideas into our family time.” “This is just wrong. I’m going to say it if no one else will.” “Every time you say something like this, I’m going to point out its racist impact/connection to hate crimes/victim blaming.” That will change the energy in the room if nothing else.

One last point. At times like this, whoever remains calm and smiling is going to win the debate, even if you’re surrounded by people who disagree with you. I’d never tell anyone not to feel what they feel (sorrow, outrage, despair), but as a tactical matter your outside must remain calm, even happy. If you need to walk around the block to get yourself there, do it. If you need to wait til the event is almost over so you can run home after, do that. It’s not always possible, but keeping your tone mellow and a smile on your face is more valuable than having the perfect argument.

If you want more ideas, you may find some here and here and here.

I know this is work, but being in the world is work. This work will help protect people of color by making it harder for racism to look normal. Noble work.

With practice, you’ll become a pro at challenging hateful speech in social settings. Good luck!

No. 1-4

I don't think many people are aware of their hurting comments because their friends and family often include many different backgrounds but they think it's cute to make a joke about a certain stereotype. I remember once when I was a teen I made a joke about an Italian acquaintance who took me aside and explained that was hurtful and I have never forgotten that lesson.




Many of us will face this over the next few days so this is quite useful as we go into the holidays!


Excellent advice Rinku!