Don’t tell me about your bigoted relatives
It’s that time of year again. It’s getting chillier, the leaves are changing, we’re starting to hear about Black Friday sales as if we have any plans to go to the store. It’s getting closer to the end of November, which means Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Although the holiday looks a little different this year thanks to COVID, there have been a few traditions, good and bad, that have stuck around even in such a crazy time. In fact, this year, it seems like some trends have been around the entire year. Specifically, the trend of telling your minority friends about all the awful things your relatives have said about people like them.
Seriously, people. Stop doing this. It’s 2020, and you would’ve thought that people would’ve learned why this is not a good thing to do, but clearly this isn’t happening, because I’ve already been exposed to way too many of these types of instances in just the last couple weeks alone, not to mention all of this type of validation-seeking I was forced to endure during the summer.
Because yes, that’s exactly what it is—validation-seeking. I like to picture this way of thinking as the performative activist version of the famous philosophical question, “If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
You want me, or any member of a marginalized group, to know that you are not like your relatives. You’re better than them. In fact, you sometimes even argue with them.
And listen, while that’s great and all, I don’t need to hear about it. For one thing, what does it do for me? The answer is nothing. It does nothing for me. It does not give me any vital information. It doesn’t even give us something to talk about, because what exactly am I supposed to say to “Yeah my grandpa hates Black people”?
And here’s the thing: I do not care. Black people, or really any people of color in general, do not want to hear about your racist uncle. LGBTQIA* people do not want to hear about your homophobic aunt. Neurodivergent people do not want to hear about how your grandfather thinks all mental illnesses are made up by Big Pharma.
Here’s how I know no one cares—no one asked. Who knows, maybe you have had this experience, but I can’t think of one time in my life where I asked or anyone asked to hear about someone’s bigoted relatives. It’s not exactly a thing anyone wants to know.
Who knows, maybe I’ve been too hard on people who talk about their bigoted relatives. Maybe they’re just venting. Obviously, dealing with bigoted people can be very frustrating, especially when they’re your own family. However, even without the validation-seeking aspect, this is still a damaging thing to do. It’s unfair to unload that frustration onto the targets of your relatives’ bigotry.
For anyone who may want to argue with me about this, I’d like to ask you to put yourselves in the shoes of a member of some marginalized group for a second. Imagine you’re just minding your own business—because that’s typically how these sorts of scenarios begin—and then your friend comes up to you. Perhaps you start by having some sort of unrelated conversation, or maybe they immediately start telling you about how frustrating their relatives are, how they’re always saying this, that and the other about people like you.
You didn’t ask for this, you didn’t want this, and now all of a sudden you’re forced to think about not only how there are people in this country who hate you for existing, but that even the relatives of a friend hate you. All of a sudden any attempt you may have been making to distance yourself from bigotry against your identity has been erased, and you’re reminded that you’re not safe, not even with the family of a friend.
Does that sound like a fun situation at all? Hopefully, everyone agrees with me that no, it’s not a fun situation. In fact it’s an actively horrible one.
There are many, many ways that people can talk about their family in a damaging manner, but one of the worst ways in my opinion is when it’s brought up in the context of politics. Any sort of mention of bigoted relatives and dinner-table political discussions very rarely end well. They’ll always tell me something about how they hate debating politics with their relatives during Thanksgiving. They make it sound like they’re talking about something that you can have a completely logical debate about, something that isn’t personal.
But then lo and behold, they’ll follow their discussion of debates with an example of how they argued with their relatives about a human rights issue. And that always gives me pause, even though it shouldn’t be surprising by now. Because I’m sorry, but I didn’t realize that my identity, my rights as a human being, was something to engage in an intellectual debate over, like it doesn’t have real consequences. It just makes me feel disgusting that people seated around some dinner table, in some casual setting, can just debate my right to exist as I am.
Whether it’s due to seeking validation, venting or, as I’d argue, a mix of both, talking about bigoted relatives without being asked to is damaging and ignorant. I say ignorant because even though the people who do this may be trying to be validated, I don’t believe that they’re intentionally being hurtful, at least in the vast majority of cases.
However, even if ignorance is involved, I would argue that this (trying to be validated in your decency by distancing yourself from bigoted relatives) is always a conscious decision on some level.
I know this because I’ve done it too. Everyone probably has. It doesn’t matter if you’re a member of a marginalized group, the fact is that if you are trying to be a decent human being who is not prejudiced, at some point you will probably bring up some sort of incident that makes you look as though you are not bigoted, just to prove to yourself and everyone else that you are indeed not bigoted. We’re human after all, and we want to be accepted by our peers.
But don’t mistake my acknowledgment that this is human behavior as an excuse, because this behavior needs to stop. Not only can it hurt the people you are telling your story to, but often it ends up reflecting negatively on yourself too. No one wins here.