The Thanksgiving table has long served as a rhetorical battleground for American families. Whether it’s hot gossip about the cousin who’s headed for his fourth divorce or equally fiery political takes, moral and social wars have always been waged at the dinner table. But in this extremely tumultuous time, as children remain incarcerated on the Texas border and mass shootings dominate the news, moderates everywhere still insist that being nice to your racist, Trump-supporting relatives at the Thanksgiving table is somehow going to be the balm that prevents us from ending up in Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.
Writing for the Denver Post, attorney/columnist Doug Friednash warns against “tribal discord” as the country becomes increasingly polarized, and argues that a little dose of politeness is all that’s needed to heal the wounds that divide our country. “Thanksgiving dinner chatter can become risky business,” Friednash writes. “But it doesn’t need to be. We need to listen harder to what people are saying. People that disagree with how we see the world may be our opponents, but they need not be our enemies. They can be our frenemies.”
That assessment is, frankly, a steaming pile of bullshit. And so are the countless other missives on the place of civility in our current political climate, largely written by white men who will never risk the revocation of their citizenship or bodily autonomy. Even though Democrats made strides in the 2018 midterm elections, many among us are still terrified of the impact that this overtly nationalist, deeply dysfunctional administration will have on people in this country and beyond. There is no amount of civility that can balance the harm of xenophobic nationalism, and no amount of sitting silently while listening to someone spew racial epithets that will repair what Trump and his ilk have broken. Being progressive doesn’t just mean clicking “like” on left-leaning Facebook statuses. It requires a commitment to pursuing justice, even when it’s your weird uncle, even when it’s uncomfortable, and especially when there are other people in the room who you care about.
If you can safely do so (read: You do not fear physical or economic reprisal — ie, getting kicked out of your house — for speaking up against bigotry), you have an obligation to push back against harmful rhetoric simply because others do not. It is statistically very likely that a survivor of abuse or person who could face anti-LGBT abuse from your family will be sitting at your Thanksgiving table, and they may not feel safe enough to speak against the use of violent language and homophobic slurs, even if they’re hurled by well-meaning family members. Which means that if the only thing you’ve got to fear is an awkward silence as Grandma cuts the turkey, you’ve got an obligation to let your relatives know that words and actions that demean the humanity of others are not acceptable in your presence. It’s highly unlikely that anything said across the dinner table is going to cause some kind of epiphany in the average bigoted person’s mind, but that’s not the ultimate goal of speaking out.
There’s a real bystander effect that comes into play when someone at the Thanksgiving table begins ranting. At first, maybe you think the presence of a large group of people will prevent racial slurs from falling out of someone’s mouth, and then they do. Then you think that maybe someone else, someone older or more vocal, is going to jump in and tell her to knock it off. The bystander effect already makes it less likely that an individual will intervene if more people are present — it’s the result of a perceived diffusion of responsibility — and that becomes even more complex when family dynamics come into play. Most of us are raised to unfailingly respect our elders, which creates a hierarchy of who is even allowed to “talk back” to our grandparents and aunts in general, much less at a table full of people.
Overcoming what you’ve been trained to do since birth takes a little bit of courage and a lot of hard work, bizarre family dynamics notwithstanding. (As a Southern progressive, I’ve learned that “no politics at the dinner table” really just means “keep your mouth shut and don’t upset your grandmama.”) But if you’re so disgusted by what you see in the news, you can’t just sit there and pretend that the people in your family didn’t play some role in getting to where we are today: If your family has a particularly conservative political bent, it’s unlikely that they’ll feel uncomfortable talking about the hypothetical harms of the caravan of migrants currently making their way across Mexico, or shy away from agreeing with Trump that certain people of color, like LeBron James and Maxine Waters, are “dumb.” For that temporary peace during dinner, you trade an opportunity to make a space you occupy safer for everyone. What’s actually happening here is that you’re being asked to overlook bigotry in favor of politeness, which is a classic modeling of the way that calls for civility are used to excuse this behavior and suppress pushback against it.
For those of us who view Trump’s policies from a comfortable distance, it’s essential to remember that his administration is profoundly hurting people — deporting many to countries where they face certain death, dismantling policies that provide essential protections against discrimination for millions, and emboldening a terrorist to send pipe bombs to journalists and left-leaning politicians. It’s also important to note that Trump’s administration will eventually come for all of us, whether it’s the regressive economic policy bound to plunge the economy into a recession, a plan to roll back birthright citizenship, or pulling out of a decades-old nuclear peacekeeping treaty. Not to mention the ongoing potential for Trump to roll out a new, entirely deranged proposal on Twitter at 4 a.m. on any given morning.
As author and professor Tayari Jones writes at Time, Americans have to use this moment to fundamentally re-evaluate the way our national moral compass is pointed. “We have to decide what is central to our identity: Is the importance of our performance of national unity more significant than our core values,” Jones writes. “Is it more meaningful that we understand why some of us support the separation of children from their parents, or is it more crucial that we support the reunification of these families? Is it more essential that we comprehend the motives of white nationalists, or is it more urgent that we prevent them from terrorizing communities of color and those who oppose racism?”
It’s entirely possible to politely let Aunt Karen know that her racism isn’t acceptable in your presence, and employing the tactics taught in bystander intervention training is actually a pretty solid strategy. You can be direct with her and say that you’re not going to continue to be in her presence if she continues to discuss that topic, or ask someone like-minded at the table to back you up. At the very least, consider changing the subject — an act of deflection — with a snarky remark to prevent that line of conversation from going any further.
Communication experts generally agree with that approach, and say that shying away from difficult topics like politics isn’t actually good for close, familial relationships. “If you stay on the surface with your relationships to keep the peace and choose not to have these tough conversations with people, what are you losing out on in the long run?” psychologist and researcher Vaile Wright told Vox in 2017. “You probably aren’t having a fully meaningful relationship with that person because neither of you are taking the time or initiative to understand each other’s point of view. You are also continuing to reinforce this idea that we can’t talk about this idea, and by doing that, you are perpetuating a system that continues to oppress certain groups.”
Studies show that family has a remarkable influence on how a person’s politics are formed, and that suggests that these types of uncomfortable conversations are arguably the most powerful tool we have against increasingly polarized political rhetoric. Your grandfather may be able to believe that faceless, anonymous progressives are coming for his gun rights, but he might be a little more skeptical that the grandson he taught to shoot a rifle would hold such an authoritarian position. It’s one thing for your relatives to hear it from a slick politician like Beto O’Rourke or Barack Obama; it’s quite the other to see pleas from their grandchildren who may be profoundly, negatively impacted by policies and politicians that they support.
If you’ve got a truly virulent bigot awaiting at Thanksgiving, it’s important to remember that this person is bitter and afraid of having the privilege that comes with being rich or white or male (or all three) stripped away from them as marginalized groups fight for liberation. If they don’t see anything wrong with using homophobic language or screaming about the Second Amendment while everyone’s trying to enjoy their turkey and mashed potatoes, then you probably shouldn’t feel awkward about letting a few curse words fly in pursuit of telling them to shut the hell up.
In Hallmark movies, Thanksgiving is all about bringing families together to share in an expression of gratitude, but let’s not deny that these gatherings are more complex than that. The personal has always been political, and what happens in our homes has actual impact on the world outside them. Is there a better opportunity than this moment, when everyone is sharing a meal, to bring people together in a way that actually, honestly invites everyone to the table? If we are truly committed to justice for all, we have to create just spaces wherever we are. Our failure to translate private disapproval of bigotry into public protest, even at the dinner table, is an endorsement of immeasurable cruelty.
Amy McCarthy is editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston.
Editor: Erin DeJesus