It’s strange, isn’t it? A relative can be the picture of kindness: they may volunteer for meaningful causes and donate money to charity, provide us with hugs and encouragement, and give us heartfelt birthday gifts, only to turn around and spew hatred against groups that aren’t “like them.” This may come in the form of jokes or mistaken beliefs, the use of language (such as mentioning what ethnicity a driver appears to be when it has no bearing to their story), or a more upfront, sweeping statement about a group of people. It can be difficult to reconcile the love we feel for our family while becoming increasingly aware of their un-lovable prejudices. The following is a list of ways to troubleshoot dealing with family members who have bigoted opinions. If number 1 doesn’t work, we may proceed to number 2, and so on. But one word of advice: know your own values. There is no single right way to go about doing this, and much of it will depends on what you find important in your life. Good luck!
1. Consider Yourself and Consider Them
The most crucial step when evaluating anyone’s behaviour is this old nugget: put yourself in their shoes. After all, not all bigoted opinions are created equal. One person may simply be unaware that they are using a slur when they speak with enthusiasm about their “G*psy lifestyle.” This is very different than say, the great-uncle who’s convinced there is such a thing as the “homosexual agenda” and consistently spits venom about it. It’s also important to realize that we may have our own bigoted beliefs; even though we may have the most open of minds, it’s hard not to internalize certain opinions. We are, after all, partly products of our society. To give you an example, in high school I was actually quite anti-feminist: I considered other girls and women to be my competition, I believed that I wasn’t like “other girls”, and I thought that traditionally “feminine” behaviours or hobbies were beneath me. Luckily, I eventually learned the error of my ways. The same can be possible for family members with bigoted opinions. Are they affected by internalized misogyny, racism, and homophobia? Are they unaware of their prejudices? Are they acting out of fear, because the world is quickly changing around them, and they just can’t seem to keep up? The answers will help you determine whether they are willing to change or not. Remember your own humble beginnings as well: no one is perfect.
2. Ask a lot of Questions
Suppose you aren’t sure how deep the bigotedness goes? A good way to test the waters is by asking a lot of questions. And this has an added bonus: asking questions will give the person the opportunity to examine their own beliefs (though whether or not they actually do this is up to them). For instance, suppose a relative makes a joke at the expense of an ethnic group. Not cute, right? Depending on how they are, they may either expect to elicit a laugh or get a rise. But what if you don’t play into their game? Instead, ask them: “I don’t get it — why is that funny?” They will either dole out an awkward explanation, a sheepish “never mind”, or, if they’re feeling bold, they may delve into a disturbing diatribe about why it is, in fact, funny. Either way, you now have a better idea about what you’re dealing with, without being complicit in their prejudice. Asking people to explain why they hold certain beliefs is another good option: “Why do you think that?” Playing the ingenue will let the person’s bigoted opinions stand out for what they really are: nonsensical and unfounded.
3. Model Appropriate Behaviour
This step is always important, and hopefully it can become one’s default mode of being. Especially during family reunions, when there may be impressionable children or youth that may actually have a well-defined sense of right versus wrong, but, because of their deference to authority, may feel voiceless in expressing their opinions. It becomes important to be the person who speaks fairly. We can model appropriate behaviour by catching those mis-spoken stories and re-framing them: “Then the lady doctor did x”, becomes “And what did the doctor do next?” We can also gently report facts: “Actually, that’s a common misconception, the majority of Indigenous people in Canada do pay taxes.” Note that indisputable facts are most effective here; there is often little point in offering a different opinion, as the person will be an expert in giving their own opinions. If, after giving the person a few facts to mull over and a period of time to do so, they still resort to parading their bigoted beliefs, realize that it is not merely ignorance that you are facing, now. This person does not want to modify their beliefs because it serves them somehow. Likely, their beliefs give them a false sense of superiority, security, morality, or intelligence. Furthermore, it may be the unfortunate case that if the person happens to be older, they may use this as “evidence” that you are simply naive and uneducated about the ways in which the world really works. Older people often do have wisdom, but this does not preclude them from mistaken beliefs and feelings of hatred towards others.
4. Set Boundaries
Suppose we have tried all of the preceding steps to no avail. We’re still assaulted with a barrage of homophobic monologues during our visits. The next step is to set boundaries, for ourselves and our sanity, for the aforementioned children exposed to these toxic viewpoints, and for, in this particular example, our LGBTQ friends who may not be present but who would be saddened or hurt by these remarks. We must not allow hatred to fester, and we can do this by telling our relatives statements such as: “I love coming over and visiting you, but these remarks are really starting to make me feel sad/hurt/frustrated/, and I would appreciate if we could talk about something else.” Or, “let’s not spoil this dinner by talking politics!” Or, “In our house, we’ve decided to love and accept everybody equally, and we would appreciate if you would respect this while you’re here.” Doing this takes courage: despite your best intentions and your most gentle demeanour, you may anger or offend your relative (sometimes people are offended because they feel ashamed), but if this is the case, recognize that their reaction is more about themselves than about you. Weigh it out and decide what’s more important to you.
5. Give an Ultimatum
Generally, I am not a proponent of ultimatums, especially when we are not sincere or serious about them. Often they are used to heighten the drama of a situation without providing a real solution. But supposing we’ve tried all of the other steps here and our relative still decides to be disrespectful, it may be time to pull this out. You can put it in writing; sometimes it’s easier to say something difficult without being interrupted or being at the mercy of our possible lack of verbal proficiency. But there is no one right way to do this. It may look something like this: “I have asked you several times not to do X while we are visiting, because it makes me feel like Y. I feel like if this were to continue, we might have to shorten/call off/eliminate our visits.”
6. Distance Yourself
Oh boy, still nothing? We may have to ask ourselves how much our relative really cares about our feelings at this point. Are they saying things to aggravate us because it’s somehow funny to them? Are they showing us any goodwill or respect for our feelings? Even after we’ve explained to them the damage this inflicts on our relationships? If it seems more important to them to have their racist spiels, sexist jokes, homophobic rants, and hateful diatribes, it may be worth asking ourselves a very difficult question: is this the kind of person we want in our lives? This may be painful, but perhaps it is necessary. For example, the lesbian woman who has the aunt that continuously denigrates what she call her “lifestyle choices”, may be making a healthy choice by distancing herself from a person who is consistently hurting her. Again, there is no rules about when and how to do this. What one person tolerates may be different for someone else. But sometimes it can be better to handpick our families and fill them with people who love and support us for who we are.
While we will almost always have disagreements and arguments with family members, some of them are more serious than others. We must know ourselves and our own values, and take the appropriate steps to act upon them. Wherever possible, we should seek to promote education and tolerance among those closest to us. We can do this by first considering where they come from, model appropriate behaviour, and correct their mistaken assumptions with facts. When all else fails, we must resort to what is healthiest for ourselves.