Opinion

How to talk to your conservative relatives this Thanksgiving

‘Tis the season for family political discussions. While it has become an American tradition to complain about the awkward small talk and the headaches it causes, this is not the time to hide from our responsibilities. Fleeing to Canada is not an option, and Justin Trudeau isn’t as great as he seems, anyway. Two days after the election, I engaged with my Trump-supporting cousin, a white male who attends a public university in my home state of North Carolina. My talk with my cousin didn’t go well, to say the least, but I hope that what I learned will be useful to others who wish to have similar discussions with their friends and relatives. Moreover, the need for a political project that is more human, more charitable, and more willing to meet people on their terms, whatever they are, has never been more urgent. This doesn’t mean that we make concessions to bigoted people, it means that we accept their world as it is and try to show them what the world looks like to us and the people they may overlook.

Now more than ever, these individual conversations may feel like a fool’s errand when a proto-fascist will take the oath of office in a few weeks. But our personal relationships are the key to a political movement that can win in homes, neighborhoods, places of worship, union locals and city halls. These places have to be the first bulwark against whatever comes out of the White House over the next four years, and will be key to undermining and then defeating Trump in two years and four years. The time has never been better to organize ourselves into an alternative to Trump, and present that to our friends and family members who voted for him, whether they knew full well what he represents or they don’t. This resistance begins at the interpersonal level.

In short, White Thanksgivings have to be more uncomfortable this year, but our discomfort must be directed carefully. Calling a racist a racist when they have convinced themselves that they are not racist is the easiest way to shut down even the smallest hope of progress. The goal here is not to protect the fragile egos of racist-adjacent relatives, but to ensure that they know there’s something a little off about Trump. Organization and cooperation between seemingly disparate groups are the seeds of a long-term movement challenging Trump and Trumpism. I hope that the successes and failures in my talk with my cousin can both inspire you and give a little nudge toward action beyond #safetypins as we participate in this glorious American pastime.

Expect little. Unfortunately, there are slim odds of finding your distant relative on the floor, begging for forgiveness and asking you which Audre Lorde essay to read first, no matter what you say. Perhaps The Daily Show has given us a stunted idea of what is possible in these conversations. Additionally, when pumpkin pie is the only thing keeping you from screaming, we must act carefully. When I mentioned Trump’s endorsement from the KKK’s newspaper to my cousin, he began insisting that he did not support the KKK, he was not racist and Trump was not racist. I pressed him on this, and he ultimately said that the KKK did not factor into his vote at all. That’s something we can work with, and an admission that opens doors for future discussion. I was surprised that I got even this from him. He was inches from exploding for the whole time (of course I would say that, wouldn’t I?), and only by staying calm and insisting on a real discussion did I even get to that point. It was exhausting. Everyone has defenses for their decisions, and poking the tiniest of holes in these justifications creates the environment where maybe, just maybe, we empty its contents later.

Don’t talk like a liberal. After this small success, I tried to go too far. As soon as I asked him to consider the privilege that allows him to ignore racism’s impact on America today, I realized my mistake. No one cares about ‘privilege’ or ‘narratives,’ and lots of people are viscerally disgusted by the mention of the words. A 2015 PRRI poll found that 43 percent of Americans believe that discrimination against whites is just as big of a problem as discrimination against minorities. They do not interact with the same PC culture we do. They interact with the Fox News caricature of PC culture: white genocide, abortion holocaust and cultural Marxism PC culture. If we talk about these things the same way we do on campus, we will get nowhere. Anti-racism and anti-sexism are indispensable, but we need stop circlejerking about these things and make them relevant to the people that we usually dismiss. I tried appealing to my cousin’s desire to Make America Safe Again. Are Americans safe when the President’s Chief of Staff is a white nationalist? Aunt Mary probably doesn’t read Stormfront, but she voted for people that do, and making the implications of that crystal clear is important.

High school debate will not help you. Arguing with someone who has been absorbing the right-wing media day in and day out is pointless. For every Washington Post article about Trump and the KKK, there is an equal and opposite Washington Times article about Hillary and her support from that one senator who filibustered the Civil Rights Act in 1964. I cannot explain how these articles carry equal weight, but they do. Shoving logic down someone’s throat won’t work for us, and neither will a mastery of the correct facts. I’ve seen asking them to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ have some success. But to get to the point where they will consider that exercise, we have to establish some sort of common ground, and we sure as hell won’t find that in facts. Setting our sights on actual material changes to our broken society requires that we engage with people wherever they are emotionally. With that in mind:

We must meet people where they are at, even if they refuse to do the same for us. My cousin’s Facebook posts began as a trickle. A Breitbart article here, an Alex Jones video there. Before I knew it, he had confirmed every stereotype about Trump supporters. When my curiosity finally got the best of me, I found a world filled with death. Death could come from ISIS, or Black Lives Matter, or undocumented immigrants or George Soros’s army of feminists. If you lived in the same world as my cousin, you would be scared too. When people say that liberals and conservatives live in different worlds, this is what they mean.

We must go to their death filled world, where you are able to want Mike Pence as Vice President and not be homophobic. They definitely won’t make any attempt to come to us. We have to go there if we hope to understand their vote, and if we give them any of our understanding of our universe that exists outside of their distortions. If we hope to change some minds, we need to take people seriously. Trump’s horrible record on outsourcing labor and his abuse of his charity’s funds are things that are easily ignored beneath his more controversial positions, and I think are points where the seeds of doubt in Trump’s promises to be a champion for all Americans can be planted. We must not allow ourselves to go down the dead end of believing that anyone is irredeemable, except maybe the most unabashed racists and xenophobes. There are people that voted for Obama (twice!) and voted for Trump last week. Our prospects look bleak, but forfeiting any hope of including Trump voters in an equitable society is madness. If you make your case generously, but pointedly, I hope you can make some sort of slight progress.

Confronting this reality every single day must form a substantial part of any sort of left-wing organizing effort for the next four years. Retreating to our parochial bubble is what got us here. No matter how uncharitable or reactionary they seem, we must assure them that a better world is possible outside of Planet Blind Rage. More importantly, we have to believe that it exists too.

This is not a recipe for uprooting our unjust society. I won’t pretend to know where to start with that, but I know that battle will not be fought at dinner tables. I haven’t written a line by line guide to arguments and counterarguments mostly because that won’t be useful, but also because I don’t know your family situation, nor do I want to tell you to do something that makes you feel unsafe. This is my contribution to a playbook for the unsexy, unsatisfying small wins and relationships that we need to build to ensure that this is the last election Trump wins. This is work that white people need to do most of all, but I hope that everyone, whether a Trump presidency threatens your life and your livelihood or not, will attempt this exhausting and exhilarating exercise when you are ready. It is the only project that has any hope of stopping Trump and replacing him and his appeal with something that will last, and I hope you can contribute yourself to it.

November 18, 2016

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