How do I deal with my racist aunt over the holidays?

Q: I’m going home for the holidays but my racist, homophobic aunt will be there. How should I deal with it? Take her on, cut her off or stay silent?

Awkward of Adelaide

I read your letter with a deepening sense of familiar dread. In theory, the festive season is a time to put aside these earthly complaints. Surely we are not the first to have racist or homophobic relatives? Indeed, there is every reason to believe that far worse views were held by beloved family members a few decades ago.

But then that was an era when ‘no politics at the table’ was at least an ideal, now long gone in the age of deeply polarized media channels and round-the-clock news on every device. I guess your fear is a very modern one about what happens when you’ve had one glass of Merlot too many, you’re calmly listening to a cousin’s hazy recollection of their first term at university, and in a quiet moment, your aunt begins rehearsing her favourite shock-jock segment for all to hear.

In that moment, as you get a flood of righteous heat to the head, will you remember any statistics from that Instagram graphic about LGBTQI+ rights that you had saved back in February? You’ve read Frantz Fanon and Angela Davis, but will you be able to summon the force of their arguments to the table?

No, you won’t. The rest of your drink will slide down your throat before you notice. Your thoughts will race away from you, and you’ll start speaking in odd staccato syllables. You might even swear at her, losing any of the moral superiority that had sustained you through the day thus far. You will leave the table to freshen up, and then remain stonily silent for what seems like hours upon your return.

These are understandable reactions. It is disorienting to have to process a person’s offensive beliefs in a place of relative comfort and safety. It’s near-impossible to form a rational argument while you do that. This is especially so if your family mounts personal attacks on your identity and if you are in that situation, you should of course feel no guilt about making your own plans away from the table altogether.

But for those who are minded to stomach the bigotry and want to find a way around it, here is how I see it. Of late, we often seem to be locked into an ideological, sometimes generational, war, played out at dinner tables across the world. Generations vote in a more divided way than ever before. Older people are exposed to frenzied news segments about the newest ‘woke’ imposition designed to ostracize them, while the young increasingly believe housing crises are caused by the hubris of their squatting, greedy parents. Nowhere does this seem to have brought us closer to positive change. It has only filled the pockets of the corporate media and its rightwing fringes, and corroded our ability to build a common struggle.

This frightful relative will surely agree with you on something. Challenge yourself to get there, if only as an exercise, and because the alternative is to ruin your own day. Perhaps she is dissatisfied with healthcare treatment, or shocked at the price of housing in her area. I have often met people who will berate populations in the abstract, but talk fondly about a gay neighbour or a Polish colleague. Take a deep breath and see where you can steer her – after all, structural understanding can be a way out of prejudiced scapegoating.

You are unlikely to change your aunt’s views or shut her down in a demonstration so epic that the rest of the table stand up and applaud. But you have the power to neutralize the conversation. Your loved ones will be grateful for it if you do. Good luck.

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