Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Ah, the feminist killjoy in their natural habitat: Preying upon the idyllic, warm Thanksgiving family dinner. Waiting to pounce upon the first ignorant comment and ruin the entire evening.
But seriously, a lot of us probably find ourselves in a position where a family member or friend says something insensitive, racist or homophobic at the dinner table and we have no idea how to react. We know in our gut that wasn’t cool to say, but we often push back against the impulse to argue back.
Here’s why you should call that person out:
- It’s important to resist the bystander effect. When we’re in bigger groups of people, it’s easy to think that someone else will step in and confront the person in question. What’s more likely to happen is that no one will say anything, and the person will continue on without having their beliefs challenged.
- Perhaps this person has never had their beliefs questioned — maybe their social circles serve as an echo chamber that only reinforces oppressive understandings of our world. You — especially as a family member or close friend — are someone whom they probably trust. Your opinion of them perhaps matters more than that of a stranger online or an acquaintance.
- Similarly, research has shown that it is important and common to disagree about politics in familial relationships. Psychologist Vaile Wright argues that we have nothing to lose by going beneath the surface of our relationships. In fact, when these difficult conversations are handled effectively, they can strengthen relationships overall by demonstrating that it is a safe place for learning and making mistakes without judgment.
- Finally, you should only engage in such dialogue with someone if you feel safe doing so. This means that you don’t foresee any economic, physical or verbal consequences in calling out a person at the dinner table. This also means that you feel like you have the emotional labor available to educate someone.
And here’s how to address these issues effectively:
- The first thing to do is to determine what your goal is for this conversation. Is it to provide the other person with examples that disprove their claim? Is it to let them know that what they said was insensitive to an experience that you or your friends have had? Or is it to try and change their mind? Whatever it is, try and choose a goal that is realistic for the potential length of this conversation and doesn’t put too much pressure on you as an individual.
- The most important thing to remember is this: stay calm. It’s definitely easier said than done, but no matter how angry the other person gets, don’t yell back. People love to say that people who care about social justice are emotional, and while there is nothing shameful about empathizing with the oppressed, it’s easier to make your argument while you’re calm.
- Don’t insult or verbally attack the person, as angry as you might be about their beliefs. This will only make the person less inclined to listen to you and will also devalue your logical arguments.
- Don’t expect to change someone’s beliefs entirely through this single interaction. You are making a valuable contribution toward improving society by addressing ignorant comments, but addressing one comment or having one argument is unlikely to change a person’s whole belief system. Plus, you shouldn’t be responsible for changing that person’s entire mindset! The goal of this intervention is simply to let the individual know that bigoted comments are not acceptable and that they should question their beliefs as well. Sometimes things don’t go as planned, and you shouldn’t blame yourself if you don’t get through to the person.
The next time your uncle or grandmother says something offensive, don’t ignore it in fear of disrupting the peace. You’ve seen the reasons you should address these situations, and you’re armed with the tools to handle them effectively, so let’s go kill some joy!
Liyanga de Silva is a senior English and women’s studies major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.