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Reader question #81: Defusing a racist relative

Hi Captain, please help!

I am a white woman in my mid-twenties. My husband is a black man in his late twenties. The interracial thing is almost always fine and awesome for us, we both have pretty excellent family members and friends but there is one problem. That problem is my (white, of course) auntie.

There have been a number of incidents where said auntie has made husband and I feel uncomfortable or been less than cool. The first time she met him after very little preliminaries she turned to him and asked him where he was from. Sigh. At dinner at a restaurant once we were talking about something to do with Indigenous Australians (we’re all Aussies) whom she was insisting on referring to as ‘blacks’ set up as dichotomous to ‘whites’. Husband conversationally and calmly pointed out that that makes him feel rather uncomfortable because after all where does that leave him and other non-white, non-Indigenous Australians? She argued him on it (in a sort of dumb aggressive way, not an ‘I hear you but what about this?’ way). There have been lots of very awkward and unpleasant Facebook moments where husband or I have posted articles about racial stuff and she has come out swinging: hostile, defensive, sometimes even aggressive.

That last one is obviously easily solved, defriending, dearest Captain, has occurred. But my question is where do I go from here? My mother, Awkward Auntie’s sister, has a pretty rocky relationship with her too – which was probably contributed to by Mum getting noticeably upset about some of the nonsense in the above occasions. But their relationship has always been rocky, it’s not to say that they may not reconcile one day and that family Christmases may again become a thing. I also have a cousin (daughter of AA) who I value a lot and who, though is cool, may not be able to stomach ‘You’re mother is racist I’m never going to see her again can we still be friends though?!’. Especially since HER (white) fiance does not exactly get 10.5 out of 10 on race stuff.

Now you see why I am writing to you dear Captain Awkward! This is an awkward situation. Wonderful Husband is heroic and noble and doesn’t want me to do anything painful on his account but I am absolutely not up for putting him in any more uncomfortable situations than absolutely necessary (the wedding of the Cool Cousin and the Less Cool Fiance is going to be the last thing and even there I plan to be avoiding the Awkward Auntie industriously). Is there a way out of this other than a slamming doors kind of a way? My Mum is totally cool and supportive of us and understands the frustration but I can’t 100% guarantee that she won’t be a bit hurt if husband and I swear off her sister for life.

Sigh. Please Help!

Awkward Niece

Dear Awkward Niece:

I think your instincts are already on the right track. You’re already started limiting your exposure to this person by deleting her from Facebook. When she says something offensive you speak up for yourselves and don’t feel like you have to quietly take it. You’re never going to have a 100% easy relationship with her, so limiting exposure and speaking up when necessary is the right way to go.

I want to tell you about my Grampa.

We were extremely close. He was a personal hero to me and a literal hero to many. He was a career army officer and a war veteran, and he did a huge amount of community service.  He was a complete autodidact who read voraciously. He turned me into a world traveler with his thirst for languages and travel. He taught me to play a mean game of Scrabble. He loved his wife and his children and his country fiercely and served them with everything he had. The last time we talked he was in the hospital, nearing the end, not really lucid, and the thing I’ll take with me forever is the way he said my name when he heard it was me on the phone: It was just pure love and joy from him.

He was also a giant pain in the ass with political opinions I will describe as “toxic” and he did not keep these to himself. No, he shared them widely via the Cranky Old Man Email Forwarding System, where every email has 9 separate fonts and some of them are moving and there is an animated .gif of a weeping eagle in there somewhere and every single claim in the email has been refuted numerous times by Snopes.com and the tone is VERY ANGRY and sometimes suggests some really violent and unconstitutional behaviors. Sometimes he would compose his own. He used to send these emails to family, friends, and all media outlets and elected representatives. When I was younger and angrier I used to write back and refute them (copying all the same people, which they did not like so much), like, “Dear Grampa, here is why we should not lock American Muslims in concentration camps until they “prove” their “loyalty”…and also you taught me better than this and I know you can’t possibly really feel this way.” Sometimes he would write back and tell me I was very young and didn’t know how the world worked – “you have a lot to learn, young lady.”  Just….man.  I graduated from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, studied with some of the world’s foremost experts on Islam, have lived and worked abroad extensively, keep up with news obsessively – what I’m saying is I felt EXTREMELY qualified to play in that sandbox and did not appreciate his patronizing tone.

Yeah. He was really, really old and spent a lot of time in front of Fox News, okay? His mind wandered. He was angry and confused and very, very conservative and September 11 freaked him out and I wasn’t going to change his mind. But that didn’t mean that I wanted that toxic stuff clogging up my inbox and that anger at him for not seeing how awful it was clogging up our relationship. So many long years after I should have, I set a boundary. No politics. No email forwards. I would not respond to anything that wasn’t a personal message from him to me. I actually set up a filter in my inbox that automatically deleted anything he sent me with key words like “Obama,” “Muslim,” etc.

He got really, really, really mad. He escalated the emails. He said I was abandoning and ignoring an old man who just loved me and wanted me to be informed. He tried to turn it all into a joke. He called other relatives crying to ask why I was avoiding him.  And of course I looked at the email trash folder and then I’d go sputtering to Intern Paul about some ridiculous thing he wrote and he’d be like “JUST DELETE THEM I DON’T CARE” and I would say “YOU ARE RIGHT OF COURSE, BUT I AM SO ANGRY” but eventually I just stopped looking in that folder.  When he wrote me a nice email I would reply immediately in the same tone, and I ignored the rest, and last summer when I went out to visit we went out for ice cream and we didn’t talk about politics at all. We just sat in a Friendly’s and put away two sundaes and he did that thing he does where he walks up to any foreigners and asks them where they are from and tries to learn a few words of their language (a combination of appalling and endearing depending on the circumstances) and then he would proudly introduce me to them, “This is my granddaughter, Jennifer” and they would nod like that was something really impressive to be.

I’m crying as I write this because I miss the hell out of him. But I cannot possibly undersell the horridness and toxicity of the stuff that came out of his mouth and out of his keyboard – it was THE WORST. Other family members got the emails too and found their own way to make peace with it, and a lot of them said “Why don’t you just ignore him, when you argue with him you just encourage it” like I was the one doing something wrong by “making a big deal” about, I don’t know, calls for religion-based genocide from someone I loved and respected?

Side note: Just because you are old, it doesn’t mean you can’t be completely wrong about everything.

So, back to your question, it’s okay to continue limiting contact. But I wonder if you can have a chat with your Aunt or send an email to her, and say something to her like “I love you and want to spend time with you, but whenever we talk about politics or race it gets very upsetting, so we’re not going to do that anymore.”

She’ll probably insist that she’s just joking and doesn’t mean anything by it, to which you say “I’m sure that’s true, but it’s so upsetting and offensive to us that we’d prefer that you not make those jokes to us, so I’m asking you directly to not talk about race matters to me or my husband or at family gatherings.”

And listen, that’s not permission for her to just yammer on while you guys take the high road and stare down at your Christmas feast. If she says something terrible, utilize the “Wow.” “Wow, that’s really offensive. Let’s change the subject – what is everyone doing for the New Year?

If she keeps hammering at it, depending on whose house your at and how much backing you have, you can either leave the table or leave the room (totally unfair that you should have to, but it’s a possible choice) or ask her to go (totally awkward, but it’s also possible choice). “Auntie, I hate to say this, but we’ve asked you not to talk about that stuff with us anymore. We need you to either change the subject or call it a night.” Let her be mortified and leave in a huff if she can’t be respectful. Or get everyone to get up and leave the room she’s in and leave her sputtering at the table.

Loop your mother in before you have the chat and make the request, and get her to help you with changing the subject and backing your play. And loop your cousin in as well, like, “I love you and I love Auntie, but the things she says about race are really offensive and hurtful, and I’ve decided that we’ll have a better relationship if we just never talk about that stuff. I hope that doesn’t put you in the middle.”

It’s never going to be easy, and it’s never going to be comfortable, but if you stick up for yourself and she makes the choice to bail on the relationship then it was out of your hands, anyway – the right to say ignorant and racist crap was more important to her than her relationship with you and your mom. If she does make a concerted effort, be magnanimous.

And I know a lot of this stuff is a lot easier said than done, but sometimes people just have to be taught how they can behave around you. If you want to be gentler and subtler about it, there’s some ways in this old post to shut someone down more politely. Good luck.

Families.  Yeah.

Edited to Add:  Dreamy and brilliant Jay Smooth has the all time greatest instructional video for how to tell someone they sound racist.  You might find this useful.

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24 comments
  1. Queue said:

    Extraordinarily well said.

    It’s never going to be easy, and it’s never going to be comfortable

    Story of any family confrontation. Still worth having them, often.

  2. KO said:

    Ugh. The combination of those toxic radio jocks and vaudeville “news” shows seem to suck in old people like crack. Still working on a theory of why so many old people choose to be stimulated via the Anger & Outrage industry – raging at the dying light maybe?

    Being Aussie too our family usually just says “Stop being so bloody racist!!” and don’t invite them back if they can’t get over themselves.

    • Veronica said:

      I actually suspect a lot of the anti-isms we’re seeing in the older population (and in a lot of the more isolated communities in the U.S.) is generated by the shifting world demographic. The United States is slowly watching its strangehold on military and economic world supremacy crumble and erode. The Western “cultural ideal” is becoming increasingly obsolete with technology making the world an increasingly globalized arena, where people from different cultures and places can exchange ideas at the speed of a WiFi connection.

      We have an aging population that grew up with a very specific and well-defined image of what the world should be – and that worldview is becoming increasingly challenged by a growing youth population that doesn’t see why religion, race, or sexual orientation should be an obstacle to relationships. Western countries have increasingly mixed populations – and they desperately need them to keep immigration rates up if they want to maintain their financial status quo, since the birth rates in most places, especially among Caucasians, is dropping. European and American students are now competing with powerful Asian economies that are generating their own – and often better – educated graduates. Our first-wold resources have given us longer, healthier lives, but it’s also given us the conundrum of how to maintain the elderly and keep our social security programs from being driven into the ground. Modern technology gives us easier, faster ways to connect, but it also makes it easier to feel obsolete.

      In short, the world has seen a lot of very rapid change in only a few decades, and that can be some very scary shit. Watching your culture evolve around you is one thing. Watching it evolve into something you barely recognize is something entirely else, and for people who can’t accept that, it’s easier to fall back on stubborn prejudices, however outdated and unfortunate they may be.

  3. k said:

    Uggggghhh, I live far, far away from my extended family, but the second my relationship gets to the serious-business-we’re-moving-in-together stage I know some of this stuff is going to crop up in my life too. Luckily my parents are awesome and don’t say racist crap, but I am definitely worried about how the grandpas and some of the uncles would react. I have so much sympathy for you, Awkward Niece. Gonna have to take a deep breath and remember to Deploy The “Wow” when the time comes.

    • JenniferP said:

      I added this to the end of the post, but you might find this really useful: Jay Smooth’s How To Tell People They Sound Racist.

      You also have to remember the worldview of privileged people when this stuff comes up. Your crusty old relatives are just living their lives – to them, you’re the one who went and made it weird by dating outside your race. Because they are dead wrong, take that script and flip it completely around in your head. Um, you’re just living your life. THEY are the ones making it weird by saying racist stuff. They are just not used to having their worldview challenged and they think it’s a privilege of old age that they should never have to. So practice saying “I love you, Grampa, but that was really racist.”

      • robiewankenobie said:

        i think everyone should have jay smooth in their feed. the dude has videos so profound/funny that i’ve laughed myself into an asthma attack. captain america & jay smooth – y’all should go on tour! also? “rhetorical bermuda triangle” has been added to my lexicon.

      • k said:

        I love Jay Smooth! He’s so great.

        Good point on breaking it down like “um, it’s actually your problem that you can’t deal with my totally amazing boyfriend just because he is black”.

        I’ve already started strategically emailing cute pictures of us to the fam, in hopes that that will make our relationship more established and normal in their eyes by the time I end up bringing him around. And I want us to visit just my immediate family at least once so that my parents are firmly on Team Us. The bigger that team is, the better, I figure.

    • Awkward Niece said:

      Thanks K. The Wow is definitely a good weapon, one I haven’t used yet.

  4. robiewankenobie said:

    in our marriage we’ve pretty much taken the “tell ‘em to knock it off” stance when it comes to these things. he had an aunt that was off the charts. he nicely (srsly, he’s very diplomatic) told her to shape up.

    i will never forget speaking to my gay uncle about why having a black boyfriend was uncool. i swear, my parents and his boyfriend had an actual motherfucking intervention. it was hilarious. the best part was when he said that he didn’t choose to be gay, but i was choosing to have a black boyfriend. uh, yeah, but theLeon didn’t choose to be black, dude.

    oh, and come to think of it, i have an aunt who very patiently tried to explain to my parents that they were letting me marry a black man. like they didn’t realize this. you know, we’d get to the end of the aisle and ::gasp:: my father would say – look! there’s a black man! and he’s trying to marry my daughter!

    over the years all of them have stopped being shits. we gave them room to grow the hell up. and guess what? those old dogs learned new tricks.

    here’s the thing – you don’t have to be outraged on his behalf. he’s a grown man, and from what you’ve written? he can hold his own. it’s important that you let him know that you’re in his corner. your mother? well, you’ll have to ask her how she would like you to approach things.

    so, it all boils down to this…do you want to continue your relationship with her if it doesn’t change? that’s your starting off point.

    • ks said:

      oh, and come to think of it, i have an aunt who very patiently tried to explain to my parents that they were letting me marry a black man. like they didn’t realize this. you know, we’d get to the end of the aisle and ::gasp:: my father would say – look! there’s a black man! and he’s trying to marry my daughter!

      I had a very similar conversation with a student once, when he saw the husband and I together. He asked me if I knew the husband was black when I married him (verbatim, those were the exact words he used to ask that question), as if I hadn’t noticed before the wedding and it only occurred to me on our wedding night or something. I am very rarely rendered speechless by students, but that one did it for me.

      But on the topic of racist family, I basically called my grandfather and told him up front when I got engaged that my fiance was not white and that if he said a single word about it, to me, to Mr. S, or to anyone else and I heard about it, then he’d not see me again. Period. And I made sure he knew I meant it and had my dad back me up on it as well. He ranted a bit on the phone to me, but I just restated my position and told him that he’d be meeting Mr. S at Thanksgiving and again, if there was a single racist statement made, we’d leave and that would be it. It took him a little while to come around, but he never said anything to anyone other than my dad, and by the time he died a few years ago, he and Mr. S were quite close and he’d loudly defend my choice of husband to anyone who even gave us a sideways look (and in rural southern WV, where I’m from, that was a lot of people).

      • wondering said:

        Great idea! I’m impressed with how you were so proactive.

      • k said:

        Yeah, I like the proactiveness. It’s a good plan.

        • ks said:

          Thanks. I only did it because I knew what would be coming if I didn’t, and I didn’t want Mr. S to have to deal with that (and I didn’t want to either). I was a little surprised by how well he behaved, but I was really happy about it.

      • Awkward Niece said:

        Hahaha, great story. ‘Goodness Gracious, you mean to say he is BLACK!? Why did no-one tell me this?’ I mean, I’m sure it wasn’t funny for you at the time….

        • JenniferP said:

          I think my temptation would be to say “Really? I don’t see it. Can you explain?”

          • ks said:

            I was too stunned to say anything, really. I just sputtered a bit and then got on with class as if nobody had said anything. In the moment, it is just hard to believe that anybody would say something like that.

  5. wondering said:

    Ah, grandpas. The toxic politics can be hard to take. I love talking politics, but grampa and I are diametrically opposed. I have to try to stay off the topic to try to keep from giving him a heart attack because he gets so incensed. But it’s just about impossible to find a topic that doesn’t lead him to talking racist shit.

    I don’t remember who it was, but I recall a comedian who once said something like: “Grandparents, aren’t they wonderful? You can drop your kids off for the day and get the break you desperately need. But you’ll pay for it, won’t you? Because while you’re away, grampa is pumping them full of sugar – and racism.”

    • At first I was thinking Patton Oswalt, but now I’m pretty sure it was David Cross who said that.

  6. Kathleen said:

    I am finding myself in the same situation with my own father to the Grandpa situation. Except, he’s not going right-wing, he’s going extremely to the LEFT. For a while, I thought this was ok because I’m a left-leaner myself, but he actually sat in his room refusing to talk to anyone for our entire family reunion because of some Tea Party thing someone said at a barbecue (our family is from Texas).

    As for the LW, my mom and dad are an ethnically-mixed couple and my dad’s mother had a really hard time accepting it. All my parents could do is conduct themselves with dignity and leave the room when they’d had enough (cutting ties was not really an option for either of them). Eventually, my grandmother got over it. Gaining acceptance from family seems to be a gradual process.

    • JenniferP said:

      If you can’t love people who violently disagree with you, we really are hosed.

      • robiewankenobie said:

        this

  7. Awkward Niece said:

    Thanks very much Captain! Your story about your Grampa… well it really put my woes into perspective. And your advice is as sound as ever. Patience, persistence, politeness.

    • JenniferP said:

      I don’t want to be a story topper with Grampa, just…you can love people who frustrate the living shit out of you, and you can find a way past the contentious stuff if you try.

  8. Awkward Niece said:

    Oh and as if I need an excuse to watch Jay Smooth!

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