Behind a cut for the casual fatphobia, racism, and misogyny of entitled white folks of a certain age. Update: People are sharing some of the specific slurs and types of comments their bigoted relatives say and asking how to challenge those things esp. in the comments, so I would counsel POC and other marginalized folks especially to be careful before clicking – y’all already know this stuff and maybe you don’t need it in your eyes while we white folks sort out our bullshit.
I (23 woman) am very temporarily living at home, so my problem can sort of be solved by waiting and moving out as I am planning, but it would be great to stop this problem for any future visits. My issue is that I feel incredibly uncomfortable/stressed/anxious going out in public with my parents due to any combo of their rude/racist/sexist/entitled comments they make to store employees or about strangers walking by.
For example (not said directly to them, but sometimes within overhearing distance): wow they’re fat/ugly/slow, so many Koreans, threatening an annoying kid, coughing while saying asshole when someone they don’t like walks by, etc
or yelling and almost crying on the phone talking to an employee.
or talking to an employee (at some store, tone escalating)
Cashier: Do you have a rewards card?
Mom: Well I do, but for some reason your system has it as my daughters name.
C: Well we only get names if you give them to us, so she must have signed up.
M: She didn’t. She doesn’t go to Storename.
C: We only can get names that are given to us, she must have signed up.
M: She didn’t. and why would she use the home phone number?
C: If that’s her name in our system, there is no other way for us to have gotten that unless she told us.
M: That’s what you said, but I’m telling you she didn’t. She had no reason to come to Storename! So I’m just wondering where it came from.
Me: Mom, I must have signed up at some point, it’s no big deal.
M: They only started doing this a few months ago, and you said you didn’t sign up, so how did they get it?
C: We could have only gotten it if she gave us her name.
That’s the gist, honestly went on longer in the same inane circle, we had finished paying and were just holding up the line behind us. The cashier had nothing else they could possibly say! The conversation started pretty level, but I don’t think my mom realizes her tone escalates until it feels like a big deal. She repeatedly *says* it’s not a big deal, but her actions say otherwise. I’m just standing here feeling like I can do nothing to escape this awkwardness.
Frankly, I am embarrassed and stressed out by these interactions. I am constantly on edge, I find myself noticing these people I worry my parents will talk about, I feel like I have to be overly smiley and apologetic to these employees because they have to deal with customers like this all day.
I told my mom I was stressed about it, and later overheard her whispering to my dad about how I said I was stressed and her tone definitely conveyed that she though it was ridiculous/she couldn’t believe it!
I don’t know what to do. I feel like I can’t police their actions in public, but trying to be honest is met with incredulity. I am just considering refusing to be with them in public. I still feel awful for everyone they interact with.
-Stressed in Public
Dear Stressed In Public,
My mom used to do the whole “Let me talk to your MANAGER” voice thing to berate retail employees when I was a little girl and I would stress-pee my pants. Usually a bastion of good manners, she had this very ugly way of speaking to service workers that implied that the brassieres that should have been on one rack were instead placed on the sale rack deliberately to deceive her. Good times. To all the former employees of the Auburn, Massachusetts Sears, I’m sorry for all the times I urinated on your carpets out of terror. Terror of what? I don’t even know. Just, raised voices ==> fear ==> pee.
Good news: I’m not five anymore and neither are you. So, Letter Writer, could you get comfortable raising your voice a little and intervening?
Good news/bad news: Your feelings of embarrassment and stress are very real and upsetting, but you are not the person who is most being harmed by what your parents are doing when they harass and bully people around them. They are at work, where they can’t leave, and they can’t say anything back if they want to keep their jobs. You are uniquely positioned to say something to help those people, and ***unless your very survival depends on it**** I think you have a responsibility to do something about it. Not a responsibility to stop it before it happens or fix it or change your parents (they are responsible for themselves), but a responsibility to not just let it keep happening over and over again in silence.
Let’s take the store card example. What if you raised your voice a little and said, “Mom, Let’s drop it! We can go talk to the service desk, or call them or adjust it online when we get home.” “Mom! Let’s pay and get out of here. You’re holding up the line.” “Mom, this person can’t help us, and it’s not her fault, let’s not yell at her, ok? Let’s just pay and sort it out later.” Also, if you can, de-escalate and pull her away from the conflict if you possibly can so that if she reacts badly it won’t get even worse for the target of her bullying.
It won’t change your mom’s mind about “being right.” And she might be a total jerk to this very same employee the very next time she’s there. But it might snap your mom out of it enough that she’ll stop. And it might help you to channel your stress in that moment into action. The employee can’t really fight back or stop it. You can.
Your mom clearly cares what you think, since she’s talking to your dad about it, so why not place the awkwardness you’re feeling back where it belongs?
With their more passing comments, try “Wow.” or “Really? Dad!“ or “Dad, do you even hear yourself right now?” or “Mom, I cannot believe that came out of your mouth!” “We do NOT talk about people’s bodies like that.” “Gross! If you are going to say racist stuff, I am going to go home, see you there.” Raise your voice. Make it awkward and boring for them to do this stuff in front of you. Make them know that you will call this out every single time from now on.
There is probably a bigger talk that’s like “Mom, Dad, you have to be nicer to people who work retail. You just do. They have hard jobs. They want you to be happy with their service. They aren’t your enemies. You are so rude to them sometimes, it completely embarrasses me! Do you want to end up in one of those Permit Patty or Sidewalk Susie YouTube videos? ‘Cause that’s what you sound like!”
Many bigots and bullies think that everyone in their families and workplaces secretly agrees with them and are just hiding what they really think because of “political correctness.” Many others try to use the social contract of ‘civility’ as camouflage, like, they can say and do whatever they want but if you call them out on it you are the one being rude or mean. It can be a double-form of bullying – bullying the people in the marginalized group but also bullying witnesses by basically daring you to “be uncivil” (and invite reprisals) by speaking up and challenging them.
My Grampa Oscar (RIP) used to send horrifying and racist emails from the Rancid Old Man Internet™ to our entire family, allllllll our elected officials, and local news media. If I replied (copying all the same people) to methodically debunk whatever it was, I would get tons of heat from the family – “Why are you antagonizing him?” Sorry fam, I wasn’t the one who just casually advocated building concentration camps for Muslim people because of 9/11, and also why do I have to do all the “antagonizing” all by myself? Family: “He’s an old man!” Me: He’s an old man who fought Nazis up one side of the world and down the other and he literally knows everything about how this kind of hateful ideology spreads and corrupts, making him an old man who should know better. (While I’m issuing apologies, sorry to all the Massachusetts congressional and media interns who got CC’d on these exchanges between 1998-2011. I used to like to imagine that y’all had a binder somewhere of this old man and his mean uncivil granddaughter, duking it out between our AOL addresses.)
Here’s the secret, though: My Grampa cared what I thought. He cared a lot. It super-bothered him that I wouldn’t go along with him, that I wouldn’t tell him he was brilliant, that I didn’t validate his “superior” knowledge of world affairs. He loved me a lot and he was proud of me (about most things) and it bothered him into his grave that he couldn’t convince me to sign off on his gross Fox News talking points. And over time, when I was like “Oh Grampa, let’s not talk about politics, we have so little time left and I don’t want to spend it debunking your crap” he would literally wail at me in frustration. He wanted my agreement and my good opinion and my compliance and, while he had my love always, as long as he advocated for hatred and bigotry he could. not. have. those. things.
One of the things I could reliably use against my Grampa that you might be able to use against your parents are the things they taught us in better times when they acted like better people. “But, you taught me not to say those kinds of things.” “You taught me to be kind to people.” “You taught me that everyone is equal and worthy.” “You taught me that if I don’t have something nice to say to someone I shouldn’t say anything.” “You taught me that all human beings are valuable and deserve kindness and safety.” “You taught me that everybody is the same and deserves respect, this isn’t like you, I know you are better than this!”
They’ll say “I didn’t mean you should talk like that to ME” or “I didn’t mean Those People” and you’ll say “but of course you did, the Golden Rule is about everyone.” And their faces will turn red and maybe it will be embarrassment or maybe it will be anger that they take out on you and I’m sorry for that if it goes that way.
Your parents probably won’t change their minds or their behavior when you aren’t around, but I’ll say it again: They notice and care what you think. They want you to agree with them. They want you to think they are good people. They want you to be a reflection of them. They want you to comply with them and support their points of view in public. They probably don’t care as much about not stressing you out in public as they do about wanting to look good in your eyes. You can use that, even if it’s just to shame them into pretending to be better.
Back to practicalities:
1. Practice speaking up in the moment. It won’t feel good, it will feel scary and weird, but you aren’t a kid who can be sent to your room without supper anymore. It doesn’t ever feel easier but it becomes easier with practice. And it is the best tool you, as a person who shares your parents race and class status, has for assigning consequences to bigoted remarks. Make it socially expensive and awkward for them to behave like that around you.
2. Talk to your parents about what you are observing. “Mom, Dad, I’ve noticed some troubling stuff lately when we’re out together, you both say some things that really aren’t kind [give a recent example or two]. What’s going on there? That’s not how you brought me up to behave.”
Listen to their defenses and then say something like “Ok, well, I respect you a lot, which is why I brought this up with you directly. I don’t want us to fight all the time, but I also don’t want to just be silent when it happens – it’s so rude and stressful for me and the poor people who are just trying to do their jobs – and if you can’t figure out how to put a lid on it I don’t know how much I’ll want to go places with you.”
3. Enforce the boundaries. You’re at the store with a parent and they say or act rude? “Ugh, [Parent], we talked about this. Please leave this person alone.”
If they won’t cool it, leave, even if it’s to go sit by the car. And stay home the next time they ask you to go somewhere. Give them less of your time and attention.
4. Think in terms of baby steps. Catching themselves about to say something, muttering under their breath, a pointed “I could say something but MISS SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIOR is here so I WON’T,” stony silence, making ugly faces while they tamp down their ugly thoughts in front of you, “I guess I gotta behave myself because SOME PEOPLE won’t give FAMILY a BREAK,” calling you a snowflake, etc. etc. are what victory looks like here.
Stay firm. If they say mean stuff about you, try agreeing with them to remove the teeth- “Yes, I’m very sensitive and might melt like a delicate snowflake out of embarrassment if I see my Dad say something racist to the waiter again! Let’s not risk it!”
Converting hearts & minds is great and hopefully the long-term plan, but it’s not the only thing that matters. Getting bigots to stop harming people in the moment is important even if the hearts and minds stay withered and small.
P.S. I’ve gotten a bunch of emails from people who are like “I live with bigots but I am literally dependent on them for survival/housing/health care needs and if I antagonize them I might die.”
In these cases, I think you speak up the best you can when you can, and forgive yourself for when you can’t. Sometimes the best you can do is to live to fight another day. You’re the best judge of what you can and cannot risk.
I also think you organize online and find other people who are doing good work in your community and in the world, so that you’re not alone with these people all day and night. You may not ever convince your folks, so, if you decide that they are lost causes, what work can you do? Do that. There’s more than enough human rights defense work to go around right now, you don’t have to throw yourself down an impossible emotional black hole for the revolution. Can’t convince them? Out-organize them. Out-vote them. Out-number them where it counts.
But if it’s not about survival? It’s just a little stress and discomfort and some raised voices and the risk of some people falling in your esteem or thinking you are hard to get along with? It’s celebrating holidays in a different way, seeing less of people you wish you could count on to be better? In those cases I think a lot of bigots have mistaken silence for compliance for way too long, and that a whole lot of us can endure some awkward family dinners or car rides or shopping trips if we have to, like, “yep, I’m really unreasonable and hard to get along with about these topics so you should stop saying horrible stuff where I can hear it or I might literally explode from being so dang sensitive! Thanks for noticing/Bless your heart!” This is literally the least that we can do.
And we can do it. It takes resolve and practice and having each other’s backs, the way the Letter Writer is about to have the backs of a whole lot of service industry folks who can’t escape from her terrible parents.