What To Say To Family Members Who Make Offensive Comments At Thanksgiving, According To Experts

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For many people in the United States, Thanksgiving is a time to come together, spend time with loved ones, and enjoy an array of favorite holiday foods. In today's politically tense climate, however, it's possible that someone, whether a family member or a family friend, will make some kind of offensive comment at Thanksgiving, and you'll want to know what to say back. You may love your family, but they might not be aware of the ways their views are offensive — and a long meal at your aunt's house is a great place to help them understand the consequences of their actions.

One of the main ways these comments can come out is in the retelling of the Thanksgiving myths itself. The actual history of Thanksgiving Day is a far cry from the myth of a peaceful meal shared between pilgrims and Wampanoag Natives. While the feast might have been an observance of a temporary peace treaty between white colonists and the Wampanoag, it may also have been a celebration of the slaughter of 700 Pequot people. The Thanksgiving Day story as many non-Native Americans learn it erases the history of Native peoples, and minimizes the impact of violent colonialism on indigenous populations in North America.

While you might choose to reframe Thanksgiving in a way that acknowledges the violent history of colonialism in the United States, you may still have a few family members who cling to cultural narratives that impart harm on marginalized people. Knowing how to skillfully deal with offensive comments at Thanksgiving dinner is key to helping your family unlearn these narratives.

If you choose to observe Thanksgiving as a day to give thanks and be with family, that’s totally your choice. But it is important to understand how complex the holiday really is. Here are nine ways to call out offensive comments at your family’s Thanksgiving table this year.

1Know Your Facts

Organizations like Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ), which has a very in-depth resource kit to navigate these conversations, and White Nonsense Roundup provide support, resources, and information about how to constructively respond to white supremacy and systemic social injustice. Knowing the actual history of Thanksgiving, and remaining mindful of the impact of colonization on Native cultures, can help you navigate problematic conversations at Thanksgiving this year.

2Acknowledge Whose Land You Occupy

If your family gives thanks, a toast, or some form of prayer before Thanksgiving dinner, suggest an acknowledgement of the Native people whose land you occupy. Learn about the Native history of where you live, and find ways to honor their presence during your Thanksgiving Day celebration.

3Listen Actively

SURJ suggests that listening carefully while others are speaking gives you time to formulate a thoughtful response, even if what they're saying makes you upset. Taking the time to think before you speak and framing your response in an empathetic way can help the other person hear your perspective better. Since your relative might not realize that their views are offensive, it's important to convey how harmful stereotypes are in a way that they can hear without becoming defensive.

4Ask Questions

When family members are "expressing strong opinions," SURJ says, listen first, breathe, and then ask questions. Questions like, "What stories were you taught that shape your beliefs about Thanksgiving?," "How can we observe Thanksgiving in a way that acknowledges how harmful our ancestors' actions were towards Native people?" and "How do you think inaccurate stories impact Native peoples' lives in North America today?" can help you get a productive conversation going.

5Formulate A Thoughtful Response

"Speak from a place of mutual interest," says SURJ, while sharing your experience and how you feel. If you know that you're probably going to have challenging conversations at dinner, maybe prepare a bit with some talking points you'd like to cover beforehand.

6Engage In Respectful Conversations

Progress is only possible while working to create safe, respectful conversations where everyone feels heard, and not attacked, SURJ says. You want the discussion to feel "respectful to you and the people around you," while also challenging in ways that are called for. For example, you might say "I understand where you're coming from," or "I also heard that growing up," and then pivot to the point you'd like to make from there.

7Be Willing To Feel Uncomfortable...

Calling out racism can be uncomfortable, even for people who self-identify as progressive. Being willing to feel uncomfortable by speaking out, while also observing your own reactions and limitations, can help you stretch "into discomfort while also caring for yourself," SURJ says. If you're starting to feel emotionally overwhelmed or reactive, or the conversation is derailing and not productive, take a time out, walk the dog, regroup, and start the conversation again.

8...While Also Practicing Self-Care

Self-care means that you take care of yourself and your mental health while doing your part to help end white supremacy. Breathe, regulate your emotions, and take breaks when you need to so that you don't burn out. When you feel rested and ready to return to the conversation, get to it.

9Get Help If You Need It

Texting SOS to 82623 will connect you to SURJ's hotline. According to their website, the hotline exists to support you in ending "white silence about racism." If you're feeling stressed and need some backup, text the hotline. Once you reach SURJ, you'll be able to choose from a list of topics. If you need some talking point ideas, or to clarify historic facts, SURJ is there to help.

While having tough conversations about racism can be uncomfortable, the need for these talks has never been more urgent. It takes guts to be the person who starts that conversation, and it's also a responsibility for anyone with white privilege. While you might not be able to change everyone's mind about their racist beliefs, it's important to speak out regardless.