Ask Team Practical: My Family is Sexist


Communicating with your family

by Liz Moorhead, Ask Team Practical

Ask Team Practical: My Family is Sexist | A Practical Wedding

My fiancé and I had a tough talk this weekend about my immediate family. We have been biting our tongues for over eight years regarding topics such as race, sexual orientation, religion, and politics that invariably come up at family gatherings with stances polar opposite our own. Derogatory language is commonly alluded to or used. Some of my family members’ behavior can be explained, if not excused, by age or simply ignorance. Others more knowingly engage in the bigotry. Considering my status as a dependent until four years ago, it was probably a prudent measure back then, but now I just feel ashamed and angry with this coping mechanism of walking away.

To be clear—this is not one or a couple of family members. This is my maternal grandparents, my parents, two of my three siblings, and both their wives. The only people who stand with me on this are my fiancé and my younger sister.

Now that we have a clear point in time in which we are legally and socially viewed as our own family unit, we have agreed it is past time to officially “come out” as our liberal, atheist, feminist selves, knowing full well the severe consequences such an act could bring.

The big questions now, are: What, how, and when? Should we pick and choose which things (racism, sexism, and homophobia) we will no longer tolerate and let other topics (our atheism, which is probably the most controversial) wait until the future? I’d be more comfortable expressing thoughts in written form, as I become tongue-tied during conflict, but I feel like an email or even a letter would be seen as either too impersonal or stiff. Besides, what would I even write? (“You’re shitty people,” seems simultaneously overly dramatic and mostly untrue.) Either way, I should be the messenger, right?

We’d prefer to at least partially communicate some of these things before our wedding, since we are concerned about two particular family members saying or doing something to upset our friends or my fiancé’s family (it would not be out of character). I realize that the only true way I can prevent this is by not inviting them.

Betrothed And Defiant Finally Against Ménage

Dear BAD FAM,

Lady, I’m cheering on you and your decision to put your foot down. Can you hear it? That’s me cheering over here.

But I also want to beg you to pull back the reins on this decision to Make a Statement and Write a Letter and Set Everyone Straight. I know, I know. Frustration and resentment of these ill-conceived opinions has been bubbling under the surface for so long, now. You’re just ready to let them have it! But, gentle words win these wars, my friend. Being loud and angry has its place for sure, but personal relationships lend themselves to gentle discussions and thoughtful boundaries. Put another way: you love these guys. They love you. Why not say your piece, I don’t know, lovingly?

When you see the goal as less, “Let these people know what jerkwads they’re being!” and more, “Get these folks to see my side of things,” it just makes sense to be kinder and gentler with your words. Personally, I would be easily put on the defensive and shut down a bit if someone suddenly said, “STOP. This stuff you’ve been saying forever is wrong and I hate it and you need to stop for these bullet pointed reasons.” I think we’d all bristle. A formal proclamation is too stiff for your relationship, and probably too aggressive to come off as anything but an attack. Winning someone over is very different from beating someone down. That former one takes words that are honest, but kind.

So that’s all well and good: kind and honest words, etc., etc. But how does that play out practically? I would start by doing just as you say—write down your thoughts. If that’s the way you think best, go ahead. Write it all down. Think about it. Consider what you believe and why. Think about what your loved ones will probably say at the next Thanksgiving dinner table, and how you would ideally respond. Then, read over what you’ve written and get it solidly in your noggin. Prepare yourself, because if you’re like me, when you’re passionate about something, it’s sometimes hard to be “honest and kind.” Those two words don’t naturally exist simultaneously for me.

Then, wait for the conversation to arise, and be ready to contribute.

Some “honest and kind” things to say might include, “Have you thought about it this way?” or “I’d prefer if you didn’t use those words around me, and here’s why.” In short, just address things as they come up and don’t hide who you are. For example, there’s no need to make a public statement “coming out” as an atheist. But if religion is being discussed, it’s natural within the flow of conversation to say, “Well, I’m not sure that that’s true. Here’s how I see it,” and chime in with your atheist viewpoint.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s okay to not address every terrible thing that’s said in your presence. It takes time to grow comfortable sharing your distinct opinions (especially when they differ so vastly from those around you), and beyond that, no one needs anything shoved down their throats constantly. Once your family understands your viewpoint, they won’t need you to police their conversation with, “That’s bad, too. And that. That too.”

Meanwhile, it’s important to know what you can and can’t ask of these loved ones. It’s fair to request certain derogatory words or statements not be spoken in your presence if they make you feel uncomfortable. It’s fair to voice disagreement, most especially when someone says something in an, “Am I right, guys?” sort of joking manner that makes you complicit. But it’s not fair to flat out ask loved ones who have differing opinions to just not speak about them in front of you. If anything, you’re then doing exactly what you’re afraid your family will do to you. That’s no good.

Of course, there are worst-case scenarios here. Maybe they never talk to you again. Maybe they kick you out of the family and never again utter your name. More likely, maybe they tease and rib you about your passionate serious beliefs. But before you jump to assumptions, give your family the opportunity to be adults, to treat you respectfully (like an adult with distinct opinions) and give them the time it takes to adjust to seeing you in this new light. This is not a light switch situation we’re talking about.

As far as the wedding—come right out and ask your family not to offend your friends. But also warn your friends that you have family prone to saying some off-color stuff. This is another case of, “let adults be adults” and “you can’t change your family for your wedding,” but there is certainly a line where you can ask that your loved ones avoid being racist and derogatory to your other guests.

Communicating this stuff isn’t so much about bracing for the wedding as it is laying a foundation for the family you’re building together—an independent, thinking family that will operate on its own terms, with opinions all your own and will share them with honesty and kindness.

*****

Team Practical, how do you handle loved ones who have very different opinions and perspectives (and maybe are closed off to yours)?

Photo by APW sponsor Gabriel Harber Photography.

If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Liz at: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though it really makes our day when you come up with a clever sign-off!

Liz Moorhead

Liz is an illustrator and writer who paints custom stationery and types up impassioned opinions about weddings, etiquette, feminism and motherhood (usually while shaking a fist and mumbling expletives around mouthfuls of cheese fries). Her spare time is spent sipping bourbon with her husband and playing Don’t Throw That in the Toilet with her son.

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  • Laura

    Oof, this one is rough. I was right there with you, BAD FAM, getting angry and writing that letter to your family in my head. But I think Liz is spot on here. They may be bigoted, homophobic, sexist people, but if your goal is truly to change their behavior, you’re better off winning them over by standing up (gently, firmly, kindly) to their misguided beliefs than writing a family-wide declaration.

    Something else to consider — can you get your sister on board with this “coming out” movement? She seems to share your egalitarian beliefs. Is she ready to stand up to their bad behavior? If so, showing a united front at family gatherings may be a helpful way to show your family that it’s not just that one crazy couple with your nutty liberal beliefs, but several people whom they know and love. It’s much less isolating to have another person on your side in tough situations like this.

    In many cases, I think changing behavior is easier than changing beliefs. You know what? You’re probably never going to convince your bigoted grandmother that gay people deserve the same treatment as everyone else. But can you try to shape her behavior so that she doesn’t make homophobic comments when you’re around? Of course you can.

    I think the hardest part of this journey is realizing that you may never change their minds. And that’s okay. At the end of the day, their bad behavior is only a reflection on them. Your sane, delightful, adult wedding guests probably have a few embarrassing family members of their own. They know you well enough to understand that your relatives’ beliefs are not a reflection of your own.

  • Jennifer

    I absolutely agree, please do not make one sweeping declaration to your family. Those never turn out well, and can often ruin relationships forever. My sister came home for Christmas one year, and on Christmas Eve announced she no longer believed in Jesus and she would never attend church again, though we’ve been attending a Christmas morning services as a family for well over two decades. She also ranted about how ignorant people who believe in Jesus are, and basically threw a big “I’m right and you’re wrong” fit that went on to totally random tangents about how southerners are stupid and backwards. What could have been a calm, rational discussion about how she no longer believes in the same things we did nearly tore our family apart.

    Now, I know my sister is an extreme case, and I’m sure you wouldn’t go quite that In Your Face with it, especially since your biggest issues seem to be more about racism/sexism/homophobia (which I totally get, because my extended family and soon-to-be in laws are very similar to yours, it seems). But there is a time and a place for a discussion. Choose it wisely, like Liz said. Wait for it to come up organically, instead of making a grand announcement that will put everyone on the defensive.

    I think if my sister would have gone about it a softer way, things would’ve ended differently. I totally understand people have different beliefs, and I don’t want to push mine on anyone. But being told I’m stupid for my beliefs definitely put me on the defensive and made me not really hear anything she said after that. Even if people’s beliefs are backwards and ignorant, you can’t flat out tell them that if you are wanting to see progress. It takes time and gentle discussions and learning. It won’t be an overnight change, but if you are careful and diligent about it, you might actually change some minds! (About the sexism/racism aspects, anyway. I’m assuming you aren’t wanting to convince them that atheism is the way to go, just that it is the way you have chosen to go, right?)

    • Laura

      I would second the comment about choosing the time and place appropriately. My brother, in a long line of family men who are the kings of avoidance, waited until he was LITERALLY walking out the door after a visit to my parents’ house to drop the, “We don’t believe in God and we’re not having a church wedding” bomb on them. As he drove home, my parents were stuck wondering when, why, and how this all came to be.

      Had he just bitten the bullet and brought it up when there was time to explain their reasons for not wanting a church wedding, my parents’ feelings may still have been hurt, but they would at least have understood. Instead, they were left feeling shell-shocked and deeply hurt.

      So yes, obviously say your piece firmly but respectfully. But I would also caution against dropping it like a bombshell on your unsuspecting family.

  • http://alithompsonart.com Also Ali

    Hello, letter writer. I am you! I am you, ten years into the future, with most of this behind me but not all.

    I am a super-liberal, feminist atheist who grew up with a very conservative, deeply religious Southern Baptist family in the Deep Deep South. Who now lives in the Northeast and is about to be engaged to an atheist, feminist, Marxist. (Who is the most amazing man.)

    So. Deep breaths. This stuff is hard. You’re right that if your family is religious, the atheism is going to be the biggest issue. How long do you have before the wedding? Because it took a long time for the OMG of me being an atheist to blow over. Like years. You may not have enough time before the wedding for them to deal with the shock. The problem with being an atheist is that people tend to default assume that you are some kind of religious.

    My advice– if you’re going to church with them, stop. Stop now. Roll it out slowly with something like you’re not comfortable with church. Be honest but not aggressive if they question you. They will get used to this eventually and at some point you can say you don’t believe in god, if you want to. Be clear, if asked, that your wedding won’t be religious. But you also don’t have to offer any extra information. So don’t.

    If your family is involved with a church that requires them to witness to people, this is a harder task, because they WILL get all up in your business. Be firm, but kind. They are worried that you are going to hell, which is a big deal to people who believe in it. It’s hard to remember while they are hassling you, but this does come out of love and concern.

    If they go to a church that doesn’t involve a lot of witnessing and preaching to convert people, they may not get up in your face. They may whisper about it to other family members. Let them. You only have to deal with what is presented to you. If they don’t present anything, you don’t have to deal with anything. My boyfriend’s family is more mainstream Protestant, and we have just politely declined to go to church with the family. And nothing else has come of it.

    As for the politics and racism/sexism/etc– I deal with this by leaving the room. I say, you know I don’t believe in that/like it when you say that. And then I bail, going nope nope nope nope, all the way.

    If your family love you (and I’m sure they do), they will want you around. If you leave every time they start in on some garbage, they will eventually get the message and cut it out, just to have you around. We have HUGE areas of things in my family that we just don’t talk about. And when they get racist, I will get sharp with them before I exit a room.

    They have learned that if they would like me around (which they presumably do), they can’t say stuff like that around me. And yeah, it’s infuriating and embarrassing. But I can’t make them be different people. Depending on your family dynamic, they could turn your big stand on things into a chance to needle you.

    Bottom line– you’re an adult. The only leverage you have over them is your presence. So if they’re behaving in a way you can’t stand, you leave. Don’t think you will change their minds, b/c you probably won’t.

    (Sorry this is so long, but I’ve been dealing with this with my family for twenty years. I had a lot of pent up advice in my brain.)

    • http://alithompsonart.com Also Ali

      I also wanted to add that people seem to respond better to “I’m not religious” rather than the word atheist. It’s not necessarily fair, but it’s true.

      When I don’t want to fight with people (like at my day job), I tell them I’m not religious. Just the word atheist seems to make people defensive.

      • Alison O

        Yeah I think some people read into “atheist” that you must also be thinking, “and I think you’re unintelligent/irrational/gullible/backwards/old-fashioned/etc. for believing what you do”, despite the fact that atheism is more often personal than proselytizing.

        • Aubry

          That is enlightening for me, thank you. I come from a mom who was raised roman catholic and ducked out of that asap. She raised us very liberal, athiest, feminist, and compassionate. I have only 2 very liberal and almost non-practicing christian friends, and all other friends and most aquainances, buisness contacts (as far as I can tell), and any one else I can think of are somewhere on the passively-kinda-christian to agnostic to athiest spectrum. This leaves me with so little understanding of the mind set of people who are reactionary religious thinkers. I really struggle to think from thier side, cause it make absolutely no sence to me. Having your athiesm be the biggest issue boggles my mind.

          So thank you for giving me a bit of perspective. I can totally understand being reactionary if you think someone is judging you/thinking less of you. After all, we feel that way often about religious people judging us athiests.

    • Laura C

      What an amazing comment. I wasn’t going to comment in this thread because I really have no experience with this issue so didn’t think I had anything to add, but I just had to say how thoughtful and I have to believe helpful this is.

      • 39bride

        What Laura said. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to read that comment. Most bigotry, sexism, etc., stems out of genuine ignorance–not ignorance of ideas or logic or argument, but ignorance of experience.

        I think of my white mother, whose first adult best friend in the late 1960s when she moved to Washington DC was an amazing African American woman who quickly became a leader in her developing field. My generally loving, helping the poor, teaching the uneducated, etc., grandparents were initially horrified. The only African Americans they’d known in their small town were 1) the truck loaders/unloaders who had robbed by truck-driving grandfather and 2) the dirt-floor-poor families in the local shanty town who had received such little education they didn’t even know basic cooking and hygiene (my grandmother gave them food from her gigantic garden and tried to teach them basic care).

        My mother hasn’t told me a ton about the transition, but she said it “took awhile for them to realize that skin color had nothing to do with education, intelligence and character, and they came to love her as much as I did.” In 1971 my mother’s friend was a bridesmaid at her wedding, and my most-cherished picture of my own wedding last year is the two of them lacing me into my dress.

        I myself grew up in a very multi-cultural/racial circle, so I would’ve been sensitive to any differences coming from my grandparents (with whom I spent extensive time), but I never noticed even a whiff of racism from them. I can’t know their hearts, but I do know that my mother not “laying down the law” definitely changed their behavior dynamic and made her friend a lifelong member of our family.

        Yes, there are the just plain hateful people out there, but so many of them just need some sneaky education that can only come interacting with someone they love who has a lesson to teach them.

        Good luck, Letter Writer! Let your compassion that is obviously directed at so many worthy people spill over to your family, who simply may have not had the opportunities to have their beliefs productively challenged in they ways you have.

        • 39bride

          What I didn’t say very well above in my trip down memory lane is that the original comment was refreshing because came at things not as “God, they’re horrible and I need to set them straight,” but from a perspective of trying to understand them (they are worried about you going to hell) and realize their intentions (in their own minds) are good. This doesn’t mean you have to accept that it’s all okay, but you have to look at it with compassion, understanding and respect if your goal is to stay connected to them without comprising your values or developing a blood pressure problem from ignoring them.

        • J

          “Most bigotry, sexism, etc., stems out of genuine ignorance–not ignorance of ideas or logic or argument, but ignorance of experience.”

          I think that’s such an important comment. If you look at it this way, you realize that you might not be able to debate them out of their views, but that, by sharing your experiences and perspectives, you might expose them to other ways of thinking that might influence their own.

    • Katelyn

      LW here – thank you SOO much for all of your wise words. Right now it feels like this huge, overwhelming thing. But I think if I kind pipe up just a tiny bit at each family gathering, eventually I’ll get there.

      Did you have a particular family member who was kind of the bigot bandleader? My oldest brother is, and unfortunately his life is so entangled in my father and grandfather’s lives (they all farm together in the rural Midwest) that any beef I take with him could quickly snowball into disaster. I think this is why it seems so difficult – he and I have a very shaky past and I get a bit panicked just thinking about butting heads with him again.

      Fortunately! He and his wife are pregnant – due right around our wedding date! So it’s extraordinarily unlikely they’ll be in attendance. We can easily explain away my offensive grandfather (which we’ve already started, although we probably need to keep him away from my fiance’s adopted black cousin) and enjoy our day without that stress.

      • http://alithompsonart.com Also Ali

        My whole family is pretty bad, and I’ve had to hide a lot of Facebook feeds just to keep my sanity intact.

        But my sister is definitely the worst, and she is a crap stirrer, so she always likes to bring up things to needle me and escalate them from there.

        It’s hard. I’ve spent a lot of family time in other rooms, shaking and fuming. I was very worried to introduce them all to my boyfriend because of how they can act. But he has said that they don’t actually reflect badly on me. He said that seeing them in action makes me look better to him because he can see how much I’ve had to overcome.

        I have distanced myself from my sister over time and at this point I have cut off contact. Mainly it’s because she still behaves in the same abusive way she did when we were teenagers, and we’re both in our 30s now.

        She’s also the most fundamentalist of evangelical Christians. She won’t let it go. She won’t stop trying to convert me. She has compared my views to Hitler and people who kill and rape babies. But she demands respect for beliefs that I don’t agree with. Can’t agree with or sign off on or be silent about.

        This is not to even mention her being racist or trying to humilite me in front of my boyfriend. I feel like I don’t even know her. Like I’m not sure I would want to know her if she wasn’t in my family.

        So this year, it came to me like something out of a dream– I don’t have to put up with this. Just because we are family doesn’t mean I have to allow myself to be abused.

        My parents are pretty unhappy about my decision not to have contact with her, but I felt like I had to. And I was prepared to take a break from seeing them if they decided to try to force the issue.

        Will she be invited to the wedding? I don’t know yet. But all the people who love me, they know how she is. And I know that my friends will support me when I get married, and if she decides to behave badly, they will think badly of HER. Not me.

        But (and again, I’m sorry this is so long)– I’m not having beef with her. I have had enough of her abuse, so I am limiting her ability to stike out at me. I actually feel bad for her in a lot of ways, but I have to protect myself and my new baby family with my boyfriend, so I won’t get tied up in her drama anymore.

        My family behaves slightly better around my boyfriend, so I ask him to be with me to deflect them (slightly). If there’s someone you can ask to help you for that purpose, go ahead.

        It’s not the end of the world if your family is angry with you because you’re an atheist or because you won’t put up with bigoted comments. They’ll get over it, and you’ll have marked off a space in your relationship with them where you can be you.

        Also, I don’t know how your family is, but mine is very passive aggressive with this stuff. I find if I act like what I’m doing is no big deal, I don’t give them a place to start in on me. When I don’t expect a reaction from them, I give them less space to react, if that makes sense.

        You can do this! And you’ll feel better once you’re being your honest self with them. They love you, and I’d be willing to be that they will settle down once the shock wears off.

        • Katelyn

          <3

          I really do think you are me from the future. Your family dynamics are so, so similar.

          Again, thank you so much. I know it doesn't save you any heartache, but your words have profoundly affected my future decisions and reactions for the better. It is so comforting to see someone who has gone through the same – I have no peers who can relate.

          • http://alithompsonart.com Also Ali

            I sometimes wish I could go back in time and offer past me a hug. I offer hugs to you instead! :)

            I am so so glad I could help you. I can’t even tell you how happy that makes me.

            Everything will work itself out. I’m from the future, so I know. :)

    • Audrey

      This comment is great, but I do have one quick note on the church thing.

      Sometimes your loved ones will have certain things that will make them feel better. In my mom’s case, she appreciates it when I come to church with her for holidays even though she knows I am not religious. While there’s generally no middle ground for bigoted statements, I don’t know if you have to 100% stop going to church with them to make a point.

      This does somewhat depend on the church, how you feel, etcetera.

      • Sarah McD

        This is me exactly. I grew up in a devoutly Roman Catholic family and our lives revolved around church / church activities / church organizations. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change anything about how I was raised and believe religious involvement can be a good thing if it makes you a better person. I also wouldn’t change the fact I’m now an atheist. It’s been unspoken knowledge for a few years that I don’t go to church anymore and have only attended church with my family at Christmas and Easter. It was still a shock to my family when I told them I’m not having a Catholic wedding ceremony, and when they asked why I told them because I’m atheist. It’s been rocky navigating our relationship (they could have handled not-Catholic-but-still-a-theist but they’re struggling with the atheism thing). My mom has been incredibly supportive of me living my life genuinely, but asked if I would continue attending Mass with them and my brother on holidays. It’s more about continuing a family tradition than attempting to “convert” me back, so I agreed with the condition that I’m not expected to receive Communion.

        That said, I made the decision that was right for me and my fiancé. If I had thought my parents were trying to wear me down and push me back into the Church, I would have flatly refused. No one knows you and your family better than you. I’m a “devout” atheist who will happily continue attending holiday Mass because family traditions mean the world to my mom, and that decision doesn’t make “delegitimize” my atheism. What matters is being able to wake up every morning and have the peace of knowing you are living your life genuinely.

  • Amy March

    I agree with all of Liz’s advice here. And add one “trick”- you may not convince gramma to not be hateful, but there’s a competing value: politeness and hospitality. So if gramma says something rude, you can respond with “Gosh gramma that’s not terribly polite. I hope you won’t talk like that around our guests at the wedding. It might make them uncomfortable”

    • Itsy bitsy

      This is a FANTASTIC point.

  • http://texancountess.wordpress.com KendraD

    Something that I read in an advice column once that has really resonated and stuck with me is that you cannot change another person’s behavior, only how you react to it. You cannot make your family non-bigoted. You can however choose to quit being complicit in their actions. This can range from anything as gently changing the subject or voicing disagreement to leaving the room or ending a conversation if necessary.

    My parents and I don’t see eye to eye on political levels and my in-laws and my husband don’t match up on religious ones. We’ve learned to gently steer the conversations that we have with them away from subjects that will just upset us all. Generally, if they say something that we disagree with, we simply tell them that we’ll have to agree to disagree and change the subject. On the rare occasion that we can’t get to a better topic, we end the conversation.

    As far as homophobic or racial slurs I would tell them when it’s used that I’m not comfortable with the usage and ask them to refrain from doing so. If they refuse or become antagonistic, I would leave. Again, you cannot control how they choose to behave, but you can choose not to subject yourself to it.

    • Breck

      I needed to hear this today. My best friend keeps trying to talk to me about the government shutdown from a Fox News-perspective, and it’s been driving me nuts. I keep beating myself up for getting so riled up about it and being incapable of having a calm, mature discussion about it, but from now on I’m just going to take your advice and change the subject.

    • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

      It’s great advice and, in fact, that’s generally the underlying message of any sound advice column. (I’m kind of an advice column junkie :) It’s good to remember in all life challenges: you are responsible for your own words and actions, and you cannot change another’s words and actions. You can set a good example. You can refuse to be complicit. You can set boundaries for your own life and enforce them.

  • H

    I had an interesting experience where my dad told me that he was sexist (though in quite a few more words; e.g. if women have kids they should stay at home with them until the kid is age 5 and in school, no matter if the wife is making more money than the husband (not even thinking of same sex relationships), and that he would think less of the man in the relationship because he wasn’t a “man”), and I was absolutely shocked, given that he’s also the one that has taught me to be awesome enough to go to grad. school and accomplish all the things.

    Then, I recently went home for the first time since I’ve been married, and mom and dad started being like “Are you pregnant?” “Who’s the boss in your relationship?” “H, why don’t you fix a plate for your husband at dinner?” and I was like, ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? NO.

    Thankfully, husband refused to take this as well and helped me come up with polite answers. After I got back from the trip, I had an email from my dad telling me that I was becoming a self-absorbed brat, and I said, “Maybe because you’re putting a lot of pressure on me to do shit that I wouldn’t dare. You know me, and I don’t understand where these expectations are coming from. They weren’t there before we married, and now they are. Maybe you should examine yourself some.” While it didn’t go over great, it also wasn’t talked about after that, and now things are *roughly* fine. We’ll see where they are when I go home next.

    So, I am in 100% agreement with Liz above. Be nice but firm in your views, as many times as it takes, and actually, preferably never giving them a label. People respond quite defensively to labels. Ask people to look at their own views and expectations for you, and really think about them, and whether those are their decisions to make.

    Yes your parents/family will tell you that this isn’t how you were raised, but duh! you know that already.

    • Marisa-Andrea

      Oh wow. That’s intense. I’ve made it clear to family that my marriage is not up for discussion under any circumstances and thankfully people have respected that.

    • https://twitter.com/SnippetsofSarah Sarah E

      That’s a great point about the labels. People will respond with a major knee-jerk defense if you call them a name (even if it’s true), but like Amy March commented above, saying you think it’s rude or mean-spirited is harder to argue.

      I do, however, like to play into “how you were raised,” as another point where you can agree with your family first, then voice your opinion. I’m a fan of “Mom and Dad, you always raised me to be kind and compassionate towards my neighbor, and to be a well-educated leader. I don’t think [X comments or viewpoint] are compassionate or kind, and as a leader, I won’t tolerate them around me.”

    • Sarah McD

      I had my dad do something similar to me after I told my parents I was an atheist. I was berated, talked down to, and flat-out told by my dad that I’m making a mistake by not having a religious wedding and my wedding “won’t be a wedding at all because it’s not in the Church, that’s a civil union and I can’t support that.” I had the exact same reaction as you – I was raised to be honest, genuine, resilient, and independent, and all of the sudden I was being told to do the exact opposite. However, I’m lucky enough that it’s only my dad engaging in that behavior and my mom supports me 100%.

      My fiancé has been my rock through this mess and told me something that helped – communication is a two-way street, and it’s only 50% your responsibility. You can’t be expected to be responsible for 75, 95, or 100% of it. You do your part and keep your side of the street clean, and if the other person’s side isn’t clean, that’s not your fault. I’ve talked to my dad about his actions and words and emphasized that what he SAID hurt me, but did not throw labels at him or pass judgment on him as a person. If he continues to act like nothing happened and no apology is needed after hurting me deeply, then at least I know I fulfilled my half of communicating. He may not be allowed to walk me down the aisle because of how he is acting, and I won’t have any regrets if it comes to that.

    • Marta

      DUDE! My dad too. He had all girls and I was his “stand-in son” growing up. Yard work, manual labor, etc etc. Now that I’m married, he’s suddenly appalled that I am the one mowing the lawns and fixing the fence, and has expressed sympathy for my “poor husband” on more than one occasion. Also, I should cook every night or I am a bad wife.

      I don’t know where any of this is coming from! It’s totally bizarre.

  • Chalk

    Your family is used to the passive way you’ve handled yourself in these situations, and a sudden 180 degree turn in your reaction to them isn’t really fair. I like Liz’s advice to be kind, firm and gradual in your reaction to their behavior – it gives them the opportunity to process your “new” beliefs. Because they are new to your family, even though they aren’t new to you. Once you’ve introduced your values, live them naturally and without pretense, and hopefully you can continue enjoying what you love about your family. We need more people in this world (and government) who can live peacefully alongside beliefs they don’t necessarily agree with.

    • Robin

      I wouldn’t say that it’s “not fair” for LW to change her reactions to racism and homophobia! It is genuinely not fair that she’s had to feel uncomfortable around her own beloved family for so long, as a dependent.

      That said, I think kind and firm and using the natural flow of conversation is the best way to go about this. And I second what you said here: “they are new to your family, even though they aren’t new to you.” It will definitely be an adjustment!

      Fistbumps of solidarity to the LW! I encourage you to use a tactic from the awesome Captain Awkward, which is to think up things your family is likely to say, and then come up with scripts that you think you could say in response. These scripts are *not* for INCISIVE COMMENTARY and RHETORICAL FLOURISHES and RALLYING THE ANTIRACISM BRIGADE. These scripts are to keep you from flailing in unhappy uncertainty. You’ll have the tools in your coping toolbox, so to speak, so you won’t be caught totally off guard and react poorly.

      Like,
      Your Parent: “Haha, homophobic joke!”
      You: “Wow. That really isn’t funny to me. Please don’t say stuff like that around me. Hey, can I get your recipe for our special holiday cookies?”

      or

      A Sibling: “LOLZ BRO IN LAW, DOES SIS WEAR THE PANTS IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP?”
      Your Partner: (startled look)
      You: “Hey, Sib, that’s not funny, and it makes me sad to hear that tired old joke from you. Do you wanna go play golf instead? Dibs on driving the cart!”

      Changing the topic to a better one, and physically removing yourself, are good tactics for dealing with my family. They may work for yours too!

      • Chalk

        I agree with you that it’s too bad LW has been uncomfortable for so long. However, I think it’s unfair to lay down your boundary without letting people know it’s there, and then wait for someone to trip that wire and have sirens go off. That’s what I meant by my comment.

    • Amber

      One thing that might also happen, since there has been no mention of this previously, is that the fiance might be viewed as a “brainwasher” that doesn’t allow the original poster the ability to think for themselves.

      This, of course, is not true (and wasn’t in my case) but since the family will observe this perceived HUGE shift after the fiance came into the mix, it’s possible a lot of their frustration (and loss of influence) may land squarely on fiance’s shoulders.

      • Sarah S

        I got some heat from my husband’s conservative family, especially his dad, when he found out that my husband was voting for Obama. Which is ridiculous because my husband is a social worker…OF COURSE he’s voting for Obama, it had nothing to do with me! I’m not a campaigner or anything, and I had never given any indication of my political beliefs – he just assumed (though he was correct). Around the same time they were also giving him a lot of crap about being “whipped.” Which, just…..ugh.

        The good news is that that behavior has stopped, and stopped long enough ago that it’s just a vague memory and not a stain on our current relationship.

  • Anonymous for this

    My dad is sometimes racist and sexist. He actually loves that I am not though so in our house I can basically say “Can you say that another way?” and he thinks about it but that is our dynamic that comes from me and him fighting a lot in my teens over this stuff and then hugging because we are both fiery celts with quick tempers.

    With my in-laws though there is not that dynamic. I have to find other ways to be polite and explain my view points. I have at one point been driven to “that is simply not true” when a situation in my city was being misrepresented in a way to put down all Muslims but then had to stop, step back and think about what I said next so that I did not have a stand up row with my father in law.

    I try to smile a lot when these conversations are happening and sometimes to not get into an argument we have a conversation along these lines

    Family member: I hate such and such a thing/ group because xxxxxxxx
    Me: I like it/them
    Family member: But don’t you just hate xxxxxxx
    Me: Actually I like it/them
    FM: But xxxxxx
    Me: (continues to refuse to get into it). I have to respectfully disagree, I like it/them.

    It usually ends the fight before it starts but it also not backing down.

    I also politely question things. So when another person says “That is so gay” (with gay meaning rubbish) I might say “how? In what way? because that doesn’t fit my understanding of that word” (politely playing dumb) or when I’ve done that a few times I go back to what I say to my dear Dad “Can you rephrase that?”.

    I pick my battles though. There is some racist humour I cannot stand but I try to keep back if people are drunk as that could end up in a full scale war and is not the time to try and change people’s minds or behaviours. I think being polite and kind and smiley and non aggressive in all that you do makes your point a lot easier to take, but it is slow and gentle and will not happen overnight.

    Oh and my Dad and I had a TERRIBLE relationship for years over those fights and it was a whole lot of tragedy that brought us back together so please don’t put yourself in that situation if you don’t have to. It was horrible and that is why my husband and I are trying a much softer approach with this part of his family…

    • Anonymous for this

      Oh and I think they now think I have no sense of humour now as I often say “I don’t find that funny” when they make jokes about Chinese people in a Chinese restaurant, in front of the Chinese staff. Going in to why when they are all drunk is not going to go anywhere but hopefully they might stop eventually (they do it less now – and my husband backs me up – and understands and agrees with me finding it so very offensive and, RUDE) and backs me up on this – which, as it is his family, is cool. I reckon they all blame me for him being not keen on those jokes or comments and in that case I don’t care either – if I’ve made him more aware of this that is something I am totally okay with.

  • Newtie

    One thing that has helped me deal with this issue is to not argue or try to convince the people with racist/homophobic/etc views, but rather to focus on my own feelings and beliefs. So when Grandma says something racist, I say, “Grandma, it makes me uncomfortable when you say racist things.” To which she usually replies something like, “It’s not racist if it’s TRUE!” I don’t then argue about whether or not it’s true – instead I just say, “Well, I disagree with you, and it upsets me to hear you talk like that.” If someone tries to engage me in a conversation about whether or not whatever they said is really ok, I don’t go there. I just stay focused on how racism/homophobia/etc make me feel uncomfortable/unhappy and that I don’t agree with them.

    Now if someone says something hurtful in front of me, usually someone else will say, “Oh, don’t say that in front of Newtie, she doesn’t like that kind of thing!” And then they all look at me, smiling. To which I say, soberly, “It’s true, those kinds of comments upset me. Thank you for not saying them in front of me.”

    I don’t think I’ve really changed any minds completely, but I wasn’t going to change them by arguing with them or trying to make salient points. But I figure just by saying my truth — that x,y, and z are racist/homophobic comments, that I don’t agree with them, and that I don’t want to hear them — I’m at least being honest to myself, and letting everyone else in the room know there are other ways to think if they choose to do so.

    I find this strategy has worked in terms of maintaining harmony at family gatherings, because it takes the focus off trying to change or control anyone else.

    • Carly

      THANK YOU. This is such a helpful comment for me personally – nothing makes me see red like the “BUT IT’S TRUE” rebuttal when I dispute racist/homophobic/sexist statements. Especially, when it comes from people like my mother – a difficult relationship that has a whole bunch of other context in there, then combined with this fundamental disagreement.

      I really appreciate this perspective and, let’s be honest, a script to follow especially given the upcoming holidays.

      • Helen

        My brother defends his hilariously bigoted pinons about people of any and all religions with the same line – “it’s not bigoted if it’s the truth”. It makes me think less of him that he can’t see that his behaviour is exactly the same as someone who justifies sweeping generalisations about races, sexes or cultures because it’s “demonstrable” especially since we come from deliciously diverse and liberal family. lol. Get another script, bro.

  • Marisa-Andrea

    I think the advice here is pretty spot on. I think it’s also important to consider that sometimes people need to be challenged but they also need room to work out their own thoughts and what kind of person they want to be and bold letters don’t really lend themselves to that. I grew up with parents who came of age during the civil rights movement, are very pro minority rights etc but would utter homophobic slurs at the dinner table. It was so distressing. As I was reading this, I realize, my parents don’t utter those slurs anymore and now are pro LGBT rights and marriage equality. And I thought when did that happen?! I never slammed my parents for what they said or how they thought; I simply made a decision I wasn’t going to participate in it but I was also going to make my own decisions. There were times in college when my parents questioned my activities and beliefs and I simply told them “this is what I believe” about x or Y. I didn’t force it on them or try to convert them or any of that. And eventually they just worked it out themselves. And if someone wants to argue the point with you, I have learned that there are nice and gentles way to say “I’m sorry I think you’re wrong and I just don’t believe that” and move on. My goal with my family is really to get people to really think about what they believe and their actions and to consider another perspective, not necessarily to see things MY way. Because I want people to decide for themselves that they are bigots or what not and WANT to change.

  • C

    I like Liz’s advice here because she isn’t requiring the letter writer to be patronizing to her family. I think if I was a grandparent and my granddaughter came home and suddenly started telling me that I was rude, I’d get my feathers in a ruffle, even if I WAS being rude by the standards of society at that point in time. It’s much better to respond with something like, “Actually, I don’t see it that way,” or, “I find that term offensive.” It puts the onus on the letter-writer to explain why she thinks the comments are offensive instead of accusing her family of *being* offensive.

  • Itsy bitsy

    Just wanted to pipe in and say that Liz is spot-on. I’ve had the experience of having to draw up some boundaries with loved ones and the gentle, gradual tactic ALWAYS works better than the sudden I HATE THAT YOU SAY THAT FOR THESE VALID BUT AGGRESSIVE REASONS tactic. I’d also like to second the commenter above who mentioned that if, after some time, your gentle tactic isn’t working… you can leave. It sucks to be taken out of the room/conversation, but they’ll eventually catch on.

  • Alison O

    Related to Liz’s advice and that of other commenters here, you may want to check out Nonviolent Communication. It is a concrete four-part framework for communicating that is especially helpful in conflict. I learned about it at the recommendation of a meditation leader when I was dealing with a terrible breakup and overwhelmed with sadness and rage and grappling with how to potentially communicate with my ex. Cliche, but it seriously changed my life; “you can be right or you can be happy”.

    You can learn more here: http://www.cnvc.org (esp. https://www.cnvc.org/Training/NVC-Concepts). There are also talks by the founder, Marshall Rosenberg, on youtube, and he has published several books. It can come off as super hippy dippy, but it’s legit.

    If you think more in-depth guidance about navigating this terrain with your family would be helpful, you could also google “therapist nonviolent communication [your city/region]” and you might find people with a specialty in this, depending on where you live. Good luck.

  • Amy

    I have some of this with my in-laws, but not nearly as much as BAD FAM. Yes, we have very differing political views (they’re Fox News sorts and we’re not) but we just do not talk politics much. My biggest issue is when my brothers in law used the term “that’s so gay!” incorrectly. ie: at all, seeing as how they’ve never befriended a gay person and thus have no idea what’s “gay” or “not gay.” I’ve bantered with them the past couple of years when they use that term, but now that I’m pregnant with our first child I plan to be more serious with my response ie: “I don’t plan to bring up your nephew to use that term” (or any other derogatory terms like gay or retarded) “so I ask that you don’t speak that way around him.” They’re so excited for their nephew, I think that’ll help get through. Thankfully, we have the same religious foundation so I can go into kindness, love, acceptance Jesus-speak if necessary.

  • Alyssa

    These articles by Samantha Allen are focused on transphobia, but totally apply to sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, etc-isms. Really great reads for anyone that wants to think more about both sides: calling out bigoted opinions and what to do when you might be called out on something you’ve said that you don’t realize is not okay.

    http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/5-tips-for-calling-out-transphobia/
    http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/how-to-react-when-youre-called-out-for-transphobia/

    • Aubry

      Oh my, the comments section of the first article makes me filled with rage. I am so glad I’m fortunate enough to be mostly surrounded open minded, compassionate people who would never think to spew so much hate. Or at least they are quiet about it. A nice article though, and I will try to start being more mindful of culturally accepted jabs.

    • moonitfractal

      I particularly like the part that goes ““This is not about you. This is about what you said and why what you said was wrong. I never said you were transphobic, I said your words were transphobic.” Make it absolutely clear that non-transphobic people can still say transphobic things.”

      I think a lot of people get confused about that.

      • itsy bitsy

        Yes, that’s a really good thing to point out. Jay Smooth (who rocks my socks in a totally intellectual way) has an AMAZING video talking about that very thing in the context of racism:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc

  • SarahT

    What great advice!! It mirrors MLK’s own teaching on what persuades people toward equality.

    By the way, it’s not just liberals dealing with conservative families who face this. I come from an irreligious family and needed to learn how to lovingly stand up for myself after converting to Christianity. In this case some of them are also racist and homophobic and size-shaming. Fun! Learning to lovingly interact with them has been a long but enriching process. In our society we tend to huddle with “our people”, whoever that is, whether it’s online or in person. Family is one of the few places you have to struggle with someone who thinks you’re crazy/drives you crazy/is actually crazy and find some common ground, even if it’s just food! No doubt we all need more practice.

  • Whitney S.

    Hi! Deep South native and ex-Southern Baptist here, too. I deal with this on the regular and have a few thoughts:

    1. Don’t send that letter. Feel free to write it and burn it, but sending out a declaration of non-bigot-ness is not going to go well for anyone. Spoiler alert: no one like being told they say/do bigoted things. However, this doesn’t mean they get a pass. They are going to get upset. Most people know these days that being a racist/homophobe is a bad thing. So we tell ourselves stories about how since we aren’t walking around in white sheets and we talk to our black/latino coworker on occasion that we can’t be a jerk. But that implicit stuff is deep and real. It’s uncomfortable to see in ourselves. They will be afraid and feel threatened, but that’s pretty normal.

    2. In addition to a certain “white culture” indoctrination, another major factor that leads to maintaining this nonsense is not hanging out with anyone different from themselves. Support for rights for folk with various sexual orientations and gender expressions is on the rise partially due to people reporting, ” I know an awesome person who happens to be _____.” You can be a facility for change and exposure to things they would otherwise not be exposed to, with it being much safer for you to do so than those who are a part of said various groups. You can help prime your family to open themselves to people who are different from themselves. In order to do this, you do what several people have already suggested in firmly but non-confrontational way, express your discomfort/opposition to what’s going on. If they are unwilling to reflect and change you just leave when they say and do the unacceptable thing. Essentially, it’s behavior modification. Family wants to hang with you, but they don’t get to when they are saying/doing certain things.

    So my overall thesis I guess is this: don’t excuse bad behavior, but don’t run from it either.

    • Amy

      2. Yes! Apparently my extended family-in-law all kinda had the idea that mixed-race marriage wasn’t the best idea. They certainly weren’t running around in white robes, but they still held that mindset. Then one of my cousins-in-law married a black man. Then they saw how normal and great that was, they adore him, their children and had their views completely changed.

      • KH_TAS

        Hopefully I can be your cousin-in-law (metaphorically) for my extended family, because there’s some issues with some people along those lines, and some extra knowledge will hopefully do some good

  • Anonymous

    I have a bit of this with my family too. I think the advice is fantastic. I try my best to follow it myself, but am often met with condescending laughter, like my liberal beliefs that we need to help those in our society most in need is SO NAIVE. or something. I don’t know.

    I hope the OP’s family responds with respect and understanding that we’re all individuals and have the right to our own beliefs, but it’s my experience that when you’re interacting with people with bigoted beliefs, they don’t respect other people’s right to think differently (I think it’s the otherness that is the heart of their issues). I strongly believe in the Golden Rule, to treat others how you want to be treated, and I hope every day that it becomes contagious ;)

  • https://twitter.com/SnippetsofSarah Sarah E

    To share my own experience, which is a small sliver in comparison to the Letter Writer’s family, my own brother did not react well when I said a misogynist joke was offensive. Usually, he and I are on each other’s team, and we’ve both been raised to be accepting and kind.

    However, when I pointed out that the “joke” he shared on Facebook was actually incredibly offensive, he basically said I was a militant feminist and that I overreacted. So be prepared for people to tell you that you have no sense of humor and that you’re a complete radical. I responded to my brother, saying that even if he didn’t agree with me, I thought he would at least be concerned that I was hurt by his words. No conclusion yet, But just my two cents on when family members say shitty things when you don’t expect it.

    • http://alithompsonart.com Also Ali

      If I could ban the words “it’s just a joke” I so would.

  • Carly

    I have nothing terribly salient to input here, as I’m working through a much more mild version of this with my own family members, but I do have a bright spot to shine a light on: My 83 year old staunchly Catholic grandmother – sweet, but not the most open-minded lady ever – recently called out my grandpa and uncle for speculating whether a distant relative was gay, saying “what should it matter – he’s a human being!”

    I was floored and so proud – there is hope! I’ll get her in the pride parade yet ;)

    • Sarah McD

      Go Grandma! <3

  • Reggie

    Jay Smooth made this video back during the 2008 election, but it is still relevant to having conversations about bigotry. He suggests that when talking to someone who says or does something racist, focus on what they said or did and not calling them racist. Calling someone a bigot is an unwinnable rabbit hole of an argument, especially when dealing with family.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc

  • http://www.twitter.com/babyinabar Shotgun Shirley

    This so prescient, as I prepare for my Midwest family reunion this weekend!

  • never.the.same

    I’ll second the Jay Smooth recommendation! It’s always important to talk about the things people do or say, and not what they are. (i.e. “That is a shitty thing to say” and not “you’re a shitty person”)

    But I’m not sure I quite agree with Liz’s advice, in the sense that I don’t think your family’s reaction is more important than you being able to (finally) say your piece. You’re trying to break a long standing pattern of behavior and negate a lot of longstanding assumptions your family has made about you, and nicely asking “Have you thought about this way?” probably won’t do the trick. I do agree that you should be kind and honest, but I’d suggest being a bit more hard-lined than Liz does. That means calling out derogatory language and it may also mean asking your family refrain from talking about things like gay rights around you. You absolutely CAN ASK that of family. There are plenty of “nice” ways of saying horrible things, like, “I think gay people shouldn’t be able to get married or work with kids and I believe they are all pedophiles, bless their hearts.” Is that something you want to live with every time you see them, so long as they don’t use a slur while doing so?

    I also think writing a letter is good. Don’t call your family shitty people, obviously. You do love them. But you also have your new baby family to consider, and you should write the letter in the spirit of protecting and defining the kind of family, household and life you want with your husband. If it’s one that works to be free to bigotry, you absolutely get to ask that and you absolutely get to ask that of your family of origin. You won’t get it 100%, in all likelihood, but you do get to say your piece and have it listened to (or read). Certainly your family has had more than their share of saying what they believe. I think if you write a letter talking about the things you believe and asking for respect of those beliefs, that will give you something to lean on in further conversations. Throw in a few lines about understanding that your family disagrees is really as much as you should say about them, beyond asking what and how they can do to support you.

    • http://seasofgales.wordpress.com KH_TAS

      There are plenty of “nice” ways of saying horrible things

      Precisely.

  • Marcela

    Any advice for when you can not get away? I have a family member that likes to start this sort of thing when we are in the car or some other sort of no easy escape situation. I’ve tried telling them that we should just agree to disagree but they are not the type of let something go. I had to endure a two hour car argument recently and really need to find a solution before we meet up again.

    Help!

    • LMN

      Marcela, that sounds really rough. I’m sorry to hear that you have to deal with this kind of behavior from anyone, especially from family. I would do everything I could to avoid being in the situation in the first place. Does it only happen when you’re alone with them? If so, try to bring along a buffer friend or relative who knows what’s up and will work with you to change the conversation when needed.

      If you do get stuck in a car alone with your argumentative relative, you could politely tell them right off the bat that you need a nap or some quiet time: “Do you mind if I just close my eyes for a few minutes?” Then pop in your ear buds and close your eyes. Or, if the person starts in on a rant, you could stop responding after you’ve said your “let’s agree to disagree.” It might defuse the argument if you opt out of the conversation altogether. Or the person might take it as an opportunity to lecture you non-stop, in which case–headphones! Music or favorite podcast! Deep breaths and feigned sleep until you can escape! Best of luck finding the right tactic to defuse this uncomfortable situation.

    • Beth

      I agree – perhaps a bit of “I’d actually prefer not to talk about this right now.” And if they keep on, you can reiterate that you’d like to talk about something else and that you hope they can respect that request as you would like to enjoy your time with them. If they keep on even after that? Well, yes I think it would be fair to pop in the earphones.

  • Kate

    Read lots and lots of Captain Awkward! She has tons of letters that cover all kinds of similar situations. http://www.captainawkward.com

    Good luck!