How Do I Make Sure My Racist Mom Doesn’t Offend My Friends?

She describes herself as tolerant...

empty beer bottles on table with flowers in vases and succulents and a candle

Q: I grew up in a small Midwestern town (town is a strong word; there were fewer than five hundred people) and couldn’t wait to leave. I now live in a liberal Midwestern city within a day’s drive of where my mom still lives. She would probably describe herself as tolerant (and compared to her community, she really is) but she is a product of her upbringing and the closed-off, virtually all-white area of the country where she lives. Over the years, I’ve talked her out of some racist beliefs based on urban legends (for instance, that kids could no longer bring peanut butter sandwiches to school because the Asian immigrants were all allergic to peanuts, or that gang initiation involved shooting people who flashed headlights at other drivers). She uses the terms “colored” and “oriental” insisting that they’re correct because that was what she was taught as a child.

And now I’m getting married.

I’m worried that she’ll engage in a little microaggression at my wedding. I don’t think she’ll say, “White lives matter,” but she might ask an African-American guest for a recommendation for an Ethiopian restaurant or complain about having to choose English every single time she gets an automated voice menu without realizing she’s talking to someone who grew up speaking Spanish at home. My friends have been pretty tolerant over the years (most of us grew up working class and/or immigrant; they totally understand the love/oh-please-don’t-do-that relationship I have with my mom), but my future husband’s friends for the most part were raised by educated, upper-middle-class folks in other liberal cities. So, I’m not just worried that she’ll inadvertently offend someone, but also that two-thirds of our guests will write her off as trailer trash and she’ll feel uncomfortable. She’s already worried that I’m ashamed of her since I grew up, got educated, and got out, plus it’s a small wedding—close friends and immediate family only—there’s no way she’ll get lost in the crowd.

Do we warn our friends? In the Trump era, it seems a lot to ask to put up with a little microaggression at a wedding—a little old school ignorance feels more dangerous than ever. Do I try to talk to my mom? It hasn’t worked well for thirty years, but I have hope it’s sinking in slowly. And if the reception starts slowly creeping away from her backwoods corner of the banquet hall, what do I do?

—My Mom’s Not Racist, But…

A: Dear MMNRB,

Everyone has this problem, even if they don’t know it. Maybe we don’t all have backwoods mamas, but everybody’s got at least one well-meaning older relative whose vocabulary could use some freshening. You’re not alone.

After thirty years, one little conversation isn’t going to help her understand what she says that’s offensive and why. I wouldn’t hold back from pointing it out when it happens, but some grand intervention isn’t likely to work at this point.

That tension—that you can’t protect your friends from other flawed humans, but that it also shouldn’t be entirely on them to shoulder the burden—that’s been something the whole staff has been mulling over. How do you acknowledge that you won’t be able to anticipate or control everything that happens at your wedding, but also avoid perpetuating an imbalanced dynamic that puts the responsibility on the marginalized to always “be cool”?  That’s tough.

Since our Brand Director, Najva, has been that friend at the wedding who had to politely smile through uncomfortable comments, she’s got some strong opinions and good ideas:

The key issue for me (which reminds me of this essay from last year) is that by saying nothing, doing nothing, and essentially expecting everyone to just… handle themselves, we’re creating an environment that supports and excuses casual racism, homophobia, etc. I’ve heard many, many marginalized folks not want to deal with weddings because they essentially have to brace themselves for shitty interactions.

In group situations where I have a hurtful interaction, but there’s nobody I feel would have my back, I’m expected to “let it go,” “not make a scene,” “play nice,” etc. I don’t want to call out Aunt Sally in the middle of toasts, but I DO want someone to vocally and emotionally back me up, and maybe help me come up with words to gently say, “That is not okay, please don’t,” should I need that.

It would be so, so lovely if there was a way to send an email out to the marginalized people coming and say something like, “Though no out-and-out bigots are invited, it should be assumed that this wedding is not a safe space. We hope everyone will mingle easily, but in the case of a prejudiced interaction, we don’t want you to have to just pretend you’re okay for the sake of everyone else’s comfort. X person, Y person, and Z person are here to support you if you have an unsavory exchange.”

In situations where there’s someone I can talk to and say, “This was so fucked up,” I’ve always felt less “other.” And yes, sometimes I’m the only POC at a wedding, or only Muslim, or only queer person. Having a point person would ideally prevent me (and other marginalized folks) from having to swallow my feelings, or coming to the engaged couple to complain (what if you’re the only person they know at the wedding?).

I know it’s not common in the wedding world, but I’d love to see APW readers pushing to make weddings a little more welcoming to those of us who are already constantly feeling alienated in the larger world. All guests expect to pay a price to attend a wedding, but don’t make marginalized folks pay the highest one.

Has this question ever touched your life? Are you worried about this happening at your wedding? What are your strategies for making sure all your guests feel welcome? And if you’ve shown up for loved ones despite prejudiced relatives, what would have helped ease your experience? Let’s talk. 


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  • savannnah

    This hits home for me-my fiance comes from a small mid-west “town” and I’m from the liberal east coast. My fiance is very afraid one of his relatives is going to say something ignorant/anti-semetic/racist/pro-trump and in turn he is also afraid one of my relatives is going to call them out harshly and in front of everyone else. On the one hand, I feel like I want to stop all the possible opportunities of this ever happening and make sure people on his side understand ‘I’ve got rules’ as his aunt so eloquently put it. But that is just not realistic. On the other hand, my family and friends have been dealing with this bullshit for a long time- they might be surprised to hear someone say something totally messed up but its not day one for them in this fight. They are not going to totally lose it but what they do need is solidarity, acknowledgment and a decent heads up about what the situation is before they decide to attend. I’m also enlisting my FMIL to spread the word on her side about what kind of wedding this is so there is an informed expectation about what is ok and what is off limits.

  • Amy March

    For the part of the concern that mom will feel marginalized by people who don’t want to interact with her, oh well? I think its tough, because its your mom and you love her, but that’s a natural social consequence. If someone says things other people find unpleasant, whether it’s bigotry or boring stories or awkward jokes, they tend to find themselves with fewer people willing to chat with them. I don’t think you can or should try to fix it.

    For everyone else, I think maybe just talk to them? It’s a small group of your closest people, so a personal conversation that includes “I’m worried about my mom at the wedding- I’m trying, but she keeps making racist comments. Please don’t feel like you have to just put up with them on my behalf, totally fine to tell her ‘please stop.'”

    Najva’s email is just not something I’d be comfortable sending at all, nor do I want to invite people to report misconduct on the part of my guests to some committee of listening ears, but I don’t think your options are that or do nothing at all.

    • Sarah

      Agree with last paragraph…it’s putting people on alert when there may not be an issue (or at least one big enough to get worked up about).

      • rg223

        Yeah, to be honest, if I got an email like that I would be ON HIGH ALERT and wondering what I was in for. I think the simple heads-up from Amy is clear about the situation and supportive of the marginalized folks without turning it into A Thing when it might not need to be.

        • idkmybffjill

          exactly re: high alert. I’d be like, oh god what are they gonna say?!?! and also perhaps not come. Particularly the line about the wedding not being a safe space.

          • Violet

            Yes, because: life is not a safe space. If someone went out of their way to tell me that an event was not a safe space, I’d jump to way worse conclusions than what LW is actually describing.

    • Eenie

      I agree that a conversation would be better than an email or letter. I think a letter or email is better than nothing.

    • Jane

      I would also be really unsure of exactly who to send that email to. I know I have friends who would love it and equally sure that my FH and I have friends or family members who would not appreciate it.
      So, I think I will probably say something to my closest friends, and the ones who are most likely to interact with people who will say offensive things. E.g. Some of my FH’s friends probably won’t spend anytime talking to my Trump supporting aunt.

      Also – I’m being really careful with the seating chart on this one. It’s one thing to be able to excuse yourself from someone and walk away OR to tell them to stop, when you can immediately move on. It’s another thing when you’re stuck at a table for the next hour with someone who just offended you. Might be harder to do at a very small wedding.

      • Lmba

        Yeah, it feels super presumptuous and possibly othering to send the email out to anyone who is not straight, cis, White, Christian (or whatever the categories are that your mom may accidentally be rude to). Like, great, so nice that you think of me as your friend who is different! I know some people would take it as a gesture of thoughtfulness and solidarity, but others would likely be thinking, “you’re a presumptuous White SJW, leave me alone.” haha. I dunno.

        There is also an element of almost burdening the guests with the knowledge. Our kids are biracial – if someone sent me an email and was like, “Hey, just so you know, some of my family who will be at the wedding have weird reactions to interracial families and might say something inappropriate about your kids’ hair or skin colour or how ‘exotic’ they are,” I would be like, “Ok, thanks for acknowledging that this is inappropriate but also not doing anything about it.” It would make me not want to go, because why would I intentionally bring my kiddos to a microaggressive space? HOWEVER, I am also used to getting these types of comments when I am just out in the world with my children, so it’s not as though it’s a huge shock. It’s unpleasant and awkward, but it’s something that we have our own strategies for dealing with. It may not happen at all, in which case, why did the couple burden us with the expectation of a hostile environment? It may happen in minor, obviously well-intentioned ways, which is annoying, but we would probably just move along and avoid that person. If it were REALLY upsetting and inappropriate, we would just leave the area, probably take the kids to play outside the venue, or possibly go home.

        What I like about the email is the opportunity to say, “Listen, if anyone pulls any shit, you don’t need to take it on my account.” That is valuable. But at the end of the day, probably just about everyone WOULD take it on LW’s account, because it is her wedding and nobody wants drama for their friend’s wedding. It kinda seems like saying this to guests may soothe the LW’s conscience, but probably not really do much to alleviate the burden on specific guests.

        • Jane

          Yup! That’s pretty much how I feel about sending the email without your thoughtful perspective of being someone who would get sent the email.

      • La’Marisa-Andrea

        But you know your friends right? You tell the friends who you think would want to know and leave the others be. Personally, I would feel like I was walking into a den of vipers if I came to someone’s wedding and they have close racist family members and didn’t tell me. I know they can’t stop their family members from being racist but I can decide if I even want to be bothered. This comes down to, know your people.

        • Jane

          Definitely. I have a few relatives (who I’m not close to and who, thankfully, are not going to be at my wedding) who I would warn friends about. And I will probably say something along the lines of “Aunt So-and-So is a fairly vocal Trump supporter and has many of the shitty opinions that go along with that. If she says anything offensive, feel free to tell her so, vent to my sister, or do anything else you like. You don’t have to swallow anything to make sure everyone feels comfortable” about my slightly-less obviously bigoted relatives to my friends.
          What’s hard is that I don’t know all the people coming to my wedding. E.g. Friends’ significant others who I have rarely met. Yeah, I can give my friends a head’s up on their SOs’ behalf, but the more attenuated the guest is from me, the less I feel confident in knowing how much of a head’s up they’d want. But, fortunately for me, almost all of the extended family I would be worrying about are not going to come to my wedding anyway. And those who do attend will probably not say much, offensive or otherwise, to my friends whom they’ve never met. I *hope* that no one will feel like my wedding is a place where they feel safe to be racist or bigoted.

    • idkmybffjill

      Completely agree with the conversation. The email made this feel like… a wayyyy bigger thing? Maybe this is me being blind to how microagressions intensely affect people (definitely willing to admit if I’m just wrong here) – but I would think an email like that (even though it says no outright bigots are invited) would make me think that outright bigots were invited who would be hurling racial slurs for the whole wedding.

      • sofar

        I agree. If guests got some kind of “Double Racist Red Alert” bulletin before the wedding to certain guests, I feel like it would stir up extra drama.

        I’m picturing someone saying during dinner, “I thought it was really sweet of the bride and groom to send out that notice about how this wouldn’t be a safe space! Really thoughtful.” And then racist-cousin one table over hears that and then starts railing on “snowflakes” and their “safe spaces.”

        • idkmybffjill

          Yes, this exactly.

    • Nichole

      “Mom will feel marginalized by people who don’t want to interact with her…I think its tough, because its your mom and you love her, but that’s a natural social consequence.”

      I think there are kind of two things going on here. One is the consequence of saying unpleasant things, and one is a class issue, where the mom is worried her daughter is ashamed of her because of where she lives and how educated she is. And I would say that one can try to make someone comfortable on the basis of the latter, which is a genuine fear but also not something that someone deserves to deal with the consequences of.

      I agree with the conversation, and I think that’s a good way to handle what she might say, though.

    • Colleen

      “…maybe just talk to them?” Yes.

      We had a small wedding (40-ish ppl) made up of parents, siblings, and closest friends. My parents are super conservative/religious. There was no doubt in my mind that uncomfortable, or downright offensive, things might get said. But my closest friends already knew to expect this, too, because I talk to them about it. I’m vocal (with my friends AND my parents) about my parents’ beliefs and how those beliefs affect my relationship with them.

      In a “closest people” situation, “I’m trying; I’m sorry; Please don’t feel you have to tolerate it; I love you so much” conversations are, IMO, the best way to deal with potential ugliness. As are the “This isn’t ok; I love you so much, but please stop” conversations on the other side.

    • La’Marisa-Andrea

      I can see how that would be uncomfortable. Let me assure you, if I’m coming to your wedding and your mom is racist or might say something racist (and you know your mom), I would want to know ahead of time 100%.

  • Eenie

    I really like the idea of getting out ahead of this. You can’t really affect what other people conclude about your mother, but you can warn those who don’t know your family as well and explicitly tell them you do not want them to feel marginalized at your wedding.

    Could you task the wedding party (if there is one) as point people? They are very easy to recognize, and sometimes span the different friend groups/family so the chance of knowing one of them is increased.

  • honeycomehome

    I think the answers are “Yes, warn your friends” and “Yes, talk to your mom.”

    Do both in loving ways.

    “Hey, friends. My mom may say something that is upsetting, racist, or (micro)aggressive. I hope she doesn’t, but if it happens, it’s ok to say something or move on in conversation or do what you need to do. I’ll support you, no matter what. Thank you for coming to celebrate with us!”

    “Mom, I know we’ve talked about our differences before. I want you to know that at our wedding will be friends who will be upset if you say X, Y, or Z. I love you and want the day to be special, so please be respectful, even if you disagree.”

    And then let go. You can’t actually control what she says, only how you react and how you support others. Also: seating charts. She may not fade away in a small group, but if you’re having a seated dinner, you can make sure she spends at least a certain amount of time chatting with “her people.” If there are friends you are particularly concerned about, you can seat them away from her.

    • Amy March

      Oh yes seating charts. So helpful.

      • jem

        So, wise woman, is the best tactic here to seat trumpies with trumpies so it’s less likely people will hear them say something offensive, or to divide them so they don’t talk about how relieved they are obama is out of the White House during the whole reception? Asking for a friend…

        • rg223

          At my first large family gathering after the election, we naturally segregated into everyone who voted for Hillary on one side and everyone who voted for Trump on the other, and everything was fine. So I vote for that.

          • jem

            would it be super obvious to do this if it… wasn’t natural? we have about a table’s worth of trumpies who don’t know each other, but who we know would hit it off like trump and putin. do we seat them together at table (h)8 or seat them in more natural family/friend groupings and risk someone saying something utterly offensive to a wider audience?

          • quiet000001

            I would be so tempted to refer to it as table h(8) and probably actually slip up and say that to someone.

          • rg223

            Hmm, yeah that’s tough. Can you split both friends and family into smaller groups and seat everyone in a sort of mixed way, as if you didn’t have enough people of one kind to fill tables logically? That might help hide the fact that you’re also splitting them by politics. For example, I had one friend group that would have taken up a full table but had one couple left over. It didn’t make sense to seat them by themselves, so we ended up splitting up all the friends a bit so that we had some of each group at a table. That had nothing to do with anything other than seating, of course, but no one seemed to question it.

    • Katelyn

      I’ve noticed that my particularly bigoted family members tend to stick together and scowl at all the snooty people anyway. Not that I expect that of LW’s mom by any stretch, but if there are any other particularly egregious family members, it might ease one’s mind.

    • emilyg25

      Also the good news is that your mom will probably be super busy catching up with your family and being proud of you. I don’t know that she’ll have much time for conversations with new folks, unless she’s a super extrovert.

  • rebecca

    The way we handled this was to just not invite anyone who didn’t know our full story. We both come from working class families with problematic views (and voices) but we’ve spent most of our time in educated upper middle class cities for the past 10-15 years. We knew early on that having our families and our business associates/casual friends just wasn’t an option. But the people who are closest to us know who we are, know where we come from and know that they have our full support in the face of anything stupid our relatives might say or do. Also, most of our vocal racists/homophobes RSVPed “no” tbh, because they don’t really like us that much either. It kind of partially sucked since we budgeted based on our parents saying “you have to invite eeeeeevvvveeeeeeerrrrrrrryone” but like, your wedding doesn’t exist in a vacuum, the people who will attend and the expectations they’ll have about how people will behave are related to everything in the rest of your life.

  • Jean

    I would not necessarily label your mother as racist. When she was a young woman, “oriental” was still considered a proper term for Asians. I am more perplexed by the use of the word “colored”. Though it was also considered proper at one time, she would have been a child then. Proper terms have been a moving target historically and some people don’t keep up.
    To me, a “racist” person, is a person who thinks less of people who are not their own race.
    Your mother believing some urban legend about Asian kids being allergic to peanuts, speaks more to her lack of exposure or education or sophistication than to genuine racism. It probably sounded like a reasonable possibility to her, and she lacks the ability to discern when something’s an urban legend. But, I’ve met people who are extraordinarily well-traveled and have lived in sophisticated places who can’t discern an urban legend to save their lives!
    If people in her town speak the same and easily believe urban legends, and the only dissenting voice is her citified daughter, then you really are pushing a rock up a hill. In her world, you are an anomaly and a lone voice. In your world, you are the norm. She probably chalks your opinions up to your individual quirks rather than societal standards.
    I think the only thing you can do is to come right out and tell her that people will think she is prejudiced if she says certain things at your wedding. You will probably have to give her a written list because the concept isn’t ingrained in her and probably never will be.

    • Amy March

      Refusing to keep up with the times like this is racist. Refusing to do research before making stereotyped assumptions about groups of people based on their race is racist. Sure, on the spectrum of racist behavior it’s certainly not the worst, but whether it is through ignorance or indifference or malice it’s still racist.

      • Jean

        Have you ever lived in a rural place? Those people are usually physically active, but they aren’t sitting around reading essays on intersectional feminism or the nuances of cultural appropriation.
        I think your stance about “refusing to do research” betrays that you grew up in a completely different socioeconomic class than the OP. The OP’s mom belongs to a class and a place where people don’t “research” what to say or believe.
        I lived for a few years in a very rural location. Moved there from a big city and it was quite the culture shock. Believe me, the concept of “researching” something like that virtually does not exist even as a concept. If you want to apply college-educated big city standards to the lives of deeply rural people, you will be disappointed nearly every time.

        • Amy March

          Ok. Fine. So she’s ignorant. And? That doesn’t mean she can go around both saying “colored people” and not be saying something racist. And yeah, I’m disappointed in that every time and I think being disappointed in casual racism is a good thing.

          Her daughter does tell her. She doesn’t care to listen.

        • savannnah

          Deeply rural people can be college educated. College educated city people can be deeply racist. We can hold both these truths together and have a conversation about race and class and education and ignorance and not conflate all of them together but understand how they can and do overlap.

          • Jean

            Of course they can, but I’m taking about the average rural person and the rural culture.

          • Amy March

            I just don’t get it. Is your argument that rural culture is just racist, and therefore it’s actually not racist? I wouldn’t assume people in rural areas are unwilling or uncapable of being racist at all.

          • BSM

            Or are incapable of being corrected or educated?

        • BSM

          So what? Marginalized people are just supposed to accept being called “colored” or “oriental” because some people don’t want to accept that times have changed?

          I don’t understand your argument here.

          (And I, too, have spent years living in an extremely rural place.)

          • Jean

            It’s not about people not accepting that times have changed. It’s about time standing still in rural places. I don’t know what your rural place was like or how you perceived it, but the place I lived in was like taking a trip backward in a time machine.
            The local newspaper once printed an article on how Catholics were actually decent people. Why? Because they thought it was shockingly new information only discovered once someone built the first Catholic church in town. This was only a few years ago.

          • BSM

            So I’m asking you what should be done about it.

            “Colored” and “oriental” are not acceptable terms anymore. According to you, rural people, who are nearly all disappointingly racist (based on the few years you lived in one rural place), have no idea that they should research this stuff and refuse to listen to people who try to inform them (as LW does with her mom).

            Ok, so? It’s still racist to use those terms. What now?

          • CMT

            I’m really curious what rural area you’re talking about. Because the rural area I grew up in and live in is nothing like what you’re describing.

        • Living in a rural place doesn’t take away from the fact that people can still do research if they so desire to educate themselves on said topics. Rural doesn’t mean “unable to access any type of educational materials”. And frankly, you do a disservice to the rural folks who DO read about intersectional feminism or cultural appropriation. While they may not be reading scholarly journals, there’s such things as Tumblr and Twitter and numerous blogs.

          • Amy March

            And there’s just plain good manners. Not sure what to call a group of people? Don’t talk about that collective group of people. Don’t want to stereotype people? Make conversation that doesn’t involve making assumptions about what they look like.

            You don’t need to know the words intersectional feminism or cultural appropriation to avoid saying racist things at a wedding. Talk about the weather and the flowers and the food and how happy everyone looks.

          • sofar

            The problem is, a lot of folks think they ARE using the correct, up-to-date, polite term for a group of people and have no IDEA that saying, “Oh I just love that dress that young oriental lady over there is wearing!” would be insulting to anyone.

            Obviously, they need to get called out on it and I always call them out. But I always find it interesting on APW that people are genuinely surprised that pockets of people around the U.S. aren’t on the same page.

          • Amy March

            I don’t think anyone here is genuinely surprised large numbers of Americans are racist.

          • sofar

            There are literally posts on this thread expressing surprise that there are rural pockets of the U.S. where most people are not bettering themselves through Tumblr.

          • Amy March

            There are not. There really really aren’t. There was a suggestion from Jubilance that Tumblr is one way some rural people might encounter these ideas. She did not seem remotely surprised by the fact that not everyond is.

          • sofar

            I get what you’re saying and I also hate it when people paint rural people with a broad brush. But I have a portion of my relatives who live … kinda far out and don’t even like to cross the state line, so … I also feel what @jean is saying.

            Obviously, they watch TV and movies and are on the internet, but
            there is a HUGE difference in having “exposure” to the world at large
            and actually encountering real, live people who are different from you.
            And let’s face it, TV and Hollywood aren’t exactly great about
            inclusiveness and sensitivity. And, if your whole social network is
            people you know, you’re not exactly seeing new ideas coming across your
            Facebook feed. Twitter? Tumblr? No way are any of my cousins on those. Their church told them to stay off. As for reading educational blogs on feminism, etc., that’s not really on their radar, just like a lot of their religious/conservative blogs aren’t really on mine. I think it was NPR that did a study on how limited our social-media exposure to different ideas really is, considering we’re connected to our real-life communities.

            still call them out when they say something racist, and I usually say, “Hey don’t use that term. I’m
            sure you wouldn’t use it if you knew how racist and hurtful it is. That word actually demeans a lot of my friends.”

            Usually, the response is confusion and an apology and a request for an explanation, followed by, “Hmmm OK, not using that word again. My parents always used it, I never knew it was bad.”

            A lot of communities are deliberately insular and proud of it, a thing that Trump used to great effect.

        • Violet

          My MIL is not well-educated, and grew up in a city. She wouldn’t dream of “researching” something she heard to see if it’s really true before repeating it. (Trust me, the nonsense she shares on social media is proof of this.) Yet she somehow manages to avoid making outrageous claims based on race because she ultimately, at heart, does not believe racist things.

      • Jessica

        For what it’s worth, I’ve known people who have been confused by the fact that “people of color” is okay but “colored people” is not. I could understand someone hearing “people of color” and mentally filing it as “oh, I guess we say colored again now.” That doesn’t make the impact any less racist but I think I might approach the situation differently as a white ally if I thought there was some genuine intent to use the right term.

        • BSM

          While that might be the case for some people, it is not in LW’s situation.

        • Amy March

          Oh I totally agree- I can see why it’s hard to change, I can see why people might be confused, I just don’t think that means saying those things isn’t racist.

        • PoC is also a very American term – I know several non-white people in the UK who do just read it as the same as saying coloured, and find it offensive because from their perspective it’s a term being applied to them by white people (usually white people with white American friends), rather than something that’s come from their own communities.

      • idkmybffjill

        My mother says “Native American Indians”, because she is really doing her damnedest to keep up with the times, but is getting older and not surrounded by progressive people and just is nervous about saying the wrong thing so she just says all the things. I do think it’s racist in a microagression way, and I ALWAYS call her out. But I do give her credit that her reality is “what is appropriate has changed many times in my life time and because I’m not surrounded by people who say the right things I’m really fighting against the tide”.

        • EF

          wrote my masters dissertation in human rights law on indigenous rights, and if you ask the indigenous population of the USA what they want to be called, over 50% say ‘by my tribe name.’ second after that is ‘indian/american indian’ with like 30%. so there’s keeping up with the times for white people, and there’s what people actually want to be called.

          (since then, i’ve tried a LOT harder to use individual tribe names. it can be tough!)

      • sofar

        I think the deciding factor (racist or no) is how they react when corrected. I’ve had relatives who apologize and are immediately embarrassed when I tell them the term they used is offensive and NEVER use it again from that moment on. So I don’t think that not keeping up with the times is racist per se. I was corrected MANY times my first year of college for using certain terms that I had no idea were awful and was mortified.

        I have others who try to argue when corrected and then announce they’re going to use the term just to “fight against P.C. bullshit.” Yeah, those ones are racist.

        • Amy March

          I think it’s still racist. You were racist. I don’t see why we need to carve out such special treatment to avoid calling people racist. Doesn’t mean every single thing you say or do is racist, doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person, does mean that this thing you are saying or doing is racist. Whether or not you knew it.

          • sofar

            I notice how, in your post you say to me “you were racist” but you never say “I was racist” about yourself. You instead say “I’ve said racist things” and that they “were racist when you said them.”


            There’s a difference in calling the person racist and calling their action racist.

            I had to explain to someone the other day that a term he used was racist. He thought it was just a blanket term that could be used to describe someone who is too full after a meal — and used it to describe himself. He didn’t know the historical context. He was mortified. The term is racist. The society that left him ignorant of the historical context of that word is racist.

            But I’d stop short of saying to him, “You are a bigot.”

            Like, if your friend does something dumb and regrets it, you might say, “Yeah. That was REALLY stupid.” Or maybe, “You were BEING really stupid.” But you probably wouldn’t say, “YOU are really stupid.”

          • CMT

            All of these contortions and bending over backwards to make sure you don’t make the person who has said something racist (or maybe *is* racist) uncomfortable seem really counterproductive to me. They should be made to feel uncomfortable; it should be a natural consequence of their actions. And hopefully it makes them learn.

          • sofar

            Not making anyone comfortable. I will always call someone out and say, “Hey that’s racist.” Or, “That word is racist.” Or, “Don’t say that.”

            But I wouldn’t say, “YOU are racist.” Unless they argue with the call-out and then I’ll say it.

          • BSM

            I think at best these are pretty insignificant questions of semantics. The larger point remains the same. Everyone is racist to an extent (or says/does/thinks/reinforces racism), and calling people out for those things is the important part.

            I’m honestly way more concerned with the actual racism happening than calling people out for it or being called out for it in a particular way.

          • sofar

            Absolutely. Our society is racist. But if we want to call people out in a way that brings positive change, the words used to do it matter. Effective communication matters. It’s a pretty common communication strategy to target the action rather than the person.

          • BSM

            Maybe. I haven’t seen any research that shows that calling actions rather than people racist makes any kind of significant difference to the people being racist (happy for someone to change my mind here). I think those two strategies are typically put into one bucket and are actually shown to not be very effective at changing racist attitudes, anyways, so, in my mind, why bother differentiating?

            I call people out so that the marginalized people around me know that I won’t let that BS go unanswered and to hopefully embolden other allies to do the same. Not to win hearts and minds of those who are (being) racist.

          • sofar

            Not just talking about making racists not racist. It’s about getting people to act on your negative feedback. At work, would you email a co-worker and say, “YOU didn’t do this, YOU are a slacker” right off the bat? Probably not. You’d probably write, “I noticed XYZ isn’t complete. The deadline is end of day today. It’s really important our team is prepared for this event. Can I get an update?”

            Similarly, saying, “YOU are a racist!” isn’t as effective as saying, “Mom, when you use that word you’re saying something hurtful about my friends. Do you understand why?”

            Obviously, the situation matters. If some idiot is screaming obscenities at, say, a gay couple in public, then yeah, I’m not going to try to “effectively communicate” with him and change him, I’m going to stand up and loudly stick up for that couple. But a relative who seems open to learning and says something they don’t seem to know the true meaning of? I’d go for effective communication first.

          • Amy March

            But no one has suggested otherwise? Literally zero people have said “ya know what would be great? Just telling your mom ‘you’re a racist'” every time she says it does something racist.

          • BSM

            I’m… not talking about work. I’m not sure how that’s relevant. Obviously we communicate with different people in different settings in different ways.

            When I call people out, I’m not yelling, “YOU’RE A RACIST!!!” at them. I’m saying that when someone is being racist around me, I say something to them. I don’t think whether it’s “that’s not cool,” “you’re being inappropriate,” “that was racist,” “you’re being racist right now,” etc. matters very much.

            If you think it matters, feel free to be more choosey with your words. I have seen zero research that discusses any difference amongst these tactics re: changing racist attitudes. If you have, by all means, I’d love to know more.

          • Anon

            If we are interested in changing attitudes and beliefs (which I certainly think we should be), there is plenty of psychological research about ways to do that– all of which focus on engagement with someone as a person (as sofar suggests below) rather than labeling the person or the behavior. Useful article to this point:

          • BSM

            This, like the Vox piece it links to and like everything else I’ve read or heard on the topic, says that labeling people and actions as racist is both equally ineffective, which is what my comment says.

            Also, I pass as white, but I’m biracial, and I’m not interested in doing the absurdly laborious work of engaging with people who think I’m less than. Have at it, though.

          • Anon

            You are absolutely right about that, it does say both are ineffective. The point I draw from it is to look to strategies that are more likely to be effective, which don’t include calling either a person or an action racist. I understand from your comments here that your approach is more focused on the marginalized people who may be present, rather than the feelings of the person making racist remarks. That is completely reasonable. But I also think it is reasonable, as sofar suggests, to engage thoughtfully with the person with an eye to using strategies more likely to change their behavior in the future. And the article references several of those strategies. Obviously context and relationships matter enormously here, but I do think it is worthwhile to bring up what ways of engaging may be more effective–especially since many people think that just calling out a person or action as racist will or should stop it.

          • BSM

            I never said it was unreasonable? I don’t engage with racists for the multitude of reasons I’ve laid out here, but I’ve encouraged everyone who’s said that’s their preferred method to keep on keeping on. Not sure how I can be more clear.

          • This is interesting to me… I find that more of the time I’m in a position where I’m trying to address someone’s racism it’s in a context where there aren’t necessarily marginalized people present, where the aggressor feels “safe” to spout the toxin.

            In my personal experience calling someone racist is much easier for them to dismiss and change the subject… They can always say some variation of “they know who they are” and move on. I find that by engaging in a conversation about why a micro-aggression/action is racist I’m more likely to get chance to find a reason that resonates as to why they shouldn’t say/do something.

          • BSM

            Ok, nowhere have I said I am going around calling people racists. Period.

            Again, I am saying that if someone is being racist I will say something about it to try put a stop to it, and I don’t particularly care how it makes that person feel. I care about how the other people around me, particularly marginalized people, feel.

            If someone can’t accept that something they are saying is racist as reason enough not to say it, I’m not going to bother engaging.

          • I wasn’t trying to say that you personally were calling people racist (& I personally do think there’s a time and place to do just that). I understand that we are talking about different contexts here. That’s part of why I commented, because I think there’s maybe a strategy difference based on situation– Again 70-80% of the time when racism crops up in my life is micro-aggressive style comments “behind closed doors.” And in my experience this specific language distinction makes a difference for the situations where you *are* trying to engage.

          • BSM

            Ok, well then I’m not sure why you’re replying to me.

          • Jess

            I was listening to the Represent podcast (Slate) today w/ their The represent Rose: Part 2 episode (about the bachelorette). They TOTALLY talked about this exact thing and brought up an article, which I had read a while ago, but cannot now find. I do not think it contained actual research, but was more essay/personal experience based.

            The gist of their conversation was this: People need to be called out on being racist and POC need to hear people being called racist. Sadly, saying “you’re/they’re a racist” can stop a conversation in its tracks, and those being called out don’t end up learning they end up being defensive. So often people call out behavior instead, which is often allows the conversation to continue, but softens the accusation.

            They had lots of thoughts about that whole thing and needing to call somebody a racist when it needs to happen which I am still internalizing, but I thought it was a really good discussion, and similar to what the comment sections seems to be having here!

            (ETA: In case it wasn’t clear, they came down on the “People need to call a racist a racist” side)

          • BSM

            That is really, really interesting. I will try to hunt around for that; thanks for sharing.

            Also, I do not watch The Bachelorette, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a lot of the commentary around this season.

          • Jess

            Same about the quality of commentary about this season – much better than I was expecting.

            Upon clicking, it may have been the This American Life segment you linked to in another comment that they were referencing, so maybe not new information there (at least, its seems super similar), but the Represent conversation was still excellent!

          • Liz

            Yes, I agree- it’s not about making someone comfortable or being unwilling to call someone a racist.

            I think of the recent Bill Maher thing. People who defended him largely did so from a place, “But he’s not a racist!” and that very well may be true, but kind of isn’t the point, he said a racist thing and that needs to change. To me, it’s not about avoiding offending someone or tip-toe-ing around their delicate feelings, it’s about addressing the facts rather than not getting caught up in some side conversation about whether you are or are not a racist. You did a racist thing, change it.

          • Abby

            I think this is exactly why the language of the calling-out matters. Because while we’d all love a massive societal shift from systemic racism to full equality and no microaggressions ever, it’s not one giant on/off switch you can just flip with a “hey you’re racist” “oh ok I’ll change.” It’s millions of little switches that need to be flipped, and to the extent you have a relationship with someone whose switches need to be flipped, it’s going to be a lot more effective in the long run to flip them one by one than by shorting the whole board by trying to flip them all at once and winding up in that side conversation.

            Shame is an incredibly useful tool to combat racism. But I agree with you and @disqus_NSPCIO6X7g:disqus that when possible, we should try to calibrate the amount of shame delivered to be sufficient but not greater than necessary to correct the specific behavior. Not because white fragility needs to be protected– far from it– but because targeting the shame on the specific thing that was racist allows the person to focus on nixing that specific microaggression from their wheelhouse, which can then lead to a conversation about other microaggressions to avoid, and eventually to conversations about systemic racism and then to them self-shaming and self-correcting and ultimately to their being able to call others out on the things they’ve now learned.

            Whereas if you start by calling them A Racist, the first thing they’ll focus on is their preconceived notions of that term and explaining why they’re not racist because they’re not a slaveholder. Which usually results in talking past each other because you’re using two different definitions of racism, and their specific racist behavior gets lost in the greater debate and thus not fixed. Yes, they are being racist. Yes, if we’re using the systemic racism definition, they are racist. But if they have no background in the vocabulary of systemic racism, the conversation is going to go off the rails.

            Though a massive societal shift is of course the end goal, change is unfortunately incremental, and people need to learn the language of systemic racism bit by bit before they’ll be able to understand or converse in it.

            (And just in case this needed to be said – the tedious work of flipping these switches and teaching the language for friends and family members is the job of other white people, not the job of those on the receiving end of the microaggressions).

          • CMT

            In my experience with family and friends, they are not going to distinguish between whether they are being called racist or their actions are. It just doesn’t make a difference.

          • idkmybffjill

            Not a counterpoint here but I habitually say a word for eye boogers that is apparently a slur. I am working REALLY hard to break my habit but I have a very hard time erasing it from my vocabulary. I actually don’t remember what it’s a slur for but my husband has to correct me every time (he’s the only person I’m ever talking about eye boogers with). I’ve tried to switch it to eye boogers permanently now because I know whatever the word I default to that starts with Goo is racist and I’m MORTIFIED when I mess up.

          • Amy March

            Fair point! I will absolutely say that I am racist. I am- I don’t mean to be, I try not to be, but I am certainly far from perfect.

            If that’s all the disagreement is about, I don’t think we are really that far apart. I just don’t happen to think it particularly matters- you say racist stuff, you’re racist.

          • sofar

            Yeah, probably splitting hairs at this point, but not on board with “you say racist stuff, you’re racist.”

            It’s like when I went to London and used the term “spazzed out.” I didn’t know what that meant in that culture and, while many probably assumed terrible things about me, they’d be wrong. When corrected, I was shocked and mortified and apologetic.

          • I just am STAGGERED that you could grow up white and this country and not be racist. I’m not sure you can grow up any color in this country and not be racist. I find that idea… beyond a reach.

            Owning it is the first step.

          • Eh

            THIS! And it applies to Canada (and probably a lot of other countries too), not just the USA. For example, our Federal government recently passed a motion (something that’s non-binding and not a law) that condemns “Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination”. This was controversial because it centered out one religion, people did not understand that motions aren’t laws, people were concerned that they would be labelled Islamophobic for being another religion (e.g., people who believe their religion is the only true religion), and that the government was allowing Sharia law in Canada. Then in June, our Federal government amended Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity and gender expression. People were up in arms about this because the were worried that they were going to be thrown in jail for using the incorrect pronoun. This came up because there have been news stories over the last year where people (including a university professor) refused to call someone by the pronoun they identify with. There is also a concern about female only spaces/safe spaces (e.g., women shelters, sexual assault support groups, spas where the clients are nude), and what this means for people who are trans-gendered. There is also tons of controversy about our PM and government trying to work with Indigenous people/communities who have faced racism since contact with Europeans. Our Federal government taking these steps has highlighted how ingrained racism and discrimination are in Canada.

          • sofar

            We are racist. Totally agree. Would never say otherwise, as nobody is immune to the systemic racism that is in the roots of this country. This has been studied time and time again and we ALL have racial biases, many of which we are not aware of. I (and we and our culture) are racist in so many harmful ways.

            Was just saying that, if somebody uses the wrong term for a group of people, they may actually think they are using the correct preferred term. For example, in another thread, I used “transgendered” instead of “transgender” (the preferred term). I thought I WAS using the correct, preferred term. Someone corrected me and I apologized and promised to use the correct term going forward. We live in a transphobic society, meaning not everyone is super up-to-date on the best word to use (since we marginalize non-gender-binary folks and force them to define and “translate” themselves), and my incorrect usage shows that. I would not say it’s fair, though, to assume my use of the wrong word is evidence of me being transphobic.

          • Jane

            Ditto. I am racist and somewhat ignorant and am working on it. Honestly – this is one of the reasons I’d be uncomfortable sending out the email Najva suggested – even though I can imagine it being helpful. I don’t feel qualified to be sure that I and my “safe” friends aren’t also committing microaggressions. In addition to things I have said that I now realize were racist, I am sure I have thoughtlessly said racist things to friends of color and they have let it go because they didn’t want to deal with educating me / calling me out or wanted to spare my feelings. And those friends are some of the guests I’d want to warn.

          • I say I’m racist all the time, just for the record. I don’t tend to trust people (at least white people) who won’t say they are racist. It’s the water we swim in. It’s endless self correction, but if we’re not honest about the fact that we’re racist… I don’t even know how we can begin to do the work. So yes, 100% I’m racist. Keeping on doing the work everyday.

    • CMT

      “Genuine racism”? No. Racist is racist.

      • Jean

        I think the definition of racism has gotten narrower and narrower over time. It’s gotten to the point that if a person isn’t perfectly informed about every nuance of whatever the current standards are, they get hit with the label of being racist. It does more harm than good.

        • CMT

          No. No, no, no. I know it sucks to get called out on your bad behavior, but that absolutely does not mean we should calling out racist speech, actions, or people. It’s not going to do anybody any damn good to coddle the people who behave that way.

          The burden can and should be and is on the people messing up. Not the people calling them out and not the people who are the targets of their bad behavior.

        • Amy March

          What’s really harmful is constant racist microaggressions, actually. More so than being called racist for saying racist things.

        • BSM

          Being called a racist is not worse than actual racism.

        • Sarah E

          Nope, calling racism what it is does way more good. It might make an individual feel embarrassed, but it also brings more attention to the racist systems we’re all constantly swimming in. Pointing out the water to the fish.

        • savannnah

          The myth of white fragility does more harm than good.

        • Louise

          I think what Jean is saying is that the letter writer’s mom is saying racist things out of ignorance that the things she’s saying are offensive, but not out of a deep seated belief that one race is less than any other. Basically taking on the question of if it’s possible to say racist things without actually being racist.

          It should still be called out.

          • La’Marisa-Andrea

            This is hard for me grasp. I’m not racist so I don’t say racist things. I don’t know why this argument debating does saying racist things = racist exists. Yes. This is not that complex to me.

    • emilyg25

      Okay, but Oriental and colored haven’t been accepted terms in a REALLY long time, and the best response when someone points that out is either, “I’ll stop!” or “I didn’t know, can you tell me more about that?” Not “This is just the way I am! Sorrynotsorry!”

  • Kate

    As someone who is going through pretty much the same (but instead of mum imagine the entire family from grandparents cousins), I think you should make it clear in your mind that you are not responsible for your mum’s believes and behaviours and you cannot control she says or how other people feel about it. Even if she says something wrong if people are as educated as you say they are, they won’t judge you for that.
    On the other hand, your mum is a grown up she will do just fine. I am sure she will have some relatives who know her with whom she can spend more time.

    Plus, for your description she didn’t sound that bad (please don’t misunderstand me, I am very aware of the cruelty of microaggressions), but nothing that your friends won’t be able to deal with on their own. If someone comes up to you after the wedding, you can apologise on your mother’s behalf.

    I think you can previously warn your mum not to do any comment related to race. And you can also say during the wedding / reception how great is to have everyone celebrating with you regardless you race/religion/social status.

    Please don’t send your friends any e-mail it will look weird and will make feel even more uncomfortable. If you have only a couple of friends whom you think can me your mum’s “targets” maybe talk to them in advance, otherwise don’t worry about it anymore, I am sure you have many more things to worry about that you can actually control.

    • sofar

      Yep, I kind of assume, whenever I attend a wedding, I’m going to encounter some kooky relatives. I’d NEVER hold my friends accountable for their actions.

      In fact, nobody who loves you should hold you accountable for your family’s actions.

      As you said, you can always address it if you find out about a bad encounter after the wedding (“I’m so sorry. That aunt is a racist dingbat and I will talk to her about it at Christmas, if you want me to”).

      • idkmybffjill

        Not entirely the point – but I don’t talk to people I don’t know well very often at weddings. If we small talk it’s like, “wasn’t that a lovely ceremony, wasn’t the bride/groom/brides beautiful?” etc. So I’m hopeful that this legit won’t even come up.

  • sofar

    I think people just kind of *know* that weddings are mixed-bag of people that the couple would normally be mortified to bring into the same room. I’m not sure that a “not a safe space” disclaimer is warranted in most circumstances (possibly only in extreme ones).

    My wedding was attended by: Racists (loud and proud ones and unaware ones like LW’s mom); bigots of all types; poor rural folks; rich city folks; two transgendered friends (one transitioning); same-sex couples; people of various races and creeds; an MRA; a male friend who prefers wearing women’s clothing; Trump supporters; anarchists; EXTREMELY conservative Catholics; Planned Parenthood employees.

    I joked about having blocks of knives as our centerpieces.

    And everything was fiiiiiiine. Did people say stupid things? My friends already have some inside-jokes about one of my family friends (who is actually a ‘progressive’ millennial from NY) asking my Vietnamese friend if “all asians” were “crazy,” like his ex girlfriend. But most were on their very best behavior. The guy wearing the dress got some funny looks, but nobody said anything to him, probably because they knew I’d kill them.

    • Kate

      Sounds like the kind of wedding I would love to attend! :D

    • AP

      Hey, just want to gently point out that GLAAD recommends avoiding using the word “transgendered” in favor of “transgender.” (I realize I’m making an assumption here- these are your friends and you should absolutely use the terms they prefer. It just caught my attention!)

      • sofar

        Thanks for pointing that out. Definitely something I’d heard and made note of in the past, but slipped out when I typed fast. Mea culpa and thank you!

      • Lexipedia

        Thank you for a source! I always appreciate being able to pass on a good explainer/article/blog post when I’m having trouble sharing complex information. When we met FI didn’t have a lot of experience of the recommended or nuanced terminology of anything past the L, G, and B parts of the acronym. It was good to have some articles that are more clear and eloquent than I could be to bring him up to speed. He’s totally got it now, and actually asked if a friend of mine would prefer the “they” pronoun before I introduced them, but GLAAD is a great source.

    • C

      “My wedding was attended by: Racists (loud and proud ones and unaware ones like LW’s mom); bigots of all types; poor rural folks; rich city folks; two transgendered friends (one transitioning); same-sex couples; people of various races and creeds; an MRA; a male friend who prefers wearing women’s clothing; Trump supporters; anarchists; EXTREMELY conservative Catholics; Planned Parenthood employees.

      I joked about having blocks of knives as our centerpieces.”

      This description made me laugh! Good on you for having a varied group of friends/family.

      Also, Najva, thank you for your advice. I’m not planning a wedding but will file this away for future reference.

  • Eh

    Giving guests a heads up is a good idea. Give them an idea of who to avoid.

    My FIL and some of my husband’s other relatives say things to get a reaction. Luckily, this does not seem to be the LW’s situation. I did not know the extent of this before we were married. We didn’t have many friends at the wedding and they mostly stuck together (playing CAH during the reception). I haven’t heard that any of my in-laws said anything that was inappropriate. This has been an issue since the wedding though, especially at large family events (e.g., Thanksgiving, Christmas). I am always concerned when my FIL or some of the other relatives are invited to events with my friends (luckily this isn’t often). I’ve told most of my friends about my FIL’s racist, sexist, Islamophobic and homophobic comments so they have been warned if they find themselves in his company. I have a friend (who is white) who has two children who are black. The first time she came to an event (my husband’s 30th birthday party) at my house that included my inlaws she felt a bit uncomfortable (she is from a small town, and she said their reactions were like what she gets when she is home). She came without her husband and some of my inlaws even assumed that her children were adopted. The second time she came for an event (my daughter’s first birthday party) my husband’s uncle told a sexist joke in front of me, my friend and her daughter, and two of my nieces. My friend cut him off and that shut him down. This uncle also started talking about his very conservative political views as we were opening presents. As a result, he is not going to be invited back to our house.

    • CMT

      Oh god, my dad also says things to get a reaction. Especially with me. Pushing my buttons is his favorite activity. Thankfully my close friends don’t hold that against me. (At least I think and hope they don’t.) Normally I try my hardest to just ignore what he says since I know what he’s looking for is a negative reaction from me (so that in turn he can act righteously indignant), but I would totally push back if he were doing it around my friends.

      • Eh

        It’s hard for me because it’s my inlaws. I am glad my friend was quick to shut the uncle down (I was still processing what he said, and a bit shocked he would say it). When he started talking politics I distracted people with a cute kid opening birthday presents. My husband doesn’t realize how offensive what they say actually is (since he grew up with it). That said, he also doesn’t have an issue with me shutting down the conversation (or, when it’s my FIL and the immediate family, giving them my perspective because I can’t stay quiet, especially now that we have a child).

  • Mrrpaderp

    I like the idea behind the email, especially telling people who they can reach out to for support if they need it. I think an email is a little intense though. Granted I’m an anxious person, but if I got an email like that I probably would not attend the wedding. Or I’d be nervous about it for weeks and I’d show up for the ceremony, hide in my car for cocktail hour, then jet right after dinner… and not interact with anyone I don’t know.

    • emilyg25

      Yeah, I think this is something that’s better handled with an in-person conversation if possible.

    • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

      Yeah, I can’t imagine receiving an email warning me that I’ve been invited to a party that’s not a safe place and still going. Why would you invite me to someplace you think that I, specifically, am not safe, to the degree that you needed to warn me about it? I’m on #teamliveconversation, live/phone/text/IM, more along the lines of “hey here’s a heads up about my mom” a la Amy March’s comment.

  • LW notes that “… but my future husband’s friends for the most part were raised by educated, upper-middle-class folks in other liberal cities.”

    I wouldn’t assume that folks that grew up in educated families or in liberal areas don’t say the same types of things that your Mom says behind closed doors. Sadly it’s been my experience that educated or liberal hometown does not equal inclusive or non-offensive to POC.

    • Violet

      I live in a super liberal major city, work in a department where almost everyone has a graduate degree, and STILL a (much older, but still) colleague made a generalization about “Orientals” in a meeting a few weeks ago. Argh!

      • I have a family member who uses “Oriental” and I correct them EVERY.SINGLE.TIME. At this point I feel like they are trolling me, but I’m going to keep it up.

        • anonforthis

          My MIL says this too, despite having an Asian grandchild. But her kids are also Black, and she has still failed to really consider the effects of raising them in a very Conservative, almost-all-white context. There’s some tension there.

      • BSM

        Yup. My friend’s dad (from New Canaan, CT) constantly uses “oriental,” no matter how many times she tells him that’s not the appropriate term anymore. He’s maybe 60 now.

    • sofar

      Yep, in my comment below, I described how a family friend (educated, ‘progressive,’ New Yorker) said what was probably the most offensive thing at my wedding.

      In fact, educated progressive liberals are most likely to have what I like to call the “OMG can I touch your hair??” type of racism in my experience.

      • Yup! It’s been my experience that “progressive liberals” are often the ones to make microaggressions like “oh wow, you’re so well spoken!” as opposed to folks who really just hate Black folks and make it known. Don’t smile at me and engage in conversations full of microaggressions – I’d rather you just ignore me.

        • La’Marisa-Andrea


    • Stephanie B.

      Agreed. I went to high school and college with a LOT of people who fall in the category of “educated, upper-middle-class folks” who voted for Trump and continue to back his horrific administration. Being educated and upper-middle-class isn’t a vaccination against bigotry. (And, sadly, they aren’t saying these things behind closed doors anymore, because they feel emboldened and supported to do so.)

    • Amanda

      Sometimes these are the people who know how to socially acceptably say terrible things and then back up their arguments as the superior Devil’s Advocate. How “I’m not racist but” shields a person from the backlash of making a racist comment, I’ll never know.

      Sadly, I think that’s what LW’s fiance’s friends will probably be judging her mom by. It won’t be about the sentiment, but the fact that it wasn’t couched correctly.

      As a side note, what’s super fun is being a secret non-white person. Hearing them backpedal after asking something like, “What are you?” or “What is your family?” is very telling. “We aren’t like that, you know,” is only slightly more convincing than the aforementioned “I’m not racist but.”

  • Mim86

    If you are truly an ally, imma need more than “let me know if my family was mean to you” or “speak up of someone says something, you have my permission”. Many minorities at events like this are 1 of 1 or 1 of 2. I wouldn’t feel safe telling someone off, personally as a black woman id come across as angry, combative and aggressive, and no matter what happened, people would act as if my reaction to their macro/micro agression was over reacting. And talk about me for the rest of the evening while the (usually) white offender became the victim. Ive had this happen probably hundreds of times in my 30 years.

    So warning isn’t enough. Please dont warn me actually. It shouldn’t be on me to avoid bigots. Talking to your own family and saying “no bigotry or youre out” is on you. I know you love your family, but I’m tired of having to be mouth pieces for why something is wrong to say.

    • Amy March

      But, really, she’s just not gonna invite her mom? I just don’t think that’s a reasonable ask.

      • Emily

        Right? I thought that was the whole point of this question. While it would be extremely vindicating to just write off people who are assholes 100% of the time, it’s not practical–whether at a wedding, or in the bar, or at work.

      • Mim86

        What im saying, which I thought was more clear, is tell your particularly more troublesome or bigoted folks to stay away from talking about anything related to race or sexuality. I dont think thats unreasonable at all. If it hurts their feelings, thats fragilty and not a burden you should put on more marginalized friends. By the wedding, they will, hopefully, be so happy for you, they wont be hurt by you asking them to not be offensive for a day. Based on above letter, it sounds like letter writers mother will be hurt for a hot second but try for her daughter.

        If someone says, well gosh darn it, i wanna talk about (insert insensitive phrase for group of minorities ), then…yeah i dont know. I dont wanna be at a wedding where a group of folks wants the right to personally be offensive.

        • Amy March

          But it seems like the whole point of the letter is yes, absolutely she will and should talk to mom, and has before, and mom even tries, but still isn’t perfect. So, then what? I think it’s a much harder question than what to do about people who affirmatively want to be hateful.

          • Mim86

            Bring it up again to mom then let it go. I bet i wont be as big a thing. I can’t speak for everyone, but id rather not know i have to brace for possible racism. Id probably be looking for it and uncomfortable. Id rather have a good time, and most likely the racist person never talks to me (too many people ) or i get an unfortunate “black womens hair is so unique ” and i smile and keep twerking to lil jon.

          • idkmybffjill

            Totally agree – this is so different than the LW a few weeks ago who had family who would take hateful snapchats of people. This is a person who is trying but still screwing up pretty regularly…. and may continue to do so on the wedding day.

          • VKD_Vee

            There is a huge degree of anxiety that goes along with these kind of “heads up, my granny has some pretty old fashioned ideas!” convos that I don’t think you’re taking into account. Why should this be the burden of the guest/friend?

    • La’Marisa-Andrea

      I agree that it’s not on me to avoid them but I would want to know so that I can personally decide if I even want to roll the dice on that one. I might just decide I don’t want to be around your racist family at all.

  • Katelyn

    A+ advice. Tons of our friends know my “country bumpkin” upbringing, but not the baggage it brings:

    “So, I’m not just worried that she’ll inadvertently offend someone, but also that two-thirds of our guests will write her off as trailer trash and she’ll feel uncomfortable. She’s already worried that I’m ashamed of her since I grew up, got educated, and got out”

    Aha – the lethal combination of rural/lower socioeconomic class, white, and racist. I know it all too well. In this political climate, LW’s mom fits the profile of the Trump MAGA cult. And it’s embarrassing. Like others have said, anyone can be racist. But adding in the other components amplifies the negativity, exponentially so because it’s LW’s mother.

    And this trifecta, I wonder, is what keeps LW (um, and me) so worried, not necessarily the racist statements on their own. Some of that embarrassment that I feel is because *I’m* judging my family members, too, which makes me feel extremely guilty – I’ve become that city person who “thinks they’re better than everyone else” – an unfair judgment, IMO, but I’m not going to be changing any minds.

    It’s a tough internal battle, and seeing all of that complexity spill into the wedding day and affecting other guests is upsetting when you just want everyone to be happy and joyful and get along. But it’s demonstrative of the future, not just the one day, and how LW approaches it will help establish a way to navigate the situation with kindness and compassion on both sides.

  • nikkster627

    Just here to thank Najva for her response. I’ve been so stressed about this and I think her idea is awesome!

  • Abby

    This all stinks and I’m sorry it’s all lumped together on your plate. I genuinely feel bad for everyone involved including your mom who sounds like she’s more progressive than her surroundings and still hasn’t evolved far enough to feel accepted.

    That being said, while I think Najva’s idea of giving those marginalized a safe space at your wedding is a FANTASTIC idea, I would not send an email. Since it’s a small affair, you’re likely going to see and chat with those guests you’re worried about. Give them the heads up in person/on the phone, let them know you care about them and the situation, and that they have plenty of back up if needed.

    The email just seems like it will create fear when maybe you’ll get lucky and your mom won’t have anything but kind things to say about you,your spouse and the food that day! Good luck!

  • Angela Howard

    Could the LW have a friend (or friends) who knows her mom try to stick close during the reception to redirect her mom if necessary?

    • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

      You could maybe ask your attendants to do this, but I will always hesitate to tell any guest that they have to work a wedding.

      • Amy March

        And that work is hard.

      • Sure, but if you don’t do it, aren’t you asking your more marginalized friends to do the work of taking the heat for everyone? Sure, that kind of work sucks. But if you have people who claim to be allies coming to the wedding, that’s the work they signed up for.

        • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

          Point. Probably wouldn’t hurt to at least tell your closest friends to pop in if they see Mom in any extended conversations that may go sideways. I think I would still draw the line at having my friends tail my mother all night.

  • EF

    yes! do more, as najva says!

    we had a blanket ‘don’t be a dick’ rule at our wedding, particularly because of a couple people who might show up/we were worried about. we also made a couple of friends designated ‘these people will take care of anyone saying horrible things’ people, and briefed them on who might be problems. these are very basic measures, not hard to do. definitely think it’s important to have friends’ backs.

  • EF

    also, hi, can we please not equate ‘working class’ with ‘uneducated’ and ‘upper middle class’ with ‘educated’?

    because that is not what life is to loads of people.

  • Lisa

    Designate some privileged white liberals to keep your mom company and tell them why and tell them to be nice to her and absorb her comments. Warn your marginalized friends, you owe it to them. And then, have a great wedding so that everyone’s too busy dancing to say anything.

  • Sheryl

    I can’t help but notice that Navja has told us from her place of loved experience what would help and a lot of people are saying “oh as a guest that would freak me out/make the situation worse than it is.”

    If you are not a POC this type of comment is really not ok. If you don’t live through racism every day please don’t speak over someone who does.

    If it’s not an email that you would be comfortable sending that’s one thing. (Although it maybe deserves some thought.) But if you are white please don’t dismiss Navja’s idea.

    • Kate

      Hi Sheryl! I’ve already shared my first thoughts about this letter, as you can read them, I’ll try not to repeat myself (English is not my first language, so please bear with me).

      I don’t think just because someone “lives through racism every day” has automatically a better point over someone who doesn’t. Of course the former has very valid points, and the way he/she feels about racism/microagrassions cannot be dismissed. Although that doesn’t grant them better ideas/solutions to this situations. Usually they do, but not always.

      About Navja’s advice, I think she has very good points, I just think the e-mail idea is not a good one for different reasons:
      (1) Perhaps she would feel safer with one, but I doubt that would be the case for everyone.
      (2) we are not talking about someone who would blatantly say “white people are the best” but someone who would believe that all Asian people are allergic to peanuts so she wouldn’t let her child take peanut butter to school just in case. Please keep in mind I understand that racism is many times expressed through microagressions and we can’t say these are “better” than other forms of racism. But there is a difference between someone saying “White lives matter” and “innocently” asking an “African-American guest for a recommendation for an Ethiopian restaurant.”, and we should react accordingly. So, sending an e-mail warning some of you Mexican friends there is a bunch of people who believe all Mexicans are lazy and should be deported “back to their country, I am sorry I had to invite them” is very different to sending an e-mail saying to different people “just in case you can talk to my mum during my wedding (which might be unlikely) be aware that she might say something racist to you”.
      (3) sending an e-mail or even a text or even calling someone on the phone just to tell them this might draw even more attention to the behaviour that otherwise would probably be ignored (for example, your black friend might be more aware of her mother’s interactions with other people, whereas he/she would not even pay attention to that if you didn’t say anything)
      (4) there is no way of “protecting” her mum like this. In fact, someone who LW describes as “tolerant compared to her community”, if warned about this will look “bad” regardless of how you put things, which means she will probably be excluded.
      (5) I understand people wanting their weddings to be “safe comfortable places to everyone” I just find this idea to utopic in most situations. We are talking about grow-ups who have probably dealt with this in the past, they will know how to respond.

      I genuinely think the only solution is to tell mum / other relatives that race or race related comments are completely forbidden because she has shown in the past not being able to filter what’s appropriate.

      Fortunately or unfortunately, the world is not a safe place to everyone all the time. And one of the things I have been learning through my relationship with my fiancé is that being uncomfortable usually allows us to grow. I hope your wedding is a place where every person there learns how to be more tolerant.

      I ran out of time, but I would just like to comment on your last sentence “But if you are white please don’t dismiss Navja’s idea.” Please never assume that a white person is never a victim of racism.

      • Loran

        White people are not victims of racism. Racism is systemic abuse from a position of power: POC cannot oppress white people. White people can be victims of racial prejudice, but that is not the same thing as facing racism daily. Other people have said this better and explored it more fully. Here is one article that links to others on this topic:
        Sheryl’s point (and please correct me if I’m wrong) is that when white people dismiss or talk over a POC’s perspective and suggestions, it is a form of oppression. A marginalized person’s opinion on marginalization and micro-aggressions is more informed and should be weighed more heavily than those who have not experienced these forms of oppression. Her solution may not work for you or your community (as Sheryl explores), but that does not mean it is without merit or should go without consideration. If I may expand on one of Sheryl’s last thoughts: if an email of this sort is being dismissed because a person feels it would draw too much attention to ignorance-based racism, why is that a reason for dismissing it? Ignorance-based racism is insidious, and can only be resolved through education and experience and in order to do that one first must acknowledge it’s happening, i.e. pay attention to it.

        • Kate

          Loran, thank you for taking time to reply to me. I honestly think this is one of the most fascinating conversations one could have. I am considering doing my master’s on a very related topic. :)
          I will read the article you recommended me, I only read the topics. I hope I will find some time in the next few months to reflect more about this and maybe write about it (not sure when though).

          I have to say that your definition of racism (“systemic abuse from a position of power”) is accepted in the academic community, but not the only one.
          Plus, not all the communities in the US are white nor all the countries in the world. Saying, a white person in China is not victim of racism is looking at this whole issue from a very westernized point of view.

          • rg223

            Unless there are centuries of country-wide, systemic oppression of one race over another (which is not the case for white people on China), then yes, a white person in China doesn’t face racism, they face racial prejudice. They are two different things.

          • La’Marisa-Andrea

            “Saying, a white person in China is not victim of racism is looking at this whole issue from a very westernized point of view.”
            White people being victims of racism in China is not a thing. Racial prejudice, yes.

            I’m also less interested in what academics say racism is and more interested in what those who are marginalized in racist systems of oppression say it is. Consider your sources. Racism constantly being defined through the lens of white supremacy is irritating. That’s what you suggested above with your example.

            “Sending an e-mail or even a text or even calling someone on the phone just to tell them this might draw even more attention to the behaviour that otherwise would probably be ignored (for example, your black friend might be more aware of her mother’s interactions with other people, whereas he/she would not even pay attention to that if you didn’t say anything)”

            There’s a never a time when black people are not aware of the behavior. Ever. We live with it on a daily basis, all day, every single day. There’s never a time when we are MORE aware or LESS aware. We are always aware. If you have black friends and are inviting them to something like a wedding or your home or a party and they’re going to have to interact with racist people, if you care about this friend, you owe it to them to warn them. You also let them off the hook if they decide ultimately they don’t want to be around your racist grandma or whatever it is.

    • rg223

      Thank you for making this point, Sheryl. I’m someone who posted that the email would make me alarmed. I thought about this exact point before commenting – wondering if I was speaking over Navja’s experience. I decided to comment anyway for this reason: this is an advice post, and Navja’s advice, to me, is separate from her lived experience. Unlike a personal essay, the APW readership typically comments on the advice and gives their own perspectives of what they would do, and have, I think, a little more freedom to analyze and disagree with both the LW and the advice-giver. The advice ALWAYS comes from lived experience; it’s impossible to divorce the two.

      That being said, I personally want to add that I think the message of the email is a great idea, I just don’t think email is the best medium for the message, especially given the small wedding where the LW could call everyone affected. If this were a larger wedding, I think email would be appropriate. I didn’t include that nuance in my original comment and wished I had made that clear. Also, I am dismayed it turned into a bit of a pile-on about the email, when I think most of us would agree the most important aspect of the advice, the message.

      ETA: Also, I could be completely wrong in my perspective, and I am definitely taking this to comment to heart that perhaps my first instinct was correct.

  • Ella

    Many comments have already addressed the alarmist tone of the suggested email. As an alternative to “it should be assumed that this wedding is not a safe space” can I suggest “we want to make you feel welcome at our wedding, but unfortunately cannot guarantee the event will be 100% free from ignorance and microaggressions”?

    • idkmybffjill

      I think this is a WAY better wording.

  • Nessie

    I’m nervous about this for my own wedding next year. I am a white person marrying an Asian person, and I’m worried about how a particular segment of my extended family will mix with his family. One of them said something weird about him when we started dating and I’m worried about “small” stuff like that leaking out into this important day.

    But, hey, maybe those people won’t RSVP? Here’s to that possibility.

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  • Andi

    The letter-writer should do assigned seating. Even with pretty small weddings, you do end up sitting at the dinner table for the majority of the evening. Seat Mom with other family at their own table and that will reduce her interaction with other people for hours.

  • dgeong

    I have been the POC at a majority-white wedding where people looked on in horror while a groomsman had a lengthy convo with me about his favorite ethnic foods. I took it in stride and the other groomsmen apologized but really it is a great opportunity for white folks to practice stepping in and collecting their white folks.

  • Erin Carlson

    Thank you for such practical, empathetic, and specific advice!