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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