This piece was originally published on November 19, 2018. We’re republishing it now, because one year later, it's still as relevant as ever.
Toxic ideologies often start around family dinner tables. It's not just an uncle saying a racist joke, or a grandmother determining her xenophobic ideas as “a part of her time.” These comments seep into how we make decisions in voting booths, how judges rule in their chambers, how teachers guide students in school classrooms, how employment decisions are made, and how police react in high-stakes situations.
After a year of relentless atrocities that don’t always make for easy conversation at the dinner table, it's important to make Thanksgiving preparations beyond the tablescape and the menu. This year, I want you to prepare for something a little more nuanced than stuffing or cranberry sauce: I want you to prepare to rock the family boat, with important discussions that stretch beyond the surface of “How's the weather?” and “Who are you dating these days?” So, I'm coming to you with a guide that should push you beyond apathy, and instead, teach you how to be a part of the solution. As Angela Davis reminds us, it is not enough to not be racist. You have to be anti-racist, and if you are not actively being part of the solution, then you are a part of the problem. So here is some language to help you navigate Thanksgiving day dinner.
ON THE HOLIDAY ITSELF
We can start with a few obvious points: Columbus was not a hero but in reality a destructive colonizer whose conquests lead to the massacre of millions of native Americans. For some reason white people still cling to the idea that he did something monumental and worthy of praise. You may hear them say, “We can't dismiss the fact that the foundation of this country has offered a lot of good to the world.” And you will reply, “We cannot simply ignore the fact that the success of this ‘great’ country has been on the backs of native, black, and brown people. That only in eradicating whole communities to take their land, dismissing complete cultures, and the manual labor of those marginalized communities has wealth and power been acquired.”
ON TAKING A KNEE
One discussion that is likely to come up on Thanksgiving is the kneeling protest that football players—most notably Colin Kaepernick—are taking to bring awareness to the widespread police brutality against black bodies all across the country.
Your family might say: “They have disrespected our flag! They deserve to be fined!” And to that you should reply, “Colin started these peaceful protests on the field to demand justice for the hundreds of unarmed black men being shot and killed in American streets unjustly by police officers, who are nearly never held accountable for these murders. As a black man with a platform, he is using his freedom of speech to stand up for the black men in neighborhoods all over the country who are being killed by the people who have sworn to protect them. If kneeling in a call for justice is more disgusting to you than the lives unfairly being gunned down, then it’s apparent that for you (and the NFL) this is more about silencing a black man than valuing humanity.”
BUT I’M NOT RACIST
Rather than discussing how to be part of the solution, the default reaction to conversations around race usually starts with: “But I’m not part of the problem”—as though that absolves them of the consequences.
They will say, "But I don't see race. We are all humankind." And to that you will reply: "While race not being ‘a thing’ is ideal, we have to face the fact that in this country it is. Both historically and today. You saying that it’s not isn't helping. White people have always had the upper hand over people of color. The only way we can work toward this true 'colorless' equality that we’re dreaming of is to actively do the work to dismantle the oppressive systems our forefathers built—not simply dismiss the realities of black people.
It's not enough to just not be racist, you have to be intentionally anti-racist. They might say “Well what do you expect me to do?” And to that you can say, “You have to call out your racist friends and family members, you have to vote for representatives that fight for justice for black and brown communities, you have to educate yourself on the history of this country so more constructive conversations can be had. You have to do the work.”
ON WHITE PRIVILEGE
White privilege is a topic that has been a hard pill to swallow for many people in the white community. They will say “But I have no privilege! I wasn't born rich and I worked hard for everything I have. Don't paint me as a bad person just because I was born white.”
And to that you will say, “White privilege has nothing to do with who you are as a person. It has everything to do with the systematic realities of the world we live in. It is one which generation after generation oppresses people who are black and benefits people who are white at all levels of society. When white people dismiss the idea of privilege with statements like, ‘But I had it hard too," it’s irrelevant. Because no matter how poor you were, no matter what neighborhood you grew up in, no matter what struggle you identify with, you were still white while experiencing it; which means compared to any black person living a paralleled experience, you were indeed reaping the benefits of societal preference towards white skin. Realize that no matter ‘how good’ black people are, no matter how well spoken, how successful, how wealthy, or how educated we bring ourselves to be, racism and unfair treatment due to skin color remains a constant. White privilege isn’t a stab at your character, it’s a reminder of the world we live in. Acknowledging it promotes a shift in our culture. Dismissing it twists the knife in our country’s already wounded system.”
ON BEING LABELED “DIVISIVE”
For some reason when a conversation is intended to advocate for the rights of a marginalized group, white people see it as more divisive than the issues at hand.
Your family might say, “By talking about race you’re the one separating people, not me!” And to this you can say: “Confronting the ways in which racial lines exist in our country is not perpetuating the divide, but instead holding up a mirror so we can begin to fix it. We cannot fix what we ignore. If pretending things weren't happening was the solution, we would have been rid of race a long time ago. It makes no sense how you seem to be more offended by the conversation of race than you are about the actual life-affecting racism this country is still dealing with.”
JUST CHOOSE LOVE
The idea that white people must be held accountable is not rooted in hate—though that’s how some people skirt around these gnarled conversations. With statistics like 62 percent of white women voting for Roy Moore in the Alabama special election, even after his several misconduct allegations; or a majority white population pushing for a wall to displace immigrants while they are descendants of immigrants themselves, they will say, “Just focus on love and all the good things that are happening and the rest will work itself out.”
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To this you can say, “Ignoring the issues of race is something you are able to do from your place of privilege. Telling oppressed people to ‘love’ their way out of the systematic racism in this country is not only irrational, but a part of the problem. You must be action-based and intentional to be a part of the solution. Suggesting to ignore it is like walking into an orphanage and telling children to love themselves into a family. Like walking into a soup kitchen and telling the hungry to stop focusing on their hunger and just love themselves into their next meal. Like walking into the underfunded schools in urban areas and telling the kids to love themselves into a more quality education. These are all systemic issues that must be faced head on with demands for change.
ON HOW ALL LIVES MATTER
The Black Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter debate may be one you’ve found yourself trying to navigate. At the dinner table this may come up as a defense to your advocacy for the lives of this country’s marginalized groups. They will say, “How rude! All lives matter!” And to this you can say, “If you are white and you see something that is addressing the needs of a specific minority group (such as the term “black lives matter”) and you have the knee-jerk reaction to demand the focus ‘not be on just one group’ but be inclusive of all people, you should sit with that for a moment. If you, a white person who nearly at all times experiences majority representation, feel something negative about being ‘left out’ or not fairly included, imagine how minority and marginalized groups feel all the time when their needs aren’t considered in the major decisions, conversations, and actions taken in this country. So when you feel the need to toss the word ‘all’ into anything that is looking to serve the needs of a marginalized group, you aren’t actually asking for inclusivity. You’re demanding to be centered...yet again.”
These conversations will never be easy but they will always be necessary. Words are not just bubbles that float into air then dissolve. Words are the things that form ideas and opinions—the things that ultimately guide our actions. Being apathetic to issues of race is not “taking the high road” or “opting out of politics.” Being engaged and aware is being responsible for what role you play in the collective community of livelihoods—the mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, teachers, school children, neighbors—that we are a part of. As America sits down to give thanks for a country founded on the pain of many, we can't dismiss the irony of what is being celebrated.