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How to have a civil Thanksgiving conversation with your Trump-voting family

And how to set boundaries when you need to.


Jaya Saxena


Posted on Nov 23, 2016   Updated on May 25, 2021, 1:02 pm CDT

If members of your family voted for Donald Trump and you didn’t, Thanksgiving might be especially fraught this year. Politics and large family dinners are always tricky territory, but every day President-elect Trump adds a white supremacist to his cabinet, yells at journalists for not portraying him in a positive light, and continues supporting a Muslim registry, the stakes for what a Trump presidency will mean for millions of Americans get higher and higher.

It is noble to want to confront your relatives about their opinions, whether they are actively racist and sexist, or just ignorant. Many would argue that if you’re white, male, cisgender, or carry any other unearned privileges in American society, it is your responsibility to talk to your nearest and dearest about these issues, as they’ll be more willing to listen to you than a random protester or article.

This is all easier said than done, though, especially because etiquette so often calls for “being nice” when family gathers together, and most people mistake “being nice” with “never disagreeing with anyone ever.” Etiquette is about following culturally agreed-upon scripts to avoid awkward situations and make sure people feel comfortable, but that does not mean it’s done at the expense of important ideas and hard conversations. 

Etiquette is also about reciprocity. Millions of Americans are fearing for their safety in a Trump presidency, and most of them are people who have not been afforded basic courtesies by American society for its whole history. By speaking to your relatives, you’re doing your part to make sure etiquette is extended to them.

Since you’ll still be trapped in a house with your family, it pays to at least start off civil in your words and actions. Here are some tips on how to get through the conversation.

1) Figure out if it’s even worth it.

There tend to be two types of Trump supporters in the world: those who are interested in other views and those who aren’t. Some hold prejudice because they’ve never critically thought about the issues at hand, and are thus mimicking what they’ve heard in their circles; and others have thought through everything and still arrived at the conclusion that “multiculturalism has failed” or whatever.

In a guest post for Captain Awkward, Valerie Aurora outlines that the former are the ones worth talking to during Thanksgiving. “If you think someone might change their mind, state your position once, firmly but calmly, then set the boundary and enforce it,” she writes. 

However, that doesn’t mean you just have to listen to Aunt Miriam’s anti-black tirade all night long. For those who are unlikely to change their minds, Aurora recommends setting firm boundaries and letting them know that while they can hold whatever views they want, you will not tolerate them. A firm “if you continue to spout this racism at the table, I will be leaving,” and then calmly following through if that happens, will get the message across.

2) Have some talking points.

In your own mind, you may know there is all the all the evidence in the world to back up your opinions, but some people need to hear that proof to be convinced. If someone asks for statistics about false rape accusations, you can cite statistics that say 2–10 percent of rape allegations are probably false, and that a majority are never even reported because victims fear they won’t be believed. If someone says undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes, you can point to the 11 billion dollars paid in state and local taxes by 11 million undocumented immigrants. If a relative says their ancestors arrived in America and followed the path to citizenship fair and square, you can point to how naturalization wasn’t standardized until 1906 so it might have been much easier for them to do so.

Showing Up for Racial Justice has even put together this handy guide of talking points for you to practice. And if you get really stuck mid-conversation, you can even text SOS to 82623, and they’ll help you out. 

If worse comes to worse, offer to follow up with a family member over email and send links so they can do the research themselves.

3) Don’t start off with accusations, even if they’re true.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people consider being called racists a worse crime than racism itself. It’s a huge problem, but not one that you will singlehandedly solve before football starts. In your conversation, you can build up to why a certain view is racist, or why a “racist” doesn’t just look like a member of the KKK, or how since America was founded on white supremacy, we’re all a little racist. But if you’ve determined this is someone who is open to new ideas, starting a conversation with “you’re racist” will most likely just get someone’s hackles up and close them off to any productive conversation.

Instead, start by explaining why you disagree with their opinion, whether it’s “I think it’s important we hold police officers, who are trained to de-escalate situations, accountable when they shoot black children,” or “It’s unfair of you to assume an entire religion’s followers are violent and hateful.”

4) Speak from personal experience if you have any.

This, of course, depends on what you feel comfortable divulging with your relatives, but let them know if you actually did share their views at one point and have changed your mind. Maybe you used to be more racist but reading about Black Lives Matter opened your eyes to new perspectives. Maybe you thought feminists were whining until you were passed over for a job because your boss figured you’d get pregnant soon. Maybe your best friend is Jewish and they’re terrified of all the swastikas popping up everywhere. If what’s keeping your relative from getting it is a lack of “real” examples, perhaps hearing how these issues affect someone they hold dear with help them understand.

Another useful tactic might be “what if you were in their shoes” approach. Ask them how they might feel if they were forced to register with National Security and put on a watch list just because they were Christian. Or pose questions like, “What if you were walking out of church and someone tried to snatch your Bible because they misunderstood your religion?” Many people can’t relate to fears and dangers the marginalized face because they’ve never been attacked because of their skin color, religion, or sexuality. Do your best to point out how non-sensical these attacks are.

5) Don’t put up with personal attacks.

We’ve been assuming here that you’re speaking to your relatives about racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia because they are not things they suffer (or think they suffer) the effects of. However, there are many instances in which your brother’s views would directly affect you, whether it’s because you’re gay, you adopted a child of a different race, or your girlfriend is an immigrant. No matter how open to change someone might be, direct attacks on you or specific people in your life should be shut down immediately.

6) Accept that this will probably be one of many conversations.

Think about how you came to the point in your life where you hold the views and values you do. Did you have an “aha” moment, or is this because of the long, slow work of educating yourself and listening to those around you? Even if there was one conversation or experience that opened your eyes to a whole new world, it was probably followed up but many more experiences and conversations. So don’t expect to march into Thanksgiving and emerge with an entirely new “woke” family.

You will not always agree, and they may even get angry at you for confronting them. Be kind when you can and set boundaries when you need to. And if it really gets to be too much, you can always say you overate and go upstairs for a nap.

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*First Published: Nov 23, 2016, 9:30 am CST