Help. Help. Help.
I have a large and spread-out extended family; my mother has six living siblings and they are spread from California to Pennsylvania, so we rarely all get to see each other in person. Most all the aunts and uncles and cousins are extremely liberal humanists, with a couple of exceptions (one year, my atheist aunt hosted Thanksgiving and a huge fight nearly broke out because she did not want my born-again Christian uncle to pray at the table–final ruling was her house, her rules, but it was a near thing). We’re all friends on Facebook, and for better or for worse, I’m probably the family member who uses it the most. Today, over my lunch break, I saw that the same uncle that featured in the Thanksgiving debacle had replied to a comment on a news article about the events taking place in Baltimore. And it is HORRIBLY, virulently racist and anti-our-President. Based on some of his previous behaviors, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me nearly as much as it did, but there you go.
So my question is this: I have been working hard over the last few years to be a good ally, in any way that I can be, to marginalized people in our society. Part of that has been developing enough courage to call people out when they’re being racist, sexist, bigoted, etc. So there’s a big part of me that DESPERATELY wants to call him out (or, you know, tell my mom, because she’s his big sister and is also far more diplomatic than the rest of us) but also, there’s a vested interest in not having a family detonation. How can I balance allyship with keeping the peace??
Dear Super Sad,
I love this question because it is so abstract. This is not a matter of “Should I spend money on X or save money for Y?” or “Should I marry Z or do what the cool kids are doing and be a pomo spinster?” This is more along the lines of, “How should a person be?”
You are asking, in essence, whether is it more important to be a good member of your family – i.e., dutiful, diplomatic – or a good member of society – concerned for the less fortunate, active in the face of injustice. To whom do we owe our primary allegiances: our uncles or our neighbors, our family of origin or our intentional families? To whom do we answer, our people or ourselves?
Thing is, SS, it seems like you know. You are outraged by the behavior of your born-again Christian uncle. As an emissary from the next generation, as a witness to the crimes against humanity that are the ribs and bones of white supremacy, as a person being who is tired of watching some people get killed while other people shrug their shoulders or, worse, say the dead deserved it, you want to speak out.
You just don’t want to face the consequences for doing so. You want the points from your community and from your conscience. But you don’t want to lose points from your family, either.
Can you be the good person you want to be and be the good kid, the one who doesn’t upset anyone in the family? No. So what matters more to you? A) “Keeping the peace” or B) being true to yourself?
If the answer is A), okay. Know thyself, said the ancient Greeks. More classical wisdom: “Honor your father and your mother.” Your uncle too? That’s implied. (The operative verb in that commandment in the Leviticus version is “fear,” by the way, as in “Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father.” That’s less well reported and well remembered. I thought you might appreciate it, though, given that you seem to be governed a bit by fear.) “Love thy neighbor as thyself” gets quoted a lot, but that didn’t make it to the Hebrew Bible Top 10.
If you are tempted to choose A), though, I would ask you to consider: what family pond doesn’t get some stones lobbed it in now and again? Ponds are meant to withstand and absorb stones; they’re not plate-glass windows. Real men, women, and children are risking their lives throwing real stones, demanding attention and something approximating the justice they have been denied for so long. Why are you nervous about causing a few ripples? Is this a pattern in the rest of your life, and does that bother you?
A peace built on silence and censorship is a dumb peace – literally. And that peace is already broken as far as you are concerned, anyway, right? He broke it by saying something offensive and hurtful in public. That was his choice.
If the answer is B), and you do decide to challenge your uncle online, be prepared for the fact that you probably will not change his mind. Most people use Facebook as a megaphone inside an echo chamber inside a padded room. We don’t sign on to have our horizons expanded; we want to coo at dog pictures and chuckle at jokes and splash sympathy at each other while feeling acquaintances gently splashing sympathy back at us. Even IRL, especially once folks get past a certain age, we are notoriously uninterested in anything that conflicts with our preferred worldviews.
So, do not expect that your uncle will listen to you. That’s okay! You are not doing this for him.
Since you value family harmony and want to maintain cordial relations with this uncle while still getting your message across, you can reply to his posts with some great #BlackLivesMatter reading. Every time he posts something offensive, respond with three links, one after another. You can be polite and persistent at the same time. Even if you affect him not one whit except to annoy him, perhaps that will serve as a deterrent. And perhaps you will spark some other reader’s imagination. At the very least, you will know that you didn’t get bigotry go unchallenged for the sake of the status quo.
You can also use speak his language and use the Bible, if you like! That same page of Leviticus also contains some more great stuff. Here are a couple of relevant verses: “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor favour the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour. Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD.”
Perhaps your uncle does not see the people of Baltimore as his neighbours. Perhaps he sees them more as strangers in his midst. Well, Leviticus has an answer for that, too: “The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
So there. –God
Good luck, SS. I hope that your family is strong enough to withstand a little bit of disagreement in its midst. I believe that it probably is. But if there is indeed a detonation, remember that you weren’t the one tossing Molotov cocktails. That was your uncle’s doing.
Illustrator: Liana Finck’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Lilith, Tablet, and The Forward. Her first graphic novel is called A Bintel Brief. Her webcomic, Diary of a Shadow, can be read on her website.
The role of Aunt Acid is played by Brooklyn-based know-it-all Ester Bloom.