“Pass the stuffing, hold the -isms please”: Engaging Mixed Philosophies and Difficult Conversations at the Dinner Table

By: Caitlyn Brandt, Allison Dudley, Will Lammons, and Aaron Trumbo

The holidays are upon us once again, and soon many of us will engage in those family dynamics that reunite extended family and old acquaintances. This is a time to be thankful for loved ones, but it can also be a reminder that “you choose your friends, but you don’t choose your family.” In many households, clashes over differing politics and ideologies are a holiday tradition. This season, however, passions are running especially high fresh out of a divisive U.S. election cycle. For many of us, the events of recent days have been a disheartening reminder of deep political division within the U.S., and the serious social and environmental injustices that persist. Yet for some, perhaps even members of our own families, the recent election has bolstered views of bigotry and prejudice along with the actionable expression of those beliefs. These deep divisions will be represented at dinner tables across the nation this holiday season. Thus, the question is how, as students and practitioners of anthropology, can we facilitate open discussions that acknowledge opposing views, while refuting bigotry and statements (or denials) that are potentially dangerous and hurtful? How can we turn these conversations into productive moments of solidarity during these celebrations of gratitude and family?

This essay is the result of a discussion on public anthropology in an empire seminar, where a ‘politics of scholarship’ discourse morphed into the ‘politics of Thanksgiving dinner’ discussion.  Anxieties over inevitable confrontations about refugees, sexism, border walls, race, climate change, and other divisive issues prompted us to consider our role as public spokespersons of the discipline. The holidays may test our patience and resilience in the face of tough conversations, but they can also be ground for public anthropology. In what follows, we enlist a set of best practices for confronting bigotry and insensitivities among family and friends in a direct, yet compassionate manner.

Pass the stuffing. (c) Thug Kitchen
Pass the stuffing. (c) Thug Kitchen

In addition to our tips, we have included vignettes throughout this blog that describe our own personal experiences on the positives and negatives of discussing opposing views with friends, family, and others. Each of us has addressed issues of bigotry and insensitivity in many different ways throughout our lives. However, these conversations are always situational and never predictable.

A fitting example of familial relationships and differential views at the dinner table, this vignette serves as an example of comments and views that are hurtful or offensive. Sometimes situations like this catch us off guard, and our anthropological instincts can go out the window.

At a recent family gathering my cousin, Rachael, introduced her life partner to the extended family. In many ways, our extended family group is not very homogenous; we tend to be politically and ideologically divided, usually along  generational seams. Yet, in one way we are very homogenous; we are very white Euro-American in both complexion and culture. So, it did not go unnoticed when Rachael arrived with Anthony, her life partner and now, the only African-American member of the family. I was well aware that some of my in-laws are overt racists, but I also knew that nobody was going to act up and create an offensive confrontation. The frustration they often caused me through their prejudices made it difficult to make use of cultural theory to understand them. I didn’t expect them to say anything aloud or do anything particularly flagrant.  However, I had not considered my own responsibility when confronted by hushed comments and whispers. Someone pulled Rachael aside and I overheard “you’re not going to date a black guy, are you.” I cringed and stood there silently. Rachael blew it off, and Anthony didn’t hear it. They had a bigger surprise for the family. A few minutes later, all eyes were on Anthony and Rachael when they announced her pregnancy. Her uncle coughed choking on his own breath, stood up, turned toward me and in a low voice said, “I think I just shit my pants,” and walked away in shock. Again, I stood there like a signpost with no sign.  Looking back, I still don’t think Anthony or Rachael would have appreciated any attempt to turn their announcement into a teachable moment. But even since then, I haven’t had the confidence and conviction to privately confront these family members about their racial prejudice. For some reason I find it easier to confront a complete stranger over a racist remark than my own family.

So, how can we equitably engage with people and tell them that their comments are hurtful to others?

Recommended Practices

We are calling on anthropologists, students, and others to have conversations, which may be disheartening, stressful, or difficult at times, about opposing views. However, these can also be rewarding, build relationships, and can show us that we are all human. Below are our recommendations for how to get the most out of these difficult conversations.

Demonstrate compassion and empathy. Arguments arise quickly when two parties are too stubborn to acknowledge the other’s point of view. We can never hope to communicate our message if we are not willing to listen first. Moreover, as a family member, friend, stranger, or ethnographer, we owe it to our interlocutors to attempt to internalize and comprehend the root causes of their expressed feelings. It is important to recognize that everyone feels validity in their beliefs, and understanding the root of them may help us talk about differences in our own beliefs.

Be direct, be coherent, be calm: Speak for yourself and only yourself; use “I” statements. We are not speaking for the public or any group of people. We should also address offending remarks or concepts directly. To do this, ask clarifying questions: What do you mean?  Why do you feel that way?  Where did you hear that?  I’m kind of confused by that.  Can you explain it to me?  What makes you say that?  Don’t forget to demonstrate that you want to understand. It is paramount that it is clear to our interlocutors that we are not attacking, but instead conversing. To do this, identify the underlying prejudice or injustice as apart from the speaker’s character and identity. Be sure to make it clear you are not opposed to the speaker; you are opposed to a particular statement or view that they hold. And importantly, try to remain calm, cool, and collected. Giving in to feelings of frustration and anger can lead to an argument, a stalemate, or it can hurt feelings. However, we do want to say that our own human nature can halt us from holding back these responses of anger. Audra Simpson likewise shows that refusal is a common response to structures of power and control. Anger and frustration definitely show refusals of empathizing and understanding statements of bigotry and prejudice.  This essay, however, calls for us to acknowledge our anger and frustration and lean on our ethnographic praxis of understanding and empathy to work towards engaging and progressive discourse.

Even our own family and friends can shock us with their statements at times. In these moments, patience, clarity, and directness pays off.

An old friend and I were catching up a few months ago, and he was telling me about recently moving to a midwestern city after having lived in medium-sized southern towns for his whole life.  “The only thing…is all the gay people out there.  They suppress [sic] their gayness onto you.”  I was completely taken aback by the statement and had never heard such comments from him.  I pressed him on his comment and asked what he meant exactly, citing the LGBT community from our home town and its (relative) acceptance across the town.  He responded, “Yeah but they’re not open and in your face with it.”  I pressed him a little further, finally deciding that laughing in his face to show my disapproval and enregisterment of his comments as absurd as the only possible strategy to respond.  I knew in those thirty seconds that I had had no impact.

It can be difficult to get through to people. We can’t make necessary changes unless we try. Confrontation like this can be difficult, and it may seem easy to conflate someone’s hurtful words with their personality or character. This vignette describes the importance of countering false claims and pointing out inconsistencies, while also not attacking a person’s character.

This summer, an inquisitive gentleman sitting next to me on the plane struck up a conversation about anthropology and culture.  After discussing my research, the discipline, and grant funding for some thirty minutes, he somehow chose to move the conversation to homosexuality.  “You know, homosexuality is a very dangerous lifestyle,” he said.  I was floored.  “What do you mean?”  “How is it dangerous?”  “What do you define as dangerous?”  He alluded to a study he had read in a major news outlet, whose author, title, and details he could not remember.  He finally landed on “Well, anal sex is very dangerous.”  I promptly reminded him that heterosexual couples also have anal sex, which seemed to surprise him, but didn’t really shift him from his point.

By countering false claims like these, we can productively address others’ bias and misunderstanding.

Be vulnerable, humble, and forthright: As practitioners of anthropology, we must also be cognizant of our own biases and privileges. By recognizing biases and attempting to address them alongside family and friends, we may be able to break down barriers in a mutually vulnerable and non-confrontational manner. This should be an inclusive conversation that seeks to point out and alter not only the biases of others, but also our own. We can teach our views, but we can also learn from others.

Despite our best efforts, our own bias and ignorance can get the better of us. This final vignette is a reminder that we all have something to learn, no matter our position.

As a Jewish-American, I had never been exposed to someone who had not encountered Judaism before I moved to a new city. But on my first day of school, a random boy asked me to sit with him and his friends. I agreed but was shocked when they handed me a bible and began discussing it. I bluntly said, “I am actually Jewish and have no interest in converting, but I would still like to eat lunch with you.” I was then told “I’ve never met a Jew!” and asked “why don’t you look Jewish?” and “did you know Jesus was a Jew? Doesn’t that mean you’re really a Christian?” I wanted to shake them, scream, and tell them off, but instead I restated my first statement and suggested that they could read something from the bible and then I could let them know my perspective and views from Judaism. As awkward as it was, we ate lunch like this once a week for the rest of the year. I learned so much about Christianity and my own misperceptions that year. I hope that my new friends learned a little about Judaism as well.

Throughout these conversations, patience is often the bridge that builds and mends relationships.

Be encouraging, be positive, be patient: We are asking friends and family to reflect on their views and that may not be easy for them or us. Try to have patience. Leave room to digest new information, and take a break if the conversation gets heated, gridlocked, or turns negative. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been drowning in negativity! No one enjoys being berated or nagged, so try your best to stay positive despite any internal negativities you are drawn to. Sell the upsides of your argument. Focus on what your interlocutor stands to gain, not just what they need to lose. If your interlocutor offers evidence of their good intentions (anecdotal or otherwise), offer praise and encourage more of the same. Positivity and encouragement are key.

Remind yourself why you’re doing this: Remember that these are your friends and family. You may have started this conversation because you care about them and want to help them understand an issue that is very important to you. You might have a different reason, but either way, you are having this conversation because it’s deeply important to you. Keep this in mind. This may be a lifelong project…hearts and minds don’t come cheaply.

In spite of anger/frustration: Ultimately, we can only control our own actions and reactions. Remain composed and respectful in your communication. You may not win over your stubborn interlocutor, but you just might win the respect of bystanders. Don’t get defensive and try not to show anger. Instead of anger, express sincere disappointment and let your loved one know that you know they are capable of better. Stand firm. Individuals who bully, antagonize, and degrade others need to know that we stand in solidarity with those who are the intended targets of hateful and insensitive remarks. Our ultimate purpose, as Ruth Benedict so soundly stated, “is to make the world safe for human differences.”

The vignettes we use as ethnographic examples reveal a reality and a reminder of the time in which we live; they all occurred before the election and outside the context of “fieldwork.” Our experiences are unique, but they reflect the intolerance and bigotry that continues to exist today. However, despite our best efforts, our own bias and intolerance can inhibit us from having meaningful conversations with people with opposing views. Yet, as students and practitioners of anthropology, we must engage with people in our circles of families and friends, outside of the academy, whose views of equality and civil rights might not be exactly in line with our anthropological ideas. To advance this conversation, we must not only teach through anthropology, but also listen and learn.

In addition, as practitioners of public anthropology we write against the idea of the field site as the only area in which culture is experienced or ethnographically engaged by anthropologists. Many of us who study anthropology note the existence of cultural phenomena that collide with our own interests and views on a daily basis, and these intersections are ethically imperative sites in which we need to do anthropology. We can and should engage in anthropology through these discussions of prejudice and injustice in the public sphere. Our work makes us able to engage with people more so than perhaps any other discipline. We should be using this to engage with a public. This holiday season, we will be utilizing the tools of anthropology to have difficult but important conversations with our family and friends. We can only hope that others will do the same.

 

*Caitlyn Brandt, Allison Dudley, Will Lammons, and Aaron Trumbo are students in Professor Carole McGranahan’s “Empire Seminar: Colonial Studies, Postcolonial Theory, and Decolonizing Anthropology” course at the University of Colorado, fall 2016.

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

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