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How To Handle Difficult Conversations During The Holidays

One of the most challenging parts of going home for the holidays is navigating tough conversations at the dinner table — especially when it comes to racism. As a white woman with two Black sisters, I’ve always been aware of how much racism can impact a family dynamic. Hearing microaggressive comments made me an ultra-protector big sis, ready to take on anyone who dares to make a remark. While I will never understand what it means for my sisters to hear derogatory comments from others, I can advocate for and support them.  

The holidays are approaching, and while this time of year is exciting, it can also bring up a lot of anxiety. Regardless of what holiday you celebrate, gatherings are often the place where everyone’s political, religious, social, and emotional beliefs are criticized and tested — which can lead to some heated conversations between you and your relatives. Have you ever found yourself in a tough situation where Uncle Darryl makes an offensive comment and you aren’t sure what to say? Me too. Coming from a family with various opposing beliefs, I understand how difficult it can be to sit back and listen to heated comments fired back and forth during the holiday season.

As a member of Gen Z, I feel like our generation is accustomed to exploring and challenging our belief systems. As a result, we often engage with people with beliefs that are different from our own. In certain conversations, we have the opportunity to call out problematic or offensive behavior when we hear it, but it can be tough to speak up and know how to be heard without being dismissed or seen as “too sensitive.” This holiday season, if you’re looking to make your beliefs acknowledged and respected, here are five responses to problematic family members that will help you keep the peace at the dinner table while still allowing for an open-minded conversation. 

“What do you mean by that?” or “Why do you say that?”

If someone makes an offensive comment at the dinner table, it’s easy to get triggered right away. You may find yourself feeling angry, offended, or desperate to get the person to actually think about the bologna that just came out of their mouth. If your aunt says something that doesn’t sound right to you, try questioning her statement in a non-accusatory way, for example: “What do you mean by that?” or “Why do you say that?” By asking the person to clarify or elaborate on their opinion, you might be able to gauge what they actually meant without going straight into attack mode. It also can be a simple conversation starter that can lead to a productive, open discussion. 

Sara Blanchard, the author of Dear White Women: Let’s Get (Un)Comfortable Talking about Racism and co-host of the award-winning podcast, Dear White Women, tells Her Campus that questioning a person’s reasoning “level-sets the conversation just enough to indicate that there’s a boundary, and lets the person speaking actually explore what they meant.” If someone was deliberately making a comment to cause harm, Blanchard says that you can use this opportunity to set a boundary while also leaving room for learning. 

“I’m sorry, but what you just said makes me uncomfortable.”

If someone says something racist, sometimes, it’s best to simply point out their racism. Put it front and center for the rest of your family to acknowledge. It might feel intimidating at first, but stating your discomfort might lead to a larger conversation and give you the opportunity to communicate that their language doesn’t feel appropriate or safe. 

Jim Wasserman, a former attorney and educator who teaches students about communication, says that if someone uses a racist word or language you’re not okay with, simply making your discomfort clear can help — and you shouldn’t feel pressured to elaborate or justify. “You have every right to simply voice [your] discomfort,” Wasserman says. “You can say, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve expressed my discomfort with your use of the word. If you continue to use it, I will have to leave.” 

Voicing your discomfort can feel nerve-wracking, but ultimately, it can offer both “sides” perspectives and understanding. So, in order for you to educate your grandma on the words she used and how they’re insulting, try a response like the one above — it just might lead to a healthy, much-needed conversation. 

“There’s no room for hate at this table.” 

Linda Archibald, a licensed master social worker and clinical therapist based in Greater Detroit, Michigan tells Her Campus, “Responding to racist remarks in a respectful, non-threatening manner creates boundaries that are a sign of healthy communication and respect which in turn can strengthen a relationship.” The statement “there’s no room for hate at this table” is a direct way of setting a boundary and holding someone accountable for their comments. 

Archibald says that you can still have a loving, functional relationship with your family member after an uncomfortable situation transpires. In fact, your relationship might even grow stronger — assuming that the person is willing to listen and evolve past standards that may have been acceptable in the past. However, if the person isn’t willing to listen and grow, then having a conversation about racism or problematic comments might be a more difficult one, and can create tension and conflict. In that case, it doesn’t mean you should be afraid to share your thoughts and feelings. Remember that you may not always be able to change someone’s opinion on the spot, but standing up to hate can be the start.

“It makes me sad to know that someone I care so much about thinks that way.” 

As a member of Gen Z, whenever I hear someone in my family say something so negative, hateful, or tone-deaf, I’m always struck with sadness. Knowing that someone I care about can say something so insulting — whether about race or otherwise — is always a let-down, and it’s important to let loved ones in your life know how their comments make you feel. 

In an interview with The Guardian, psychotherapist Dwight Turner says that while it’s natural to express sadness over your family members’ views, it can also help to reflect on where their beliefs are coming from. “You can’t change someone’s views; only they can,” Turner tells The Guardian. “Be interested in where your mother’s prejudices have come from. Are they driven by what she’s reading or seeing on TV? If you try to engage with her position, you don’t have to give up your own. But if you can find an empathetic bridge, then you can try to better understand her point of view.”

Whether someone says something directly to you at holiday dinner or you overhear something at your next family gathering that doesn’t sit right with you, take some time to reflect on the person’s comment, then consider bringing it up to them in a neutral setting. Sharing your disappointment might feel intimidating, but it can be a step in the right direction. 

Respond by not responding 

If you find yourself in an awkward situation around family, sometimes the best response is no response at all. It may seem counterintuitive, but in some situations, it’s better (and safer!) to remain silent in order to maintain a safe and healthy environment. Similar to how we’re taught not to give bullies the time of day, if problematic topics start coming up at dinner, change the subject or ignore them! Silence can often be more powerful than any clapback.

Wasserman says that opting to stay quiet in heated moments can also encourage you to decide if that person deserves a response from you. Sometimes, a response isn’t necessary, and responding can cause more distress than understanding and growth.

“One can be silent at the table, but later say they were not comfortable with what was said,” Wasserman tells Her Campus. So if you’re concerned about “causing a scene,” he recommends taking the high road. You’re not ignoring the problematic comments altogether; rather, you’re letting the person’s words speak for itself at the moment — and perhaps you address it later on once things have cooled down. While you may feel motivated to respond right away, taking a mindful pause can help you gather your thoughts and avoid being completely reactive. Hopefully, the people at Thanksgiving dinner will also acknowledge that what they said was inappropriate, and you can find a way to address it later on.

Remember: You may not be able to change others’ opinions, and that’s okay. However, you can inform others when disrespectful comments arise, and hopefully, using calm, clear communication will help encourage them to consider using kinder language. At the end of the day, it’s all about responding in a way that feels safe for you. 

Linda Archibald, LMSW and Clinical Therapist
Dwight Turner, Psychotherapist
Jim Wasserman, JD, Author of Enough Stuff
Sara Blanchard, Author of Dear White Women: Let’s Get (Un)Comfortable Talking about Racism, Co-Host of Dear White Women

Meguire Hennes is a Her Campus Editorial Intern and a senior at Montclair State University. She is majoring in Fashion Studies. Meguire is excited to share her knowledge of pop culture, music, today's fashion and beauty trends, self love/mental health, astrology, and musical theatre. When not writing or in class, Meguire can be found living her best Carrie Bradshaw life in NYC, singing 70s/80s classic rock a little too loud in the shower, or watching her favorite rom-coms over and over again. Coming from a small town in Wisconsin, she's excited to see what adventures await her in the big city!