Racism in the Extended Family on the Holidays

The Sunday after Thanksgiving: The day we pack up, gratefully drive back to our own home in our own town with our own way of doing things, and are stuck in the car together for hours and have no choice but to talk to each other. It is a time to reflect on the (peculiar) people we met and the (wacky) things that happened, and it is a chance to talk to the kids about what is really important to us as a family. I call it the post-holiday debriefing (and I recommend this in my Multicultural Toolbox workshops as one strategy for combating racism and intolerance in the extended family).
Let me preface this by saying my children attend a school named Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary. They know about racism and they know about resistance. Three of the four children are strong and tough girls, so much so that Little Brother used to once put his head down and cry cried, “I don’t have any Girl Power.” Add on top of that their mother is a writer on multicultural issues and a civil rights activist who speaks out on behalf of others. We are not easy people to have over for dinner.
In addition, we are also old school Chinese-American and so exceedingly polite and well-mannered.
So what to do when we find ourselves far away from home with people we do not know that well who surprise us with racist, sexist, homophobic, stereotyped or other intolerant comments that do not agree with our beliefs?
The last thing I want to do is start a big fight around the Thanksgiving table, especially when it is Thursday and we have four more days to go. I know I will never change my 97-year-old grandfather’s beliefs. I know that Auntie X is and always will be eccentric. I also prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt when I think that they do not realize the full impact of what they are saying (I was trained as a philosopher—I know that “normal people” are not). Most of all, I find it interesting to know how other people really think.
However, I also do not want my children to think that anti-Semitic jokes are funny or that Arab-Americans are all terrorists or that they are lesser (or better) for being multiracial.
I do what I can, but how much can I do when we are in another person’s house, when we are the guests, when there are larger family issues at stake?
So we cherish the drive home. We talk about the jokes that were made and whether or not they were really funny. We talk about the further implications of an off-handed remark. We flesh out the story about what really happened at Pearl Harbor or on 9/11. We test the grains of truth and search for counter-examples. We acknowledge the hurt and the offense, and we discuss what else we could have done to better steer the conversation or to simply save ourselves (like getting up to go to the bathroom or to wash dishes at key moments). We try to figure out what really happened back there.
After one holiday dinner last year when my children were trapped next to a particularly crazy Auntie, we laughed the whole two-hour drive home, and my daughter ended up writing a paper for school about all the nutty things that happened that night and how much we laughed and learned talking about it afterwards over leftovers. The moral of her story: “Bad Chinese food always tastes better the next morning.”
This article was originally printed in AnnArbor.com and has been reprinted with permission.


  1. Oh, I know those moments so well, Frances, and it’s so true that many people do not, as you write “realize the full impact of what they are saying”. For the first five or six years of my marriage, my Turkish father-in-law would routinely tease me with the comment “Money, money, money”, a reference to my American upbringing and the almighty U.S. dollar. Your line “We try to figure out what really happened back there.” is simply priceless. And it’s so important to reflect on that and to figure out how to learn from these experiences.


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