On the menu this year: your relatives' bigotry, now unmasked. / Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Amber A’Lee Frost,  November 16, 2016

Advice for a Trumpland Thanksgiving

Show up and stuff your face

On the menu this year: your relatives' bigotry, now unmasked. / Giuseppe Arcimboldo
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Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: yoursorryass@thebaffler.com. 

Dear Your Sorry Ass,

I’m a twenty-five-year-old pinko commie atheist working full time in my sixth year of undergrad. I wasn’t always a leftist. I was raised to be a good Christian—always voting for what I was told Jesus would want—but I drifted to the left in high school, and I never turned back. I hadn’t seen a lot of my family in years, and upon my last visit, I found that all of them are devout Trump supporters who want him to “keep Muslims out.” In fact, the only person in my family who didn’t vote for Trump in this election was my mother.

I’m tempted to spend the $60 in court costs to change my surname so there’s no affiliation with them, or at least just avoid the family events for a while. I work in politics and am a poli sci major, so just avoiding the issue is impossible since it’s basically my life. So my question is: What do I do when the overwhelming majority of my family is pro-fascist and racist?

Yours,

Horrified on the Holidays

 

Dear Horrified,

You certainly have my sympathies, as I too must navigate the complex and grueling social minefield that is the virulently reactionary American family. Once, for my birthday, my family and I went to a tapas restaurant back home in Indiana. Sometime after the waitress collected the menus, an older female relative asked me what I was doing at work. I worked for an arts and culture blog at the time, and I explained that I wrote mostly about transgressive and underground art, to which she replied “You know what’s really underground? The Muslim takeover of Europe. You need to write about that. Why aren’t you writing about that?”

There is a reason why family meals are the de facto activity of kinship; it is difficult to argue with someone when your mouth is full.

I laughed at her and told her that wasn’t really a thing—that if anything, Muslim immigrants are being abused by European governments—but of course that infuriated her more. Eventually, my peacemaking saint of a mother first tried to explain that the subject of immigration wasn’t really my beat, but by that time the argument had devolved and hostilities were laid bare. In her anguish, my mom asked why we were even talking about this at a restaurant when I only ever got to see her and the family once or maybe twice a year. My older relative got even more combative, I got more irritated, our voices raised, and then . . .

Then the food arrived. And we ate. And it was over.

There is a reason why family meals are the de facto activity of kinship; it is difficult to argue with someone when your mouth is full.

I am not able to avoid this person at family functions, which I do not organize and cannot avoid without hurting the very good people in my family. I also cannot avoid the political subjects we disagree on, as she is actively antagonistic, especially since she knows about and despises my own politics. But even if I had the option, I don’t think I would avoid her. It’s not as if going on strike from Thanksgiving would change her mind.

I also understand that I will probably never change her mind, since she’s too hostile to be receptive to any opposing viewpoints, no matter how generously presented. So I limit my time around her, say my piece fairly and concisely, and try to time my side of the exchange to the arrival of the appetizers. That’s it. That is all I can do.

I’m not sure what you can do; I don’t know your family. Conventional wisdom holds that “kitchen table activism” with kith and kin is somehow easier than talking to strangers, but I’ve never found that to be true. In my experience, people—especially conservative people—are more likely to accept disagreement from a stranger than they are their own family, especially if the dissenting leftist family member in question is younger than they are.

It’s possible, of course, that you could be a good influence on your family. Perhaps they’re reasonable people who can be swayed with cool-headed,articulate arguments against nativism. It’s possible that religious appeals to their own Christian mercy are a way through the anti-immigrant sentiment. Maybe they’re actually ripe for a real critique of power. It’s not too hard to make a case that Donald Trump, in line with the general practices of the bourgeoisie, doesn’t care about the lives of working-class people; it’s not hard to find horror stories from the people who worked for one of his many terrible companies, not to mention all the disgruntled former employees who worked directly under him. Again, I don’t know your family, and I’m hesitant to diagnose any stranger as completely irredeemable.

But maybe they’re too far gone—or at least too far gone to interpret any challenge to their values from a whippersnapper like you as anything but youthful defiance and/or cultural degeneracy. If that’s the case, you have nothing to be ashamed of, no reason to feel guilty (or to change your name). You are not your family’s keeper, and you can only do so much. Obviously, I can’t advise anyone to do anything that would break their dear, non-Trump-voting mother’s heart, but if it’s possible to have a relationship with her while cutting off your more reactionary relatives, you’re well within your right to do that. You’re an adult, and that means some degree of freedom of association.

But I wouldn’t close the door entirely. Things are about to change in this country, probably a lot, and not for the better. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and you don’t know how your family is going to interpret our murky future; people are irrational, but they often can shock you with moments of clarity, remorse, and contrition. If you decide for your own mental health to put some distance between you and your more deplorable kin, try not to burn any bridges; you may want to cross them again.

Until then, dear Horrified, so long as you have comrades, you will always have family.

Amber A'Lee Frost is a writer and musician in Brooklyn. She is a contributor to Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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