5 Ways to Face Race at the Thanksgiving Table—and Not Choke [Colorlines Classic]

That awkward moment when your uncle pipes up with a racist rant at holiday dinner doesn't have to be so hard. Here's how to take control of the conversation and make it productive, without ruining everybody's appetite.

By Terry Keleher Nov 23, 2011

One of the golden rules of etiquette is to avoid talking in polite company about politics, sex or religion. Some also add money. And a lot of people would love to add race to the very top of their taboo topic list.

The problem with the rules of etiquette is that the ruling elite wrote them. Indeed, so much of their privilege hinges on the politics of race, religion and sex/gender and the ways these connect with money and profit. So from their perspective, silence is soothing. Colorblindness is blissful. Avoidance is virtuous.

But if you identity with the ubiquitous 99 percent, you’ve probably come to realize that you’re not well served by all the silence. In fact, this Thanksgiving, you may actually want to ruffle a few feathers. Or at least, not let anyone ruffle yours and get away with it.

So it’s time to rewrite the rules of etiquette for talking about race at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Here’s a five-course menu to whet your appetite for turning the dreaded silence into some delicious conversation.

1. Talk turkey

"Talking turkey" means "talking plainly about a difficult or awkward subject." Resist the treatise on the prison-industrial-complex or the full-blown critique of global capitalism and structural racism. Lose the jargon or you’ll lose your audience. Instead, look for the softer entry points—a current event, a recent experience, a local development.

Instead of just being reactive, why not be proactive? Start with a question. Use plain language. Set the frame and tone you want. Create an opening for some constructive dialogue. For example, "Did you see that video of the police cracking down on the non-violent student protesters?" Or, "What do you think of the plans to shut down the neighborhood health clinic that serves mostly low-income people of color?"

2. Go easy on the stuffing

Make sure your ears aren’t too stuffed up to listen well. And don’t get too full of yourself. Be open to learning, because there actually are many valid perspectives. When you take the time to truly understand where someone is coming from, you’ll be far more equipped to make a difference in where the person is going. It’s OK to debate, but keep it constructive and don’t personalize things. Use "I" statements (about your own experiences and perspectives) rather than "You" statements (which sound accusatory). Focus on actions and impacts (which are concrete and knowable) rather than attitudes and intentions.

3. Take a roll with the mashed potatoes

When the rabid right-winger just can’t resist his racist rant, roll with it. You don’t have to take the bait. Talk on your own terms—when, how, and with whom you want. Not everything and everyone is worth your time.

For every close-minded racist, there are 10-times more people who’d rather be on the side of racial justice. They may not have a clue about what to do, but may be quite willing to entertain your constructive and productive suggestions. They’re the ones worth your time and energy.

That doesn’t mean letting racist remarks slide. You can call those out clearly and quickly. When your resident Tea Partier pours it on thick, take a deep breath. Don’t take it personally or defensively or you’ll only be an accomplice in this set-up for disaster. After another deep breath, make a thoughtful choice about how you can spend your energy initiating the kinds of conversations you want to have.

4. Go for the gravy

Sometimes the gravy makes the meal, providing the perfect complement to some delectable combinations. What’s the gravy you can add to the conversation? Instead of the typical race talk focused on blaming and shaming, and guilt tripping and grievances, how can you take things in a different direction? Can you move beyond the personal to talk about the patterns of inequality? Can you get beyond the symptoms to reveal the underlying system? Can you create connections across different concerns and communities so others can see their stake in social change? Can you appeal to shared values such as inclusion, equity, dignity, unity and love? Can you lift energy around a vision of racial, gender and economic justice for everyone?

5. Keep your eye on the pies

The point of talking about race at the Thanksgiving table isn’t actually to ruffle feathers, as tempting as that may be. The real point is to get others to see, act and think differently. But that’s only gonna happen if you’re willing to nurture and sustain good relationships with those you care about most. It’s a tall order, but for those who are going to be in your life a long time, it’s worth the special care and feeding that each person may need. That can take some real finessing. Like preparing a memorable meal, it requires generous heapings of patience and creativity. But the delicious results may give you something about which you can truly be thankful.

Terry Keleher is the thought leadership and practice specialist at Race Forward, which publishes Colorlines.com.