Say it with me now: “I will not disrespect my elders, nor will I be their punching bag.”
Sometimes finding a balance between respecting and disrespecting my elders is tough. I know that struggle. I grew up in the south, and I was taught to show respect to my elders, regardless of how wrong they are. That’s a hard thing to do when you’re a fat, bisexual, purple-haired, socialist teenager who is totally down to date outside of their race. Both of my parents were very liberal and raised me to stand up for others and myself, yet I was expected to flip this switch at family events.
I had two very different family experiences. My paternal side of the family was politically liberal but still had some leftover values from stronger and happier economies – well, for white people. My father protested against racial inequality, yet had no issue with turning on a “blaccent” when telling a story that involved a BIPOC. Similarly, he thought of himself as very progressive with his gender politics but didn’t quite restrain himself from objectifying women and leaning on gender norms and gender roles to make a point and place himself back at the top of the food chain. If I disagreed and defended myself, or suggested that perhaps he was being a hypocrite and not upholding the ideals he’d pretend to believe in, there was hell to pay.
Needless to say, my teenage years were not a lot of fun since I could not keep my mouth shut.
Celebrating the holidays with my mom’s side of the family was also hard for me. The maternal side of my family was much more conservative politically and religiously, and it was a rare occasion that I could sit through a family dinner with extended family without hearing the n-word from one of my older male relatives, no matter how loudly my mother, grandmother, and I would protest. I never brought a girlfriend home because it was hard to find a femme that was not seeking out a more masculine-presenting partner, so my bisexuality was often dismissed as a phase or a trend. I wish I had the mind, during these family functions, to ask my heterosexual family members present without mates if their heterosexuality was, too, a trend due to lack of evidence to the contrary. Thankfully, my mother’s liberal beliefs were so intense and her spirituality so irreligious, everyone was usually more interested in teasing her, rather than focusing on me.
Some of the most memorable family fights have been during the holidays. I’ve seen gourds hurled with great precision from Thanksgiving centerpieces, cartons of eggnog splattered in the kitchen, threats of turkeys going in the trash (one of those threats was mine as an angry adult), and gifts, supposedly given from the heart, taken back. And, that’s just my immediate family!
More often than not, slipping into the larger scape of a family dinner with the rest of them was a way of getting the hell away from the toxicity between my parents when my father was still alive. (Sorry, Mom – we both know it’s true.)
Before I start singing “It’s beginning to look a lot like fuck this,” I like to keep these few things in mind when spending the holidays with conservative family members. Disclaimer: I recognize that this is an extremely white, privileged situation that I am in. I get to pack up my shit and leave when someone hurts my feelings. For those of you who cannot, I hear you and I see you. For those of you who can, try some of these tactics.
1. Offense is not always the best form of defense. I used to think that going in with my guns blazing was the best way to combat hurtful comments. Now that I am an adult, I realize that attacking their motives is much more effective than going after their surface politics. Going deep and asking why they feel the need to use a hurtful word or think that they are better than others often works. I try not to point out failures, as these folks are my family whom I love, but it has been known to shut down a conversation about the shortcomings of others.
2. Go for the respectability of what they are saying. “I really looked up to you as a kid. Why must you insist on saying such hurtful/terrible/wrong/etc things that prove my admiration displaced?” No aunt, uncle, grandparent, mom, dad, or older distant relative wants to hear that the pedestal you once placed them on is undeserved.
3. Choreograph your evening – MAKE A PLAN! Know where the safe places are to sit, rooms that you can dip into if tensions get too high. If you’ve got a favorite, non-judgemental family member – make a beeline for them. It’s okay to plan your conversations and make a few talking points for the evening, especially if it helps steer away from sensitive topics that you are not ready to talk about. I got fired two weeks before Christmas. When someone undoubtedly brings it up, I plan on politely but firmly saying that it was a horrible thing to have happen, but there are so many other wonderful things that we could be talking about together rather than wasting our energy on that. It’s okay to draw a line and protect yourself.
4. Depending on your relationship with the person in question, a well-placed barb will sometimes do the trick. I am incredibly grateful that the younger generations of my family are much, much more liberal. Sometimes a misplaced comment will come out of their mouths. That’s when a well-placed zinger can be most effective. I recognize that this does not work for every family, but my maternal half is constantly clowning on each other out of love and the love of a good laugh.
5. It’s not about you. Repeat. It’s not about you. Your mom may say it’s about you. It’s not about you. Your sibling may say it’s about you. It’s not about you. Your grandmother may tell you you’re a terrible person, which mine did after my father passed away and I said some less savory things at his funeral at the foolish age of eighteen. It’s not about you. None of this is about you – it’s their bullshit that they are projecting on the nearest person that is the least like them, or maybe even the most like them in my grandmother’s case. One exception to “It’s Not About You” is if you are living off of a trustfund that they set up for you and you are able-bodied but not seeking work… then it might be about you.
6. Choose happiness over righteousness. Pick your battles – they think they are just as right as you are. My father and my grandmothers taught me this one at a young age, and not from positive example. If you say something harmful, take responsibility for it. Own your actions and make sure you are not participating in old, negative patterns of behavior that you thought you left behind long ago.
7. You’re not going to change your old relatives, so protect the young ones. You can be a model of good behavior and set limits on what you can be around, but you are not going to change the older folks. Instead, focus on yourself and your relationship with your younger kin. They may be going through the same thing that younger you experienced. Be an ally for them. Let them know it’s okay to be different by holding your head high and being an example, as well as reaching out to them and telling them that if they ever need to talk about tough things, you’re a mere phone call or visit away.
8. No family is perfect. No matter how warm and together your friend or partner’s family may seem, they’ve got dirty laundry too. One of the most life-affirming things that I have ever experienced was the absolute MELTDOWN of a “perfect” family’s Christmas dinner after the matriarch had one too many glasses of wine. Now, I wish drama on no one, but I had been comparing my existence to my (now former) friend’s “perfect” family for a long time. Seeing that in action wiped out any preconceptions that I have for anyone’s experience.
9. Give yourself time to recover. You can set a time frame for which you will be in these spaces and adhere to them. You can go to your “safe place” afterward to unpack the trauma that you may have experienced, with your chosen people or by yourself. Maybe self-care looks like watching silly videos on the internet. Don’t pile too much on your plate or your calendar after big events like this. Give yourself permission to take the time that you need for self-care.
Featured Image via wjlj