How to Talk to Aunt Denise About Politics Without Exploding
Let me set the scene: You’ve had a long week. Work was strenuous and frustrating, your potential love interest is being short with you, and your friends are going out but you just aren’t feeling it. You’re trying to numb your mind with wine and Facebook scrolling when you see it. A post from your Aunt Denise, detailing her frustration on the blockage on both of Trump’s immigration orders and the lack of progress on that wall she voted for.
“I just want to feel safe in my own country!”
“How dare they stop my President!! That’s illegal!”
“Go back to where you came from and stay there!!!!!”
Oh God. Not Aunt Denise.
You’re not alone in this panic, but honestly, you probably already know that. You probably screenshot this type of stuff and send it to your friends in your group text regularly so you can all scream your frustration into the void together, but on this day, it hits a particular nerve. You decide (or maybe the Pinot Grigio decides) that Aunt Denise finally deserves the drag that’s been coming to her ever since she claimed that the Black Lives Matter movement was “racist towards white people.” You type up a lengthy, passionate comment totally derailing her argument, complete with lots of snippy one-liners (“Ever heard of checks and balances, Denise?”), and culminate in honoring her with a donation in her name to the ACLU –
You pause, sigh, and delete the entire comment, throwing your phone across the room.
Family and politics has always been tricky. With the 24-hour Trumpcycle rolling on TV and Twitter, it seems inescapable and much more pressing. People who really didn’t talk about politics and social issues much on a day-to-day basis before 2016 suddenly are, and that’s not necessarily the bad part in all this. The bad part is, of course, that people who used to keep their racist, xenophobic, homophobic, sexist remarks to themselves for fear of backlash now feel emboldened by a president that they see as standing for those values and have decided to let loose. And unfortunately, this is going to include some people you know.
Believe me, I’ve been there. I largely try to stay out of these conversations with family members because to argue with some random high school acquaintance online and have them delete their post is super satisfying, not gonna lie, but to try to do that with your aunt or cousin or grandmother feels a little scarier. These are, obviously, people that you have grown up with, that you have grown up loving, that have made you who you are today. Maybe they even raised you. So how do you cope when you see them posting hatefully and ignorantly on social media?
In my experience, the best way to approach someone like Aunt Denise is in person. Yeah, go up to her at the family reunion and act just as you always have around her. Sit next to her at Thanksgiving. But as soon as she pulls out the “all Muslims are terrorist” comments, pull her aside. Ask her why she is saying this, what her real motivation is. The most effective advice I’ve ever been given when trying to speak to someone who disagrees with you is to try and find common ground. Maybe Aunt Denise is scared for her well-being, and she projects this onto every single practicer of Islam. Tell her that you understand, and that you’re scared for your friends who practice Islam because they are threatened with violence for their faith by people who say the exact same things that she does; tell her about the refugees who are fleeing the very real terrorism that she fears, only to be stopped and lumped in with them at our borders. Maybe your advice will sink in a little and change her mind.
But there is a very real possibility that she will just roll her eyes or storm out of the room in anger.
She may dismiss you, but at the end of the day you tried to have a real conversation that wasn’t about getting the upper hand on a Facebook comment stream. You confronted her with the reality of her opinions and their implications, and that should be your point. Current events are generating conversation, but is the conversation really productive? Or is it about making the other side look and feel inferior?
There will always be family members you disagree with. Just because these disagreements are now a little more high-stakes does not mean that every disagreement has to turn into an argument. The Aunt Denises in your life may be frustrating, but they are trying to make sense of all this just as much as you are. This doesn’t give them a pass on promoting possibly harmful rhetoric; on the contrary, it gives you the right to call them out for it and make them put their money where their mouth is.
But if Aunt Denise starts wearing “White Pride” shirts, just block her. There’s no coming back from that.