In Memoriam: The Pre-Thanksgiving "White Liberals Should Yell At Their Relatives This Week" Polemic
A short-lived and deeply fascinating micro-phenomenon
Although it’s not the subject of this piece, I’ve been thinking a lot over the past 60 hours about the spaces in all of our communities that offer safety and love to queer and trans young people. For me- because my heart is in Wisconsin and Milwuakee- that means supporting organizations like Empower Montana and Diverse and Resilient. Let me know if you’re having trouble finding those spaces where you live. firstname.lastname@example.org. Hold each other tight, you all.
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There was a time (just a few years ago!) when— over the course of this specific week— a dozen articles would take root, bloom and grow, scattering their pollen across the Internet-connected, English-language-reading world before disappearing into the ether. These articles were about politics and race and Trump and centuries of genocide and land theft perpetuated against Indigenous people. More specifically, they were about how White people should talk to their families about these issues during Thanksgiving. There were variations, of course. Some were full of hints about “how to be better at having that conversation” and others were straightforward jeremiads arguing that we should just shut up and do it, interpersonal consequences be damned. One year, Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) made a whole SOS hotline— you could live-text the argument you were having with your MAGA family member and receive a few personalized zingers on demand.
As far as I know, there is no more SURJ Thanksgiving Hotline. That organization is currently doing inspiring on-the-ground organizing work in Kentucky and Ohio and Georgia. They quite literally have better things to do than sending texts that say “have you tried explaining the racial wealth gap?” like a woke version of Clippy. And there aren’t too many of those strident blog posts either. My best guess is that they were products of a specific place-and-time— that exhilarating, clumsy fever dream of increased racial awareness and social media directive-taking that many of us shared sometime between Ferguson and the 2020 election. Goodness knows I understand the impetus. It makes sense that Black, Brown and Indigenous writers and activists would look at the world around them— protests in Standing Rock and Baltimore, election exit polls saying the same thing over and over again about how White men and women voted— and want to yell out into the void: “Wait, all of this is happening and all of these White liberals are just having Thanksgiving and, like, talking about the weather??? What the hell??? Why aren’t they flipping over tables???”
I’m less certain as to why those articles and resources suddenly died out, but I have some theories. There were always plenty of snide jokes about the concept, which does give off a shooting-ducks-in-a-barrel-vibe but fine, whatever. White liberal earnestness is always easy to mock! Add in the imagined image of a be-totebagged Trump hater furtively texting “HELP! HE JUST BROUGHT UP BLACK ON BLACK CRIME” from underneath the table and the jokes just write themselves. I even made those jokes! Just one paragraph ago! And I’m likely the most cringey, earnest White person most of you know!
Circular mockery, of course, is the true White tie that binds. “Hahahhahaa aren’t White people so uncool, hahahahaha” etc., etc., etc. Self-hatred masked as cultural critique. It hasn’t saved any of us so far, but goodness if we don’t keep trying.
Mockery probably didn’t kill the Thanksgiving Jeremiad Star, though. Oversaturation played a big role— for better or worse, strident, yelling-at-White-people writing feels less urgent when there are fifteen different variations of Ibram X. Kendi books on sale at Target (his latest, How To Coach An Anti-Racist Youth Soccer Team is currently 15% off). So, too, did exhaustion. Yes, justice work requires us to do hard things and yes, White people in particular often opt out of the hardest parts of it and yes, this is the least we can do. And yet: the call to “berate your family or White supremacy wins” is actually a really steep ask! For one thing, very few people— across racial lines— actually enjoy arguing about politics during holiday meals. That’s not a White supremacy thing, it’s a human being thing. We probably deserve a better/less historically problematic holiday than Thanksgiving, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve some sort of Winter-is-coming-let-us-eat-food-and-have-a-good-time event.
All of that would be irrelevant, though, if these kinds of conversations worked— if they were effective means of influencing perspectives and opening hearts. If that were the case, I would be rooting for the articles to continue in perpetuity. But they don’t work! We know this! A nation of untrained but passionate true believers wading into rhetorical battle in the landmine-littered territory of family dynamics isn’t a winning political conversion strategy.
I know that I’m in the minority with this, but I’m a strong believer in the art of political persuasion (given very specific conditions). There is compelling data showing that trained organizers absolutely can change hearts and minds. You won’t be surprised to learn, though, that there is no good evidence that yelling at your family works nearly as well. In 2018, a team from the University of Oklahoma studied hundreds of post 2016-election conversations between undergraduates and their families, but their bar was much lower. Their concern wasn’t whether or not any votes were shifted, but merely whether or not the conversations themselves drove families further apart. That was an achievable bar, as it turns out, but not because the undergraduates who hit it were uniquely skilled rhetoricians. The families that were able to have better conversations about politics (particularly across lines of difference) were those that already identified themselves as being emotionally close and that valued dialogue and curiosity with one another more broadly.
Put another way: Like all human conversations, the family Thanksgiving conversation was only bearable when the soil in which that conversation was planted wasn’t sun-scorched and eroded and full of rocks and booby traps.
I breezed through the part about how families are emotional landmines a few paragraphs above, but it’s true: they are! An outsized reason why so many people don’t have contentious political discussions at Thanksgiving is because many families (especially since Covid) have already been cut up and balkanized along ideological lines. There are far fewer shared tables than there were in the past.
But it’s not just estrangement.
I feel very lucky to have loving relationships with my relatives. Mine isn’t an extended family where anybody’s core identity marker— their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.— is under threat from other family members. I am so damn proud to be a Bucks, and recognize the immense privilege of my family’s relative lack of complication. And yet, if it were my job to have an effective political discussion with my family, I’d have to put in some real emotional and reconciliation work first. I’d have to wrestle with my own guilt for not being more proactively communicative with my siblings. I’d have to apologize for moments that my family members needed me and I didn’t show up for them. I’d have to unpack some of the reasons behind my distance (my insecurities about still feeling like a little kid in the eyes of my older brothers, the fact that I’m still not quite sure how to be an adult in my family). And while I have an incredible relationship with my parents, there has been more than one time— in a political or social discussion—when I wasn't cognizant of how it must feel to be lectured (or even judged) by one of your own adult kids.
Again, all of my baggage comes from the context of a relatively uncomplicated family as well as my identity as a straight cis-gendered White guy. None of my family members have ever made me feel unsafe. I have zero doubts that every single one of them would show up for me whenever I need them. For so many of you, that’s just not the case.
There may come a time when your family is a truly productive space for political agitation and healthy debate. Or maybe not. But what is true is that our families—like every other collection of one or more human beings— are experiments in community. And in a world that desperately needs more intentionality about how we build, sustain and repair communities, it isn’t a political cop-out to focus on your family as one of many social gardens whose emotional safety and health deserves attention.
For some of you, your family isn’t a currently safe place— perhaps for reasons related to identity and societal power dynamics, perhaps because of an interpersonal story that’s unique to you. You obviously don’t need a polemical memoirist with a newsletter to tell you this, but if that’s the case, you’re allowed to make the choices you need to be safe— even if that includes leaning away from family. For others of you, there are fractures and tricky dynamics in your family that you likely bear some responsibility for reconciling. For a lot of us, there’s no ill intentions, just the typical miasma of loving people who’ve literally been in each other’s business for our entire lives.
It’s okay— regardless of your family dynamic—to tend to your family relationships not as a means to a political end, but because you all are a community and communities matter. That may mean healing riffs. That may mean seeking healing. That may mean strengthening some ties and loosening others. I hope it means listening to elders’ stories and welcoming your sister’s new partner into the good inside jokes and playing goofy games with kids where you pretend to be a grumpy troll under a bridge and they pretend to be billy goats and they get to clomp over your back.
You’re not letting the world down if your family doesn’t vote the way you do, nor if they hold onto the beliefs and political conditions which you find abhorrent. None of that makes you a failure as an activist or an organizer or a human being. And I understand why it feels that way— it’s not because some article back in 2016 made us feel guilty. It’s because of course we experience a deep ache when we feel politically distant from those who are closest to us. For many folks whose identities are under siege, there isn’t a clear line between the rejection of your politics and the rejection of your personhood.
I get all those worries. But you’re doing okay, I assure you. Families are a community, but they’re only one community. And for so many of us, they’re likely the space that’s hardest for you to influence. And you should be influencing, you should be bringing more people into the fold. One terrible lesson that we’ve taken from all this is that if we can’t change our family’s minds, we can’t change anybody’s mind and we should only focus on those who already agree with us. And that’s not true! But you need energy for organizing, for coalition-work, for knocking on strangers’ doors. And you won’t have that energy if you burn out with the people closest to you.
So please, if you’re spending this holiday or any future holidays with your family— focus on having (and contributing to) as lovely a time as possible. If you really need to think about your family and organizing in the same breath, then do so with curiosity. Notice what is or isn’t making the space feel safe. Notice the dynamics at play when you talk about issues large and small. Notice who contributes to the health of a space and who makes it more difficult. Put those lessons in your pocket; you’ll need them for the spaces where we deserve your agitation— on your block, at your neighbors’ doors, with your social networks, and with the community group you’ve been avoiding showing up for because you’ve been way too tired.
As for this week: You deserve a nice meal. So, too, do your loved ones. And if this week’s meal can also be a space where frayed threads get tied together again, all the better. You deserve that, too. If what you need most of all is space away, then I hope you get that instead. In any case, the work will still be here next week.
Song of the week!
“Reunion” by Bobbie Gentry, the only song about family that is as cacophonous as an actual family. Gentry gang, lets’s ride:
White Pages Subscribers Discussion Of The Week!
I want to make it very clear that you all are allowed to write non-beautiful, non-elligeic comments on our discussion threads… but also holy cow somehow last week’s comments (the discussion was “can you go home again?”) were uniquely lovely.
This week, we’re going to talk feasts (and, more specifically, what your ideal feast looks like- that could mean something Thanksgiving-style but 100% does not have to be). That one goes live tomorrow, and I’ll be reading the responses while making turkey (spatchcock, dry-brined), pie (key-lime), mashed potatoes (basic) and stuffing (I don’t have a good go-to recipe and am open to suggestions!).
Also, while the subscriber discussions go down on Wednesdays, the club is always open over at the Flyover Politics Discord. Multiple members of that crew contributed ideas and feedback to this essay. Thanks, friends.