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Carolyn Hax: A first-generation American confronts an in-law’s intolerance

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I am a brown-skinned first-generation American married to a Caucasian Southerner. Thanks to his Facebook feed, I am aware of my father-in-law's political views, which are generally hostile to immigrants, but he has always been polite and friendly to me in person. We've never broached the topic of his personal political views, to which he has a right, ugly as I find them.

However, a few days ago, he included me on a group text with a picture and message mocking immigrants, specifically a different immigrant group from my own, but nonetheless, I found it hurtful. I was too riled up at the time to give a level-headed response, so I held my tongue, and now I feel a loss of self-respect for having stayed silent.

Is it too late to say something, and what can I say? I can't help but suspect my father-in-law sent me that text because of frustrated inner hatred toward me that he normally can't express in the course of polite conversation.

Even if it was somehow innocently sent to me, I don't want my silence to enable racism.

— First Generation American

First Generation American: There’s no “innocent” way to send that, though I do know what you mean. And I do think it’s an important first step to recognize that you don’t know his motivation, so it wouldn’t be constructive to ascribe one, no matter how strongly you want to in your gut.

Will you be seeing your father-in-law in person any time soon? It would be a difficult conversation, but also possibly a transcendent one. “That text you sent the other day — it occurred to me you probably don’t realize, that was basically me/my parents in that picture. Brown skin, new to this country in my/their generation. You’ve always been friendly to me, so I figured it doesn’t reflect how you really feel, and you’d want to know that it sends a very different message.”

You could also ask kindly what he meant by it, because he has always been friendly to you, so you were confused by it.

In other words, you approach his possible closed-mindedness with open-mindedness. You approach his possible hostility in peace. You approach his possible insularity with inclusion.

You cannot lose that way, even if he thinks he wins.

You could do this in writing or by phone, too, but being in each other’s presence brings out way, way better behavior. You will be less likely to put him on the defensive, because you can make clear with your tone that you’re approaching in peace — and your chances of achieving mutual sympathy improve dramatically when your humanity is right in his field of vision, not abstract.

I realize this is an in-law, so it would be fair to your husband to bring him in on your thinking before you take this step. Discussing your way to an answer will be better for the marriage. But, that’s a courtesy, not a requirement; the person being attacked gets to speak for him- or herself.

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