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What’s with all the ‘racist uncles’?

The trope blinds us to the way bigotry runs in families.

For some holiday travelers, the next argument at Thanksgiving could be the last. (iStock)

It’s holiday season again, that magical time of year when families gather, feasts are prepared, and media outlets tell you how to argue with your racist uncle. To judge by these articles, millions of Americans heading home for the holidays are dreading a confrontation with an uncle — always an uncle — who expresses heinous opinions during an otherwise congenial supper. And yet people don’t want to spoil the holidays for everyone by fighting.

There are many peculiar things about this genre, which has taken the shape of bots and hotlines that promise to assist you in outsmarting your uncle. Strangest may be the implied conviction that if it weren’t for racial politics, families wouldn’t get into ugly rows over Thanksgiving dinner. But perhaps more striking is the way this trope papers over the existence of broader familial racism. Racist parents are nowhere to be seen in these fables, nor are racist brothers and sisters. There isn’t even a whisper of a racist aunt, never mind a racist niece or nephew. In the happy world of the racist uncle, bigots stopped reproducing in the 1960s and survive only in the form of childless, middle-aged males who go to their siblings' houses for the holidays.

The holidays aren't a big happy family celebration for everyone. And that's okay.

Of course, “Seven Ways to Argue With Your Racist Mom” is an inherently more depressing title, and in the name of fun holiday fare, it’s tempting to just let this pass. But, especially at Thanksgiving — a holiday that already requires us to overlook quite a lot of ethnic baggage — it’s worth pausing to look at the ways these articles perpetuate common fallacies about racism.

For one, racist aunts are just as real as racist uncles. Studies show white women are not significantly less racist than white men, news that should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the demographic trends of recent elections. But there’s also ample reason to beware the racist niece and nephew; white millennials are only marginally less racist than their parents. In surveys, 31 percent of white millennials believe black people are lazier than whites, as opposed to 35 percent of white baby boomers. Millennials, boomers and members of Generation X are markedly less racist than previous generations, but given that the oldest boomers are now in their 70s, this isn’t especially heartening. We’ve apparently made little to no progress in eradicating racism since the ’60s.

One might imagine racism persists across generations because it’s passed down from parent to child, with bigoted parents raising bigoted children and tolerant parents raising tolerant ones. If this were true, at least the social difficulty of facing bigoted parents over Thanksgiving dinner would disappear, since these families could eat their turkey in a perfect harmony of racism.

There's more to fighting racism than getting rid of a confederate statue

For better or worse, this seems not to be the case — at least not after a certain age. A study published in the journal Political Psychology in 2017 found that children’s political views do tend to be similar to those of their parents at age 18, but then diverge rapidly. By the time a person reached age 35, the political attitudes of the county the person lived in were twice as likely to predict their political beliefs as the politics of their parents. By age 50, parental influence had almost entirely disappeared.

Of course, it’s also now common for political differences to weaken our ties to other people — and not just our outlying uncles. In a 2017 poll by Rasmussen Reports, 40 percent of Americans said the 2016 election had harmed a close relationship. Another recent casualty is the holidays themselves. In a study at Washington State University, two economists tracked the movements of 10 million Americans and determined that people who traveled from Democratic-leaning areas to Republican-leaning areas and vice versa spent 20 to 30 minutes less time with family in 2016 than in 2015.

So, the problem many people face this year as the holidays approach is more troubling than the lighthearted scenario of the “How to Argue With Your Uncle” articles. Those who are not bigoted but who have bigoted parents or other relatives face a real risk of alienating the people with whom they have the deepest, strongest bonds. Some are even grappling with the question of whether they should feel different about bigoted parents or whether their parents' feelings have changed toward them. Some are having to decide whether it’s safe to bring home partners who aren’t the same race or ethnicity. For these holiday travelers, the next argument at Thanksgiving could be the last. And when that happens, they don’t lose just an uncle they never particularly liked.

Of course, this brings us back to the question of what to say at the dinner table. Of all human frailties, the reluctance to risk losing a loved one is the most forgivable, so a person might be excused in this one instance if they choose to avoid an argument. But one hopeful lesson from the research into familial racism is that arguing about these subjects can make a difference. Those kids who left home with the same convictions as their parents but later altered their politics often did so because of conversations they had over years with people who disagreed with them. It may not be easy, and it may not be pretty, but people can change their minds. So those people who do have ugly scenes with their families over this subject and feel guilty about spoiling the holidays should remember that these arguments matter. It may feel as if you’re getting nowhere, but it might just take years to get to somewhere.

And if the only racist you have to face at Thanksgiving really is an unclegive thanks.