How To Talk To Your Relatives About Social Justice Issues

by Sareeta Lopez

I don’t know about you, but I often find I don’t know how to talk to relatives about social justice issues — not without coming across as either uninformed or arrogant.  Though politics is one of the topics you generally want to avoid at the dinner table, it’s difficult to do. With the results of the American election at the forefront of everybody’s mind and the holidays almost here, politics is bound to come up.

When I go home, the prospect of having to discuss politics and social justice is a huge source of anxiety. I feel like I can’t talk to my family about these subjects as comfortably as I would like. We have clashing beliefs, but beyond that, my language has changed since my university days — there are words and concepts that my family isn’t familiar with, and they come across as condescending when I use them. It makes respectful communication and mutual understanding that much more difficult to achieve.

I decided to try and improve my approach. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. Listen.

I know this is HARD when you feel like the other person is saying something bigoted or uninformed, but there’s a reason listening to these views comes first on this list. If you don’t listen, you’re giving them a reason to think you’re being no less obstinate than they are. We’re asking them to listen to us, so it’s only fair to offer them the same treatment.

It’s important that when you listen, you resist the urge to counter everything they say. You need to engage actively and empathetically with their concerns and think about why they feel the way that they do. For example, I know that my mom can sometimes make prejudiced comments and that it can get on my nerves. I’ve definitely gotten angry with her for it, but I’ve realized that it does nothing to resolve the situation. Instead, she writes me off as arrogant because of my university education. 

Listening to her proved much more effective.

Her life experiences as an immigrant contributed to forming her outlook on the world. It may not justify any unfair prejudices she expresses, but it gives me the context I need in order to understand and talk to her about, rather than merely attack her for them. Even better, it gives her the chance to explain what she’s thinking. Who am I to say that my mom doesn’t understand these issues? It is arrogant of me to think that, because I’ve read online articles and taken a couple courses, I know more about her experiences.

So even if it means that you have to grit your teeth to do it, the first thing you HAVE to do, no matter what, is to listen actively to what the other person has to say. Nobody likes to be shut down.

2. Match the language your relatives are using.

This isn’t because your relatives might not understand academic language, but rather because certain language can distance or alienate people, even if you’re trying to do the opposite. Have you ever felt intimidated by jargon regarding a topic you care about? I know I have, and it happens all the time when I read about feminism — even if I understand it! When people use jargon, it elevates their language and can alienate people who aren’t used to using it, regardless of whether they understand it. It positions them in a place of power, and if someone feels they can’t meet them in that same place, the conversation can be lost.

When I’ve tried to talk about feminism with my parents using the academic language I’ve learned, I found that, while they do not necessarily reject the language I use directly, they shut down and disengage from the conversationInstead of interacting with me when I used words like “oppression,” “systematic,” or “institutionalized,” they simply go quiet and let me ramble. Why?

Because they can’t relate.

That’s why listening is so important. When I listen to my parents talk, I realize that they’re actually talking about a lot of important issues that I hadn’t realized before. My dad will see a sexist TV commercial and comment, “Funny that the woman is the one with the baby. Mom wasn’t always the one changing diapers with you girls!” He didn’t say it was a sexist commercial, but in a way, he did. When I match that type of language and get to talk with him about those issues, it feels awesome!

So pay attention to the language your relatives are using. If you want to discuss sensitive social justice topics with someone, use their language. You may be surprised at what a difference it makes. Remember that you’re not dumbing it down: you’re still talking about important things and making sure that you aren’t pushing the uninitiated away by using specialized jargon. There’s no point in learning about social justice issues if you can’t even talk about them with the people they affect.

3. Remember that you aren’t perfect, either.

We tend to get on our high horses when we talk about these issues because we feel like we’re right. We believe that thinking and behaving the way we do makes us better people. Even if that were true, remember that even you aren’t perfect, no matter what you believe in. There’s no “perfect” way to be or do anything.

It’s just important to remember to have compassion. It’s hard — trust me, I know. It physically pains me to know that people subscribe to racist ideas. I’m still angry.

But… people’s beliefs come from somewhere. 

They come from their education, whether that’s a government education system or a private system, or an overall lack thereof. They come from the privileges or hardships they’ve experienced.  They come from their families, and the people with whom they regularly interact. 

We can’t be angry at individuals when it’s a much larger problem. We can only better ourselves by seeking out ideas that challenge us and interacting with people who may benefit from the same thing.

So when relatives challenge us, we must allow those conversations to humble us as we try and discuss them. We must learn from them. Our relatives are people who believe in their cause just as much as you do in yours, and sharing our thoughts is the only way to help each other. Nobody is perfect.

4.  When calling someone out, make sure to discuss the issue.

You don’t want to punish their comments — that’s not going to do any good. Instead, you want to show them why you think what they’ve said isn’t okay. You want to let them know that you think they’ve made a mistake. They might not have realized that they said anything wrong, and there shouldn’t be any shame in that. After all, we all internalize a lot of what society feeds us.

It’s important to call people out on sexist, ableist, and racist comments. However, it’s not helpful to direct anger and aggression towards them and leave it at that, especially in front of others — that understandably puts them on the defensive. (With family, that can get awkward… or worse, lead to a yelling match!)

This past summer, my sister and mom were talking about their periods over breakfast, and my dad made a disgusted face. He said, “Okay, you guys, I’m trying to eat.” Their response? “What’s so bad about periods, dad? It’s just our bodies. It’s nothing new.” He still looked grossed out, but he shrugged. It wasn’t a direct call-out or attack on my dad, but it was enough to make him think about it.

So if you’re going to say something, instead of saying “THAT’S SEXIST!” ask them what they meant or why they’re thinking that way, genuinely — not in a condescending way. Maybe even have a private chat with them later to take off the pressure they might feel in front of a group of people: you’re more likely to have a productive discussion that way.

5. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

You’re not wrong to be angry. You have every right to be upset! These issues are hard to deal with, and these tips aren’t easy to implement when you’re in the moment. If you slip up and get emotionally involved in a discussion, or get frustrated and just can’t be patient, don’t beat yourself up. You’re trying! It’s exhausting to try and be friendly and calm when you’re dealing with issues that are very close to your heart. Mistakes will happen. Just do your best, know that you are doing your best, and remember that others are doing their best too. 

Do you have any tips for talking about social justice issues? Share them in the comments below!

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Sareeta is the blogger behind Flight & Scarlet, an Edmonton-based blog with the aim of making feminism and related topics more accessible and less elitist, as well as helping fellow survivors of rape find support. In her spare time, Sareeta likes watching Netflix, reading, going for walks, and playing with her little cat, Matrix. If you would like to connect with her, leave a comment or find her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest!

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