One thing I’m looking forward to over the holidays is giving a hug to my 12-year-old cousin who’s been living in a preteen hell throughout the general election season. A black child at a predominantly white school in a red state, she’s been the target of taunts that use Donald Trump’s name in the same tenor as racial slurs, which recently led her to stop riding the school bus.
She knows firsthand what bullying and exclusion based on identity feels like. As the only nonwhite cheerleader at her school, she says she’s virtually ignored by the other members of her squad. I’ve seen the debates in Instagram comments, where she earnestly tries to explain to eighth-grade friends why she finds the president-elect’s stereotypes, slurs, and insults so hurtful.
The week after the election, she called to tell me she wanted to take a knee, Colin Kaepernick style, as she stood with her fellow cheerleaders during a school pep rally. “I want people to ask me why I did it, so I can tell them I’m tired of all this racism,” she said. With Trump announcing that he’ll appoint champions of white nationalism and opponents of civil rights for black people to his Cabinet, I’m in no position to tell her her stance is an adolescent overreaction. I don’t have many good answers for her about how to endure the Trump-inspired teasing that she, like many American kids, is experiencing. But I know one thing: She needs to talk about it, and the last thing I plan to do when I see her is avoid the topic of politics to preserve the mood of the holiday meal.
These articles have become a predictable staple of post-election, pre-Thanksgiving content. The timing makes these pieces completely understandable, and there’s certainly an audience for tips and tricks to change the subject back to turkey when controversial conversation topics are raised (always by some belligerent uncle at every holiday table).
But this genre of advice ignores the perspectives of many nonwhite, non-Christian people in America. This type of oversight, harmless as it may be, is the kind that will become even more essential to avoid under Trump’s administration and the discrimination against already marginalized groups it threatens.
This holiday season, plenty of people will need to talk about politics, if only to feel less alone in the world, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Thanksgiving with political adversaries is presented as universal — but statistically, that’s not the case for everyone
If you didn’t live in the United States, it would be easy to skim the wave of “how to avoid political fights at Thanksgiving dinner articles” and assume this was of pressing concern for all Americans.
For instance, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review warned, “Thanksgiving may get ugly this year. God only knows what may happen when a progressive liberal Democrat discovers he's sitting next to a cousin or uncle who is a conservative Republican.”
In CNN’s “11 things you’ll fight over this Thanksgiving (besides politics),” the message is in the parenthetical — it’s a foregone conclusion that “you,” the reader, will butt heads politically with someone at the dinner table, because everyone has someone in his or her circle of relatives who’s made a different choice at the ballot box.
Just look at the demographic breakdown from CNN’s exit poll of 24,537 voters at 350 voting locations. According to these calculations from the day after the election, 58 percent of white voters chose Trump, while 37 percent chose Clinton.
Other racial groups just don’t have the same level of political diversity, according to the exit polls.
It’s pretty clear that the bar representing white voters represents the population where the vast majority of these politically diverse, and contentious, Thanksgiving dinners will take place.
There isn’t similar exit-poll data on how Muslim Americans voted, but Al Jazeera’s pre-election reporting on their “near-total rejection of Trump” can let us predict with some confidence that sitting next to a supporter of the president-elect will be a rare experience for members of this group, too.
Sure, plenty of nonwhite people will find themselves at the Thanksgiving tables with family members with opposing political views. After all, some black, Latino, and Asian people voted for Trump. Plus, there are interracial marriages and families, and some holiday hosts open their homes to large, diverse groups of relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances. Still, the audience for the annual onslaught of these articles is pretty clearly people for whom the politically fraught Thanksgiving is a built-in assumption: white, non-Muslim Americans.
With an openly racist president-elect, holidays for marginalized people stand to be a time of comfort and strategy — not avoidance
The key takeaway of most of the articles about political conversations at Thanksgiving: avoid, avoid, avoid.
CBS Boston’s Jon Keller wrote a column declaring Thanksgiving at his home a “politics-free zone,” since, “if we can’t depend on our leaders to chill things out, we have to do it ourselves.” Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore told ABC News that hosts should pivot dinner conversation if it gets too heated to “avoid a food fight.”
The unquestioned assumption always seems to be that the reader (who somehow is always the only reasonable person in his or her family) will find discussion of politics a nuisance that will ruin an otherwise pleasant holiday. Or worse: that this subject is something to fear. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Many Americans, afraid of almost everything these days — so afraid of being afraid that they're easily herded like political livestock — will look to Thanksgiving with just one thing on their minds: fear.” That’s fear of contentious political debates, of course.
But for many nonwhite, non-Christian Americans, there’s a completely different set of things to worry about: Aside from the message the election sent about who belongs in an America poised to become “great again,” there are practical threats to be concerned about.
Immigrants from Muslim-majority countries are tracking administration messaging about whether they’ll be forced to join a registry (for which the chair of a pro-Trump Super PAC has cited Japanese internment camps established during World War II as precedent). Undocumented people and their families face an ever more present possibility of deportation under the Trump administration, and are especially anxious about what will happen to their young children. Black people are watching Jeff Sessions, a man who called the ACLU and NAACP “un-American” for “trying to force civil rights down people’s throats” — and whose racist comments were once enough to deny him a federal judgeship — being elevated to power. Meanwhile, Jewish people fear the legitimization of someone like Steve Bannon, the Trump adviser who spent years mainstreaming white nationalism, and who Trump says will serve as “chief strategist and senior counselor” in the administration.
“It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites — is slated to be a senior staff member in ‘the people’s house,’” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement.
Add the reports of self-proclaimed white supremacists and white nationalists cheering Trump’s victory and it’s not hard to see where legitimate anxiety about the currently political climate might come from.
With this in mind, the oft-repeated idea that people who do want to discuss the election are unpleasant outliers seems misguided. “Some people, unbelievably enough, are looking forward to talking politics with their relatives” the LA Times’s guide mused. It’s really only “unbelievable” if you’re failing to think about the experiences of any of the members of the groups listed above.
Members of these groups might not be not only willing but eager to talk about what just happened and what it means for their standing in this country when they gather with family. In these groups, the holiday could just as easily be a time to vent, to strategize, and to seek advice and perspective.
In my case, I want to tell my eighth-grade cousin that I’m proud of how she’s stood up for herself. My future mother-in-law is ready to deliver a pep talk about how she survived as a black woman in the Jim Crow South under laws made by people with outlooks on race similar to those who are likely to shape the nation under Trump’s administration. Certainly many of the black, Latino, immigrant, Jewish, Muslim, and LGBTQ people who were the victims of the more than 700 expressions of hate reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center in the weeks after Election Day will anticipate the holiday as a time not to ignore what’s just happened politically but to process it and seek comfort from loved ones.
It’s more important now than ever for members of the media to remember that white experiences with politics are not universal
This year, I’ve seen signs of a shift in thinking about the role of the Thanksgiving meal — at least in some corners. SURJ, a network of white Americans committed to organizing for racial justice, offers a Thanksgiving Toolkit, which encourages members not to avoid politics but instead to “go home for the holidays and have courageous and loving conversations with our families about race, Trump and what’s at stake.”
The advice is smart, not just for its practical tips on how to avoid the meltdowns that many of the articles seem to dread, but also for its recognition, in speaking explicitly to white Americans, that the current political climate has different implications for different racial groups.
That’s something journalists will need to be even more careful to remember under Trump’s administration: that treating the experience of white people as universal misses a lot. This has already come up in a substantive way in the post-election debate about the proper apportionment of “empathy” for those who voted for Trump: Many of the prescriptions to repair understanding between “costal elites” and “rural America” failed to grapple with the fact that most rural and poor people of color didn’t vote for Trump, and that nonwhite urban “elites” may have been skeptical of his supporters for reasons that had nothing to do with snobbery and isolation, and everything to do with their own humanity. As a result, these solutions were limited by their application to a version of the country where marginalized people were essentially invisible.
The Thanksgiving advice is ultimately harmless holiday fluff. But it’s a timely reminder that tips for talking to family, assessments of lived experiences, or advice for moving forward are not as relevant, insightful, or useful as we think if they overlook or disregard large segments of the American public.