Pass The Peace: How To Deal With ‘Non PC’ Family Members This Christmas

Worried about what comments might be made over Christmas dinner? We hear you...

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When it comes to having family members that aren’t always politically correct, most of us can relate on some level. There’s this cliché of the racist, homophobic uncle that makes ‘impolite’ comments over dinner while people raise their eyebrows or rush to change the subject, and it’s become an almost comic stereotype; “that’s just uncle Barry – don’t mind him!”

Unfortunately, sometimes the people we love can really get under our skin, and it isn’t always easy to simply laugh it off. This is especially true when it comes to comments that undermine issues we might feel passionate about, or that feel like a personal attack on our identities or beliefs.

It can be really tough to have to tolerate people who casually express hateful rhetoric, and it’s draining when you feel a constant responsibility to challenge it. There’s also the classic Irish mentality of not making a ‘fuss’, with families preferring to sweep comments under the carpet so as not to upset anyone. This can make you feel disregarded and helpless – especially if you’re only at the starters and your mam is already shooting you glances to ensure you’re committed to keeping the peace.

Of course, this isn’t something that only happens around Christmas time, but this time of year does tend to bring varying political views out of the woodwork. You’ve got lots of diverse personalities around the table, and generally a decent amount of alcohol in the mix!

If you’re feeling anxious in the run up to heading home, because you know that there’s someone there who’s going to throw out offensive or prejudiced comments – there are steps you can take for your own sanity!

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What’s really going on

Psychotherapist Conor Murray feels it’s not always a “straightforward” issue. I caught up with him to talk about how we can prioritise our mental well being in these settings, and why it’s okay if you aren’t always up to the confrontation. “At a macro level, there is a narrative out there that it is our duty to challenge bigotry whenever possible,” Conor tells me.

“This narrative implies that by ignoring bigotry we are tacitly endorsing it.” So we might feel guilty or awkward if we sit by as someone makes a nasty comment, like we’re fuelling their fire – but Conor reminds me it’s important to realise this isn’t always the case. In fact, this line of thinking “fails to consider wider interpersonal and intersocietal contexts.”

Unfortunately, right now Ireland is seeing “an increasingly emboldened far-right pushing anti-migrant, anti LGBTQ+, and anti-women sentiment into the mainstream”, Conor points out. There are “forces at play” behind the politically charged comments we hear – so it’s not just the case of dismantling an opinion, but a whole system.

“When uncle Derek makes a racist comment at Christmas dinner it is not simply a case that he is an ignorant man (although one could certainly argue that this is true). Rather, you have powerful societal constructs being channelled and disseminated through Derek. Therefore, you are not only challenging Derek, you are also going up against a social phenomenon.” Phew – no wonder it’s exhausting.

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How to deal

Knowing this, Conor stresses that you shouldn’t always feel the need to object to controversial comments made by family members; especially if it means putting your emotional wellbeing at risk. He says that there are some factors which should be taken into account in a personal context, such as your relationship to the person, whether you’ll be backed up by others or made to feel alone, and whether or not you’re feeling emotionally well.

This is especially relevant if there’s a chance your safety may be compromised – like if you’re part of a marginalised group that the person in question is targeting with their comments.

When entering into environments where you’re bracing yourself for those topics to come up, Conor says it can help to “identify allies”. “Is a supportive sibling or cousin going to be there? Someone who will back you up or you can vent to?” This can alleviate feelings of isolation or helplessness, and help you to feel more confident about standing up for what you believe in.

There’s also the unfortunate reality that sometimes arguing with someone who’s ideologies are deeply entrenched will only embolden them further, while you get burned out. Choosing your battles can help to preserve your emotional wellbeing, and save you from a conversation that’s only going to go in circles.

“If you do find yourself in a position where you are challenging someone, do not expect to be able to change their mind,” Conor advises. “It is enough to express your disapproval or disappointment. Bigotry is often ingrained and propped up by external factors so the idea that you can change a racist’s mind over dinner is probably not realistic. However, you can let them know that their viewpoints are not shared by all and are distasteful to you.”

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Protecting your peace

Dreading how it makes you feel to be put in these positions? Conor reminds me of something that can be difficult to practise but is seriously valid – you can always opt out. “We can often feel obliged to spend time with family at Christmas, even if this means sacrificing our own mental health. I think that this points to the idea that mental health is something that we should just ‘get over’ or isn’t entirely valid.

If your family insisted on you getting into their car without wearing a seatbelt you would say ‘no’. It’s understood that we will not risk our physical health. However, we often do not feel that we can do the same with our mental health.” No matter how tough it might feel in the moment to tell your family you aren’t going home, or that you’ll be skipping out on events with certain family members, it’s perfectly justified if you think it’ll take a toll on your wellbeing.

You have every right to choose a Christmas, or any time of year, that doesn’t entail putting up with hateful comments. Your uncle will get over it!

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of STELLAR magazine.