How Can I Deal With My Boyfriend's Family's Racism?

Hi Evan, I think you give some great, down-to-earth advice, and I could use some right now. First, let me give you some context. My boyfriend and I are both white, mid-twenties, and well-educated. I grew up in a diverse suburb of a mid-size city. He grew up in a fairly rural area, somewhat close to the small city in which we both live now.

To cut to the chase, his parents (particularly his mom) are racist and homophobic (though I am positive they only express these views amongst other white straight people). These are very common attitudes in the area where we are living now, but it makes me wildly uncomfortable. I believe that all people are equal and should always be treated that way and I believe that racist/homophobic jokes and comments contribute to system issues that are a threat to the well-being of those they are directed to.

I have only met the parent’s twice and both in very public settings. For the sake of my boyfriend have chosen to keep my thoughts to myself when certain comments have been made. Obviously, I am not going to start a confrontation when I have been invited to an event with all of my boyfriend’s family and friends, but I am concerned about when this happens in private. I will feel like I am not being true to myself if I do not make my views known, but I don’t want to hurt my boyfriend’s feelings. He loves his parents and accepts them for their flaws.

While I passionately argued my liberal point of view, I ultimately didn’t get anywhere. In fact, all I ever did was make everyone at the Thanksgiving table very uncomfortable.

I guess I ultimately have two questions. What is the appropriate way to deal with my discomfort with his parents because of these issues? And, should I be worried that the fact that my boyfriend doesn’t care about his parent’s prejudices is indicative of a much larger gap in our values?

Thanks, Cassie

Oh, Cassie. Your email hits home.

I am an argumentative liberal atheist.

I married into a family of non-argumentative Christian conservatives.

My in-laws and their extended family are lovely people – and I’m not just saying that because they’re reading this (Hi, Nana!) I’m saying this because they believe in God, family, and country, they are generous to the core, and they don’t have a bad bone in their bodies. They are Irish Catholics with a military background in a military town, and they have been indoctrinated with a set of beliefs and surrounded by other people with the same set of beliefs for their entire lives. A conservative worldview is all they know. Expecting them to embrace my liberalism would be like expecting them to speak Chinese when they’ve never met anyone from China.

In the six years I’ve been with my wife, there have probably been about five occasions where I decided to be like you and say, “I’m not being true to myself if I do not make my views known”. And guess what? While I passionately argued my liberal point of view, I ultimately didn’t get anywhere. In fact, all I ever did was make everyone at the Thanksgiving table very uncomfortable.

So now, I do my best to keep my mouth shut and keep the peace. Not because I want to – I honestly LOVE a well-informed and balanced debate between smart people – but because my experience has taught me that the downside of speaking my mind is significantly greater than the upside. I would suggest the same to you.

It’s easy to demonize people who think differently as “wrong”, but that kind of reflex rarely serves our higher purposes. When it comes to family (and marriage), it’s far more important to get along than to be “right”.

Are you empirically right that all racism is wrong? Well, you’re mostly right. Prejudice is, admittedly, dangerous. It’s wrong to assume all members of an individual group are the exact same way and to assign negative stereotypes without further inquiry.

At the same time, are there ANY stereotypes that are true? Are there ANY stereotypes that are funny? I’ll be the first to volunteer that there are.

I’m Jewish. Those things that you’ve heard about Jews, in general? They’re true. Both the good and the bad. Not every Jewish person everywhere in the world. But if you were to take a random sampling of the 14 million of us left on the planet, you’d certainly find a bunch of intelligent, neurotic, argumentative people who would much rather be lawyers than manual laborers.

Is there humor to be found there? I’ll say there is.

My wife’s family is Irish. They have fair skin, lots of children, and drink a hell of a lot more than any Jewish family I’ve ever seen. That is a stereotype, and, in this instance (not all instances), it’s true.

One of the ways I think the left has it wrong is insisting on political correctness at all times. Sure, it serves a valuable and higher purpose; we can all stand to be more sensitive. At the same time, wouldn’t you agree that being PC all the time is a bit humorless? I remember going to a comedy club with someone who was so PC that she couldn’t even enjoy herself. Literally any joke that played with a stereotype was offensive to her. Women. Men. Blacks. Mexicans. Old people. Young people. In a PC world, you can’t make any negative observations, lest you offend someone. Sorry, but I can’t ascribe to that worldview. And if a liberal guy like me thinks there’s room for the occasional joke, you can be sure that your boyfriend’s family is not going to take a scolding all that well.

He’s tolerant of things he can’t change. You’re actually being intolerant – which is hard to hear, when the thing you’re not tolerating is racism.

Listen, I know I took this on a big tangent. I know that your issue with your potential in laws is not simply about the occasional iffy joke from an otherwise cool mother-in-law. This is about your comfort level with rural people who are unlike you, and, in your mind, not as evolved.

Alas, you’ve already answered your own question:

Your boyfriend loves his parents and accepts them for their flaws. The fact that he does is a sign of his maturity, not a gap in your values.

He’s tolerant of things he can’t change. You’re actually being intolerant – which is hard to hear, when the thing you’re not tolerating is racism.

But it’s true. There’s not going to be some new PC girlfriend who makes his family change on a dime. So you have two choices: get so upset about biting your tongue a few times a year that you break up with your boyfriend, or smile and nod and talk about TV, football, and the weather when you’re around your in-laws. That’s what I do, and while it’s not as substantive as my normal conversations, at least no one goes home feeling angry.