How can we talk about our values with the people in our lives during the holidays? How can we practice deep love for our people, stay humble about our own learning journey (past, present and future), and work to build the progressive racial, economic and gender justice majority throughout our lives?
I was asked to lead a workshop on having conversations with their families over the holidays about oppression and liberation. A workshop for social justice-oriented people from around the country who work in progressive religious institutions.
We started off identifying what feelings come up thinking about this. People shared out: anxiety, fear, pain, anger, sadness, nervous, as well as excitement for the opportunities. Most people shared that there’s a combination of homophobia, transphobia, and racism in their families, both for families of color and white families.
We then identified where we felt these feelings in our bodies. In our gut, shoulders, throat, chest, sweaty palms, fast heartbeat, were some answers participants shared.
We took time to get grounded in our bodies and breathe together. To notice the places where we feel tight, constricted, nervous, and breathe into our bodies and into those places. To let our bodies relax and open, as part of opening up to possibilities for how we can engage.
Many agreed that it felt like they consistently played the role of the “uptight, radical killjoy” as familiar dynamics played themselves out year after year. Many also shared that they enter these spaces on edge and on guard, and that dynamics of racism, homophobia, and transphobia usually begin with someone making comments and jokes that they then respond to, and that it rarely goes well, meaning the social justice person is brushed off as being too uptight and sensitive, and they end up feeling their family has marginalized them.
We stepped back and I asked, “How many of us think about all of this in relation to the most extreme reactionary person in our families and friend circles?”
Nearly everyone said yes.
Just as we tend to do this in our personal lives, we also tend to do this in our justice work throughout society. Although we need to confront and engage the reactionaries, we also need to continue to work to build social justice “Left power” in our communities. If we focus our energy on engaging only the most reactionary, the most racist, the most homophobic, then we cannot pay attention to others in our family and community who may be closer to us politically. They may be on the sidelines and could be brought into these conversations if we engage them by both sharing and listening. If you may feel close to in other ways and want to open up to them about values and parts of yourself that you haven’t shared yet, you could start by asking them what they think about x, y, and z and listen carefully to what they share from their heart. Show that you respect and care by exploring what’s interesting and exciting to them, or what they’re challenged by and struggling with. Make connections through music, movies, sports, and culture.
Then, share what’s important to you in ways that will invite them in. Talk about your values proactively by sharing an experience that both expresses our values and that we’re excited about. Generally, in our families and with our friends, people care about us. So, when they ask, “how have you been or what are you up to,” sharing about our work and values in positive ways is a good way for people to know us deeper.
When we do engage with the most racist, homophobic, reactionary people in our families, it’s critical to remember that it is also the people around the conversation who we are also speaking to. For others in our family to see someone speak out, for the reactionary comments to not go unchallenged in ways that can signal unity and agreement.
My mom didn’t change my grandfather’s mind when she said his homophobia and racism were wrong, but it changed my life as a kid of five, seven, and ten-year-old. Her words positively impacted the lives of others in our family, none of whom spoke in those dinnertime discussions.
Just as we want to build a progressive majority in the United States, we want to move people in our personal lives forward for collective liberation for more positive, justice-rooted culture, and for winning the structural, cultural, political, economic changes we are committed to building and working for.
Sometimes, in my family, we had long debates about politics, about racism, about homophobia. We made our social justice values clear and then, rather than continue the debate about immigration, we would ask people who rarely spoke to share what was going on with them and what they thought when I knew they were more progressively aligned. They needed encouragement and support to share their thoughts.
I also realized that while I was focused on being right, I often missed opportunities to listen more deeply and with more compassion. I realized that I was turning my rage for systems of oppression against people in my life who were expressing conscious or unconscious alignment with those systems. I had to ground myself in historical and systemic understanding that systems of oppression are working every day to get out people—our families, our communities—to internalize their worldview, values, and vocabulary as common sense.
While we need to find ways to challenge that common sense, we must also remember that supremacy systems use racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny as ways for people to make sense of their pain, embody their pain and express their pain. The more I asked questions and opened my heart to the pain underneath, the more I connected with people I had felt distanced from, and the more I grew as a liberation organizer, working to move people, build a progressive majority and keep my eyes on the prize: The prize of winning social justice policy and legislation; of winning social justice elected leaders; of winning and advancing a racial, economic, and gender justice progressive agenda—economically, politically and culturally.
In the workshop we reflected on questions to help move us to get grounded and be more effective:
- How do you want to engage people in your families? Who? How? What are your goals for having these conversations with your families (biological and chosen)?
- How do you want to feel afterward? What impact do you want to have? What would success look like, feel like?
- Think of a time when someone has said something to you about the oppression that raised your consciousness and moved you forward for liberation. What did they say? What insights can you draw for conversations you want to have?
- What can help you be grounded and in your power when talking with your families (biological and chosen)?
With love for our families and communities, with rage for supremacy systems, let’s keep building, practicing, growing, listening, and feeling whole in who we are. For our families, friends and communities, let’s get free!
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