The holiday season is notorious for sparking difficult political conversations with loved ones. In a year when so many terrible events have occurred, and with a presidential election on the horizon, some may dread the dinner table discussions that await. This year, I’m grateful that the “SURJ Holiday Placemat for Racial Justice,” showed up in my newsfeed vis a vis the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Members of an organization called Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) have recently developed this resource, which others may also find useful.
According to their website, SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people to act as part of a multiracial majority for justice with passion and accountability. In addition to their staff and leadership team, the organization includes an “Accountability Council” as a “mechanism of accountability to communities, activists, and organizations of color.” Members of this council regularly engage with “leaders of color who offer feedback and counsel on SURJ’s strategy, organizing, and political direction.”
The authors of the placemat describe it as a guide for having discussions about race and justice with loved ones. It includes valuable recommendations like, “Breathe. Listen mindfully before formulating a thoughtful response. Ask questions when people express strong opinions.” As someone whose default response to racist remarks from loved ones is to get incredibly angry, to the point where I can no longer speak and need to leave the room, these are invaluable reminders. Unlike in the classroom, which I strive to make into a space of inquiry and meaningful conversation (I like challenging students to change their mind–to see if they can leave each class thinking differently), family dinner conversations have never felt like a place where people sit down to revise their assumptions and worldviews.
The holiday placemat describes generative responses to four topics that are likely to come up this holiday season: #Mizzou/Student Uprisings, Islamophobia/Refugees, Colonization, and Black Murders in the Street. It includes a question related to each topic, versions of which are likely circulating at family gatherings nationwide. For instance, “Why are Black students complaining? Shouldn’t they be happy to be in college?” Following each question is a possible response: “When I hear students expressing their experiences of racism on campus I don’t hear complaining. Instead I hear young people uplifting a situation that I, as a white person, do not experience. If white kids get the privilege of that safe environment I believe that same privilege should be given to all students.” They recommend possible actions, such as setting a chair at the table in honor of the 1024 people killed by the police in 2015, many of whom were black and unarmed.
While this placemat focuses on racial justice, at my family dinner table, I was asked to explain the recent “fad” of youth identifying as transgender or gender nonconforming. Rather than berating my family members for the use of this offensive term, one that implies that gender is an issue of trendiness, and not a question of life and death for many, I tried my best to calmly explain the concept of gender as a social/performative construct and to describe some of the injustices and violence people face for not conforming to rigid gender binaries. In addition, I described the reasons I ask students to identify their preferred gender pronouns. A central tension that arises in these conversations, as framed by the question above about black students, is the fact that I’m supposed to be an expert or an informant about these issues, when the very knowledge that I want to pass on is, “you can’t know what it’s like,” and so you have to listen and trust the evidence: other people’s stories and statistics about poverty, murder, and violence.
The placemat has helped me realize that I didn’t listen as well as I should have, and answered the questions I thought I was hearing (assumed that they would say) rather than the ones they were actually asking. I also did not place enough emphasis on the violence against trans people of color. Next time I’m faced with a similar situation, I’m going to try to “Breathe, Listen, Ask, Affirm, and Speak,” something I manage to do much better in the classroom than in family settings.
In the class I’m currently teaching, we recently traced all the moments in Persepolis (a graphic novel about the author’s childhood growing up during the Iranian Revolution) when the main character, Marji, learns something, only to find that they were depicted through facial expressions of shock, horror, sadness, and despair. Unlike the classroom, in which students are invited to change their minds, even when doing so may not feel good, family gatherings (especially around national holidays) are often policed by happiness, something Sara Ahmed compellingly posits in The Promise of Happiness. Indeed, this blog has no happy ending, because sometimes happiness is the problem, and as a colleague recently reminded me, the work of decolonization is unending.