By now, the sentiment is ingrained within the holiday tradition. Oh, great. I have a family holiday dinner this week. Time to quietly nod and smile and grit my teeth through dinner with [insert rarely-seen aunt, uncle, cousin, parent, or grandparent’s name here] while they rant about politics. We hear a few versions of this every year, but it’s always made me cock my head to the side like a confused dog. Maybe my family’s weird, but when I was growing up we always talked about whatever came to mind at the holiday table—even politics. Some of us even relished it. I thought it was the best part of the day; a sort of reward at the end of all that bustling, cooking, and football-watching. The older I get, however, the more I recognize that our spirited holiday conversations and debates aren’t really part of a typical American upbringing—which is largely why this country is currently in such a fraught state of being. Why? Because America has an insecurity issue.
White Males With Money have been all over the news lately as sexual assault and/or harassment are exposed on practically a daily basis. Much of the credit for this goes to the recent “Me Too” social media movement, an accidental resurgence of a campaign for victim support started by activist Tanara Burke in 2007. When Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexual terrorism came to light, Alyssa Milano used the hashtag ‘#MeToo’ as a sign of solidarity with women like her friend, actress Rose McGowan, who was one of Weinstein’s alleged victims.
Unlike the many, many, many social media campaigns that appear on Twitter every day (like #WomenBoycottTwitter, which popped up just before #MeToo), this one had staying power and what seems to be a long-lasting effectiveness. Taking part didn’t disrupt anyone’s job or daily routine, allowing for a large and diverse group of users to participate by sharing their stories using two words, or many. For a while it was nearly impossible to log onto social media without being forced to navigate the massive number of stories women were sharing about harassment or assault. It was quite uncomfortable, but the result—a lowered tolerance for the complicit cultural silence surrounding sexual assault—is proof that shared experiences remove blinders and strengthen relationships. When people see and acknowledge the experiences of others, the tolerance for bigotry, misogyny, and violence lowers significantly. As the conversation continues to open—as people continue to talk about it—so does the possibility of preventing the development potential sexual predators in the future.
The same is true when it comes to modern racist extremism. Throughout the 1990s and still very much, today, people (mostly white, but I know I heard several black folks say this as well) often used the phrase “I don’t see color” as a sort of code for supposed racial acceptance. One of the problems with that phrase is that it stunts the possibility of the conversation growing any deeper. The phrase turns what could have been a dialogue into a self-congratulatory moment for and about the speaker, preventing any further transaction of stories and experiences. In a country whose children have been brought up on moral fairytales as a substitute for fact-based cultural history, people lack the skills to deal with confrontations of ideas. If people are taught from elementary school to hold fast to the story of the Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a feast and living happily ever after as BFFs, does that not put up the first roadblock to being taught to think critically? How strong are our beliefs if we aren’t aware of what challenges them? That’s some scary stuff. Even scarier when all that avoidance-grooming prevents the willingness to accept other people’s experiences as real, for fear that those experiences will erase one’s own meaning.
In order to break the constant cycle of fearing the ‘other,’ we have to practice the art of the uncomfortable idea exchange at home. Not just at the holiday table, but at the everyday dinner table. For the past year every news cycle has shown bold proof that Americans are insecure in the foundation of their ideas and their ability to appropriately defend them. The rise in hate crimes, the uncloseted bigotry, the destruction of policies put in place to protect where we live and to protect us from each other… these are all signs of unfettered insecurity. Indoctrinated insecurity. The American system of education has much to do with this, but the real culprit is how this plays out in our personal lives. People refuse to talk to their families about racism, sexism, discrimination, and how these things are at play in our everyday lives. “Politics” is considered impolite conversation. Besides fear, the other horrific result of this extreme avoidance manifests itself through the repeated statements of surprise given to media by parents, siblings, relatives, and friends of white men who commit mass murder.
I had no idea.
I don’t know where he got those ideas.
He always seemed so quiet and harmless.
If these people had talked politics or racism or misogyny or xenophobia instead of quietly plastering a stiff smile onto their faces while awkwardly going through the motions of suffocatingly silent holiday dinners, perhaps they would’ve had an inkling of what these young men were thinking. Perhaps they would’ve been able to lovingly steer them away from a path that ends with killing children, church worshippers, and ultimately, themselves.
But we don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable while eating that second helping of sweet potato pie, do we?
But aren’t we all uncomfortable?
Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist based in Charleston, S.C. She writes about class, race, gender, and how perceptions of these affect community. Her essays have made appearances in Longreads, The Daily Beast, Literary Hub, Catapult, and Charleston City Paper.