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

Angry brunette looking at camera on white background

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.

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  1. 21

    I’m not gonna trust “Cassie” and her description of the situation. To many liberals not supporting gay marriage is “homophobic” and criticizing/not liking Obama is “racist.” Liberals are all too cocked and loaded to validate their world view by causing trouble with others without thinking about the situation first. Well, as noted in the piece, it seldom goes well. I also have to SMH at the white homophobic/racist anecdotes. Newsflash, other communities in the US are as homophobic and racist (and usually more so) than whites. Black? Chinese? Indian? C’mon, people, you need more friends than other white liberals, and then maybe you’ll lighten up a bit on this topic. Relatively few in the US (and the world) tow the white liberal PC line.

  2. 22

    Far too many people think it’s okay to make racist, anti-gay, anti-semitic, comments and jokes, but it isn’t okay no matter who does it or what their ethnic background is. I’ve had other whites use the n-word to me thinking that because I’m also white, it’s I share their beliefs or won’t mind. Just because I’m not a member of a certain minority group, doesn’t mean that sort of talk is not offensive to me.
    Cassie has said that that when she has met the boyfriend’s parents in public, she has kept her views to herself, but I agree with those who say that by simply telling the parents that she isn’t comfortable with that sort of language and doesn’t share their views, she’s letting them know where she stands without trying to change them or getting into an argument. It’s impossible to just walk away in those settings, more so if she begins to visit them in a private setting.
    People like SAL9000 are often quick to label those who are offended by bigotry as over-sensitive. BTW, I have many minority friends and am Jewish myself, which is yet another reason those kinds of comments are so offensive to me.

  3. 23

    There is a big difference between a harmless joke and discrimation. Passivity is a huge part of the problem. Standing up for what is right is a human duty even if it feels uncomfortable.
    What makes it delicate for the Letter Writer is the fact that it’s not her family, coworkers, or acquaintances that are offensive, but the family of her boyfriend. Any reaction that she may have will have an impact on her relationship to her boyfriend and his relationship to his parents.
    I’d sugges to first make sure that her boyfriend does not share his parents’ views. At all. It does not have to involve comments about his parents, but careful observations on how he interacts with populations usually prejudiced. If he is fine, and simply choose to not rock the boat with his parents, then I think that the Letter Writer‘s behavior should match her usual behavior when such offenses occur, but in a more gentle way. Is she an ally to minorities? Does she tend to voice her opinion if her family or coworkers are offensive? If not, then why doing so with her boyfriend’s parents? If yes, then her having integrity should encourage her to continue being an ally when witnessing hate talk from her boyfriend’s parents. However, since the relationship is completely connected to her boyfriend, she’d have to navigate this situaiton gently, and always take her boyfriend’s feelings into consideration and ultimately defer to him he is uncomfortable.
    I fully agree with BeenThruTheWars @19: no need to have convoluted arguments or trying to change people. Being non-engaging, changing topic, and when appropriate politely but assertively asking to refrain from hate talk when in one’s presence is perfectly suitable. Also, sharing one’s positive experience with groups that are usually victim of oppression is a good step towards a world where there will be less discrimation.

  4. 24

    Aw SAL9000, I bet you’re a hoot at Thanksgiving table. You want better anecdotes? In my comment above, “reinstate slavery” was an actual comment made multiple times at an actual party. It was, in its entirety,   “reinstate slavery and then sell them all to China”. half the people at the party thought it was a great joke. The rest of us sat there with our jaws hanging open.
    Here’s another, since we’re on a dating advice site. This was the first piece of dating advice I received after separating from my husband. I went to a bar with a group of old friends, first time I met with them after becoming single. This dude, from my group of friends, tells me to make sure I do not ever sleep with a black guy, because after that, no white man will want me. I decide to humor him and ask: “How are the white guys going to find out who I slept with?” He told me “Trust me, news travel fast”. I never saw him again and plan on keeping it that way. No arguments, nothing, I just don’t feel like hanging out with that guy anymore.
    I have many stories like this. Quite a few of them coming from my fellow immigrants, you’re right on that one. Doesn’t make it any better. To you, this may sound okay. To me, it’s so far over the line, it’s not even in the same universe with the goddamn line. This is not how human beings treat each other. If relatively few agree with me on this, so be it, I’m not going to change.

  5. 25
    Peter 51

    I have a Muslim South East Asian sister in law and my ex-wife has a Hindu sister in law.   My children thought the word cousin included all brown skinned children when they were very small.   The Hindus in the family (there are many!) on the whole look for the positive and find it.   Occasional racism from an individual is that individual’s problem.   The Muslims on the whole look for slights that might be racist and find them.   More generally, Afro-Caribbean campaign groups find institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police while black Africans outperform all other immigrant groups in education and employment, Ghanaians and Ugandans topping the pile (1 in 8 Brits is an immigrant, 60% of the Inner London population was born outside the UK).   In a British dating situation, expressing anti racist views firmly, once, to your in-laws/friends should put racist remarks off the agenda for good.   It’s worked for me in discussions about my nephew and nieces.   It’s better not to however because frankly hearing honestly held views is better; certainly if they are not directly personal.
    I’m Welsh.   I have been at the receiving end of personally targeted ethnically offensive remarks myself.   In fact, the Welsh, Australians, Yanks (yep, you all down there in Alabama – you’re a Yank.) and Canadians seem to be the only groups left to target with jokes but then, since GW Bush, there’s been Texas where real men use guns.   And did you see The Lone Ranger?   Not a film for a date with a white American.
    Ironically, Russians of my acquaintance have complained about being the target of ethnic remarks in the UK.   They are on the whole the most racist white culture I know of and do not blush about their own opinions of other ethnicities.
    Why do all these discussions default to gay?

  6. 26

    Love and Fear cannot co-exist simultaneously. Racial hatred is based on fear.
    While I find this thread positive, looking forward, I hope that our globalized world is rapidly making this discussion a thing of the past.
    I have noticed that as we mix and marry outside our own backgrounds more, our tolerance and love of the ‘other’ increases  in society. I remember an advertising campaign when I lived in Mexico, ‘Mezclar es bueno’ – Mixing is good. And I think it’s true. The more we get to know people from all walks of life, the more our fear of the unknown disappears and love has space to grow.

  7. 27
    Sparkling Emerald

    When my son was an infant, my family members started throwing racial slurs around in front of my baby, and I slammed my hand on the table and told them that they weren’t ever to talk that way in front of my child EVER.   So they shut-up and complied, but they were MY family.   Obviously, I couldn’t censor the rest of the world or say anything to the in-laws.   As my son grew older, we would discuss racist remarks heard on TV, or by others, and basically, his take away from these talks, was that we couldn’t change how other people think, but that in our home, this talk was unacceptable. One of his little 8 year old friends made a very racist remark to both of us. (not a joke, an ugly racist remark)    Since he was only 8, and I figured this was a by product of his upbringing, I just firmly told him that his remark was inappropriate, and that we don’t talk that way in our house.   My son was not as kind as I was.   (He basically ripped his little friend a new one)   Eventually, I said to my son, “Ok, that’s enough, we can move on to another topic now” but I was smiling to myself.
    I think EMK’s advice in this case is pretty good (don’t know if the family was making mild jokes playing on racial stereotypes or they were full blown klansmen)   but I do think if a couple has children, clashing values on that sort of thing can be a problem.

  8. 28

    Peter 51
    “Ironically, Russians of my acquaintance have complained about being the target of ethnic remarks in the UK.   They are on the whole the most racist white culture I know of and do not blush about their own opinions of other ethnicities.”
    In the US, both are true. I’ve heard some crazy racist drivel from my, what’s the word? compatriots? Then again I saw a great deal of Anti-Semitism around me, growing up in Russia. Many of the Russian smaller towns are pretty much 90% ethnically Russian, so people in them grow up wary of anyone who looks different. Many of them had never seen anyone that’s not white before coming to Europe or America. So yeah, a lot of us pretty much suck in that regard. And at the same time, I’ve heard some interesting stuff from some of the local population, and I’m not even an ethnic Russian. It was especially bad on when I had an account there two years ago. People would email me asking if I like vodka for breakfast, or if I’m a KGB spy… I replied to that one, “no I’m a software developer”… and would actually expect a date. The worst guy was actually very sweet and nice. We had a good phone conversation, when all of a sudden he says “I LOVE Eastern European women” (okay red flag already – why do you love or not love people you’ve never met just based on their country of origin?) He then goes on to explain why. “They are so grateful, so appreciative of all the little things that American women grew up with and take for granted.” Um no dude, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life thanking you on my knees for every happy meal you buy me… next.
    I found people in the academia to be the least racist group, at least in my location (Midwest). College profs all have immigrant colleagues, who come with impressive credentials; many are in interracial marriages or relationships, or have friends and colleagues that are. They are in no way afraid of dating an immigrant. Of course they have multitudes of other hangups… don’t we all. But they are completely color blind in my experience.
    PS. Your extended family sounds awesome. Very good for the kids to be exposed to so many different cultures growing up!

  9. 29

    Thanks so much for replying to my question Evan! I think it somehow helps to have someone say that it is OK to “get along” rather than to “be right. Ultimately, I really do just want to get along with them. I guess I just have to accept that I will feel awkward and hope that I am right that they will be polite enough to keep certain thoughts to themselves if they encounter my own friends and family who do not fall into the straight, white, middle-class box. As to the thread in this discussion about “jokes,” I am not painfully “PC.” I can laugh at a joke and I can generally tell when a joke is genuinely meant to be amusing. Its when those jokes take on a nasty undertone that I get uncomfortable. I still have to work out whether or not I want to let them know that kind of talk makes me uncomfortable, but I think this has helped resolved me not to be tempted to get into any kind of lecture or argument.  

  10. 30
    David T

    Cassie, if you are going to see these people more than once a year absolutely should tell them what makes you uncomfortable, because it will poison your interactions with them if you have to constantly suppress what is on your mind.

    Julia 4 said it well.   Just tell them you don’t agree with certain perspectives they have and there is no point in debating so as a courtesy please avoid that topic. The cliche is not to discuss politics at family gatherings. There is some merit to that and I think this is an even more sensitive topic. Tell them you respectfully agree to disagree and ask them to respect your comfort boundaries.

  11. 31

    This answer really only applies if you are white too.   Or it should.   A minority would be foolish to marry into a family like this.   But I do think one by-product of marrying into a racist family is that your future children could start saying that stuff and wind up being little racists too.
    I have an acquaintance who is Latina and married into an Eastern European family.   She realized that one branch of the family was very racist so she simply told her husband that she did not want her kids to be around them (esp. since her kids, although fair, aren’t “white”).   
    As a minority, the answer and response to this behavior would need to be different, and I know friends who have ended serious relationships b/c at the end of the day, the person who should be standing up for you (which doesn’t apply to Cassie since she isn’t part of the groups being mocked) is your partner, so if he/she can’t do that, you need to part ways.   And in contrast, the friends whose partners were okay telling their family to stick it when they were being offensive felt okay marrying the person.
    Since Cassie is a white woman, she can stick her head in the sand and go along to get along.
    I personally agree with the people who do think it’s a problem even if you aren’t part of the minority group in question, b/c while you cannot change a person’s mind, in general, people will listen to people who look like them a lot more than people who don’t.   I think Beenthruwars found a good solution, esp. in terms of laying down the rules in his/her own house.
    Evan’s in-laws do not sound like they are in the same category as Cassie’s boyfriends family.   I do think the extent of the views (b/c I know not all conservatives are racist, and I know that   progressives/liberal can be racist too.)   But different strokes for different folks.   There is that saying about what happens when you don’t speak up when they come for other people…by the time they come for you, there is no one left to help.   

  12. 32

    It never ceases to amaze me the jihad that anti racists embark upon. There are worse things in the world. The inherent root of racism is government and its proxies; in Western world that is the welfare state – nothing sews the seeds of racism like affirmative action, EEOC, and multi-generational ruination of entire communities. It’s sad that the jihadist anti-racism folks also tend to be all for the welfare state and big government. If you TRULY care about the subject don’t start an argument over someone’s comments about being against gay marriage or criticizing Obama, advocate peace, prosperity and liberty (i.e., anti-racism) by advocating extremely limited government.

    1. 32.1

      Bye Felicia…

  13. 33

    Maybe she is being overly sensitive as to what is “racist.”. People call everything racist nowadays. The real world is not like your college campus. More women need to get a grip on this.
    What were the so-called racist comments. That would be interesting to hear.  

  14. 34

    I’m half-Korean, half-white…dating a good ole’ Jewish boy.   My dad is a homophobe.   My mom is somewhat homophobic as well. My boyfriend and I love the gays (lol).   My closest, bestestestest friend is a gay man. I can’t tell my dad that, though. My dad has way too much respect for my friend, and I’d rather not sacrifice that.
    It bothers me when people say that racism is inexcusable.   All of your views are molded by your environment.   I can’t lay the blame on my father for the environment he was raised in with racist, homophobic parents. My father’s more open-minded than they are.   Isn’t that a GOOD thing??? And me? My father’s views didn’t mold me. Do you know who I’m racist against? Nobody.
    People say that prejudices are perpetuated through your parents.   I disagree.   My dad didn’t grow up with blacks and gays.   I did.   I had a chance to grow close to these people before I realized they were different from.   He didn’t have that opportunity.   In some ways, that makes the world unfair for him.   I’m free to appreciate people in my life despite their color or sexual orientation.   I am FREE.
    And I know I can’t change my father.   I won’t even try.   My efforts have always been in vain.   People think they know what they think they know.   Even all of us.   We think the way we feel and the way we think is ultimately right, and that is far from true.
    I spent my life watching my mother get belittled because she’s Asian, because she speaks English with an accent.   I’ve been belittled for having yellow skin and small eyes, for being different.   I’ve watched my father fight for our dignity against these racists, but still remain a homophobe.   He didn’t change their minds, though. He just stopped them from insulting us.
    The only thing I feel is pity for the people who belittle me.   Their view of the world is small.   I understand Asians because I am one.   I understand whites because I am one.   I am thankful for that.
    At the end of the day, I’m still the most un-PC person I know.   I don’t care.   I don’t hate anybody.   But my goodness, if I don’t have minority or gay friends who don’t fit stereotypes.   Now come on, I’ll be the first to admit I’m a horrible driver, and I’m ASIAN.   I made straight A’s my entire life.   I’m not beyond stereotypes.   If they’re true, they’re true.
    I’m not one to be easily offended.   It bothers me when people are easily offended by jokes.   Be offended when it matters, when it’s directed at you or when people are actively practicing discrimination.   You can’t change a racist, but if they don’t act on it, there’s nothing I can do to change their mind.

    Do you know who has the power to change the mind of a homophobe?   A homosexual.   You can’t make people hate or fear less by arguing.   They have to live it, to experience it.   They have to know someone they care about admit to being homosexual then watch them get ridiculed or hurt.
    Being intolerant toward ignorance is a bad practice to follow.   You can’t argue your point across.   It doesn’t work that way.   Watch American History X.

    Until then, I’m going to joke away. Watch as I go throw pennies at my lovely Jew boyfriend…as I eat another bowl of rice.

  15. 35
    Emilie Adams

    Discrimination and racism is never a good thing no matter what and it should be stopped. But the fact that you have a partner who has parents who are racist is a whole different thing. I agree that getting along than starting a friendly debate is the best option. The very last thing you want to be in and you would want the people around you to be is uncomfortable. Plus you also would want to avoid any bad impression.

  16. 36

    So funny how many ppl are so concerned that this writer not offend the racists. But as I said,   white ppl can just sit back and swallow the racism and protect the racists, which seems to be the most important thing in these situations.

  17. 37

    I understand the point of keeping the peace but part of me just cringes when I read this.   I guess it’s because I live with the reality of racism (and indirectly through friends, homophobia) daily and it’s more than just jokes and “good fun.”
    Those jokes and good fun are part of a social milieu in which people are denied equal rights and sometimes subject to violence because some people are just old, ignorant, sheltered, or whatever excuse you want to insert.   It’s a little deeper than having a sense of humor or political correctness run amok but maybe we should start telling the people having their lives unfairly circumscribed by the prejudices of others to “lighten up.”
    I agree that non-stop 24/7 PC is not how I’d want to live.   I also agree that she’s unlikely to change anything with these people but the flip side of this is the more these ideas go unchallenged, the more they seem right and that’s not a good thing either.   Then again, I’m guessing that no one in this woman’s situation has any real skin in the game being that they’re all straight and white.   So why shouldn’t she tamp down her empathy and humanity?   None of this wacky theoretical nonsense affects her anyway, right?   
    She, her boyfriend, and all her would-be in-laws should all just keep on laughing and hope that if it’s ever their turn to experience discrimination someone has a bit more regard for them than they have had for others.   

  18. 38

    Of course if they are white they are never gonna experience any sort of discrimination by the virtue of being in the majority group.

  19. 39

    @TJ precisely.   She can make not offending offensive people her priority so she can qualify to marry into the racist family.   What   a great goal.   Hope she is happy and won’t be surprised if her future kids learn to be that way too.   White hetero privilege means she can go along to get along.

  20. 40
    geraldine pickering

    alas my sons girlfriend who is a lovey girl must think that i am not pc because i have made a few jokes about other people in different races she maybe right but i grew up just after ww2 in london and have moved around alot my husband was in the us army but i am no racist my husband is black as is my son and i am white she is black and has only lived in the us i am thinking that is the reason and i will have to curb it  

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