Voices: How to tell Uncle Steve to drop the racist jokes this Christmas

·4-min read
For many, Christmas is the longest period we spend with extended family all year – and it can bring challenges (Getty)
For many, Christmas is the longest period we spend with extended family all year – and it can bring challenges (Getty)

In the UK, Christmas has already been characterised by a terrifying surge in Omicron cases, uncertainty over potential government restrictions, and health anxiety for ourselves and our loved ones – and it’s only 22 December.

Covid aside, this can be a difficult time of year for all sorts of reasons, including bereavement, estrangement, poverty and illness. For many, it’s the longest period we spend with extended family all year, and although this can be a joyful experience, it can also bring challenges.

Many people spend the festive period with a wider circle (your family or someone else’s family and friends), people who have different views, some of whom may regard racist comments as “jokes” – and these are too often voiced around the dinner table, over drinks or on winter walks.

For those of us who identify as actively anti-racist or who simply know that racism is wrong and unacceptable, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to respond when a racist statement is made over roast potatoes and turkey (or meat-free equivalent).

If you usually feel like you shouldn’t speak up because you don’t want to “ruin Christmas”, or you feel flustered and tongue-tied, or you get angry, call Uncle Steve a d***head and storm off – it’s understandable. However, there are more productive ways to deal with being in close quarters with someone who is voicing racist sentiments.

Naomi and Natalie Evans, creators of Everyday Racism, have put together a valuable resource on Instagram for navigating racist conversations over the holidays. They make the point that although it might be awkward to speak up, it’s much worse to allow racist views to go unchallenged, as this allows the speaker to believe that you agree with them.

If you can, try to stay calm. The best outcome of challenging Uncle Steve’s anger over “the immigrants” or “too many ‘of them’ in adverts” is that he actually considers a different point of view and lets go of racist sentiments. People are more likely to do this if they don’t feel attacked, even if you privately think they’re awful and would rather eat Christmas dinner on the front step than sitting next to them.

You’re more likely to make someone examine their views if the discussion doesn’t descend into a shouting match, so try to avoid verbal attacks and name-calling. An extremely effective method for dealing with racist jokes is simply asking the “joker” to explain why what they’ve said is funny. This works with sexist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist jokes, too. For false claims (“asylum seekers come here to steal our jobs and benefits”) and bogus stats, politely ask where this information has come from.

Perhaps Uncle Steve has been living in an echo chamber of fact-free Facebook content and rabid, right-wing headlines. He might not have actually been told face-to-face that his views aren’t OK. By challenging him in a calm and informed manner, you could be opening up a new avenue of thinking for him. And if he’s totally intransigent, at least you made him and the other guests aware that his views won’t be quietly tolerated.

If you feel safe doing so, you can continue these conversations away from the dinner table. People’s minds might not change after one discussion, but by following up and recommending anti-racist resources, you’re giving it your best shot.

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As a white person, I benefit from white privilege. White privilege does not mean that my life has been easy or that I haven’t been marginalised in other areas. White privilege means that my skin colour isn’t one of the things that has made my life harder.

I have a responsibility to challenge racism and be an ally, whether on Christmas Day, Boxing Day or any other day of the year. I need to keep learning and evolving and listening to people of colour, and I need to overcome my incredibly British anxiety around “spoiling things” and not knowing exactly the “perfect” thing to say. But when it comes to racist comments, it’s better to speak up imperfectly than to stay silent.

Christmas shouldn’t be a time when Uncle Steve gets to spew his bile with no consequences. If you believe racism is wrong and should be eradicated, don’t leave it up to people of colour to challenge it. Let Uncle Steve know that there’s no space for racism around any table you share with him.

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