#hotgoss redux: Table Talk
A Thanksgiving Survival Guide
Hold up...we CAN talk politics at the dinner table and don't have to totally dread Thanksgiving dinner? Check out our most recent #hotgoss episode where educator Ella, and Oronde and Catherine chat about their strategies for a happy, harmonious and intentional holiday. And then read our official Speak About It guide below!
Thanksgiving is a holiday that can be fraught for so many people. Whether it’s family drama, food and body-image issues, dinner guests that don’t see eye-to-eye, or the origins and history of the holiday itself, there’s lots of space for conflict, stress, pain, hand-wringing, hair-pulling, door-slamming and more.
Especially in a year where sexual assault and consent has been in the news so much, Speak About It wants to provide our friends and followers with resources to have (or not!) those tough conversations. Likewise, we want to provide some tools for navigating other dinner-table dynamics and confronting the problematic history of the holiday. We hope you’ll find these tips helpful as you plan for a healthier evening with family and friends.
1. Educate yourself.
The ethos and ideas of Thanksgiving: an opportunity to gather with loved ones to celebrate the harvest and offer gratitude, is something Speak About It can totally get behind. The racist and colonial version of the ‘Thanksgiving’ story that has emerged over the past two centuries? That’s something we can’t. There is a sordid and violent history behind Thanksgiving and many folks in the Native community consider it a day of mourning. Honor the native land on which we live, and educate yourself not only about the true history of Thanksgiving, but also about local Native populations, the early colonists, and how the ‘Pilgrims and Indians’ version of the story came to be the accepted mythology.
The Sioux Chef recently penned this great article in Time about his reckoning with the holiday. He provides a short historiography of the Thanksgiving tale you learned in elementary school, as well as his own perspective on how he is celebrating instead. We think it’s a must read.
Numerous writers, educators, and thinkers have shared guides online to educate folks about how to engage with the colonial traditions of Thanksgiving. Here’s a few that have helped us!
2. Make a plan.
Whether you’re going home for Thanksgiving, heading to a partner or friend’s house, or staying put, think about what things may stress you out or throw you for a loop this year. Then, think about how you can either get ahead of those things, endure, or even enjoy family time.
Maybe you need to state some boundaries up front. Find a way to tell your mom that you’d prefer she doesn’t talk about calorie counting or weight-loss, or kindly request from Grandpa that he not ask about dating or relationships. Maybe for the sake of preserving your sanity (or someone else’s), you need to agree on not talking about the recent election. Maybe, for the sake of your sanity, you need to agree that you must talk about the recent election.
A plan may look like coming up with a concrete agenda for the weekend. Does that include a hike or a walk with siblings or partners so you can get some fresh air and reset? Does it include setting a limit for how much alcohol you will consume over dinner? Maybe it’s as simple as setting an intention before you cross the threshold of your family home: “I will enjoy some of my favorite childhood foods.” or “I will get to know my niece a little better.” or “I will remember to breathe.”
If you struggle with body image or if food brings up a lot of anxiety for you, try doing some positive self talk before going in. Let yourself enjoy the meal as best you can, and if family members are prone to commenting on how you look or how much or little you eat, try talking about that with your family before the meal. Simple requests like, “I am working on having a better relationship with my body, so if we could not talk about weight loss this weekend, I think it would really help me.” or “Dad, I love your cooking, and it helps me enjoy the whole experience even more if we focus on how great the food is, and how you made it, not on who is eating it and how much.”
Part of having a plan is identifying who in the room can be an ally or support system for you should you need them. Maybe your brother, or a cousin, or even someone’s partner is someone who you can look to for back-up. Find someone who can squirrel you away to help with the stuffing if you need a break from your family. Shoot them a text before you get there asking if you can lean on them for support. Conversely, maybe there’s someone in your family who may need the same thing from you. Did your younger sibling just go through a bad break up or lose their job? Give them a call before the big day and ask if there’s anything they need.
If you’re bringing someone home, whether it’s a friend or a partner, make sure they know what they’re getting into. Have a conversation about what your expectations are for each other and for the event. Let them know your concerns, listen to theirs, and devise a plan for how to help each other out during the day.
3. You don’t have to disengage from “contentious” topics.
Oftentimes, the standard suggestion that manners experts and advice columns will give for surviving Thanksgiving is to avoid talking about politics or current events at the dinner table. This may be an important strategy to maintain civility and calm during your meal, or even for your own mental health. However, there may be productive and even fruitful conversations to be had, especially with family, surrounding topics that feel ‘hot’ or ‘contentious.’ If you feel that you’re able, you might find that engaging in conversations, especially about social issues you care about, may even be enlightening or rewarding.
If it feels safe to do so, we can often make the most difference with the people we love and with our families, especially because our family is often where our moral, social, and political education (and sometimes rebellion) began. Pick a topic that you can ask an open ended question about. Be ready to listen, to challenge, and to be challenged by folks at the table. For example, if you’re a white person, start by asking a question about privilege or how often race factors into your day-today life. Share a reading from something that resonated with you, like Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack, or a scene from a TV show that made you think critically about an issue. Watching football? Maybe that’s the right time to bring up the NFL’s relationship with domestic violence, Colin Kaepernack and Black Lives Matter, or how the league treats cheerleaders.
When it comes to having conversations about #MeToo, Ella and Oronde had some great advice from our episode. Oronde said he tries to distill issues away from contentious personalities (Kavanuagh, Trump, Harvey Weinstein for example) and speak in generalities. "How would you feel if a person did this...?" He also tries to speak from his own perspective or experiences. "People love you and empathize with your own experience most, because they know you, and you're sitting in front of them." he said." Ella offered great advice, "We're consent educators, so if we want, we can be expert in this topic. We can say, 'I've done my research and this is what I found.'" They added, "But, this is also my job, so I also think it's okay to say, 'I do this for work, and I'm on holiday right now, but let me email you some stuff when I get back to my desk on Monday.'"
Both Oronde and Ella agreed that, especially now, it is time to have the tough conversations about race at the dinner table. Shying away, especially for white folks and folks with privilege, can no longer be an option. To help have those conversations, we think Rachel Cargle's great article in Harper’s Bazaar this month is a perfect starting point. Check it out!
5. Try radical listening.
If you are in a place to have a tough conversation with your family or friends, try using radical listening. Radical listening is the practice of intentionally engaging in relationship building through conversation by quieting your own voice and judgements to allow space for informed questioning and dialogue. Radical listening requires that all parties listen more than speak, respect each other equally, suspend assumptions, and engage in an attempt at reciprocal understanding. As Chanel Lewis says in this wonderful TED talk about radical listening, “It’s a practice.” It isn’t easy, especially across differences, but it can be a tool to stay in a conversation and to learn.
Radical listening can often bring people closer together. But it also asks folks to sit in discomfort, which can be necessary to moving forward. But all sides need to be willing to listen and practice. While you can’t radically listen all the time, it’s a great tool to have, especially in contentious conversations. This Strike Magazine article has some great advice on the limits of radical listening, the importance of consent when it comes to radical listening, and more. And remember, it’s one tool. You don’t have to do all the heavy lifting at the Thanksgiving table, nor do you need to solve racism (nor will you) in one sitting. Plant the seed. Talk. Hear each other. Make space.
And that means making space for fun too.
6. You don’t owe your grandparents information about your sex life.
Especially as we get older, nagging questions about dating from our families, or even our high school friends, can be really stressful...and definitely make for awkward dinner table convo!
We are strong advocates for parents and teens, and even parents and their adult children, to have a healthy and open dialogue about sex, sexuality, and relationships. Not because we owe our families details about our sex lives, but because it’s good to have a support network to go to with questions or concerns about dating and relationships.
However, pressure to date, especially pressure to date or have a relationship look a certain way at a certain age, can add strain or stress to an existing relationship or make you feel insecure when you’re single or dating around. If your family asks about your dating life in a probing way, feel free to share as much detail as you are comfortable with but don’t feel like your love life needs to fit any standard or set path. As long as you are making healthy decisions that feel good for where you’re at right now, that’s what matters.
Questions about dating can be tough for queer folks, especially if their family or home is not fully accepting or understanding of their identities or relationships. This is where having an ally, like a sibling or a cousin might be helpful. If you fear insensitive questions from your grandma, touch base with a supportive family member first so they can be ready to jump in, take your side, and take some of the emotional burden off of your shoulders.
Likewise, if you have a recently out sibling or family member, be there for them. Don’t speak for them, but let them know you’re available for support. If they’ve recently come out to you, don’t assume that they’re out with the whole family. Follow their lead when it comes to talking about dating and sexuality, especially as it pertains to their life. Coming out is a journey that they need to direct themselves.
7. Re-write traditions!
You don’t need to be bogged down by the same traditions that caused you stress in your childhood. Find new ways to connect with your family members--maybe from now on each Thanksgiving you go on a hike, play Scrabble, or share an idea or cause you’re interested in. If Thanksgiving with family doesn’t work for you, who else do you want to come together with around a shared meal and the idea of gratitude? What kind of community do you want to celebrate?
Likewise, now is the time to rewrite the mythology around the American Thanksgiving story. Take some time to honor your local Native populations, and find a new way to frame the holiday that either acknowledges our colonial past or moves towards a more equitable future. Cook a meal inspired by Native chefs. Cook a meal inspired by your own family’s ethnic or cultural roots. Sit down as a family or friend group and decide on an organization to donate to that is making a real impact in your community. Volunteer. Find a way to celebrate and show gratitude in a way that works with your morals and beliefs.
So friends, how are you going to re-write your traditions this year?
Speak About It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that partners with high schools and colleges to educate, entertain, and empower students to create positive change within their communities, advocate for and practice healthy relationship habits, and prevent sexual violence.
Copyright 2016 Speak About It, Inc. Website by Alexandra Valleau