It was Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, maybe 20 years ago. All the usuals were there: my parents and I, my sister and her three kids, my (maternal) grandmother, and my great-aunt Gladys.
Dinner was over, and everyone had left the dining room to watch TV in the living room. Well, everyone except Aunt Gladys and my nana, who remained in the dining room to eat Jell-O. Thing is, they both brought separate Jell-O, and they were discussing whose was better. Actually, “discussing” is probably the wrong word. “Debating” and then “dissing” is much more appropriate. The rest of us continued to sit in the living room, pretending to watch football while listening to these two 80-plus-year-old women shade each other for a half hour.
Aunt Gladys: Your Jell-O is runny.
Nana: My Jell-O ain’t never been runny.
Aunt Gladys: Your Jell-O been runny since you was a child.
(Our faces? O_o)
These types of conversations seem to happen more frequently at Thanksgiving than any other holiday or family gathering. Which makes sense because of the unique dynamic of this particular holiday. It revolves around food, and everyone eating at or around a table at the same time, and then everyone suffering from food comas and itis and being practically immobile for the next two hours. Which means that you will have conversations—lots and lots and lots of conversations.
And unlike the Fourth of July, when Uncle Johnny starts going off about how almond milk is a sign of the “gay agenda” and Cousin Carmen chimes in with her conspiracy theories about how pit bulls give people herpes, or when your not-so-secretly racist brother-in-law keeps calling your Iranian girlfriend “Isis” even though her name is Erica, you can’t just go inside. Or go outside. Or go man the grill. No, at Thanksgiving, you have to sit there and listen.
So, what are you supposed to do when someone says some offensive-ass s—t? Good question.
Uncle Junior was offensive in 1992 when he tried to convince everyone that Magic Johnson got AIDS from Michael Jackson’s monkey. He was offensive in 2001 when someone knocked over the salt and pepper, and he made a joke about the Twin Towers falling again. He was offensive last year when he said something about NyQuil and “bitches sitting on Bill Cosby’s lap.” And he will undoubtedly be offensive this year.
But you know what? Uncle Junior is, like, 85,000 years old. His life pretty much sucks, and you’re not living with your parents anymore, so it’s not like you’re going to see Uncle Junior a dozen times a year anymore. Nope. Just this once. And the energy you’d expend explaining to him why “w—back” is offensive (again) could be better directed toward devouring the five-cheese mac and cheese on your plate.
So the next time he says something inappropriate about tits or terrorists, just let it linger, make a face or two at your sister, and pretend like he didn’t even say anything.
When done properly, deflecting is perhaps the best strategy. You don’t actually ignore Cousin Jimmy’s comment about how Ben Carson’s presidential campaign is a sign that the Rapture is near. You appear to listen to Cousin Jimmy, and then you ask him if he wants some more gravy.
Thing is, only an expert linguist can do this. Because if you change course too awkwardly, it’ll seem condescending and rude. And if you aren’t careful, Cousin Jimmy might take your engagement as a sign that you want him to tell you all about what’s going to happen to Memphis, Tenn., after the Rapture comes. So while the upside is major here, so is the degree of difficulty.
This is perhaps the most entertaining strategy. When you ask your sister’s new boyfriend if he wants some mashed potatoes, and he’s like, “I don’t want none of the white man’s potatoes,” instead of thinking to yourself, “OK. That was weird. This n—ga is crazy. Why does my sister keep bringing crazy n—gas to Thanksgiving?” engage him directly.
As your sister shoots arrows through her eyes at you, ask him why, exactly, mashed potatoes are the white man’s potatoes. Ask him to explain where he learned this from and when. Maybe ask if it’s a color thing, and if red potatoes would be considered “Native American” potatoes to him, too.
This strategy works on Facebook when people say idiotic s—t in response to your status messages, as well as in a work environment when the receptionist says something about “those people” when referring to #BlackLivesMatter, and you call her out on her bias. But in real life, with actual family members, this can get tricky. Even if confronting Cousin Sheryl’s racism or your sister-in-law’s homophobia might seem like the right thing to do, this is family. And you might damage certain relationships permanently. You could also start a real conversation and help Uncle Ray finally learn that you can’t “cure the gay” by drinking unsweetened lemonade.
You could be either the family savior or the family pariah here, so choose wisely.
5. Just Leave
This is the worst and stupidest possible strategy because it doesn’t matter how offensive Cousin Jackie is today. Grandma put lobster in the mac and cheese this year, so you ain’t going nowhere.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.