How do we talk to racist Uncle Bob?

Christmas is over and we are well into the new year but a few things linger on… the remnants of rather sad looking, unsold gifts in shops, the extra weight from too much cheese/port/mince pies/Cadbury Roses (delete as applicable) and the memory of that conversation with racist “Uncle Bob”*.

In the aftermath of Brexit, the election of Trump, the General Election I am sure I am not the only liberal/lefty/artist type who was facing Christmas dinner with the family with more than a little trepidation.

I’ve always known that our politics and lifestyle choices were very different and yet Uncle Bob has always been incredibly supportive of my ambitions to be an artist/work in the arts. He has always said that he considers himself to be very lucky to have had a successful career doing something he loves and that he wishes the same for me. And I appreciate that.

But the more time I spend in the arts, the broader and more diverse my social sphere becomes. This I consider to be one of the greatest gifts this career has given me and with this also comes a greater awareness of my cis, white, middle(ish) class privilege. Which means that when Uncle Bob manages to latch on to one of the few MTV videos that isn’t exclusively about the objectification of women and starts complaining about the gays being “in everything now”, having to see it on telly all the time and later when he complains about no-one having a sense of humour anymore – because it used to be OK to call people a “taff” or “sambo” (apparently everyone called his friend that!!!) – I struggle to know what to say to him. It’s Christmas. We’re supposed to play nice and if an argument starts I will be the one who everyone blames…

I don’t feel Uncle Bob is spouting hate; I don’t believe he hates any of the people he is talking about, but I do realise he is dealing with A LOT of toxic masculinity. He feels threatened by queer culture, it’s not something he was ever encouraged to see as normal when he was growing up. I suggest that for anyone growing up gay this kind of visibility is important, seeing themselves reflected back, as part of society… “But it’s not proportionate. It’s in every programme!” is the response. I also ask him why he needs to refer to any of his colleagues (actually his subordinates) by these “nicknames”. He becomes frustrated. He doesn’t like the question. It’s just how predominantly (exclusively?) male teams interact. Right? It’s just banter and he is voicing his fears a backlash from “political correctness gone mad”. He asks, what if someone “chooses to be offended”? I say, you have to let people decided what offends them, respect their boundaries and behave accordingly. He says, “But, by then it’s too late.” Again I try to ask why he can’t just call people by their names. Another family member changes the subject… It’s probably for the best.

Of course, Uncle Bob is right. Once someone is offended then the damage is done and if they go to HR, you are screwed. I want to ask him why he feels so persecuted, why is his right to call people names based on personal attributes so important to him? What is he losing here? I don’t think he would like that question.

I daren’t ask how they talk about women at work. I don’t think I would like that answer.

I eat another handful of Cadbury Roses…

I realise I have changed quite a lot in the last couple of years and I have seen a lot less of him in that time so the fact that this is becoming the pattern of our conversations worries me. I don’t want to have to cut Uncle Bob out of my life. For all his faults (I’m sure he would say that I am a liberal softy who wants to bankrupt the country and punish anyone who is successful) I love him. He is a hardworking, self-made man. He is funny and he is honest. He loves sport and any kind of  competition. He has always encouraged me to work hard, to be the best I can at everything I do and, as I said, has supported my career choices for as long as I can remember. He is not a bad man but…

I don’t know what to do with any of this. I don’t think I can change him, I know I need to keep questioning him and I worry that this will eventually lead to an ugly confrontation. I also know I can’t be alone in this and so I ask, how do we talk to racist Uncle Bob?

*Not his real name.

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