As I prepare to travel to New Jersey to eat turkey, it has occurred to me that Thanksgiving is the ultimate manifestation of the crisis of white politeness. Despite the fact that Donald Trump’s impeachment will be an elephant in millions of rooms on Thursday, there are many white families who will insist that political conversation is off-limits.
We have to reject this rule. There are exceptions, I’m sure — I don’t know the stuff of your childhood trauma, and it’s possible that any brain in a MAGA hat is too far gone — but, for the most part, fellow white people, I would argue that the idea that you could just “keep it nice” this Thanksgiving is utterly ridiculous.
The best way to explain why I think this way is to tell you about where where I come from. I was raised under the spell of white politeness in upper-middle-class suburban New Jersey. The tone of my teenage years can be best observed from the high school parking lot, which frequently resembled a luxury car dealership in the early 00’s. An anthropologist might note that young women involved seemed required to wear low-rise jeans from Abercrombie & Fitch and two polo-shirts at the same time for no discernible reason.
And then there were the moms picking their kids up from school, so frequently clad head-to-toe in Juicy Couture that it seemed as if velour tracksuits were the official uniform for operating a Range Rover. Such was the shape of the white snowglobe where I grew up. In retrospect, while I rarely heard explicitly racist comments, the wholesale lack of frank discussions about inequality indicated pervasive, covert racism.
At varying levels of privilege, there are enclaves of whiteness, in which any understanding of power, privilege, and oppression is disconnected from the conversation about what it means to be a good person. For me, that meant the concept of racism that I was first taught was about as narratively complex as the 2004 Oscar-winning film Crash. (Certainly, none of the moms clad in Juicy tracksuits would be rude to a person of color at the grocery store. If anything, they might go out of their way to demonstrate uncomfortable friendliness, as if auditioning to be extras in Get Out.)
Looking back on the wealthy, white New Jersey microcosm in which I was raised, it seems to me that the ultimate morality dictated that one should never, ever, ever make any individual person uncomfortable — while totally avoiding all political implications of your behavior. This is the crisis of white politeness.
Under the moral code of white politeness, it is absolutely essential to be extra nice to everyone at all times. Errant thoughts and shadow parts are to be shoved out of view, in favor of operating on the surface with a forced smile and chit-chat about the weather. It’s especially important to never, ever talk about politics, because then you might find you have a politically incorrect view of the world, and then the mask will shatter and crack, and how on earth will you ever pretend to be perfect after that?
Yes, white politeness is like the hyper-individualization of the Christian idea of neighborliness: Thou shalt be nice at all times. The crisis is the means by which the vigilant civility of avoiding uncomfortable conversations makes it so that there is no need to reckon with the realities of the system and each of our roles within it.
The crisis is the fact that for a lot of white people, being polite to each and every individual person you encounter allows institutionalized racial injustice to be swept out of view.
During Thanksgiving under the atrocity of the Trump presidency, it is critical that we have uncomfortable conversations about what is at stake. There are a lot of white people who voted for Trump in 2016 and who would be horrified at the idea someone might call them racist. There are a lot of white people who would agree that America has a racism problem, and yet fail to see their role within it. If there are hearts and minds to be changed at the Thanksgiving table, it may be these.
There are guides for these conversations. I strongly recommend this one from Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), along with their other resources. As a former sufferer of the disease of white politeness, I suggest the best way to approach the still-comatose is with friendly strength.
Think of it as inviting your loved one to see the world in a new way. “Hey,” you might say. “You seem like a good person, and I recently learned some information that made me understand how I need to be using my white privilege to combat racial inequality.” Perhaps then you share some specifics about the impact of Trump’s presidency, or suggest your family member consider some hard facts regarding police brutality, mass incarceration, income and housing inequality, or any of the other grotesque realities that reveal the ways racial injustice defines American life. Be patient and listen. Remember the most effective way to engage is to ask the right questions.
The crisis of white politeness will persist so long as we “keep it nice” and avoid talking about politics. Breaking the spell requires us to actively unlearn the stories and patterns of the white supremacist patriarchy with the people we care about the most, and not just on Thanksgiving.
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