My family is racist; my partner is Malaysian

They say ugly, bigoted things at the dinner table, and I don't want to bring her there anymore

Published May 3, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm not quite getting along with my parents. We used to get along really well until a few years ago, but then I fell in love with my partner and my worldview changed on such a basic level that I no longer feel a close part of my family anymore. I'm white and privileged and so is everyone in my family, and like them I used to be casually racist and entitled and generally boorish. I believed in the old myth that people who've failed in life must have been lazy. Drug addicts, the homeless, struggling single mothers: I tended to blame these people for their poverty and suffering. I had naive views about women, particularly about contraceptive rights.

Since then I've changed a lot, and I'm grateful to my partner for helping me see the world in a less closeted and prejudiced way. Unfortunately my parents are still closeted and prejudiced, and still want to be part of my life. At first I found this too difficult, and so I didn't really deal with it. I would go to family dinners and not say anything. Whereas before I would stay at dinner until late and be one of the last to leave, now I would leave after just a couple of hours. Mum noticed and felt that something was wrong, but didn't really say much. She just kept inviting me over, and I kept coming, and eventually I became a bit more engaged with my parents again. But they would say stupid things again from time to time, and I would have arguments that upset me for no good reason -- sometimes I'd be so upset I'd cry later on, telling my partner about them -- just stupid arguments about public school funding or whatever. I hated the gulf between me and Dad. He didn't seem to accept that the lower middle class deserve any consideration. Like they're lesser human beings. Anyway, my strategy has been to keep my opinions to myself most of the time. When my brother tells a story that includes repeated reference to the "wog" or the "Asian guy" with a condescending laugh, I would stop smiling and look into my teacup and that would be all. No arguments from me. Just get through it and leave.

I feel like this could work out in the long run. I can see that my family care about me and I appreciate that. I do need that recognition too, and I wouldn't want to ever cut them off. I'd hate to hurt them like that.

The problem is that they want my partner to come to family dinners. She's a second-generation migrant from Malaysia, very smart, with a short temper, and not someone who tends to let stupid, offensive rants pass without a challenge. It's a recipe for disaster with my family. When she first attended a dinner my brother's partner asked her the pointed question "Where are you from?" Code for "Oh, my God, you're not white!" I don't blame her for feeling subtly excluded from my family. She'll never be "white." And she'll definitely never be able to accept the things my family believe and say. This was proven to me on the last (and I think, final) time my partner came to a family dinner, last Christmas. After a few beers, Dad decided to begin a lecture on the "foolishness" of being vegetarian. My partner and I are both long-term vegos, but I'd only told my parents about it a few months earlier. Dad went on and on, and the worst part is he weighs 135kg (298 pounds) and was stuffing his face with Brie cheese at the time yet he was giving us dietary advice. When he said that meat-eating was necessary because it had been part of human evolution, my partner finally snapped and said, "Yes, and so were rape and genocide." Dad was startled, I think more by the tone of the comment than anything else. I felt horrible. I just wanted to squeeze into a ball and roll away. I decided that I wouldn't invite my partner anymore -- I was just too ashamed of my parents and too scared that she would rip them to shreds.

My parents are a bit hurt by it. When Mum asked if my partner would be coming to her 50th birthday party and I said no, she said, "Fine. Whatever." I feel guilty for hurting their feelings. But I'm still being invited and I think Mum and Mad will just get used to it. I'm pretty sure I'm doing the right thing but my partner worries that it might be doing harm to my relationship with Mum and Dad. I don't know. I'm pretty fatalistic about it now. I guess you can't pick your parents, and you can't change them. I was hoping you might be able to give me some advice to improve the situation.

Annoyed by Parents But Don't Want to Alienate Them

Dear Annoyed by Parents,

I have an idea. Try getting together with your partner and just one of your parents, outside of the normal family setting. Do something out of the ordinary. It might involve a long drive to some out-of-the-way inn, or camping, or a physical activity, such as gardening or building a shed. Do something that's fun but requires working together, that's not a spectator activity. Consider activities that require cooperative labor and contact with wood, stone and earth, like building a sand castle at the beach, or constructing a campfire, or cooking together, just the three of you. Whatever it is, do it outside the home -- outside your parents' home, outside your home.

Here is why: If you look at the family as a system, you can see that making bigoted statements serves a function. Putting down outsiders helps achieve cohesion. When a new person enters the family scene, no matter who she is, she changes the power order. The family acts as a system to maintain order and a sense of collective invulnerability and superiority. It's ugly. But that's how the family system works.

When your partner joins the family for dinner, her presence threatens the family and also prevents the family from using its usual antidote to threat, which is to collectively denigrate outsiders. So the family ego-preservation operation grinds to a halt. No wonder things are not so peachy. No wonder your relationship with your parents is rocky.

Would that families could learn to achieve cohesion in less ruinous ways, by allowing individual members to honestly discuss and assess their feelings of apprehension and fear. But the fact is that families use collective put-downs of outsiders to reinforce their cohesion.

So get your parents out of that system, one by one, and forge new relationships with each of them. Make them deal with you and your partner as a unit outside the family system. Get to know each other as individuals.

But watch for triangulation. If you hang out with your partner and your mother, you may find them ganging up on you. If, for example, both your partner and your mother suddenly decide your taste in ties leaves something to be desired, this will be a sign that they are starting to get along. It's a good sign, but it may put you on the outside. So watch for that.

Likewise, if your partner and your father warm up to each other, they may suddenly come to  agreement about your lack of intelligence. Accommodating such insights with selfless aplomb may tax your capacity for deep humility. You might have to prove yourself by building a fire or shooting a moose.

Keep in mind that in trying to forge these new relationships, you will be upsetting an accustomed family dynamic. Whoever is not invited on your outing may feel suspicious or combative. That may lead to some reflexive counter-triangulation back at the house. Allegiances will be shifting. Watch for this.

Oh, and here is another idea that might be brilliant or amazingly dumb: What about you and your partner taking one of your parents with you to Malaysia? If they like to travel, maybe they would enjoy a chance to go to Malaysia and see the beautiful place that your partner comes from.

In short, the idea is to get your parents out of the house and spend time with them individually. Outside the normal family context, if they feel comfortable, they may find less need to use expressions of bigotry and racism to remind everyone of their social dominance.

Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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