Holiday family gathering survival guide: How to argue with your racist, Islamophobic uncle at Christmas dinner

Talking points to respond to Islamophobia, ISIS, anti-black racism, anti-immigrant myths, and homophobia

Published December 25, 2015 11:00AM (EST)

       (<a href=''>kyoshino</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Salon)
(kyoshino via iStock/Salon)

This year saw an explosion of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and violence. While there were some significant progressive victories in 2015, there were also many dangerous developments -- from the proliferation of war around the world; to the worst refugee crisis since World War II; to the growth of far-right, neo-fascist movements in the West, with the National Front and Golden Dawn in Europe and Donald Trump in the U.S.

Amid this climate of escalating bigotry and hatred, racists have been emboldened and led to believe that their prejudices are now mainstream. We all have that racist family member who spouts unsubstantiated myths at Christmas dinner; at your holiday feast this year, your racist uncle may feel particularly encouraged to air his intolerant ideas.

These are some of the best ways to challenge the Islamophobic, racist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic myths you may hear.


If there was one group demonized more than any other in 2015, it was Muslims. The frequency of anti-Muslim attacks in the U.S. has skyrocketed. Muslims have been shot, assaulted, and threatened; their places of worship have been burned and vandalized. The number of anti-Muslim hate crimes tripled in December.

Islamophobes like your racist uncle may justify their hatred saying they are defending themselves from a supposedly "inherently violent" religion -- but it is important to remember more than 1.6 billion people in the world are Muslim.

That is to say, almost one-fourth of the entire global population is Muslim. And the Middle East is by no means representative of global Islam. Just 20 percent of the world's Muslims are in the Middle East and North Africa. More than three-fifths (62 percent) of Muslims in the world are in the Asia-Pacific region, on the other hand.

Around 50 countries have Muslim-majority populations. The largest Muslim population in the world is in fact in Indonesia. And India has the second-largest population of Muslims.

Even if your racist uncle concedes that not all of the quarter of the human population that is Muslim are terrorists, you should also remind him that, in the U.S., right-wing terrorism is much more common than Islamic extremist terror -- and the former is growing.

Besides, at the end of the day, Americans are much more likely to be killed by cars, suicide, bees, wasps, and even furniture than they are by Muslims.

The real question to ask your racist uncle, then, is when is the government going to do something about the real threat: insects and furniture?

Is it true that terrorism is more common among Muslims? Well, it depends on what you mean by terrorism. Your racist uncle will doubtless insist that the West was built on Christianity. If so, it's important to point out that the West has also been the most violent region of the world in human history.

It has carried the largest genocides ever, against the indigenous peoples of the modern-day Americas -- which were committed partially in the name of Christianity. It created concentration camps and torture chambers. It has bombed countries all over the world, killing millions of people -- and continues to kill, injure, and displace millions of people in its wars around the world today. This is terror, according to any consistent definition of the term -- state terror.


If you are talking about Islamophobia, ISIS will inevitably come up. When your racist uncle mentions ISIS, it is important to remind him of a few things.

It is very important to stress that the vast majority of Muslims in the world have a very negative view of ISIS, and do not even consider the extremist group to truly be Islamic -- just as the vast majority of Christians do not consider the KKK to be Christian. Both extremist groups violate the most basic tenets of the religions they claim to represent. Saying ISIS is representative of Islam is like saying the KKK is representative of Christianity.

In September 2014, hundreds of Islamic scholars wrote an open letter to ISIS, its leaders, and its followers, detailing how the group is not Islamic and denouncing its violent extremism. The scholars quoted extensively from the Quran and used basic Islamic theology to pick apart ISIS' claims.

Also, it must be remembered that the vast majority of the victims of ISIS are themselves Muslims.

ISIS is a horrific group that is similar in many ways to the fascist movements of the early 20th century. But in order to understand the rise of ISIS, we must also understand the gruesome crimes that gave birth to such a gruesome movement.

The U.S.-led war in Iraq, which killed at least one million people and destabilized the region, set the stage for the spread of extremism. Before the U.S. invaded Iraq in direct contravention of international law, al-Qaeda was not in the country (and ISIS eventually emerged out of Iraq's al-Qaeda branch). It was the U.S.-led war and occupation that brutalized and radicalized the Sunni minority of Iraq, which lived under an authoritarian, sectarian puppet government.

It is also important to remember how the U.S. government supported sectarian Shia militias in Iraq, in order to fight the Sunni insurgency, which only further fueled the spread of extremism.

Trying to understand the rise of ISIS without addressing the catastrophic U.S. war in Iraq, and the decade-long foreign occupation of the country, would be like trying to understand biology without evolution. (If your racist uncle also refuses to accept the scientific validity of evolution — for which there is more evidence than there is for almost anything else in history — there may be no hope.)

Moreover, a question must be asked: If the U.S. is so concerned with combating Islamic extremism, why has it for so long remained allied with the most fundamentalist Islamist forces in the world? Saudi Arabia, among other theocratic and repressive Gulf monarchies, is one of the planet's most extreme religious forces. The Saudi regime has been described as the "fountainhead" of Sunni extremism, and has been called "an ISIS that has made it."

U.S. government cables released by WikiLeaks identity wealthy Saudis as the "chief funders" of al-Qaeda. And yet bending over backward to work with Saudi Arabia is a policy that has been pursued by both mainstream American political parties, without exception, since the early 20th century, when it was discovered that the Middle East has the largest oil reserves on the planet.

Anti-black racism and police brutality

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement and increasing attention on police brutality against police brutality, racism has became a hot topic. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, in particular, has exploited the white supremacy deeply embedded in the roots of America. Particularly egregious was Trump's insistence that 81 percent of white Americans who are murdered were killed by black Americans, which monitoring group PolitiFact deems a "pants on fire"-level lie.

If your racist uncle asks about so-called "black-on-black" crime, you should reply, "What about white-on-white crime?"

Yes, it is true that 90 percent of black Americans are killed by fellow black Americans — but 83 percent of white Americans are killed by fellow white Americans. The vast majority of shootings occur within one's race. People are more likely to kill people they know, and the U.S. remains a very segregated country, in which most Americans interact primarily with people of their same race.

Moreover, police brutality in the U.S. is completely off the charts. At least 1179 Americans were killed by police from the beginning of 2015 to Christmas, and victims of police brutality are disproportionately people of color.

American police shot and killed more people in the month of November 2015 alone than British cops have in 95 years.

This is not to say the U.K. is some magical utopia where police are free from prejudice -- far from it. Structural racism is still a big problem among British police, but most are not armed, and they are trained to use de-escalation tactics, not to shoot first and ask questions later.

And police brutality is just one expression of the countless forms of structural racism black Americans endure.

Numerous studies show that, when black and white applicants who are equally qualified apply for the same job, white Americans are significantly more likely to get an interview. This is systemic racism at work.

Recent college graduates who are black are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as recent college graduates overall. This is not because they are lazy; it is because racism makes it much harder for black Americans to get a job.

Anti-immigrant myths and welfare

On the subject of laziness, your racist uncle may also claim that immigrants are lazy slackers. Yet the myth of the lazy slacker immigrant that exploits the system is exactly that — a myth.

The vast majority of immigrants pay taxes, and not just sales taxes. Moreover, most immigrants pay taxes and receive few government services in return.

Immigrants spend 45 times more in taxes than they receive in public benefits, according to a study by the American Immigration Council. On average, immigrants in the U.S. also work more than non-immigrants.

A Chamber of Commerce report determined that "more than half of undocumented immigrants have federal and state income, Social Security and Medicare taxes automatically deducted from their paychecks."

There were an estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. as of 2012, according to the non-partisan think tank, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). Together, these 11.4 million undocumented migrants paid close to $12 billion in taxes.

Undocumented immigrants pay eight percent of their income in taxes, according to ITEP's research. In the meantime, the richest 1 percent of Americans — the so-called "job creators" — pay only 5.4 percent of their income in taxes.

As the New Republic puts it, "immigrants don't drain welfare; they fund it."

If your racist uncle wants to blame migrants and minority groups for welfare spending, you should point out a few things. One, welfare as we know it was drastically gutted by Bill Clinton in 1995, with the support of both the Republican Party and the right wing of the Democratic Party.

Moreover, as for the paltry welfare that still exists, research conducted by experts at the University of California at Berkeley found that 73 percent of Americans who receive welfare are members of working families.

"It's poor-paying jobs, not unemployment, that strains the welfare system," reports the Wall Street Journal. "In some industries, about half the workforce relies on welfare," including 52 percent of fast-food workers. That is to say, it is low wages that create the need for welfare, not immigration or laziness.

Same-sex marriage

2015 was a big year for LGBTQ rights. Same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S., and discussion of trans rights has increased.

Yet family members like your racist uncle may express opposition to marriage equality. He may claim that being gay is not "natural," and that it challenges the nuclear family structure upon which contemporary society is built.

First of all, it is important to indicate that homosexuality is documented in more than 1,500 different species, not just humans. In order to say it is "not natural," one must ignore the countless other examples of it in nature.

Furthermore, studies show that children of same-sex couples are in fact happier and healthier than children of heterosexual couples.

Your racist uncle may then, nevertheless, fall back on morality. Being gay is wrong, he may insist.

In reality, however, numerous scientific studies show that homosexuality is not a choice. And even if being LGTBQ were a choice, why should he have the right to take their rights to engage in romantic behavior with consenting adults?

Additionally, when it comes to marriage equality, the U.S. is really behind the times. Americans constantly claim that their country is "exceptional," but it tends to fall exceptionally behind.

The Netherlands legalized same-sex marriage way back in 2001. Belgium did in 2003. Canada and Spain followed in 2005. Uruguay, Brazil, the U.K., France, and many more countries also legalized same-sex marriage before the U.S. Of the fellow economically developed nations in the OECD, the U.S. took a long time to catch up on marriage equality.

Some of these facts may upset your racist uncle, but they are facts, and you can tell him to take it or leave it, to accept reality as it is or continue to deceive himself and others. Just make sure you get your fill before the plates start flying.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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