Candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton speak during a presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9. The contentiousness of the presidential election is spilling into some workplaces.AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Photo: Patrick Semansky
Photo: Patrick Semansky

How to talk about race and politics at Thanksgiving dinner

To avoid a food fight between your bigoted grandmother, your gay uncle and the interracial couple down the street, you may need to bring more to the holiday dinner than that green bean casserole you love so much.

Experts say a few basic conversation strategies can help you keep the awkward moments to a minimum and help others avoid the conflict, embarrassment and insults that can creep into discussions about the racially charged election and its unfolding aftermath.

Engaging vs. confronting

Wary dinner-goers should keep in mind that they're having a conversation, not an argument, said Julie Fisher-Rowe, senior framing and messaging coordinator at the Opportunity Agenda, a social justice organization. That requires keeping the tone of the discussion respectful and engaging, rather than accusatory and confrontational.

"That matters a lot when we're talking to people about issues that can really rile people up and make them angry, or defensive or even afraid," Fisher-Rowe said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters.

It's also a good idea to think about conversation strategy and what you want to achieve before diving into a touchy discussion."What do you feel like you want people to walk away with? What do you know about the people you're already talking to? And what's the most productive conversation you can have with them, knowing what you want to achieve?" she added.

Conversation starter

It may be strange to do so with people you're usually comfortable talking with, but how one starts a touchy conversation is important. So Fisher-Rowe advises starting from a place of mutual agreement and shared values and trying to move on from there.

For instance, if someone says "I'm not a racist because I voted for Trump," one shouldn't reply "I believe that people who voted for Trump are inherently racist, or don't care about racism," Rowe said.

"Think instead about saying 'I'm really glad that you're rejecting racism. I'm glad that you're anti-racist. I feel really strongly about that. And I've also been thinking about what we can do as a country to move forward on that because I feel like, maybe, this election stalled us a bit.' That's a different way to open a conversation that puts people in a different state of mind," Rowe said. "By acknowledging you're both anti-racist, you've given them a label that's not offensive."

Easier said than done

That's often easier said than done, said Marie Solis, a New York-based staff writer at, an online news outlet geared toward millennials.

On the conference call, Solis said her relationship with her Ecuadorean immigrant father has suffered after he went from being a Barack Obama supporter in 2012 to a Trump voter in 2016. Despite attempts to change his mind, "at a certain point, we just realized we just weren't going to agree," Solis said of their many arguments.

Their deteriorating relationship prompted Solis to write an article entitled "Here's how to talk to your Trump-supporting relatives this Thanksgiving."

"I wrote this as much for myself as for others," Solis said. "I knew that a lot of people's minds had immediately gone to the place of 'What am I going to do when I go home and I have to face my family or friends who voted for Trump?' Or even if they voted for Hillary Clinton, but obviously can still, very well, hold a lot of racist, biased beliefs. How do I begin to undo them? How do I face them? What do I say?"

Show a little empathy

Rowe also urges people like Solis to create empathy for people they disagree with on Thanksgiving by being curious about what shaped their feelings, rather than just communicating their own feelings.

"We know from research that people are more likely to acknowledge discrimination to other groups and want to do something about it if they, themselves, have experienced some kind of discrimination," Fisher-Rowe said.In fact, 60 percent feel they've been treated differently based on race, ethnicity, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, religion or even their accent, Fisher-Rowe said.

Don't judge a book by its cover

Joshua Kalla, a Ph.D. student in the political science department at the University of California-Berkeley, found this out while doing research about LGBT discrimination. During the conference call, Kalla said canvassers asked a heterosexual, white military veteran whether he had faced discrimination of any kind.

They were surprised when the man got emotional discussing the difficulty he faced finding a job after two tours of duty in Afghanistan left him with post traumatic stress disorder. The man also discussed feeling left out from his community on Independence Day because the fireworks triggered battlefield flashbacks.

"Not judging a book by its cover, and asking people this open-ended question of 'Have you ever felt judged for being who you are?' might often lead to surprising answers," Kalla said.

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