Why Do We Never Call Out Bigotry Within Our Families?

Social Commentary

Why Do We Never Call Out Bigotry Within Our Families?

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

It’s the end of a weekend. I’m heading home from the city’s annual Pride parade.

Rainbow flags still on my cheeks, I retrieve the keys from under the dying old plant, pop it into the rusty old lock, and shove open the screeching old door.

I can hear the TV, which means Ma is still up. I take my dirty shoes off.

I enter in my socks to find my parents doubled over on the sofa, their faces contorted in either absolute joy or utter agony. For a moment, I can’t tell which.

Toing. The TV declares itself.

I know it isn’t agony, because on screen is a man in drag berating a second man for being “ajeeb”. This second man waves his hand in a limp flourish – the classic gay stereotype of the dropped wrist – and continues to make unwanted sexual advances on the male “judge”. The latter loudly exclaims “Chhee!” as he runs away from the stage of Comedy Nights and its many clones.

My parents laugh on cue.

This night, like most nights, I ignore my parents’ laughter, grab my plate of food, and head into my room. From a day of demanding a prejudice-free utopia on the street, I accede defeat in a home that derives joy from a homophobic show. From an endlessly curious son, I have grown into a shitty flatmate who doesn’t pay rent and eats all the rajma.

Now, I am a feminist man. I make time to absorb as much as I can about gender, caste, and class – not as a mark of honour, not to show off, but as atonement for the privilege I’m well-aware of having. Once awareness turns into guilt, it’s difficult to not be conscientious about what I consume and denounce.

I engage in arguments with a regularity that is likely unhealthy. Hours are spent on meme threads and WhatsApp groups to settle whether a certain song is sexist or a certain joke transphobic. When the issue at hand is as intangible as societal mindset, all activism devolves to cultural debate.

But back home, I tell myself it isn’t worth it. I tell myself that my family’s belief systems have no effect on the world; that it isn’t going to matter even if I call out their homophobia, their cultural and racial stereotyping, their casual misogyny. They’re too dyed-in-the-wool for my arguments to influence them, so why bother engaging.

I tell myself lies.

Because the truth is that our families are not silos. They are voting, purchasing, consuming systems of impact that collectively decide the fate of the world.

If your uncle drunkenly declares his mistrust of Muslims at your Diwali party, he’s also likely to not rent out his flat to the perfectly nice Akhtar family. If your mom uses a separate steel glass for the man that collects your garbage, she’s likely to oppose your cousin’s intercaste marriage. If your parent’s idea of a gay man is gleaned from a Kapil Sharma show, they won’t take well to your “out” friend. In a long enough timeline, prejudice always translates to action. And you will be the first casualty.

I love my parents. They’re good people who tried their darnedest to raise good children. It’s just that by the time we grew into their own ideals, the definition of what’s “good” evolved and left them behind.

And us young folk decide what’s good, dammit. It’s up to us to eject obsolete theories of gender and weed out the last vestiges of caste. It’s our job to speak to our friends about consent, to call out administrations for misogyny, and protest when the hacks in positions of power don’t listen. Defeatism is for the old and jaded; our ideals are fresh off the pan of teenage angst and it’s our duty to burn our regressive insides with it.

We never call out our drunk uncles, or that bigoted cousin, or the proudly homophobic parent.

But rarely do we direct this sense of duty toward our own family. We never call out our drunk uncles, or that bigoted cousin, or the proudly homophobic parent.

Part of this stems from the fact that we know middle-aged people with a well-cemented set of values don’t like being told what’s right, especially when it comes from an overgrown embryo they created from scratch. Dinner tables are powder kegs waiting to be lit with the smallest hint of condescension, and the matchstick is usually millennial.

When I wonder why Eid isn’t celebrated at the community centre, I am told that I don’t know “those people” like they do. When my cousin asks for the cursed curfew to be lifted, she is told that she doesn’t know this city like they do. In the negotiation for progress, experience is leverage.

They’ve earned it too. My parents and grandparents have lived long, rich lives without the collective conscience that we have today. Their values were spawned off of experience in a time where all evidence was purely anecdotal. When the sample size of your interactions was limited to your neighbourhood, generalised prejudice wasn’t a choice – it was an instinct validated by the norm.

So when us shitty flatmates open the doors of our rooms and throw a statistic at our already distant families, it is as worthless to them as a stereotype is to us. Nothing from the books we’ve read and the videos we’ve watched will ever outweigh what Dadi saw during the Partition, or what Papa went through during the riots.

Not enough of this is often voiced. While prejudices can come from all sorts of places, they’re held onto from a sense of imagined injustice – of not being heard, seen, or understood – especially in the family. Both sides think their values are perfectly justified, but no side wants to hear the justification, even if it is misguided. It’s a micro-enactment of all political debates on TV.

If we want our ideals to have a shot at being absorbed beyond our Twitter feeds, we’ll have to listen. Listen to what shaped the undercurrent of bigotry in your mom, what experience caused your uncle to be so hateful. It will make you grind your teeth and bite your lip. It will often not make sense, often be against everything you believe in – but it may just disarm their emotions enough for them to listen to you.

There’s a good chance you won’t change anyone’s mind. There’s an even better chance that you will find your views strengthened instead of challenged – you walked in with the correct Opinions™ after all.

However, you’ll walk away with a better understanding of what you want to eliminate. Who knows, you might actually end up building a better relationship with your parents. As far as worst-case scenarios go, I’ll take this one happily.

But challenging the status quo must begin at home. The path to wokeness, begins with your doorstep. So the next time your father says, “I knew it, everyone from <X community> is just like <Y negative trait>” you know where to start.

One day, we’ll be the weight the next generation drags with itself. We’ll be the regressive, the outmoded, the cynics, the hidebound. I hope my kids have the patience to hear why I believe what I believe, and then reject me all the same. My insides can bear the heat.