Lessons from genre on how to talk to your family at Thanksgiving

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Nov 21, 2018, 5:58 PM EST

If you’re like me, you share a significant number of alleles with some less-than-woke folk. I’m sure I’m not the only one who scanned the crowd at the Charlottesville Nazi rally with my thumb hovering over the family group chat. It’s well past time to acknowledge that while we may not be our brothers’ keepers, those dudes are indeed our brothers. The state of affairs in this country compels us to engage with our folks more than ever before. No casual proponent of a white ethnostate or Proud Boy or John Bircher deserves to have the gravy passed to them wordlessly this year. None of them deserve to kiss babies or hold hands in prayer with people they’d like to legislate or terrify out of existence. There can be no safe haven for their hate. Not even the family table.

But those conversations are scary, and you maybe don’t feel like you have any common ground to start from, right? Wrong. Your shared ground is the science fiction and fantasy we all grew up watching and reading together, even though they somehow entirely missed the point of it all. Start there. Here are some choice examples for you to use when you make your stand this Thanksgiving.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Measure of a Man”

In this tightly written and tense episode, forces align to question the humanity and free will of Data, a highly advanced type of android. A trial is called with Captain Picard as judge and Commander Riker as prosecutor. Data’s initial solution to this problem is to resign his commission and flee, because nobody should be required to endure a debate on their identity. When he realizes he cannot escape this awful thing, he makes his argument with dignity and logic. Although the episode ultimately concludes with Data’s full personhood being declared, the lessons here are painfully clear: yes, those closest to you may question your right to exist as you are. Yes, you may have to prove to them that you deserve to be free. No, that is not a fun time for anyone.

What’s the lesson? Your racist and sexist cousin may not be able to see himself in a woman of color, but he can probably see himself in Data. If a government can infringe on the rights of trans people, who might be next? Gamers? Guys who wear glasses? Make him wonder.


The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

In this epic fantasy installation in the ongoing Stormlight Archive universe, author Brandon Sanderson creates a class system wherein people with light-colored eyes are assigned nobility and rulership, while people with dark eyes are given only penury and slavery. Characters within this universe grapple with the complexity of bias and structural oppression based on inborn characteristics and strive to right their own destinies within the society while also working (some of them) to subvert or destroy it. Sanderson also takes a hard look at why the attitude often called “reverse racism” is a natural outgrowth of this kind of oppression, and not at all equal to the violence and economic disparity created by actual racism.

What’s the lesson? Your D&D-loving little nephew might be swallowing a constant diet of Tolkienesque racism and questionable YouTube videos. Why not suggest a sword-and-sorcery series that might get him thinking about institutionalized oppression at a tender age? The seed of the idea might take root so that the next time his dad starts badmouthing Kaepernick, the kid might think of his fantasy heroes and think no, that’s not quite right. Then slip him books by Tochi Onyebuchi and Nnedi Okarafor.


Battlestar Galactica: “Razor”

In this television film portion of the reimagined series, Admiral Helena Cain is in command of the Pegasus and in a relationship with Gina Inviere, who is secretly a copy of the Cylon known as Six. When Cain realizes she’s been sleeping with the enemy, she orders her former partner brutally interrogated and tortured for information. This action is motivated by terror: the fleet is under siege and the human colonists have only just begun to realize that the Cylons can pass as humans. Terror makes us into our worst selves, and Admiral Cain is no exception.

What’s the lesson? Is there a woman in your family who defends her racism by invoking her fear? Does she agree with torture, with draconian immigration policies, with police brutality or bathroom bills by pleading her fragile womanhood and the fear it brings? Challenge her neoliberalism by reminding her that Admiral Cain got nothing for her racist reactionism but another hurt woman. Ask her if women beaten by police or raped by border patrol are part of her feminism. Fear didn’t save Admiral Cain. Fear is the mind-killer.


All of Harry Potter

These books are entirely about the isolation and self-hatred that breeds violence. They’re about blood quantum and absurd arguments on purity. They’re about terror taking over the government to imprison and hurt and kill the most vulnerable people among us in order to serve a regime of tyranny and cruelty.

What’s the lesson? If all else fails, this blunt and belabored parody of conservatism run amok remains an unsubtle example of what doing the right thing looks like.  

Yes, this is fighting dirty and it does not address the root causes of racism. It is time to fight dirty, in a thousand battles, for small concessions and minor epiphanies. That’s the resistance. It’s not blowing up the Death Star on one great day. It’s standing up to Storm Troopers on every corner. It’s accepting that the Cylon on the other side of the dinner table was created by the same people who created you, and reminding them that even though we share blood we will not accept their aggressive rhetoric or violence as we build a new world. It’s fighting the Death Eaters while keeping a real close eye on those rich kids in Slytherin. There is still good in them. Help them find it.