Deconstructing Oppression: One Turkey (or Tofurkey) Dinner at a Time

family dinnerFor many of us the dreaded family dinner is a battle. Like holding your breathe under water you suppress the beliefs and opinions that we have endlessly pondered over, that we have researched, and that we have discussed. Pushing them down into a deep crevasse, we sandwich these notions that we hold so highly somewhere between our large intestine and our right kidney; never to be digested and left to wither like a preserved bog man and maybe excavated during your daughter's wedding 25 to 30 years down the road. In my experience family dinners, especially those celebrating colonial holidays such as Thanksgiving, follow a fairly reliable performance that goes something like this:

Opening Scene - Said family is sitting around a table heaped with food (including a number of items that I cannot consume). Around the table we go expressing those things we are thankful for, which generally has to do with the stuffing (I heard it was delicious). The gratitude train reaches me and I'm still stumped, but respond with:

Me: (almost awkwardly long pause and an attempt to stumble through something that resembles gratitude about friends and family, which I am grateful for, and perhaps even the stuffing, which smells good...) “I seem to have an emotional blockage about this word gratitude, I don't know if I can answer this.”

One member of family: “Wait, you can do that?”

Me: “But I would like to acknowledge the land that we are on...”

Another member of the family: (Cutting me off in what was certainly was an attempt to change the subject before I got to something “touchy”) “Yes, we live in a beautiful country, Canada, and a have a wonderful house and I am so thankful for that.”

Me: “Actually, I was hoping to acknowledge that we are on the traditional unceeded lands of the Coast Salish Peoples. Land that was stolen and no treaties have been signed. I think that it is especially important to acknowledge this on Thanksgiving due to the colonial history of this holiday.”

All Family: (silently staring)

Me: (talking a bit faster and starting to sweat) “I participated in this anti-oppression workshop on Monday in class and happen to have a handout on the Coast Salish People and their traditional territories. It even has a map. Would you like to see?”

All Family: (silently staring)

Me: (talking even faster and dabbing my forehead with a napkin) “We also mapped out our privilege. That might be a fun thing to do after dinner. You know, some families play board games, we can deconstruct systems of oppression, hahaha ha haaa h...”

speak truthThis is generally the point where shit hits the fan (sometimes literally) and my entire family spends the next 2 to 4 hours yelling, interrupting, debating, coercing, questioning, and denying while my 4 year old niece, having been at the ready with her wooden spoon, facilitates the conversation, by trying to pass around a talking stick (bless her heart). In the end our stomachs ache from cramming too much food too quickly, our heads hurt from the general volume at the table, and our brains are fried from thinking around and around in circles of sexism, racism, prison systems, the rights of the disabled, gender roles, and finally, exhausted, finishing right back where we started with the genocide of the First Nations in Canada. The table is a mess, since I have been ripping my napkin into tiny bits and my sisters have polished off 3 bottles of wine and are now cracking open the tequila. We are sweaty, drunk, angry, exhausted, and currently don't really like each other, but we made it through.

I take a breathe and a sip of water. After a few seconds of stillness it hits me; I have an answer for the big G question. I am grateful that my family went through this process with me. Deconstructing oppression is exhausting and leaves everyone feeling uncomfortable. My family could have ignored me, patronized me or denied me the right to express myself (I realize that they also could have listened intently, seen my point of view and changed the way they interact with the world, but who are we kidding). Instead, my family engaged in the conversation and they did this for me.

As I become more aware of systematic oppression I find myself becoming incredibly sensitive to it. The slightest hint of sexism and I'm crying; classism makes me want to tear my hair out and don't even get me started on heterosexism. I realize more and more how vital emotional safety is to me how important it is to it is to be surrounded by loving, caring individuals. Individuals that are critical of the society and systems we find ourselves part of. Individuals that realize how their judgements of me not shaving my armpits or eating out of a dumpster effect me.

Fostering these relationships takes time and oh so much work. Unfortunately my family, like many,  does not get together in a healing circle and share their feelings, so is seems the only available venue is the dinner table. So next time you wreck Thanksgiving dinner by addressing the migrant workers that are enslaved to grow the peach cobbler your eating or the horrendous conditions that your turkey had to live in before being brutally slaughtered, scrap the anger and the guilt. Instead remind yourself to be grateful that you can have these discussions. That your family is taking the baby steps towards deconstructing oppression whether they realize it or not.