I have been committed to staying in touch with my conservative-leaning extended family and folks I went to school with in rural Indiana, because how are we ever going to break down political differences if we cannot speak to each other?
But then, the day after the election, one cousin posted a long statement supporting Trump on Facebook. My uncle commented in support of the post. And I found a personal breaking point. I decided in that moment that I did not need to be the self-appointed ambassador for my beliefs after all.
That night, I unfriended four people from my mother’s side of the family. But the next day, I was very torn about my decision. I had a lot of internal debates.
Can I Be a Good Ally without Betraying One Community or Manipulating Another?
I listened to an episode of the Of Course I’m Not Okay podcast about navigating difficult political conversations with Dr. Tania Israel, psychologist and author of Beyond Your Bubble: Dialogue Across Political Lines. Dr. Israel explained why she believes white allies, in particular, should consider maintaining tough relationships:
I see a lot of non-Black people, especially white people on Facebook sort of proudly saying, ‘I am unfriending my racist relatives!’ Or ‘if you don’t agree with me on this, unfriend me.’ And every time I see that, I think, ‘Oh my gosh, you have such an opportunity as a white person to access other white people.’ And here you have an opportunity that people of color don’t have and you’re not using it. And so I feel like there’s something in terms of being an ally where you can actually go and have those difficult conversations.
In hearing this, at first I felt guilty of not doing my job as an ally. But then, I started questioning this strategy.
Yes, maintaining relationships with others who believe differently allows for the possibility of changing their mind. But if you’re to the point of unfriending someone or cutting them out of your life, was there much value to that relationship to begin with? So if that’s the sole purpose of keeping someone in your life, isn’t that manipulative?
And on the flip side, I wondered if maintaining relationships with those who dismiss the oppression of others is a betrayal of those being oppressed. By keeping in contact with conservative friends and family that votes in a way that dismisses police brutality, takes away the rights of LGBTQ+ people and immigrants, and so on, am I being complicit in that harm?
And can supporting these politicians be seen as anything other than being willfully ignorant or consciously bigoted?
Facing My Own Hurt First
When I spoke to my therapist about all of this, I realized something important. I’ve been viewing all of this through the lens of an ally. But I’m not just an ally. I’m queer and nonbinary, and although I rarely think about how legislation affects me personally, it does.
I fear the backlash of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and the rise of hate crimes against my community. I’m also at high risk for a second round of cervical cancer, and I struggle to find adequate reproductive health coverage in a facility I feel comfortable going to.
Lama Rod Owens writes in his book Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger, “If we don’t wrestle with anger, we never get to the heartbreak. And if we don’t get to the heartbreak, we don’t get to the healing.”
Following both the 2016 and 2020 elections, I felt angry and disappointed, but this anger hid a broken heart. And before I could be an ally or decide what to do about these relationships, I had to face this hurt.
I’m not particularly close to my extended family and very few people from high school and college. My life went in a direction that I don’t think many can relate to.
At a friend’s wedding two summers ago, I found myself incredibly sad that, because I was not following this path (marriage, kids, etc), I have nothing to bond over or celebrate with my extended family or people I grew up with.
I like pictures of my college friends’ or cousins’ kids on Facebook and am happy for them. But that often seems to be the extent of our connection. In fact, even then, it often feels one-sided. When seen this way, I’m not in relationship with any of these people. Not really.
Instead, it’s primarily the folks I’ve met in the polyamory, queer and social justice communities who celebrate successes in my writing career with me, or new spiritual insights I’ve discovered, or sexy adventures I’ve undertaken.
So how could I possibly begin to have political conversations with people who I’m not able to be myself around? Perhaps doing so is like jumping on a moving train, and the solution is to find a better boarding point.
The Path of Curiosity and Vulnerability
There are people I want to at least attempt to build a relationship with that have different political, religious, and cultural perspectives than me. And I want to know how to do this effectively.
First, I need to face two of my original objections.
1) Are these relationships a betrayal to folks whose perspectives they are hurting?
Quite simply, and with the help of my therapist, I realized that love is not a justification for someone’s actions. Now, it might weaken my love for them, but it doesn’t have to kill it. Because someone’s actions or views are not the sum of who they are.
2) Should I assume someone is a bigot based on their political affiliations?
Okay, this is more complicated. I do strongly believe that there is no justification for voting for politicians or legislation that actively works to harm others. And I believe that we need to continue to urgently fight against the leaders, laws, and culture that are allowing for the violence toward and oppression of specific groups of people.
But I also can’t allow myself to simply condemn anyone who has a different perspective. For one, because people’s perspectives tend to be much more nuanced than we give them credit for.
As Dr. Israel explained in a phone interview, “We tend to see ourselves as having very logical well-founded reasons for the views that we hold. And we think that other people are irrational and immoral and unkind … So we tend to see people who we consider to be on the other side as being more extreme than they actually are.”
In other words, I can’t just assume to understand what someone believes or why. So where does that leave me?
This Isn’t Really About Facebook
While Dr. Israel does believe that unfriending people over political differences is not a useful strategy as an ally, she’s not advocating debating on Facebook, either. Because debate is not the same thing as dialogue.
“Dialogue, in contrast, is about sharing ideas, but it goes deeper than that. Itʼs about being able to understand ideas and the people who hold them—and being able to make a connection with these people,” she writes in Beyond Your Bubble.
The motivation behind this dialogue should be a desire to understand one another as opposed to changing each other’s minds. Otherwise, yes. It is manipulative. It’s also just not effective.
In my own journey, I’ve found that the anger and hurt I feel about someone’s political choices isn’t just about these choices, it’s also about the rift that’s happened between us. I can’t talk to these people in a genuine way because we’re not really connected.
I think there’s some profound truth here: If I want to be a good ally, I need real relationships with those I’m trying to support and those I’m trying to educate.
And Facebook often presents the illusion of a relationship when there’s not one.
But for me, to have a true relationship with real dialogue means being vulnerable. It means explaining the hurt I feel and the fear that they won’t accept me as I am or the fear that they don’t care how their actions hurt me.
What I want for myself is the discernment to know when it’s worthwhile to attempt this vulnerability and the tools to know how to take care of myself in the process.
I believe that I will try to start a conversation with the side of the family that I unfriended. But I’ll take it slowly. I’ll offer a piece of myself and see if they accept it. And if they don’t, I’ll feel comfortable moving on. I’m grateful for all the people in my life who support me as I am and who are fighting for the same things I’m fighting for: radical love that leads to equity for all.
Note: Jera also wrote about maintaining relationships with significant others with political differences. Read it here: https://refactor2021.rebelliousmagazine.com/just-the-tip-maintaining-relationships-with-political-differences.