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damage control

The question

I love my boyfriend deeply, but lately I've been finding it increasingly difficult to spend time with his father, who makes racist, homophobic and sexist comments during visits. His comments are extreme and insulting; recently, we went to a restaurant and were seated near a Middle Eastern family. When they left, he couldn't stop talking about how he hates Muslims. I am often the only one who speaks up and tells him his comments are inappropriate. I have also told him that his sexist comments are personally offensive, but it doesn't change anything. I've even told him his behaviour will likely damage his relationship with his future grandchildren. This has led to arguments with my boyfriend, who doesn't want to get in between our arguments. I understand his need to defend his father, but I feel frustrated that he seems to tolerate his behaviour. What do I do?

The answer

What you've done so far is good: on point and right on the money, I'd say.

If you read the literature on this sort of thing (how to handle racist/sexist in-laws, relatives and friends), the consensus tends to be: 1) be direct, 2) set consequences.

And you've done both! That's the good news. You told your father-in-law off to his face and implied it might have an impact on access to his as-yet-unborn grandchildren.

You'd think especially that latter stricture would bring him up short. But people are funny with their opinions. They'll dig in their heels, entrench themselves, tick off points on their fingers, even unto the detriment or destruction of friendships, marriages and careers.

Why? What is this mania to opine, to air prejudices, when one is not, in fact, a paid pundit? In day-to-day social interaction, if someone doesn't agree with my point of view on a particular topic, I say: "Fine." I mean, it's not as if the Pentagon is calling for my opinion on North Korea, or Steven Spielberg is on the line asking for my ruling on a plot point of his latest movie. (Yet.)

But your campaign does not seem to have much effect on your father-in-law so far.

So it's time to either a) let it go (grit your teeth and allow your father-in-law rant and rave unchecked), or b) take it up a notch.

Me, I've always been a fan of the latter-type course of action.

Start with your boyfriend. I assume he shares your opinion vis-à-vis your father-in-law's fulminations. So why is he being so meek and mild like a little mouse?

You mentioned grandchildren. Wouldn't you like the father of those little rug-rats to have the cojones to stand up to his old man if the cause seems right?

(Hint: the answer is yes.)

He should step up, say something to his benighted old man: "Dad, you have to cease and desist with these sweeping and ignorant generalizations about women and people of various races and religions. You're bothering my girlfriend and, frankly, that bothers me."

Meanwhile, maybe encourage other friends and family members to intervene. You know the old adage "If five people tell you you're drunk, maybe you should lie down?" Maybe, if enough people around him came up to him and said his opinions were ill-informed, ill-conceived and dinosauriffic, it'd be more like: "If five people tell you your opinions are racist and retrograde, maybe you should pipe down."

Now, it's worth bearing in mind this might be, in part, a generational thing. As a species, we've evolved since the neural pathways were first established in the grey matter lodged in your father's cranial cavity.

Evolved too far, it sometimes seems – like when an airline hastily apologizes and pulls an ad saying "we treat you like precious cargo, not cattle" after animal-rights activists claim it's "insulting" to cows. How are cows going to get insulted by an ad? They can't even read!

So gut-check yourself that you're not being too politically correct and precious a "snowflake" before you double-down in the way I'm advising.

But it doesn't sound as if you are. So I'd keep up your campaign. Think of it as "education." And remember, if you can convince him to stand down from his bully pulpit, maybe pontificate less and listen more (some people, as they age, start to talk at rather than to people, not a good look for anyone) you'll not only be doing him a favour, by making him a more socially acceptable entity, but also everyone else in earshot.

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