As December creeps in, ringing it’s Jingle Bells with the promise of the end of 2020, there is a special brand of anxiousness that arrives with it, staking claim on my worries on the run-up to Christmas – Family.
I’m not talking about the inevitable “still no ring?”, “are you sure you want ANOTHER mince pie?”, “isn’t it time you had a baby?” (although these questions carry their own type of dread); but the festive casual racism that invades family conversations around December 25th? If like me, you find yourself in a mixed or interracial relationship, you might be aware of or even feeling this same apprehension – especially after a year that has brought so much more of Britain’s troubled relationship with its own racism to light. This year’s iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement arguably reached further into the public consciousness than ever before, so much so that even the Mail and Express-reading relations designed to address it.
Having had many a conversation in DMs, comments, and on WhatsApp this year with family and friends who have missed the point entirely (shout-out to anyone who dared to type the words “I believe all lives matter” to me – hope you’re having fun out there in blocked-town), I am especially tired at the close of 2020, so when I think back to the missteps of previous years and asked people I know for their own experiences (perhaps because there is strength in numbers), I wonder if I have the capacity for a 2020 Christmas.
Take Christmas 2018 for example, when a member of my friend Beth’s boyfriend’s family confidently referred to her as “half-caste”, a term I had not heard used in well over a decade (not since we studied the John Agard poem in school and it made its way into the classroom dialect).
Armed with the strength of 3 Christmas-sized gin & tonics, Beth corrected the indignant in-law to the surprise of a silent dinner table of averted eyes, suddenly engrossed in the bubbles in their prosecco. She explained that there was no way this language belonged anywhere and made a mental note to take them off the card list for next year.
Then there’s Christmas 2019 when Annie reminded her sister-in-law that her grandparents were from Nevis, not Jamaica. “Well, they’re the same aren’t they?” she smirked. “No,” Annie and her partner said at once, the turkey suddenly even more dry in her throat.
In December 2017, Steven’s first meeting with his girlfriend’s aunt left him almost choking on a mince pie when she exclaimed how “excited” she was for “some mixed-race babies”. “What will their hair be like?” she mused loudly, prompting Steven to duck into the kitchen before she inevitably reached for the top of his head.
So during the season of joy and peace, when 1 in 10 UK couples identify as intercultural, why do family gatherings involve people putting their foot in their mouth with their pigs in blankets? Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, these run-ins have a way of stripping the holidays of their *sparkle*, so I haven’t quite decided whether or not to emerge from my quarantine cave along with Michael Buble and green sequins and crushed velvet during the festive period. I wonder if it would maybe be easier this year to continue hibernating with low-stakes TV shows on Netflix and a freezer full of beige food, safe in the knowledge that at least when I’m re-watching the 2nd Season of Queer Eye for the 15th time, there are no surprises (other than how difficult it is to recreate a JVN-level hair flip).
But then, these millions of awkward encounters, tiny conversations and firm corrections are part of the work that this year has shown still needs doing. Who, if everyone at the table stays silent, is going to remind Linda that her language has aged about as well as her light-up bauble earrings? Or that Uncle Dave can’t say that, not “as a joke”, because we’re not laughing? No, it’s not the job of POC to do this work at all, but I do want to see it being done – if only to make sure that we didn’t go through the “listening and learning” and black squares this year for it to have not changed anything.
So instead, this Christmas especially, let’s all be wary. Not just of the virus that threatens our safety, but of the ignorance and prejudices that must be challenged, also for our safety. When you hear the diminishment of POC with terms that make you uncomfortable, when you witness the fetishisation of Black people, it is time to stand up and be heard. Too often, the words disintegrate in people’s mouths like over-boiled sprouts, but don’t let them. “That’s inappropriate”, “that makes me uncomfortable”, “please don’t use that term” are there whenever you might need them, so use them as liberally as you would gravy, and pour them all over Christmas dinner this year.