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Ms. Opinionated: My Husband's Family Likes to Ignore My Family.

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Welcome to Ms. Opinionated, our weekly advice column dealing with questions of life, love, feminism, and pop culture. Submit your anonymous questions here. This week, Sydette Harry responds to a reader whose husband's family seems to be giving her the cold shoulder. 

Dear Ms. Opinionated,

I'm stuck between the rock and the hard place. My partner and I recently married but we've been together for seven years now. I'm from a country in South America and he's from the US. His family has been very nice to me but it hasn't been easy. My relatives visited us and my brother-in-law and his wife literally act as if my folks were not present in the room. They barely say hi (and it's because we initiate it) and don't even try to be nice. Yesterday, my cousin (who was visiting) was invited over to my mother-in-law’s house for Easter. When we got there, my mother-in-law was super nice but this two sat the entire afternoon without saying ONE single word to my cousin, not even an attempt to start a conversation or exchange a few words (have I pointed out my cousin speaks English?). It’s like she was invisible and they were too important or too "shy" to even try, or too ignorant to think their attitude could hurt anyone's feeling. 

I find this incredibly offensive and potentially racist. Ignoring a person harms as much as a racist slur, and we know for a fact that non-US people of color have been rendered invisible because nobody thinks they are worth of listening. Curiously, when you talk to my brother-in-law and his wife, they say they support progressive causes and are against racism too.  The woman also says she has a hard time "opening up” to other people. In my bachelorette party, for example, she sat next to my latina friends (who speak some English) and she didn't say a word to them which led my latina friends to think this woman was kind of racist.

I've been here for a few years and I find the costum of not saying hi when someone gets in the room really disturbing, but I have to come understand is "just a cultural difference". However, how is it that I have to understand this culture and other people cannot apply some basic cultural sensitivity I know my partner's voice is more audible than mine and because of this I'm not sure how to say what I think/feel to these people. If I do, it will harm them? If I do, will the rest of the family understand? It is not nice to see how some Americans blatantly ignore my folks.

best,

Cold Shoulder

Hey Love,

I noticed that of the four letters I’ve answered for this column so far, two have been about a silent or passive partners' lack of response to racist members of a social circle or family. So I’m gonna use this opportunity to state: In a perfect world, your partner should be anti-racist and anti-oppression and kind to all birds. The abuse of friends and the silence of family toward your loved ones would galvanize them into supportive, loving action. In a basic world, if your partners don’t care about the racist implications of these actions, they should at least care about the fact that the actions bother you. Supporting your ethnic/cultural heritage and wanting you to be treated well because of it—not despite it—is a BARE MINIMUM.

If someone ignores or claims to care about you “despite” your culture? That’s bad. It’s a commitment to ignoring you. So, yeah, you need to talk to your partner post-haste.

Being ignored is a very WASPY kind of disrespect. It’s meant to recall days of when only important people COULD speak and everyone else was treated like furniture. That’s why it’s used so often. It’s designed to be cruel but make any reaction to it seem outsized.

First, figure out how you feel. That is the most important thing. Do you really NEED this relationship? Can you survive basic cordialness? Do they HAVE to be invited to all your gatherings? Outside of keeping the peace arrangements, can you excise these rude people from your life? It may not be in-your-face feminist confrontation, but this is your family now and you don’t have to prove ANYTHING at the expense of your peace of mind.

You might not ever be able to change their political beliefs, but try to get the people you love to the bare minimum of understanding that they need to respect your heritage. Their political affiliation matters at the ballot. Otherwise, you are dealing with feelings and emotions and the right voting pedigree doesn’t change how their rudeness makes your family and friends feel uncomfortable. Some of the rudest, meanest people I know are liberals. Some of the kindest have had views that make my toes curl.

There is a chance from what little you’ve given me that it may not be racism. You haven't talked too much about your relationship with them—I’m wondering if this is partially them rejecting you and everyone connected to you. That makes them assholes, but not necessarily racist. Whatever it is, you need to not spend your time around them. You aren’t required to tolerate bad behavior. You can choose to if you need to and that’s a valid survival mechanism, but your letter indicates that you are bearing a lot of weight and dealing with many slights that not only hurt.

This isn’t about feminism or the big fight. It’s about you being uncomfortable and feeling unseen. Demand it. Coming from a gregarious, outgoing, community-based culture, having to deny this part of yourself can make you shrivel up inside. You deserve to be heard and happy and to be around folks who want that

Let me know how it goes,

Sydette

Do you have a question for advice columnists Andi ZeislerSydette Harry, or Nicole GeorgesSend it in! All questions will remain anonymous. Read previous installments of our feminist advice column


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Comments

1 comment has been made. Post a comment.

How about talking to them?

When I read this response, I thought that it might be jumping to conclusions a bit too fast - in fact, not to conclusions, but also to consequences. And that bothered me.

Yes, the relatives' behavior is extremely problematic, and yes, it sends a clear message to Carolina that she can't, and definitely shouldn't, ignore. But to tell her that the best idea is to ignore her in-laws, and to shove them out of her life? The parents and siblings of her partner? The people who are obviously important in their lives (why else do these situations occur so often, if not because family is important)? The people who may be the first go-to people to babysit Carolina's children one day? And your suggestion is to break up the family and to make the rift official?

Let me be clear: I think that this "I'm just going to ignore that they're family" by you, Sydette, may be just as irresponsible as "I'm just going to ignore that they're family" by the in-laws. You don't go ahead and declare war on your in-laws like that. Who can tell what you destroy? What you do is you declare battle. That, at least, can be over one day. And when battle does not work, and does not work again, and does not work again, you can still rethink declaring war by pushing them out of your life for good.... but never ever before you've tried EVERYTHING else, and certainly not before your partner understands that it is a necessary step.

I agree that the partner should be talked to first. There should be absolute clarity about how inacceptable the behavior of his family is, and that Carolina expects - demands! - his loyalty in this respect. Then I would suggest that the partner talks to his family in unambiguous terms, and makes Carolina's concerns his own in the eyes of his family. It's best if he presents it as his own observation and his own indignation, and leaves her out of it as much as possible. Fundamental family criticism tends to be taken best from the actual member of the family, not the in-law. The in-law can easily be constructed as an intruder and a peacebreaker, and we don't want Carolina in that antagonized position as the hysterical daughter-in-law who wants to alienate the poor boy from his family (don't we, Sydette?). Her husband needs to take a stand against his family, and needs to take this entire matter seriously enough to speak to his family in the name of both partners. He needs to be talked to, and I'd really take my time until he has absolutely understood what's going on and what his own responsibility is. I think he's perhaps not aware of how difficult a position Carolina is actually in.

If that doesn't work, Carolina should talk to her mother-in-law or whoever else is head of the clan (someone always is) and make sure they know how she feels about them ignoring her own family. I'd not overload it with theory or interpretation of their actions, but simply say that it's unacceptable and that a change is expected, and that you won't accept it anymore. And when it happens anyway the next time, drag the respective in-law in the kitchen and call it out to them then and there. Don't create a scene, but after that warning shot towards the clan head, never again let them get away with it. Always mention it to them on the sidelines of the situation itself, and make them see you're pissed. Shame them discreetly. Groom them. They'll come around, and if they do, you can actually think about letting them babysit your children one day.

If not, you can still take Sydette's advice.