A Relational-Cultural Approach to Thanksgiving

All around the country, people are steeling themselves for Thanksgiving dinner. They are planning their talking points, researching their statistics, learning their lines. They are bracing themselves for arguments and counterattacks, many of which will amount to nothing more than an exercise in extreme frustration. Our country is the most polarized it has been since our Civil War, and we’re all going to dinner together.

At UUCB in Indiana, the Rainbow Rights Task Force has hosted a booth at the county fair for the last couple of years. We approached the youth of PRISM—an inclusive social group celebrating all sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions—and asked them what they would tell their teachers and the other adults in their lives if they had the chance. We took their answers, their words, and put them on display at the Monroe County Fair.

I want to point out that we did not expect the youth to go to the fair, a place they would not be safe. We listened to them, then took their wishes with us. It was a way of making space and amplifying marginalized voices, essential ally work.

The philosophy guiding our work at the fair is Relational-Cultural Theory. RCT emerged from the feminist movement and quickly embraced its intersectionality, pulling in sexual and gender minorities and people of color. The founders saw that traditional psychotherapy models reflected more of the patriarchy than it did their own experiences, so they built their own.

The thing about RCT that sets it apart is its insistence on looking at the impact of power-over dynamics in relationships. Not that unequal power is inherently bad—it can be a necessary organizing tool—but when the system put into place is there for the purpose of preserving that power-over, oppression exists. RCT pushes back.

Using RCT for social justice means we have to redefine success. Instead of winning an argument, success becomes the creation of a safe context for vulnerability and connection. Authentic connection doesn’t hinge on agreement, defeating the dominant party, or forcing a change of opinion. It happens when others hear and understand your experience. The end result isn’t consensus or persuasion; it’s a mutual exchange where each person is open to the ideas of the other and willing to be moved.

We create these systems through the basic, transformational act of listening. We listen as if the other person’s truth holds as much value as our own, as if we might be wrong, and most importantly, as if love matters. RCT moves us toward reducing strategies of disconnection and isolation, through love, listening and risking exposing our own authentic selves, with the knowledge that together, in mutuality, we are better.

Rather than being strong, we urge each other to be vulnerable and open.

One piece of our fair work is the pull between wanting to empower marginalized populations, and knowing that most of our harassment comes from a population that has traditionally been in a power-over position; white, cisgender males.

Perhaps a logical first step is persuading the dominant group to acquiesce, to share their power. However, if the goal of conversation is to connect first, rather than decide who’s right and who’s wrong, everything shifts. We move from struggling over whose narrative dominates to collaborative conflict.

Maureen Walker writes:

“To engage in collaborative conflict is to relinquish any claim on the illusion of power over another being. When the focus is on mutual empowerment, there is little room for the instant gratification of tit-for-tat interactions. In other words, engaging in relational conflict requires relearning how to breathe, to reflect and to connect with feeling-thoughts before attempting to influence the other person. It also means, and this is crucial, allowing oneself to be moved or influenced by the other.”

We leave our arguments behind, presenting ourselves as available for understanding and listening. We use the tools RCT gives us. If and when a connection is built, injustice has less space to thrive.

What I’m asking you to do is hard. I’m asking you to keep the emotional and the cognitive systems online while having tough conversations. Political debate engages the cognitive; fighting engages the emotional — but keeping them both going creates a kind of authenticity that slows things down and makes room for change. If you don’t slow down, the work becomes more difficult.

On our second to last day at the fair, I went in alone. I’d just finished setting up when some teens who had yelled profanities at me the night before appeared in my space. They elbowed each other and moved up against my chair, blocking me from leaving, while reading our informational signs to each other and laughing. I couldn’t take my eyes off their t-shirts, emblazoned with my son’s high school mascot. I imagined them bumping into him in the hallway and my heart broke.

My emotional system was fully online. My cognitive, not so much. Had it been, I might have tried to say the one true thing of that moment, something true for me, that creates space for movement in the relationship. To find your one true thing, pause. You may need to ask the other person for a moment, or simply take a deep breath. Between stimulus and reaction is strength. Find it in a breath.

I did not breathe. I did not find one true thing. Even though Maureen Walker points out that it doesn’t have to be perfect, it can just be true, like, “we don’t understand each other, and that’s so frustrating.” I was scared. I tried my teacher voice; asked if they had questions and they laughed, continued reading, using exaggerated feminine voices.

I switched to principal. “Time for you to leave,” They began talking about how much they’d enjoy going in a women’s restroom, leaned over to me, asking if they could go with me.

I didn’t find a less-than-perfect one true thing. I slipped straight into defensive sarcasm. I was hoping to somehow win the conversation, and thus safety for my son. They left, scattering when a friendly (to me) face showed up walking toward us, but we remained stuck in adversarial positions. Trapped in fear. Not my finest moment.

It could have stopped me. I could have become more scared of reaching out. I could have quit going to the fair. It didn’t because I had a relational cushion to catch my fall, so to speak. Volunteers from the fair gathered for food and debriefing when it was done, and, thanks to my minister’s patience and persistence, I was able to process that afternoon, refill my own cup, gain strength from my own connections.

To do this hard work, you need that relational cushion. You create it through seeking sanctuary like the kind you can find here, like the kind in our debriefing group, or with your friends and family. You lean on your support system. I’ve leaned in all this last week, testing it out, about enough to feel like I’m free falling, and I’m here to tell you, it works. So when we do this work, we do it leaning on each other. We know how to support each other! Gaining relational strength from our connection.

Why talk about the fair in November? Two Wednesdays ago, the day after the Election, it felt like I got dropped off at the county fair and was told no one would be picking me up for at least four years.

I’m not alone. Last week, while doing high school outreach in surrounding counties, a local advocacy worker experienced a huge increase in homophobic slurs since the election, more than they could handle. Last week, they wrote:

Drove straight to a hair salon in Bloomington and asked for the most feminine cut they could give me (with the 1cm of hair I have to work with). The stylist was a gay man living in that same County. He understood. I breathed and felt a little less alone.

This is a scary place. It’s terrifying. Because it’s so painful, this level of anxiety and fear is not sustainable, and it’s tempting to disconnect, to smooth things over, pretend things are normal, to “just see what happens.”

One of the key concepts in RCT is the Central Relational Paradox. It holds that we long to be in connection so much that we engage in strategies of disconnection; we hide aspects of ourselves to fit expectations and wishes of the other person. We limit our connection in order to preserve the possibility of relating. These strategies sometimes involve picking fights, but another commonly used strategy is just being nice. I’ve heard it called “pass the bean dip,” a way to politely ignore troublesome conversation. On social media, it might mean avoiding that one cousin’s page for the election season.

The problem with strategies of disconnection, be they pass the bean dip or storming out, is they don’t foster growth. They don’t make room for change. An alternative, another way to make meaning out of this truly terrifying situation is to use RCT to guide your discussions, to hang on to your true self, being vulnerable and authentic. So, this Thanksgiving, let’s stay at the table and listen. Find your relational cushion, because it’s what’s going to let you do this hard work. Breathe. Keep looking for the one true thing to create space for change.

We can’t argue, persuade or yell our way through this. We’re going to have to love our way through it.

I’d like to close with a quote from one of the RCT founding scholars, (and a personal hero of mine) Judith Jordan:

When we have the courage to move beyond certainty and invulnerability we enter the world of learning, curiosity, and, dare I say, love. We risk the hope of becoming part of something larger, transcending the illusion of the separate self. We can enjoy the spaciousness of real humility or we can become paralyzed with shame, a sense of personal inadequacy. . . . To be present in life . . . we must dwell in uncertainty. In order to do this, we must tolerate our own and the other person’s vulnerability and we must create safe contexts and systems in which this can happen.