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How to Manage Caste Stress and Family Conflict During The Holidays: A Guide

The holidays are a time for family when most people value fellowship, revisit their traditions and focus on the importance of helping others. However, some holidays also bring traditions that malign indigenous communities and/or raise challenges of managing relationships and conflict. This is especially the case if family members are casteist, racist, or religiously intolerant.

We know that holidays, while filled with family and fun, are also critical times to address settler colonialism, caste, as well as racial and religious tension. There are a lot of dangerous hidden beliefs in jokes and casual statements that often leave folks frozen from action and assessing their ability to change harmful dynamics. South Asians around the world are transforming their families and committing to caste abolition one conversation at a time, and you can too.  The following guide offers helpful strategies to plan for these challenges. With each strategy, be aware to prioritize your well-being and safety. As we prioritize well being and safety we ask, how do we approach these situations with courage and take care of ourselves while also creating an opportunity for dialogue and learning?

We begin by taking a few steps to get us grounded and mindfully aware in order to assist in regulating our nervous system to allow for more resilience to stress. Here we focus on four steps to prepare us for implementing holiday strategies: Mindful awareness, grounding, conducting a safety check and setting intentions.

Step One: Mindful Awareness

When we are mindful we are more fully present in the moment, aware of where we are and what we are doing. Practice a short mindfulness meditation to build up this skill before the holiday to calm and be aware of your nervous system. First, set a clear intention for the mindfulness practice. Our intentions set the tone for our practice. An intention is something we would like to really make happen. You can write down your intentions and then read them over before you go into your mindfulness meditation. Next, find a comfortable posture position and bring awareness to your breath. Here, keep an awareness of the sensations in your body and breath. Practice this short mindfulness meditation as much as you can before the holiday so that when you are confronted with a stressful family situation you can more easily pause within, breath mindfully, check in with your body, and ask– what your body is sharing with you? How are you feeling?

Step Two: Grounding

Grounding refers to our ability to experience ourselves as embodied. Embodiment is the practice of attending to our sensations. Having an awareness of our bodies serves as a guide to help us feel more in charge of our lives. Embodied awareness offers a foundation for empathy, allows us to make healthy decisions and offers helpful feedback about our relationships with others (Source Dr. Arielle Schwartz). Grounding helps to center and anchor yourself to the present moment, strengthens your resilience and helps to reclaim a sense of safety. Through grounding you can sense your body, notice tension patterns and calm your nervous system. Some grounding techniques include:

  • Focusing on breathing
  • Running cold water over your hands, then switching to warm water
  • Tensing parts of your body then relaxing them
  • Standing with your feet on the earth and tuning in to how you feel
  • Grounding into the senses such as hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, and smelling. Here you can try to:
    • Name five things you see
    • Name four things you hear
    • Name three things you can touch
    • Name two things you can smell
    • Take one deep slow breath

Step Three: Conduct a Safety Check

After grounding yourself, do a safety check. Consider how volatile your family members are and if there are violent consequences if you continue. These consequences might not just be on the day of the holiday but also if they could continue after the event. Remember your safety and well-being come first. Please prioritize your safety and well being by asking yourself:

  • Am I emotionally resilient to engage in productive conflict at this time?
  • Is my family in an active abusive dynamic?
  • Do I have the support I need if the situation does not go in the way I anticipate?

Step Four: Set Intentions

Next set your intentions for your conversations and interventions. Being intentional can help you to be clear about your goals and provide boundaries for your interventions. You can write these intentions down and revisit them before the holidays. As you set your intentions, consider the following: 1) Are you looking to inform your family of a different perspective, change their perspective, or encourage them to pursue different actions? 2) What issues might your family move on quickly, and what are topics that will take time to approach or navigate?  Finally,  3) Set a scope. Remember, it’s okay to start small and build up in order to make sustainable and significant change.

Strategies for the Holidays

Now that we have taken the above four steps, we can begin to think about strategies for caste stress and family conflict during the holidays. Please remember that with each strategy, be aware to prioritize your well-being and safety first.

Strategy One: Be Direct. 

Confrontations are never easy. If your family member uses a slur in front of you, request they not use such epithets in your presence. Do so in a calm, firm voice. Make your request short and then move on. The goal is letting them know their comments make you uncomfortable.

Strategy Two: Ask for Help.

What if you find a family member is intimidating because they are an in-law, an elder, or fits into another category you believe warrants respect? Here we can ask for help. Find a relative or a family friend you feel more comfortable with and request they accompany you to confront your casteist, racists, or religiously intolerant family member. You can try and let your relative(s) know that you love and appreciate them (if that’s true) but find their views hurtful. Alternatively, if your family member has made remarks you consider insensitive, you can ask your parent or other family member to speak with him about his behavior if they are open to support you.

If no one else in your family will serve as an ally, consider taking a less direct approach to confronting your relative(s). One such approach is to write a brief letter or email informing them that you find their comments harmful and such comments are not ok. You can also let them know that they should refrain from such remarks in the future.

Strategy Three: Try Outside Influences and Long Term Steps

You probably won’t open your relatives’ eyes about caste, race, or faith by arguing with them about the issue at the dinner table, but you can take various long term steps to influence them. Some steps include, organizing a family trip to a museum with a social justice focus or having a movie night at your house to screen films about caste, racial, and religious inequity or ones that depict marginalized groups in a positive light. Another long term strategy is to start a family book club and select anti-caste, anti-racist, and interfaith literature to read or to introduce them to artists from marginalized backgrounds to expand their heart connections to communities across caste, race, and faith faultlines.

Strategy Four: Don’t Argue.

Avoid getting into a back-and-forth with your relative(s) about their views. Stick to the following script: I find your comments hurtful. Please don’t make these remarks in front of me again. Arguing with your relative(s) aren’t  likely going  to change their views. The family member may be defensive and you may get reactive. In such instances try to set conversation boundaries and prepare de-escalation tactics. These can include focusing on family traditions that are safe and fun or suggesting alternative topics. Remember to focus on having mindful awareness, staying grounded, being anchored, and calm.  Revisit your written intentions if they will provide you support.

Strategy Five: Set Boundaries.

In some instances, you may have to set strong boundaries with your relative(s). For example, if you have children you will not want them to hear your family member’s ignorant and caste oppressive comments.  Gauge the safety and the situation and if relatives make caste and religious bigoted remarks in your children’s presence, you have the right to remove yourself and your children from such an environment. You can communicate the reason why you are setting such boundaries.

If your relatives routinely make such comments, let them know that you will skip family gatherings with them altogether. This is especially important if you’re in an intercaste, interracial, or interfaith relationship and have children who will feel targeted by your family members’ comments.

We hope this guide will help you find safe openings where possible to move your families to more just and caste equitable practices!