Racism in the Family

My last post ended with a harsh statement, and I feel I’d better elaborate. Calling someone a racist is often thought of as the end, an accusation of a terrible crime bringing to mind the KKK, nooses and lynchmobs. But the cold hard truth is that we’ve all internalized racism in some way or another. This doesn’t make it okay, but it should at least make it easier to recognize. Often (particularly for white people) we enact racism in a way that we can’t even see, and because we can’t see it, we are immediately offended when it is pointed out to us. A person of color, however, doesn’t need to have racism pointed out to them: they experience it directly and perhaps on a day-to-day basis. Rather than write an essay on white privilege, let me take a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fabulous book, “Americanah” to try and convey what I’m talking about:

When you go shopping alone at a nice store, do you worry that you will be followed or harassed? 

When you turn on mainstream TV or open a mainstream newspaper, do you expect to find mostly people of another race?

Do you worry that your children will not have books and school materials that are about people of their own race?

(For more information, read the book. Or just hit up google. Go to the library. Even better, hop on tumblr and search tags like “racism” and “white privilege.” Hell, ask a black friend to be completely honest with you about their feelings on racism. The least you can do is listen without taking it so personally, because let’s face it— you’ve probably used them as a shield in some verbal “I’m not racist, I have a black friend”-type defense.)

More about all this social justice/racism/privilege stuff later.

What I’m saying is, it’s unfortunately normal to internalize a little bit of racism or sexism. Like useless and potentially toxic materials we take in when we eat, these things are there in most of the media we observe. Oftentimes, perhaps most times, carrying that shit with us is unintentional.

But my grandfather is not that type of racist.

To steal a quote from my boyfriend, my grandfather is probably the type of racist who might hear a statement like, “I’m not a racist, but I sure do wish all those black people would go back to Africa,” and nod in agreement. I get the feeling that, like Abraham Lincoln, my grandfather would have freed the slaves and then tried to get them the hell out of here. My grandfather is the type of racist who admires the way black people worship in church, the way black musicians have that extra rhythm, who once saw a black boy being made fun of in school and felt bad but did nothing, who thinks that intelligent black people are somehow the exception. He is the type of racist who has no problem talking and working with any person of color…he just doesn’t want them in his family.

I might be a little resentful.

Let me explain.

I’ve always been close to my grandparents— I’ve been very lucky when it comes to my family. My college graduation and my grandmother’s death weren’t far apart, and during that year I mentioned in my first blogpost, when I was working minimum wage jobs and trying to plan out my life, my grandfather and I sort of became anchors to each other. We had lunch weekly, we went to visit out-of-state family members together, we reminisced. I learned so much from him, about my family, about history, about his political views (always so very different from my own). Most importantly, I learned that people on very different planes of opinion can still love and respect each other, and maybe even find common ground. Our relationship reminded me of an India.Arie song: “If old people talked to young people, we’d be better people all around.”

My grandfather and I had done so much for each other’s perspectives. I hoped this situation, my relationship, would be something to widen his perspective on race. My grandfather loved and respected me, had always encouraged me in my studies and my travels, had scolded me for not becoming a doctor so that I could take care of him, and had never once remotely implied that I should just find a rich husband. There was also the fact that, as far as men go, my man is pretty great. Handsome, funny, smart, well-traveled. Not just good with people, but genuinely interested in them and what they have to say. My grandfather would need a pretty big wall of denial to think otherwise.

But what would drive it home, I thought, was that my boyfriend has the same hometown as my grandfather, the same name as my grandfather’s brother, and served in the military just as my grandfather and most of his family did.

So I told my grandfather about my boyfriend, his name and where he was from.

“He’s not black, is he?” my grandfather asked. I couldn’t believe it.

“Yes,” I said.

“I don’t know if I like that,” he said. “I always thought a cardinal shouldn’t be with a bluejay.”

On a bird, differently colored feathers may denote different species. But that isn’t so on a human being. I’ve seen the insides of many different human bodies, and the ingredients are much the same— fat, blood, muscle. Bone if you go deep enough. I told this to my grandfather. It didn’t seem to drive the point home.

“You talked about bones?” my little brother said later. “You should have told him that we’re all white on the inside.”

My boyfriend and I laughed. But my grandpa’s thinking bothered me for multiple reasons. Some were based on principles. Others were purely selfish— didn’t he love me? Why couldn’t I change his mind?

I did end up bringing my man to Memorial Day. He and my grandfather shook hands, chatted, and were friendly.

This is awesome! I thought.

Weeks later, my grandfather took me aside and said, “You should be with a nice white businessman. Your friend should be with one of those beautiful dark girls from Ebony magazine.”

I’m not sure why a businessman, but otherwise, I followed my grandfather’s logic pretty well: my “friend” and I didn’t match, and so while he would never say an unkind word to my man’s face, he would always silently disapprove of his relationship with me.

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