Conversations about race are strenuous, delicate. They require courage, listening, and sometimes just shutting the fuck up. But these are the days, more than ever, when those exchanges need to be initiated.
It is incredibly hard to call out family and friends that you feel might be racist. We all want to belong, especially to those who we consider a part of our birthright. We worry about losing those we love. At some point, we need to be concerned that our friends and neighbors are also losing those they love, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sexuality. Eventually, that loss always circles back around.
In my family, my godmother regularly used the word nigger at family functions. She would toss it out at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, as we sat around my mother’s table, everyone quietly allowing the slur to penetrate their ears without an utterance of objection. It was something she had learned from her own father, my great-grandfather, whom I remember to be a mean, miserable man who hated anyone whom did reflect his own comfort. Growing up, I didn’t know many people of color. My mother had a few diverse colleagues and friends, but otherwise, Pittsburgh was racially segregated (it could be argued that hasn’t changed) and we didn't venture outside of our comfort zones.
It wasn’t until after the birth of my eldest children, when I was teaching African American students documentary film, and I ventured into parts of the city I never explored, that I really had interactions with those with different lives, experiences, and skin than me. Those moments changed me in endless ways, and expanded my own perceptions of those who were diverse from myself. Eventually, my circle consisted of a mostly divergent group. I became part owner in a business where my partners were mixed race. I spent most of my time socializing in the ‘black’ sections of the city, and found a treasure trove of intelligent, talented, and beautiful humans who were artists, politicians, and musicians. It was an amazing time filled with exceptional people.
When I met my second husband, a tall and proud African American, my parents struggled. They counseled me on ‘cultural’ difference, which was a polite way of saying that we were too different in their eyes. My first husband, a Mexican national, had challenged their way of thinking, and the relationship had been tumultuous for several reasons, including some clashes of expectation related to heritage. They took the same worry and fear and transposed it onto this relationship. From day one it was an uphill battle.
After we had been dating awhile, I realized I could no longer sit in permissive quiet when my aunt was using language that was hurtful toward someone I loved, so I wrote her a letter. A really, long letter, outlining how I felt about her use of the word, and how deeply it offended me. My aunt had been very generous to me at various moments in time, treating me like a daughter, especially since she bore no children of her own. Because of this, my mother was upset when I sent it to her, as if munificence could wash away the ill that her language created when voiced. My aunt was pissed too, and called me to let me know. We had a quasi-confrontation where she primarily vented her anger, and then we didn’t talk for a period of time.
It was tender to feel I might have lost the love of my godmother. But it felt even worse to allow her to continue to use a word that disparaged someone else that I loved. When I became pregnant, acutely aware that I was about to become the mother of a mixed-race child, I felt even more anchored in the feeling that what I had done was right. After the birth, my aunt gradually melted, and eventually, slowly, we repaired our relationship. She fell in love with my son, and became very fond of my former husband. Children have such a spectacular ability to promote healing, and bring people into the light. She never used the term again in our presence.
My aunt passed away at the beginning of the summer. I felt fortunate we saw her in person when my sister married a few months earlier. She hugged and loved on my children, so thrilled to see them in person, and not just via the endless photos that were scattered across the wall of her room. They have taught her, and others in my family, how to expand their hearts and re-evaluate how they view those who differ from themselves. You cannot love just pieces of a person, but must accept them whole, even the parts that may make you feel uncomfortable, or foreign.
I’m begging you to have those difficult conversations. They’ll probably be painful, and scary. You may lose someone along the way, you may not. But approach them with the intention of love for others. Know that standing up for others who are being oppressed is the only right side in this world. Reticence is passive agreement. Silence is complicity.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...