Little pitchers have big ears

I began to reply to Susanna’s question on Anti-Racist Parent, but realized that my response was too long for the comment box, so I thought I would share my thoughts about how I deal with racist family members, and how that affects both myself and my children, here instead.

Imagine this scenario:

The dining room table is beautifully decorated with the best dishes. Candlelight reflects off crystal and glass on the table and mirrors the twinkly lights on the tree, festooned with home-made ornaments, tinsel and strings of popcorn and cranberries. A fire crackles cozily and family members, with full bellies and surrounded by their just-opened presents, sit in front of the fire to enjoy each other’s company.

And then it happens. The discussion turns ugly. Grandma begins to talk about all the problems with the “Black folk” in her neighborhood. Grandpa talks about how he refuses to go to the “Jap” dentist in his small town, because he fought the "Japs" in WWII. Uncle talks about how all the “illegals” are taking over the jobs at the factory and he can’t understand why his company would allow those Muslims to take prayer breaks when he can’t take a Christian prayer break. Never mind that he has never asked for one. He thinks it’s wrong that the company manual is written in both English and Spanish. It just encourages more “illegals” in his town. Heads are nodding in sympathy. My mom relates how she can’t believe a co-worker called her on the carpet for using an inappropriate phrase at work, and says this Black co-worker is over-sensitive and she wasn’t racist. A relative who is a police officer says that Asians purposely change their names around to make it difficult to figure out what their names are. Or someone else will comment on how Indians have a genetic problem which is why they’re all drunks, or how Blacks are a more violent “race” of people. One year they went on and on about the problems of mixed-raced children; "mulattos" they said. Yes, they forgot that their grandchildren were also "mixed-race" until I reminded them.

And you, as their adopted child or grandchild or niece or nephew, and the only non-white person in the room, hear all of this.

When I reached my later teen years, and those first few years out of college, I began to dread the holidays and I couldn’t put a finger on why I would dislike one of my favorite times as a child.

It took years, and the birth of my daughter, to figure it out.

As a child, I had no awareness of race or politics. I was too busy playing and had no idea that while my siblings and cousins and I were running around with our new toys, the grown-ups were in the living room discussing politics and religion. But once I started to listen in to the conversation, and as I began on my own to develop an identity as a woman of color, it was devastating.

None of these verbal attacks on “the other” were ever directed at me. My uncle, who spews such vitriol over “illegals” in his town? He was my favorite relative, the one I used run to for my big bear hug and to play with his big, fluffy beard. My grandmother, who lived in a modern-day segregated town in the south? She was so proud of me and so excited when my parents decided to adopt me. I was her first grandchild. When she passed away, my grandfather told me I had always been extra-special to her. My parents truly think of me as one of them – in their eyes, white – which was why they never had a clue that all this talk about how other races (and other people of diversity) were problematic was hurtful to me.

I was over 30 before I’d had enough – enough outrage and enough strength – to confront my relatives, whom I loved, when they made these comments. Growing up hearing these kinds of conversations, I grew up with similar prejudices and beliefs. It took years of examining my own racism and trying to unlearn these beliefs before I could attempt to talk to my family about these issues. I tried to counter their statements through educating. I really tried to engage my family members without criticism. I never called them “racist.” I talked about stereotypes, about all the positive things people of color had contributed to our world. And still, they argued that they were right. I might be able to point out a few notable “exceptions” but they weren’t going to budge.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with my parents about how difficult it was for me to be the only non-white person at holiday family get-togethers when everyone is talking so negatively about non-white people. My mom’s response was that it was my responsibility to tell my relatives how I felt. When I pointed out that I do, and that I’d appreciate if she’d back me up, especially since this is affecting her grandchildren too, she said it wasn’t her place to say anything. If I had an issue with it, then it was my problem to address.

My daughter is thirteen now, and strongly identifies with her Korean American side. She is more in tune with racial politics than I was at her age, and as a result has picked up on the racist overtones of our holiday conversations. When her grandmother asked her to read a pre-dinner passage about the “first Thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and Indians” last month, she dutifully read, but afterwards remarked to me about how much she disliked having to do so. How do I respond to this? Through a lot of corrective action.

We talk about it, my kids and partner and I. About how the book that Grandma has doesn’t have the whole story about the Pilgrims. About white privilege. We talk about how the “immigrants” in the Thanksgiving “story” were the white colonists, and why they came to America. We compare how the Pilgrims behaved towards the First Nations people they encountered versus how the newer immigrants in this country are expected to behave.

It is especially important that my partner, who is white, models that kind of acknowledgement of white privilege, and to live on a daily basis what it means to be an ally to non-white and non-dominant populations. It is both the spoken and unspoken actions that teach our kids.

Families are supposed to be our sanctuary. Our soft landing. The safe place to come to when the burdens of the world come banging on the door. The people who have your back.

But what happens when your family isn’t that safe place? When they won’t protect you from the ugly things family or community members spew at you? One of my transracially adopted friends was told by his white father that "they [the parents] weren’t responsible for his racial problems." My parents also did not accept the racial identity responsibilites that comes with adopting a child of a different race or culture. The burden and responsibility of navigating our own families were placed on us, the children.

Children cannot be expected to have to bear the burden of being the rainbow bridge, the method through which families can personalize race and thus eliminate racism and prejudice. Sometimes that does happen – I have friends whose children have been the impetus for changing attitudes in families – but there is no guarantee that will happen, and it can’t happen if the parents walk away and make the child do all the work.

I can’t change my family, and because they are unaware of the white privilege they possess, that determines in their minds that they have the right to say whatever they want and it’s the offended person’s responsibility to leave, I’ve had to do just that. Leave.

My family celebrated the holidays this past week, since I’ll be out of town visiting the in-laws for Christmas this year. Not much has changed, despite my plea to my parents. So I had to employ a new technique this year. Whenever the conversation turned to “the outrage of gay marriage,” or “welfare moms [for them that means young, Black women] should be forced to get their tubes tied” or “those illegals,” I just stood up quietly and walked into the kitchen. Though nobody else noticed, my partner was always right behind me.

And my kids and partner and I will spend this week with our potluck gang, a diverse group of friends and their families who truly cover the spectrum in terms of ethnicities, cultures, sexual orientations, economics, gender, religion and family make-up.

We may not always be able to do much with the families we were given. But the families we “choose” – well, they are a blessing indeed.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

7 thoughts

  1. Sigh… I know that I will be walking a few feet in your shoes as I brace myself for the inevitable racially charged comments from FIL. It’s no fun. However, it’s so important to me that either LN does not know, at least for several years, how much ugliness her grandparents harbor OR they simply stop the ugliness around her. The fact that FIL would probably find the latter request to be unreasonable does not make the task any easier – I will just have to remove LN from earshot.
    Sending you a cyber hug to last until our lunch after the holidays – at least my problem are in-laws… my own have always been receptive to improving themselves as human beings.

  2. With my parents arriving tomorrow, I am hearing you loud and clear. I grew up in a farming community in Ohio and got rides home from school with lovely neighbors, who never failed to make comments like “notice how all them blacks drive white cars?”…I started walking away from conversations when I was about 15. I have given up with my father, and for me there is a real issue of weakness in my mother. As a teen, I never understood how she could not see what was wrong with the conversations, just sit there passively. It took until I was an adult to realize that she is not me and I, very thankfully, am not her.
    I had been assaulted once by my mother’s brother when I was 16. I never told anyone about it until I was visiting my parents as an adult. I was pregnant with my second son and my uncle stopped by to say hi. I could not bring myself to shake his hand and walked out of the house. My mother confronted me later and I explained that he had groped and kissed me and that I really didn’t ever want to see him again. I also expressed concern for my cousin and her friends. My mother said she was ‘sure’ that nothing had happened to anyone else. She also said that she would speak to him. I had no desire to deal with him after all those years, but was happy that she would. For one of the first times in my life she was taking care of me – I was not on my own with this. My uncle died nine years later, having never been confronted by my mother. There was just ‘never a good moment’. With this kind of passivity, even in protecting her daughter, how can I expect her to stand up to general racism and sexism? It’s hopeless and useless.
    So I will be getting my walking shoes ready this Christmas, too, and making sure my kids’ sneakers are also lined up in the hallway… sigh.

  3. You’ve got a lot more stamina than I do. Years ago, when I was married to a Jewish man, I had to learn for the first time to deal with anti-Semitic relatives at gatherings. Well, I never really did learn to deal with them. I just started seeing them for what they are and STOPPED dealing with them. Racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic attitudes don’t get cured, in my opinion. I told my father to screw off once he used the word kyke in front of me and referred to “Jew landlords” destroying the Bronx in front of my then husband. The next time I saw him, ten years later, he was in his coffin….not uttering a damn thing, anti-Semitic or otherwise. Same went for most of my mother’s side of the family. For them though, I don’t think I’ll even bother with the funeral.
    Not a one of them will ever have the opportunity to interact with me again or ever even lay an eye on my daughter. All I’d have to hear is the word “gook” (and I probably would once one of them got drunk enough), my temper would flare, and I’d have to at least make a decent attempt at killing the person.
    I spend my holidays with my in-laws. I have never ever ever heard a racial epithet out of any of their mouths. Never heard anything hateful. Never seen an attitude of them thinking they were better than someone else. I treasure them. We’d be very lonely people otherwise.
    Ok, my little personal rant is over. I’m glad you have your “potluck gang”. They sound like a real blessing.

  4. It’s hard for me to read about stuff like this… I’ve never had to deal with it at the center of my own family, but I can imagine how much it would hurt.

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