Every 2 weeks, my mom and I have the same conversation.
My mom says, “Linda didn’t always used to be like this; it’s scary how much she’s been radicalized.”
The names are interchangeable; she could be talking about Sean, Carol, or Isabella, but the message is always the same: my family hasn’t always been complicit. We were the good white folks who never discussed politics until 5 years ago, when a man came to infect our kin with a new hate. “Our family isn’t recognizable. They joined a cult.” Mom, you’re right that they have been indoctrinated, but both of us have been indoctrinated too. Racism is a problem that has been festering in our family for generations, not just 5 years. The hatred we see today is centuries old, and it will keep happening unless we learn how to hold ourselves and our families accountable. As I talk to my mom about how disappointed she is in our family today, I think about all of the moments that should have started this conversation years ago.
. . .
I’m 8 years old and I just got back from a mock election at my school. I proudly proclaim that, after much debate, I “voted” that people should not be forced to learn English to live in the United States. I’m scolded by my uncle and I shrink, ashamed I made the wrong choice…
I’m 10 years old and my aunt rolls her eyes at me when I say I want to enroll in Spanish class next year…
I’m 12 years old and my aunt is passionately telling me that all Asian people should be put away in camps…
I’m 14 years old and my uncle tells me he’s not racist, but he would be unhappy if a Black family moved in next door because the property values would drop…
I’m 16 years old and my mom is laughing as she repeats the story about how her sister thought my Dad was Mexican and she had to “assure” everyone he was white. It takes me too long to realize how fucked up that story is…
I’m 18 years old and watching a historical drama with my grandma. She says some slaves were treated well…
I’m 20 years old and visiting my cousin, who is only a few years older than I am. There is a confederate flag hanging tall in the front yard…
I’m 26 years old and I tell my mom a story from when I’m 8, when I’m 10, when I’m 12, when I’m 14, when I’m 16, when I’m 18 and when I’m 20.
Her response is always the same: “I don’t remember that.”
My mom says “Don’t give your grandma too much of a hard time; it’s not her fault. She doesn’t know a lot about politics. Your cousin and your aunt have been influencing her the past 4 years.”
She’s talking about the same grandma who raised my aunt before my aunt raised my cousin. The same grandma who helped raise me. This is the advice my mom gives me a few days before grandma is expected to call.
I’m 26 years old and I’m asking my grandma why she supports him, wondering why overt, violent racism wasn’t a deal breaker. I sent several messages begging for this conversation; we both know we’re here because I asked her to stop talking to me until we have this call. Despite this, her voice is cheerful, as if we are having a normal Sunday chat. We discuss the weather for 20 minutes. When I finally bring it up, her tone of voice changes, as if I just asked her about a dirty secret.
My grandma says, “That doesn’t matter now — he’s out of office.”
“It matters because none of his ideas were original; a lot of people in power share his viewpoints, and we have the ability to decide who has power in the future. Please tell me why.”
Within 15 minutes, I’m slapped in the face with my own denial. My grandma seldom acknowledges the world outside of babysitting, doctors visits, old memories and humid, Southern days. So I was expecting to hear about the economy. Instead I’m given a brutal reminder that silence doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist, it just means it’s growing unchecked.
As the conversation continues, my grandma quotes the news she listens to and says, “When Mexico sends over their people, they send over their worst.”
The best part of my day is when my boyfriend comes home from work and gives me a hug. He’s Mexican and I feel naive for believing my grandma was oblivious to the fact that his family was called the worst on national TV. She knew and she agreed.
“How do you think my partner’s family felt when they heard the president say that?”
My grandma says, “You’re taking my words out of context, clearly I don’t mean your boyfriend. You haven’t even let me meet him! No one means good law-abiding Mexicans.”
“I’m asking about the exact words that were said out loud. How do you think he would feel if he heard what you just told me?”
Instead of answering the question, she talks about how much she loves my biracial, Mexican cousin. All I can think about is how my cousin grew up in white-centered environment that never fully acknowledged her. As her family, we’ve failed her. If my boyfriend and I have kids, I don’t want to fail them too.
Grandma says “You shouldn’t be mad at me. I can vote for who I want, say what I want and it doesn’t impact you.”
I’m 8 years old and my parents tell me they don’t discuss politics at the dinner table.
I’m 10 years old and no one says anything as my aunt rolls her eyes at a child who wants to learn about other cultures.
I’m 12 years old and I’m telling my aunt about the books I read on the Holocaust. I tell her what she is saying about Asian people sounds like what they used to say about Jewish people. That night, my parents sat me down for the talk: my aunt is the way she is and I need to not pick fights with her. Family is important and we need to keep the peace.
I’m 14 years old and no one tells my uncle that people are more important than property.
I’m 16 years old and my parents are disappointed in me again because I told my aunt to stop saying Muslims are evil. My mom says I’m choosing politics over family and asks me if it’s worth it. My dad reminds me that my cousin used to be my best friend and now we don’t speak anymore.
I’m 18 and I’m sitting in uncomfortable silence as I watch a historical drama with my grandma.
I’m tired of lectures, I’m tired of being the kill joy . . . I just want family peace. In doing so, I also maintain a culture of violence.
I’m 26 and my grandma is telling me that her beliefs are personal; I shouldn’t even be asking about them. She tells me not to cry because we have a difference in opinion. I won’t ask my partner to shake hands with someone who treats his life as a trivial difference in opinion. When I hang up the phone, I break down sobbing because I know this means the woman who helped raise me can never meet the love of my life. It shouldn’t be like this.
My grandma was a paper girl when the United States forced Japanese families into internment camps. She hated seeing pictures of kids, her age, being locked up. She was never allowed to express her sadness because doing so would be questioning the adults in her life. Many of my ancestors considered those kids to be monsters, and my great-grandparents saw their lives as nothing more than political topics… and we don’t discuss politics at the dinner table. We are all entitled to our opinion. We need to respect that and not try to change people… even if that opinion leads to the killing of Black and brown people. Unchecked, the dehumanization and violence beating in the background of my grandma’s childhood was normalized, and that’s how the 10-year-old girl who mourned her peers’ freedom became the 86-year-old woman that cheered for a man who tear gassed children. Then, she taught her son to overlook racism for the sake of comfort, and then my parents taught me.
So when her granddaughter asked her why, it went against everything we were told about the meaning of respect. Her last words to me were that she loves me, but that I’m looking for a problem where it doesn’t exist. I’m still struggling. Her voice is in most of my early memories; she took care of me so my mom could go to nursing school. She’s my third parent. It hurts to keep her at a distance, but I haven’t called because I don’t know how to move forward with someone who doesn’t want to listen. I don’t want to — the expectation of silence costs too much. White families tell each other that this silence is necessary to keep peace within our homes, but it just makes our relationships fragile, and prevents us from welcoming new family members. We never learn how to work through problems together, so we stay on the shallow side and shut down the moment injustice can’t be ignored.
For every white person reading this, do you honestly believe this fragility doesn’t hurt us too? I already lost two aunts, an uncle and several cousins because none of them believed their actions could hurt me as a bisexual women. We couldn’t talk it out and fix the damage because white supremacy culture trained them not to listen to the canary — they lost a family member too. I know so many other white people who can’t talk to their own families.
How much more are we going to lose?
Every two weeks, I have the same conversation with my mom.
My mom says, “It didn’t always used to be like this, people have gotten so heartless — it feels like no one cares about human life anymore. I just wish we could go back to normal. Until then, I’m going to avoid talking about politics.”
Mom, it has always been like this. When white people decide to overlook human suffering for the sake of a politician they like, it isn’t abnormal — It’s an extension of our upbringing. We can’t change our ugly history, but we can decide how we act in the future. I still stalk my grandma’s
Facebook page in the hopes of finding some sign that she’ll be willing to listen and start making changes so her home is safe for my boyfriend and I. Sometimes, I look up Sean, Sally, Isabella and everyone else’s pages too; I haven’t forgotten our nights together, laughing as we threw each other in the pool. When I remember who I was back then, I know everyone is capable of growing. One day, I hope to see they’re ready to undo the damage with me.
Regardless of what my family chooses, we can still end the generational cycle together. We can learn how to be honest with each other. We can learn to listen. I can help you reflect on how your actions impact the world around you, and you can help me. We can learn together. We can choose to create a world that is genuinely kind and not ingenuine politeness. But in order to do that, we have to learn how to hold ourselves and each other accountable. White folks need to start talking to their families about racism so that we can interrupt it within our own communities. Otherwise, it’ll always be like this.