Why I Don’t Talk About Race With My White Family
I came across this very interesting piece on Gawker the other day about a Black man (he’s mixed, but ya know, he’s Black) talking about a discussion he got into about race with his white cousin who was pretty much of the mindset that racism was more or less a figment of Black imagination and that any Black person struggling for, well, anything was because of their own choices.
After the Staten Island verdict, a close photographer friend, who is also black, and I decided to proceed with a project we’d talked about since summer. We launched a Tumblr to compile the oral histories and portraits of as wide a variety of black men as possible. Our goal is simply to do whatever little we can to complicate what is still far too often a tragically basic understanding of what it means to be black and male in America. We made a call for submissions on Facebook and, as would be expected of something like this, received plenty of positive feedback and encouragement from friends of all colors. It all seemed rather innocuous.
But then my 20-year-old white cousin, with whom I’ve only ever really bantered and exchanged pleasantries, inserted herself into the thread, angered and challenging the worthiness of our desire even to tell these stories about black men. “Will you be doing one with white people?” she asked. “Maybe a long time ago the life of a black man would have been considerably different at no fault of their own … but now I believe if the life of a black man is any different than any other person’s life it is their choice and their doing. Your skin no longer defines who you are unless you let it.”
The story talks about how frustrated the ensuing conversation was with his white cousin – who defriended him on Facebook – and how he realized at some point that there are some battles you just can’t win in life. It’s a truly compelling read.
Oh, and the coup de grace, this same cousin realized the error in her thinking when somebody offended her dog. Her motherfucking dog:
Having been reminded of that, I’d imagined I’d end this piece on a pessimistic note. But as I began to write, my cousin messaged me an apology. She explained that in her work for a housing management company she’d had to tell a potential client, a dog owner, about the landlord’s no-pit bull policy. The client responded by disparaging the breed, assuring my cousin she would never have such a terrible and dangerous animal as that. My cousin told me this saddened her because she herself owns and loves pit bulls and felt the woman had stereotyped them based on nothing more than misinformation and illegitimate statistics…
I do not hate white people. I do however hate his cousin.
This conversation and frustration he spoke of however, reminded me of a few things: 1) an entire half of my family (more like a third considering my life circumstances) is white; and 2) I’ve only ever had any contentious conversation with one person in my white family – my mother.
Now, this second point is for a few reasons as well. My white family is from France; they’re immigrants. Not a single one of my aunts or uncles was born in these here United States of America. Also, I don’t see or speak to them very much. This isn’t on purpose, it’s all love, but life and what not. I speak to and still exchange written letters with my grandmother though. Funny enough, one of my uncles was deported – that immigrant life is real, yo – and he is now married and my grandmother told me this by informing me that my (stereotypical name swag coming in 5…4…3…2…1…) Uncle Jean-Jacques had married a nice brown girl. Now the good thing about having a family that is somewhat removed is that we don’t talk politics. Ever. Plus, they’re French. Their perspectives are very different.
But my mother and I, oh, we have had some epic battles. My mother has asked me why I’m “so Black” (my sister once referred to me as and told my mother that I’m the Blackest person she knows), why I always live in Black neighborhoods and only date Black women. The dating Black women one I’ll give her a pass on. I imagine that any mother might like her son to date somebody that reminds her of, well, her. The others though, my mother has effectively at times yelled reverse racism because of the “dirty looks” she’s gotten from people as she’d stand outside my home and smoke, etc. Also, growing up, my mother always liked to tell me about the racism she encountered for having Black children and how people treated her. Now, I don’t doubt any of this, times they were a lot different in the early 80s.
I bring this up because there are two very different dynamics that occur in conversations with my mother about race (and I’m not disparaging my mother so if you say something crazy about my momma we gon’ fight, I’m just using her a real life proxy for why discussing racial issues with other-race family members gets complicated): 1) either racism isn’t as bad as I make it out to be (we used to argue about this one a lot); or 2) Black people are just as racist as white people. The vast majority of our conversations fell into either of those categories. I can’t speak to Black people being “racist” towards her. She says she had these experiences. I’m not about to call my mama a lie. I do know that she did experience some CRAZY shit when she was pregnant with me in Panama. Even my father will attest to that and it did all seem racialized in nature because she was having a Black baby. So again, pass.
But the first one about racism not being as bad as I make it out to be. This is the point of so much frustration for so many Black people when it comes to talking to white people. I learned this lesson in grad school with some of the OUTWARDLY ridiculous things I heard in class and that were said to my face, but also in conversations with my mother who just couldn’t believe things could happen the way that I saw them. Because she wasn’t racist she felt it hard to believe that others were racist. Facts be damned. I also like to point out that she is a white French woman who has lived in the hood and has two colored children. She’s kind of not the problem. BUT…the mentality still persists when I have to explain to her that its harder for Black people to get loans, jobs, etc. Even using facts and history usually falls upon deaf ears. It used to frustrate me to high hell that I could effectively lay out a statistically sound case using pictures, dolls, books, the news, and personal anecdotes, and it would still be written off as a figment of my imagination or an over-exaggeration.
I’ve had that play out at work as well and I work with numbers people. My very job is number crunching and social analysis. I work with people who do this DAILY and the disbelief that things are as bad as many Black people make them out still exists. Now, I’ve learned to stop fighting these battles. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t shoot the horse for being obtuse. Since I have most of these grating conversations with my mother I just quit fighting those battles. It’s not that there’s no point, but I just can’t get mad enough to not speak to my mama and I’m sure those arguments made her mad as well. Plus, she birthed me. I mean, I’m a Black dude, y’all know how we feel about our mothers. Interestingly, I have quite a few cousins who I honestly don’t want to know how they feel about some things. I follow some of them on Facebook but I rarely read their posts. It could go either way and I’d rather just let it ride.
I ran into one of my cousins – randomly as fuck – in DC at a restaurant early last year. We hadn’t seen each other in at least 15 years. She now lives in NYC after having finished grad school up there and works in Brooklyn. She is my youngest cousin and the one who was going to make it out and she did. After we hugged for like 10 minutes and regaled at how great it was to so randomly run into one another she told me how I was her motivation to be better and do well in school and make it out of Ypsilanti, Michigan. That warmed my heart. I know she’s great as a person. But everybody has their opinions. Aside from the blood coursing through our bodies, I have ZERO clue what her politics are. None. Despite growing up outside of Detroit, most of my family has lived pretty white lives. I don’t know if this is a detriment or not in shaping their attitudes, but I do know that I’m not in a rush to know. I like loving my family. And many of the events of the last half of 2014 have brought out a lot of those opinions; we’ve all seen and heard things we can’t unsee or unhear. That was frustrating for many of us.
Now imagine it coming from your family at a gathering about the love.
Luckily I don’t know if it would, but I’m no rush to find out.