Featured, Pop Culture, Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

Why I Don’t Talk About Race With My White Family

raceI 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.

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is pretty fly (and gorgeous) for a light guy. He used to ship his frito to Tito in the District, but shipping prices increased so he moved there to save money. He refuses to eat cocaine chicken. When he's not saving humanity with his words or making music with his mouth, you can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking her fine liquors. Most importantly, he believes the children are our future. You can hit him on his hitter at panamadjackson@gmail.com.

  • LadyIbaka

    Am I mistaken, isn’t today Friday. Such a heavy topic written by an HBCU grad, where they do that at? Imma sip on sprite as the PWI’s tackle this. #GodblessAmerrucah

    • BreezyX2

      Right?!?! What is we suppose tuh dew fa Friday sheeits and giggles?!?!

      • Agatha Guilluame

        Hush.

        Good post PJ.

        • panamajackson

          Thank you.

      • Wonder how Peej got a Uncle Jean-Jacques. LOL

        • panamajackson

          Seriously, my French families names are all stereotypical french names.

          • IcePrincess

            Welp, and let some folks tell it, you have a stereotypical black name. So yall even!

      • LadyIbaka

        Well, if you is HBCU turn the phakk up, if you is PWI, thoughtificate on deez!

    • Val

      Hiya, AM!

      *waves*

      • LadyIbaka

        Val, darling!!! :) *waving*!!

    • panamajackson

      Hey, sometimes a brotha got thoughts on his mind that know no weekday.

      • T.Q. Fuego

        Wish you would’ve wrote this earlier in the week so the conversation could’ve gone further though.

  • ShyGuyMike

    “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 deal with this on a daily basis working at a military hospital…. surrounded by a sea of white people.

    • He who thinks before he speaks

      I understand completely. People underestimate that military “out of sight, out of mind” mindset. That’s why sexual assaults were happening like crazy, the VA was effing everyone over, and TBIs and PTSD, were ignored for so long. It’s easy to say a problem doesn’t exist when you don’t acknowledge it.

  • He who thinks before he speaks

    I don’t understand how a white woman can disparage her cousin’s feelings when women have been dealing with similar unacknowledged discrimination for so long. It makes me grateful for the people I’ve met, who have stepped outside of themselves and asks my opinion on such matters. It’s even more disparaging when blacks (Don Lemon) says the same thing, and allows it to be used as rhetoric to trivialize the whole black experience in America.

    • Val

      ” It’s even more disparaging when blacks (Don Lemon) says the same thing,
      and allows it to be used as rhetoric to trivialize the whole black
      experience in America.”

      So true. I think racist Whites must keep a transcript with them of everything Don Lemon, Charles Barkley and others of their ilk say to spout at opportune moments.

  • I, for one, don’t mind such Friday heaviness as my mind is in a weird place now. Still, I could see where you’re coming from. It’s hard for me to completely tell my mom off in general, and race ain’t got a thing to do about it. I could doubly imagine an issue telling off your White mama about it. I don’t even know where to go with that one other than being here for you bruh.

    The one thing I got is the whole immigrant swag thing. One of the multitude of things you come across in New York is White people with immigration issues for real. Racism protects them (and ironically enough Black illegal immigrants, since La Migra only checks for the Latins and Asians), but every so often, a few random Irish or Russian immigrants gets paraded in front of the cameras for not getting their papers right. LOL

    • LOL! Several years ago while in college, I met a guy whose parents did not renew his paperwork as child and was technically an illegal immigrant. He was Polish and I went to college in the Midwest, I doubt they’ll find him.

  • NomadaNare

    I think this is relevant:
    http://www.whitenessproject.org/

    It’s a website where some independent film makers interviewed white people about their candid opinions on race. Some mean well and some obviously don’t. Almost all of them are confused though, because if they believed the truth they’d have to implicate themselves and that would require a complete internal reordering of their internal worlds in order to continue to consider themselves good people.

    • LeeLee

      “because if they believed the truth they’d have to implicate themselves”

      Exactly! #willfullyblind

    • He who thinks before he speaks

      Great link

    • Thanks for the link. There’s also the fact that some people suck because people can suck, period. Still, excellent points about what it means to be both White and “good people”.

    • He who thinks before he speaks

      Listening to the people speak on the link you provided, there is something that none of these people seem to realize. Black people have only been on a level playing field, legally speaking, for the past 50 years (40 if you count redlining). That’s about two or less generations after dozens under discrimination or slavery. It took most immigrants from Europe about three before they were accepted socially, and they looked similar in comparison. How about we get some time to catch up? All affirmative action, and similar programs, are for is to speed up the process. I don’t understand how they can hate on that.

    • Val

      Wasn’t that White People Project supposed to be a documentary?

      • NomadaNare

        Probably. I don’t know. I do know that these white people are crazy.

      • LMNOP

        I think it was or will be on PBS

    • Freebird

      ive only watched two and i am blown away. thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for posting. Very interesting insight.

    • LMNOP

      You can be white and still think white supremacy is wrong and a really immoral and dangerous way to organize our society. I don’t understand why more white people don’t feel this way. And I spend a lot of time thinking about this.

  • Agatha Guilluame

    Listen. So like…sometimes even our own black people don’t see it for us. They often tell us racism doesn’t exist and it’s in fact, our own actions that makes us a target. So like, do y’all think that Cosby thinks he’s being vilified by all these white folks because he wears his corduroys saggy?

    • pls

      Chile, bill thought he was sitting at the table with them but they are reminding him he’s just their entertainment

    • Medium Meech

      Bill Cosby is basically Clayton Bigsby with too much bitchassdedness to to stand by his convictions when s#it got real.

      • TheVilleintheA

        Care to elaborate on that?

  • LeeLee

    Dope post.

    • panamajackson

      Thank you.

  • Rachmo

    Ah multicultural families. Me and mixed bae are both from families with a lot of different races up in the mix. and race is discussed wildly differently depending on what part of the family is around. My cousins may discuss race with me but they’re not doing it with their White grandparents. Bae’s bro may discuss it with us but he’s not talking about it with his White fiancee’s family. Bae will talk to his parents loudly about the Native American reservation plight but have to politely break it down to my parents. I’ve never talked to my mixed cousins who look more Puerto Rican about the perils of being Black bc feh whet? And so on and so on.

    This was a great post.

    • panamajackson

      These nuances are the more interesting part of this mixed race nation we’ve become.

      • Rachmo

        Bae loved your post as well. He said something along of the lines of his “mixed brethren” and so forth.

        • panamajackson

          Tell my bredren I said “yolo”

  • Val

    Just reading comments from random White people on various websites about race is incredibly frustrating sometimes. In fact I’ve recently begun to not read those sort of comments anymore. It was pointless frustration. So I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to hear that kind of stuff from a White person who is related to you or has a significant place in your life.

    P.S. Thanks for sharing. Great post.

    • panamajackson

      *tips hat*

    • Melissa

      I have no idea what the hell those people are thinking. Like, seriously, I have no friggin’ idea. I feel like turning to other white people sometimes and yelling, “Are you a black man or woman in America? No? Then shut the f*ck up and listen to people who actually are.”

  • TeeChantel

    Yes to all of this. Great post, PJ. This reminds me of the twin brothers…one was white and the other black. I remember hearing a lot about their different experiences growing up.

    http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/sep/24/twins-black-white

    • panamajackson

      thank you kindly. i remember hearing/reading about that situation.

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