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

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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.

  • I understand why you don’t talk about race with your White family members.

    I used to stuggle with this for years. I grew up and lived in a predominately White neighborhood and went to predominately white schools K-12. As a result the majority of my friends were White. As we grew older and came into our own understanding of the world
    around us, there was a stark contrast in how we viewed things. I viewed the world as a decendent of slaves and someone whose grandparents were sharecroppers and parents lived through the Civil Rights Movement. They viewed the world as descendents of people who left trials in their homeland to come and find a better opportunity in America. When it came to controversial topics such as politics or race, I would feel like it was my duty to speak out whenever something was said that didn’t match my views.

    People are going to see the world through their personal expriences , the same way I do. It is tiring, and pointless to try to convince someone that there beliefs are wrong just because
    they don’t match mine. Some people will not understand it unless they experience it first-hand or see it. For this reason I no longer care to talk about politics or race in mixed company. If asked, I have no problem sharing my perspective but I will not be a spokesperson. However, I will say this, the best interracial conversation I’ve had on race was one on one and both parties made an agreement not to get offended.

  • pls

    i read the article and wasn’t even surprised it took her dog being discriminated against for it to almost click.

    anyone in 2015 who “can’t” understand, even after being told, how racism still exists is doing so on purpose. acknowledging institutionalized racism means acknowledging white privilege, and some folks aren’t able to accept that maybe being white HAS helped them in academia, in the work place, and just existing in day to day life. their entire “culture” is based off of being the best and having the most/biggest…learning that you probably acquired those things unfairly isn’t going to sit well.

    • Something about that perspective seems a touch off. Not because it’s wrong per se as much as it assumes only White people are so blind as to not “get it” with their advantages in life. Plus, there really isn’t no one White culture about being the best. Yeah, she’s dead wrong for having to be brought up in dog form the advantages she has. Just don’t get too cocky.

      • pls

        well I thought we were talking about white people, so my post didn’t really address other cultures. and it is my personal opinion that any culture consumed by capitalism is a product of white colonialism.

        • o_____0
          OK Player! Moving along…

  • I think it’s a culture thing, but not in the way people might initially think it is.

    American culture, specializes in cultural stripping. This is something I’ve come to notice in the past when I talk to Jews, Italians, Irish and even many Africans I deal with on the regular. I also began thinking about this when I saw a video link for “Househusbands of Lagos” on youtube, and also reading about some lesbi@n cults that have been developing in Nigerian universities over the last couple of years. This is unique to American culture, not Western culture, since American culture strips those who get accustomed to it of their customs, and creates in them individuals.

    This has positive and negative effects: the positive is that it creates a light in the minds of the young to question, challenge and perhaps even protest against the hypocrisies and contradictions, you cannot do that as a person fully immersed into a community, tribe, nation, culture etc, such things only last because they do not get challenged, and challenges are treated as taboos. The negative effects is massive divisions between young and old which exemplifies itself in politics, it creates radicalization in people who fear their culture is under attack, which is why in our age we see things like Bokoharam, Al Qaeda and the list goes on. There was a belief among some during the Cold War, that if America really wanted to destroy the Soviet Union, they should just fly planes over and drop millions of jeans and playboy magazines on the public, and the citizens would bring it down themselves.

    This is however, what makes black people, specifically African Americans unique. Black people over here, due to the unique circumstances of slavery and it’s derivatives have had to purposely create a culture, in a nation that specializes in culture stripping – an unprecedented attempt in human history. In the desire to build a culture, Black people have constantly had to fight against the force that is American culture not just to form an identity, but for the sake of staying alive. And this act of culture forming rotates mostly around racism, and uniting against it. This is hard for most people, in this country who have been made into individuals. To them racism is something an individual does to you; it’s a white cop beating up a black citizen; to a black person though, however, it’s far more than just that. It’s a force, a system, a culture-unto-itself that is aimed at delimiting your humanity, and preventing you from actually forming a culture, where you get to have self-respect and dignity.

    However, there is an irony to all this though, and it’s also at the core of the heavy backlash black people get from conservative groups, not just in America but world-wide, is that in the constant desire to create a culture, the result, once exported to other people who are not black is devastating. There has never been a better or more efficient form of cultural stripping than black culture, nothing better at creating individuals than black culture. For the black people in it, it acts as a form of unity, solidarity, family; for those outside of it, it creates individuals, who openly protest against their own culture and it’s stagnation, and no one is exempt from it. This is why even though many conservative-oriented people have the same goal as black people in America, they tend to be the most hateful and most mean-spirited towards them.

    When you take all of that into consideration, you realize that it’s hard for anyone not black, to fully understand what it means to be Black America.

    • Freebird

      one of the best things you’ve wrote here. well executed.

      you speak of the positive and negative effects. do you have any ideas on how to avoid the negative effects of culture?

      • Back when I was in boarding school in Nigeria, I remember there was a point in time, where all the kids just started sagging their pants, for no reason – there was barely any TV watching during those days, and when it was being watched it was the EPL soccer rather than MTV or Channel O (African music channel). No one talked about it, there was no movement, there weren’t any movies about it at the time: the kids just started sagging their uniforms, everywhere.

        The backlash we got from the teachers was vicious, but hilarious in retrospect. If a teacher saw you with your pants sagged, he would probably motion for you to come to him and whoop you right in front of all your peers. Other times, if he was in a good mood, he’s just seize your pants, and then you’d have to run to the dormitory to go get extras before any of the girls saw what kind of underwear you had on, and if you were one of those who had on boxers that had the open hole with no buttons…you were screwed.

        What I’m saying is that reaction to it, was natural. It wasn’t something planned or something that was orchestrated by media propaganda or an actual system, just like there was something that made us as kids want to sag our pants, there was something that made the adults responsible for caring and teaching us to react like they did.

        • Freebird

          I agree the reaction is large part natural. I’m trying to figure out how to not repeat (not sure it’s even possible) this cycle as I get older and continue to work with young people. My generation was “rebellious” and we challenged a lot of the things we were told to do, like wear our pant on our hips, not change the endings on wordz, and for some of us tattoos. But now many of us – much older and in some cases parents – are becoming the scary adults we were rebelling against. And our parents went through the same transformation over the course of their lives. Im considering if there is a way to avoid the programming and the fear that seems to creep into folks as they get older over how the youth are “making things worse.” Again, Im not sure it is possible but it is worth exploring.

          • moderation…

          • I used to mentor kids at my church and I saw the kids grow up, where now many are in college. I noticed that the kids who had more so independent livelihoods, were less likely to rebel against their parents, or were far better at explaining their selves and their insights to parents, where the parents were more conducive and less worried.

            You know if a kid had a job very early on at like 7 or 8, and had consistently worked, or if they got to have some responsibility over something important, they were more likely to have more respect for traditions and seek to integrate the new with the old, rather than overthrow the old.

            I think you have to not necessarily rush, but allow kids to be adults as much as possible, since for many kids, it’s only when they become adults that they see the flaws in their rebellion against their parents, and how pointless and silly it actually is. I worked with mostly black kids for a long time some were from the burbs others were from tough cities, and I never met a kid who wouldn’t have preferred earning 400 bucks to buy an Ipad thru work, rather than having to earn an Ipad thru getting all As.

            This is why I wish middle class black parents encouraged their kids to do petty things like sell lemonade or make arts and crafts and sell them as early as possible; I used to tell all these parents that went to my church that they should do that, and they would all say they wanted their kids to focus on school, and I’d be like: “You are living in the surburbs, around white people who let their kids work as early as possible and build their resumes, who still manage to find time to do well in school, what makes you think your kid needs to spend all his time in books, when at the end of the day, if he/she can’t make money and take care of themselves it’s all going to be useless…no wonder you are having problems with them!”

    • Val

      Wait, what…lesbian cults…Nigeria…huh? Interesting. Got any links?

        • Val

          Obviously you know more about the goings on in Nigeria than I, NL. But, I have read about the homophobia on the Continent and how many media outlets around the Continent fuel the homophobic fire by writing propaganda pieces which promote the idea that homosexuality is everywhere and out of control. This seems like one of those pieces. Am I wrong?

          • Eh….I was with you until I got 2/3rds of the way down. I would like to figure out the deal behind the gangs mentioned.

          • Nah, i doubt it’s not true. I think the writer has a bias, no doubt, but that there are cults with lesbians wouldn’t surprise me at all.

            Cults in Nigerian universities are common, one of my friends almost got shot up in one when visiting many years ago, while visiting from the US. They’re called cults, but they’re really nothing more than Fraternities/Sororities. They’re often called cults because of the Greek symbols and stuff…

            But yeh there is a lot of backlash among politicians and conservative/religious people in Africa who are against LGBT people in the continent, but there’s also been a lot of movies made about Lesbians in particular, most of them are comedies, but the simple fact that they are even acknowledging it exists is a big deal for them at least.

          • es

            Val, i grew up there till my id twenties and in my opinion, the lesbian culture came as an offshoot of the single sex school culture. And i agree it does seem at odds with the highly homophobic nature of the majority, but think of it kinda similar to how the most repressed countries are biggest consumers of pron

    • *applause* Excellent. Very well stated.

  • Freebird

    Damn panama. This was a great post. Way to fill my mind with more s hit.

    I too have white relatives. They go harder than some of my black relatives, which creates it’s own set of unique problems.

    • panamajackson

      To some degree, I’m glad that my white family isn’t American. I’m sure it would be much harder to avoid those conversations.

  • I couldn’t have a conversation on race with a white person at this stage in my life. I have enough things that are emotionally exhausting enough without volunteering for that minefield.

  • I don’t comment much but er uhhhhh…
    this post hit so many points on the head that I’ve been trying to put into words for MONTHS. I’m in an interacial relationship with a white guy, and temporarily broke up because I felt like he just didn’t get it. Partially my fault for not trying to help him get it because I didn’t think he could understand, but in communicating, and learing that he was willing to try, we decided to work things out. He’s pretty open to receiving the information, but I always feel like when it comes to a discussion of future kids and how THEY could be affected, the lighbulb may not go off; like I’m not explaining it well enough. But my God, the situation with your mom just helped me out. Coming from the mind of a biracial kid couldn’t have been a better source.
    *forwarding post*

    • Rachmo

      It is really hard when someone doesn’t just “GET IT.” I’ve been here before and it’s hard to make yourself explain shyt.

    • panamajackson

      Good luck with that!

  • BreezyX2

    PeeJ: I am sure after conversations like this with your Mother you just want walk into oncoming
    traffic. At least with the office k lan you can escape in a sense but you are stuck with your Moms for life!!!

    My mom and I for years battled on so many subjects. If she was in the north best believe I was in the south. She was not here for hearing anything I had to offer because “I had not lived long enough.” Here is the thing though (and this might eventually happen in your case too) over time she GOT IT. She finally understood the things I was trying to say and I have now lived long enough to see her eat crow…but in a good sense. However, it will be a cold day in hell before she ever verbally acknowledges I was right.


    • panamajackson

      Definitely wanted to walk into traffic. But over time we’re much better on certaint topics. One can only avoid the news but for so long.

      • Wild Cougar

        Id give you a hug but you’d smack my arms away like Mutombo.

  • BreezyX2


  • Asiyah

    “Because she wasn’t racist she felt it hard to believe that others were racist. Facts be damned.”

    This reminds me of Anais Nin: “we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” And that’s a huge problem. I understand that it’s difficult for many of us to see things from other people’s perspectives, but come on, enough with questioning or belittling another person’s experience. It may not suit your narrative or vision of the world but it doesn’t mean it’s untrue or an exaggeration. I’m stating the obvious here but it must be said over and over and over again.

    • Amen! The problem is that so many people aren’t honest about who they are and the implications of that. As a result, we don’t know what we don’t know.

  • MeridianBurst

    I don’t think I can even recall a time I had a heart to heart with my mother. She’s always trying to talk to me but I lowkey hate her. I think 99% of the interactions I have with my family members consist of me trying not to admit I’m disappointed in them. We don’t even bother having these kind of talks. We just do what’s most efficient with as little communication as possible. We’re stuck together. That doesn’t mean we love one another, like one another, or have to get along. We just happened to be in close quarters. I’d rather be the glue that holds us together than to actually have to be a participant in the family dynamics. I don’t actually like anyone in my family so that’s the reason I wouldn’t discuss race with them, or anything else for that matter.

    I had the hardest time even comprehending why you found it necessary to talk to your mom in the first place. I would’ve tried to have that conversation one time, for all of 10 minutes, and if she didn’t get it than she just didn’t get it.

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