by guest contributor Rachel Sullivan, originally published at Rachel’s Tavern
I remember an argument I had with my mother a few years back. I had brought my boyfriend, a black man, who I had been dating for 4 years, to a family picnic. At the picnic, my grandfather and his wife refused to shake my ex-boyfriend’s hand because he was black. I knew something like this was going to happen, as my maternal extended relatives had made numerous bigoted comments going back to my childhood. I felt terrible for putting my ex in that situation, and I felt terrible that nobody in my family stood up and said something. They pretended like nothing happened. I was sobbing and furious, and he and I left the picnic soon after. We stopped at a fast food place, and he said, “I’ve never had anything like this happen to me before. I’m so glad we left.” I was glad to be gone, too.
After leaving I had an over the phone discussion with my mother, where my mother suggested that it was unfortunate that we left because my young cousins were crying. They liked and missed my ex and could not figure out why he had left. Her tone suggested that my ex and I were responsible for my cousins being upset, and perhaps, if we came back, they would stop crying. I remember being furious with my mother’s reaction, and I blurted out, “They should be upset. Racism hurts people. The fact that they are crying is a good thing. Hopefully, when they grow up, they will remember this so they don’t ever treat people that way.”
Later that evening, my mother and some of my aunts and cousins who felt bad about the situation came over to my apartment. I guess it was their way to try to make up for not saying anything at the picnic. They brought my younger cousins, so they could actually talk to my ex and hopefully feel better. At some point, they tried to tell me how my grandfather felt uncomfortable, and he felt like everybody was looking to see what he would do, and he made the claim that this was why he and his wife refused to shake hands. They also reminded me that my grandfather was notorious for being an abrasive person outside of his racism. But I wasn’t having it. To me this was all bullshit. Racist bullshit. Yes, he had been an asshole on other occasions, but this time he was a racist asshole.
I had listened to him and some other relatives in my extended family say pejorative things about blacks and Latinos for years. These offensive comments ranged from using the word nigger, to talking about lazy “colored” people, and making all kinds of statements about Mexican migrant farmworkers. It was rare for anybody but me to challenge this, and I didn’t even do it every time. In fact, it reached a point where people didn’t saying these things around me anymore because they knew I would get mad.1
The next Christmas my father and brother showed their solidarity with my ex (and me) by refusing to attend any events that my maternal grandfather attended.
I half forgave my grandfather and his wife even thought they never apologized and most likely they weren’t sorry for what they did. I’m not exactly sure how my ex dealt with this in the long run. By the time I saw my grandfather again, about 2 years later, I was no longer is that relationship. I had recently found out my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, and I sat at the table and bit my tongue, while trying my best to act friendly. I know my mother, who felt torn over these events, was happy to see me sitting at that table, and I cheered when I saw him again 6 months later, and he announced his cancer had gone into remission. But I can’t lie. I was happy to be living very far away from him; I knew I didn’t have to confront this issue over and over again.
In my first month in New York, he suffered a severe stroke and heart attack. He suffered a great deal for a month or two, and then he passed away. I was sad that he died, and part of that sadness was with the fact that he never confronted any of the pain he visited on others. That racist incident defined my relationship with him over the last few years of his life. It’s really hard to remember the jokes he made when I was a child, before I knew or understood the depth of his bigotry.
This incident didn’t only change my view of him; it still lingers in the background of the relationships with many of my relatives. Some people may believe the lesson in this story is that you should make up with your loved ones before they die, but I don’t see it that way. I didn’t do anything wrong, and I didn’t want to expend any more emotional energy fighting an uphill battle. It would have been nice to get an apology for my ex and myself, but the odds of that happening were slim. To me, the lesson is that racism destroys relationships. It makes, otherwise decent people, turn a blind eye to suffering. The theory that says many white people don’t care about racism because it doesn’t effect them or their loved ones makes sense until you realize that in many cases loved ones are either perpetrators or inactive bystanders when racism is directed at their loved ones.
Racism is so insidious that it anesthetizes people to suffering of others (even others who they care about). It destroys empathetic reactions to human suffering. The victims of racism are expected to be the “bigger people” while the perpetrators get the “Get Out of Racism Free” card. Even when they know racist behavior is wrong and harmful, many white observers of racism suffer from moral paralysis. Rather than doing what is morally right, they do nothing.2
Moral paralysis is learned. It is not something that you are born with. This is actually why I was happy that my little cousins were crying when we left that picnic. Even though they didn’t quite know what was going on or why this situation was bad, it showed me that they hadn’t quite learned to be immune the suffering that racism causes. I hope, nearly 10 years later, they still get upset in those situations. I hope they have the courage to respond to bigots inside and outside our family. It may be the more difficult path to take (as I can attest to), but it’s the right one.
1. I’d like to think that some stopped because they had a change of heart, but I’m not so convinced.
2. I’m not saying that it is easy for people who observe racist behavior to speak out. In these cases of family racism, there are often long protracted battles where people choose sides, which is not easy to do when you love someone but don’t love their behavior. Personally, I chose to withdraw rather than lobby for support. Partly, because I knew I was right; partly because I had been fighting on this issue for years prior to this; and partly because I didn’t expect to get too much support. In fact, I suspect that the amount of sympathy my partner and I received would have been inversely related to how much lobbying we did.