Racism Progress Report

A friend asked if I’d write about how my family changed over time and got over their racism.   Well, just like racism didn’t end with the election of Obama, my family has come a long way, but racism is not so easily eradicated.  So here is my family’s racism progress report, if you will.

First of all, I am not horribly close to my family as a whole.  My parents and I are fairly close and I have a younger cousin that is an only child like me and over the years we definitely have had our sister like moments.  Everybody else I make small talk with, but we never have talked about anything too real.  It was not a big surprise when most of my family was not at my wedding either because they were against it or were too busy, especially since we had to put it together in six weeks.  The few aunts and uncles and grandparents that came will always be dear to my heart.  Not all my family took the silent protest route though.  One set of grandparents wrote me a long e-mail detailing why they were boycotting my wedding, quoting bible verses about the tower of Babel and suggesting we never have children, since their existence would be a terrible abomination between two worlds.  These were the same grandparents I only saw once every other year, if that, who knew nothing about me or Wole.   I will say my family has progressed from that point.

My mother and I had the most damaged relationship and she probably changed the most.  Long before the wedding, she embraced the idea of my future with Wole and pretended as if her violent freak out the year before had never happened.  Though she helped me with bouquets and walked me down the aisle with my dad, I had not forgotten nor forgiven her.  I credit my first daughter with repairing our relationship.  Two years into our marriage I had our baby girl and despite commenting, “It’s a shame you’ll never have a blonde haired blue eyed little girl,” my mom was excited and proud to be a grandmother.  She came and stayed with me for my baby’s birth and helped me through those first rough sleepless nights.  Trying to figure out motherhood, I was able to forgive my mom and listen to her advice.  My two beautiful girls have convinced her of the acceptance and beauty of mixed children and she admires the father and husband Wole has been.   Although she is quick to point out Wole is African, not African American, my mom seems to make less generalizations about the black population.

My dad and I never really had a breakdown.  We’ve never been the best at communicating, but we were at our best after I married.  Dad pretty much just wants to be able to eat what he wants and have a good tv show or book to read, so he had never been too concerned with my husband choice.  He stood with my mom for his own peace, but never really showed a problem with Wole.  Because of this my dad and I were really close after my wedding.  I used to call him on my hour commute home from work and recap my day and get advice.  As a young teacher, my dad would laugh at my student’s antics or just lend an ear.  This relationship is one of the few that has gone backwards.  Once I started talking to my mom again and being mostly concerned with parenting, dad and I talked less and less.  Wow, this is making me really want to call my dad!

The rest of my family has mostly accepted and praised Wole for being a good provider.  It seems that to various aunts and uncles and both sets of grandparents Wole has proved himself because he has a decent job and allowed me to be a stay at home mom and student for a while.  One uncle in particular wanted me to pass on to Wole how stand up a guy he was for taking such good care of us.  Understandably, Wole was concerned about this conditional love and pondered, “So if I lose my job tomorrow, I’m out?”   The fact that he had to even earn acceptance into the family and prove he did not live up to their stereotypes demonstrates the existence of the stereotypes.

One uncle, who we thought was somewhat of an exception to my family wounded us most of all.  My sisterish cousin and her parents were always closer to me than the rest of my fairly large extended family before and after I married Wole.   I often stayed with them when I came to my home town to visit and Wole had had good conversations with my uncle and I think he really felt like he found someone in my family who gave him a fair shot.  That was until M___ came and visited with me during her high school years  when Wole and I had been married for a couple of year and my oldest daughter was around two.  In one of our many talks that week M___ asked how I met Wole (she had been only eight at the time) and if I had been scared to date him because my parents would freak out.  I told her that I had always believed in my heart my parents were wrong on this issue and I was prepared to do what was right no matter the consequence.   M___ shared with me, she was too scared to even consider an inter-racial relationship because of a recent conversation she’d had with her father.  “I met a black boy at camp and we were e-mailing back and forth.  We weren’t dating, but dad still didn’t like it.  He said, ‘If you ever tell me you’re dating a black boy I will punch you in the face.  You will not end up like your cousin.’”  This was a punch in the gut for both Wole and I.  Wole of course thought that my uncle respected and liked him, so why wouldn’t he want M___ to date someone like him?  I was left trying to figure out what about me my uncle feared to see in his daughter.  Was it the fact that I was the first of our generation to earn a four year degree?  Was it my happy marriage and daughter?  What particular atrocity did he see in my life that he did not want his daughter to emulate?  Ironically, part of the reason she had come on this trip was my aunt wanted me to help be a good influence on M___ after she had come out of a mentally abusive relationship.  I never talked about this incident with my uncle, partly because that would be violating M___’s confidence and partly because as I mentioned earlier, my family rarely if ever talks about things.  Six years later my uncle has helped us remodel our house and even helped me find a job, but Wole and I always wonder what he might be thinking or saying about us.

Then there is me.  I’m not letting myself off the hook on this progress report either.  I know I can prejudge on how people look, whether it be someone in all camo or covered in tattoos. Stereotypes and generalizations know no color or creed and I will probably have to remind myself of that my entire life, so I can keep from being a hypocrite and more importantly, so I can be a compassionate human being. I have acknowledged this part of myself exists, which is always the first step and I can only hope my family has reached or will reach this stage as well as have a desire to change.

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