I cannot be the only white person who feels like trying to be vocally anti-racist within their own family is a lost cause. I also cannot be the only white person who still struggles with how and when to have these tough conversations in a way that supports growth and unity – not division.
I grew up in the Lutheran church with fairly conservative values. The first political rally I ever attended as a child was for George H.W. Bush. I read Ronald Reagan’s autobiography, “An American Life,” for fun while I was at horse camp one summer. I tell you this because these things helped set the stage to help me become who I am today — a person who is decidedly much less conservative than the people who raised me.
My family is full of “old school,” traditional adults who lean conservative, which has become, since 2017, more like convulsions of extreme nationalist conservatism that are escalating in surprisingly harsh ways – mostly on social media. Usually I would try to see that as harmless, because is Facebook really something we need to always take seriously? But our increasingly condescending culture, full of racist and classist contempt, is being fostered in part by the very same propaganda my family is so freely sharing. It’s also informing them of who to vote for. I’ve come to understand that you can’t tell someone you love them, then vote for politicians who definitely do not value your loved one’s life and may actually do things that hurt them.
I fully know that I have been a part of the problem, along with everyone else, for far too long. Even though I’ve educated myself about the myriad of ways structural racism takes for granted a context of white leadership, dominance and privilege, I’ve stayed silent about inequalities in our justice system. I’ve stayed silent about Black men and women being murdered by police, and becoming the victims of “white fear.” I’ve voted for or supported political candidates who work against equality for people who aren’t as privileged as me, or at best don’t address it (Democrats, I’m talking to you).
I don’t normally think of my parents, my uncles, or other relatives as condoning racist thought processes or philosophies, but it seems to me that the angrier they get on social media about it, the more I wonder. Why else get so defensive and offended when these attitudes are called out? And how can we even go about talking about the effects of what they support in real life when we can’t even do it on a screen?
If the last few weeks have proven anything to me, it’s that some members of my family would rather discard me and my input from their lives than keep hearing me. More than one of my close relatives noped out of being my Facebook friend in late May after I posted the following meme involving Colin Kaepernik, George Floyd, and Derek Chauvin. One of them wrote: “Here’s a suggestion. Don’t poke the bear. Cross me off your list.”
I think mostly it was because a few of my friends popped in and decided to have words with my family, who are definitely still on their “Colin Kaepernick is a POS” train. To me, Kaepernick was simply using his privilege and voice to stand up for what he believes in. But the hatred for this man “disrespecting the National Anthem” runs so deep in my family that, within the past year, two of them actually bought a stuffed doll of Kaepernick from a sports shop and proceeded to kick it several times across the sidewalk and street. I had trouble standing up to them in the moment. I stood there with my mouth hanging open, and I could barely find the words to tell them that it was wrong.
Other family members have taken offense because I didn’t say something quite the way they thought was respectful, or they took meaning from it that wasn’t what I meant at all. One of my relatives’ mothers, and another relative’s father, passed away during the pandemic. The one’s mother was not allowed to have a funeral at all, and the other’s father could have only a graveside service with few in attendance. Knowing all of this full well, someone close to me posted the following meme. It’s clearly meant to be divisive and anger-provoking, especially because by this point things had begun to reopen and rules about gatherings were changing everywhere.
Here was my response: “People decided to go to that funeral despite the risk because it was important. Just like the reasons I attend protests, using precautions, because it’s important. Also, things are more open now than they were even two weeks ago and rules are less restrictive. I know it sucks. But who is responsible for whipping up all this anger right now? Whose agenda does this fit? Just consider that.”
Should I have stayed out of it, even if it was just to make sure that nothing I said could be misconstrued, as it most certainly was in the comment storm that ensued? Maybe. Nothing good came of it. I feel like that’s the wrong lesson to take from it, though I don’t know what the right lesson would be. I’m fairly certain there are a few irreparable relationships as a result.
To be clear, I’m not out here trying to pretend to be “enlightened” by calling people on their bullshit. I do not think I am “better than them” for taking the stances that I do — contrary to what I believe some of my family members think. I also don’t think of myself as a “hero” of any kind, attempting to end racism by whooshing over to whoever’s profile to respond to the latest ridiculous meme. That’s kind of what it seems like, though, and that’s given me some pause.
I love my family very much, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without their support. They have been very accepting of me and the lesbian, gay and bisexual community (unfortunately not so much my transgender friends, which is another topic I feel I really need to work with them on). Normally we just talk about non-politics related things and it’s fine, which has come to encompass many topics that shouldn’t necessarily be political. I’m really not interested in surface-level conversation, though, and I think in order to really communicate you have to be willing to mess up and figure things out together. I also need to keep trying to figure out how to say things more “nicely,” but words don’t always come out as smoothly as one would like them to.
Believe me, I’ve tried to read my way into figuring all this out for myself. But I’m still having a hard time trying to figure out what I should be doing in order to make a real difference with my family. Do I attempt to keep engaging them on social media, in a more friendly way? Do I pick my battles, or just ignore their crazy posts altogether and let it go? It’s not like I have a ton of “real life” opportunities to engage them. And is it even my place to call them out at all?
I’m clearly the only one who wants to say anything, to anyone. The rest of the cousins my age or younger are generally silent. They keep their views to themselves, which usually is the way to go to avoid conflict. And the older adults are who they are. So I’m out here alone, trying to “come get my people” who have no interest in being gotten.
Staying silent to me is really not an option anymore – who has that helped in the past? Not me. Not anyone who doesn’t have the same privileges and freedom that I do. Silence makes us complicit in wrongdoing. I fully believe in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
To speak to a question posed by a few of my family members – “I wonder why this issue of racial inequality wasn’t fixed when we had a Black president in office for 8 years??” Probably because it has been hundreds of years in the making, and white people like us have a clear history of not wanting to see how we perpetuate all the racist shit we claim to have nothing to do with. Honestly, the question, upon being asked, answers itself. And was putting one Black man into a supreme position of power really supposed to make everything magically different?
This is a bear that, to me, needs to be poked. Not to further divide my family or our country, but to reflect on what is in our hearts and actually allow all of us come together to build a world that is just and equitable.
I just need to figure out how to poke this bear constructively. If you have any idea how to do this, please share your wisdom.