I am the daughter of Trinidadian immigrants to Canada – a black woman of Indian and African descent, like Kamala Harris. Like the Democratic running mate, I also went to high school in Montreal. And like her, my husband is white. With these similarities, I wondered what Kamala Harris’ family reunions were like. They must be better than mine.
Either way, relationships with in-laws can be tricky. But this is especially true in race relations, where you might find yourself facing a bright orange sign screaming, “Earth’s Most Endangered Species: THE WHITE RACE,” in your future brother-in-law’s garage, while your toddler age girl bounces on your hip. You may have to swallow your shock nausea, go home and congratulate your sister-in-law for being on her manicotti, because these people are your daughter’s family, because you are scared, and because it wasn’t. It’s the first time you didn’t know what else to do.
While this was the first evidence of their membership racism, it was far from the first time my partner’s family had revealed their racial hatred.
The series of incidents began in 2008 when, after my not yet husband moved to Texas where I was planning to join him, I accepted his mother’s invitation to a July 4th party. At that point he and I had been together for over a year, but it was the first time that I would be alone with his family. As a barbecue complete with striped and starry plates wore it, it was late afternoon before I finally slipped into the bathroom, where, through the window, I heard: ” This place is great because there is no (racial insult) there. “There was laughter and a female voice.” Shhh… She’s inside! ” Old tears spilled out I wiped them away and returned to the party because I didn’t know what else to do.
On another solo visit to her mother’s house, I endured her account of how a black priest (“who was very kind”) administered the last rites as her husband died. As she recounted, her husband (“who – without offense – was prejudiced”) woke up to find a black man standing over him, and she claimed that the shock had essentially driven her husband into his grave. At his kitchen table, I said, “I’m sorry for your loss,” because I was too afraid to say, “Do I really hear that?”
But when my not-yet-husband brother called a landscaping project “work (racial slurs),” I couldn’t stay silent. “What’s wrong?” I asked as he stormed off. His wife explained, “He’s crazy because he swore he would never use that word in front of you again. If you want him back, you should call him an asshole. He hates that word. At that point, I might have laughed, because I wanted to cry.
Years later, on an island in the Caribbean, my partner asked me to marry him. Surrounded by sun and surf, our families so far away, getting engaged seemed like the next logical step after crossing the country together, enduring the natural ups and downs of any relationship, and going through a range of tensions – racist family members, clumsy looks in still segregated neighborhoods – that comes with being a biracial couple. But three years after he gave me a ring at sunrise, we haven’t been able to get it together to plan a wedding – maybe because I couldn’t imagine spending what should be one of the happiest days of my life with people who felt comfortable using racial slurs.
In fact, having a Métis child is easier than planning a Métis wedding.
In 2012, we welcomed our little Texan. Our daughter is the first daughter of her father’s family for over a hundred years. And on her second trip to New Jersey, she clung to me as I wondered: what exactly is the most endangered species on Earth?
In the years that followed, my future mother-in-law tried to slow down the growing silence between us and I grew tired of her pleas. “What do you want me to say? We are family,” she explained, as if my attachment to her would dilute their racism. I grew tired of my fiancé’s brother’s versions of apologies: “I’m not talking about you. You are different. You have an education. I was also angry with my fiancee for asking all the time, “What do you want me to do?”
At first I tried to answer his question. But I became overwhelmed by the fatigue that comes with educating people who might not want to learn. And I stopped looking for answers, because her family is Can’t we all get along? started to feel more like you can’t just make us feel better?
For years, the fighting was regular, heated and tearful. I didn’t want anything to do with his family, and some days I didn’t want anything to do with him. But we continued to manage increasingly stressful visits to see family in the Northeast – the mere anticipation of which would cause relationship conflicts for months before.
However, things have changed.
When my fiancee and I signed the wrong domestic partnership documents at the DMV and accidentally got married, our new engagement may have brought new hope. Or maybe things changed when our friends celebrated our accidental wedding by throwing us a wedding party and the racially insulting brother, who was invited, didn’t show up. Or maybe things changed when I stepped back and my husband stepped forward – signing his mom up for an online unconscious bias training course. And long before there was a race on White fragility and Tears that we can’t stop and How to be anti-racistHe read each of the books, before I even heard of them. He was doing his job while I was treating my own pain.
Last fall my husband, daughter and I returned to the northeast for a short visit. We ate pizza in Manhattan and nibbled on Caribbean food in Brooklyn. When I asked my husband if he wanted to let his family know that we were only 30 miles from where he had grown up, he hesitated. “Maybe this can just be a family trip,” he said, meaning just the three of us.
On the phone, her mother cried when she realized that we had made the trip across the country but had not crossed the Hudson River. For the first time, she may have realized that the “whole racing thing” is more about protection between the three of us than about guilt.
As dozens of Americans wake up to the reality of systemic racial oppression, for blacks the awakening is valid, but it also worsens deep fatigue. However, for our family, the revival also confirms the work that we have accomplished, while reminding us that our history cannot be unique, even if we often feel alone. Our job isn’t just to make family reunions more welcoming – it’s about changing the country, one family at a time.
Recently our daughter asked her booster seat in the back seat of the car, “What’s the n word?” With a sip, I explained that it was used to hurt blacks and sting them like no other word. She cried before she said, “Well, maybe white people use that word because they feel bad about themselves.”
Wise words. Still, I don’t want her to be hurt, even by those who are hurting themselves.
My husband’s family has many reasons to feel bad – the sudden loss of a Patriarch, the daily grind of trying to make ends meet. And if my daughter’s wisdom is a simple way to understand the pain of her family, it doesn’t make me understand their racism. I will never be able to return to the house where I found the White Power propaganda, even though I know we are all in pain.
This is not an attempt to shame my in-laws. Nothing positive would follow. Nor is it an argument for or against free speech – much more convincing experts than I can make both sides. But it’s a tale of how not “canceling” my in-laws got me to places I never thought I could go. Growing up, I didn’t talk about race with people who didn’t think like me – we all stood on our side. So how could I imagine getting close enough to marry someone who grew up in a family so different from mine? But in 2020, we are all getting closer to each other, because enough is enough.
These days my mother-in-law and I exchange cordial texts for birthdays and holidays, and her and my daughter are video chatting when I’m not at home. I haven’t seen my brother-in-law since that visit to the garage years ago.
It’s easy for the cancellation culture to play online, where we can cancel remotely, often without even knowing a person. But real life doesn’t fit the same mold. In real life, we do our best.
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