Why I Cut My Racist In-Laws Out Of My Life
This piece was originally published on The Establishment on August 2, 2016.
I won’t lie and say that I never had issues with the demographics of my mixed-race marriage. I definitely did. I worried about what my mom would think, and what my dad would say were he alive. I worried about what his parents thought. I worried about how the world would treat us.
I still worry.
After all, 2016 has all the hallmarks of an impending racial schism, and interracial couples are straddling a fence that may not be tenable.
When I entered my own relationship, I told myself that my significant other (S.O.) was different. That he wasn’t with me because of some fetish. That he loved me, all of me. That my brown skin didn’t matter to him. Over time came the revelations of his racism. I shouldn’t actually call them revelations, as they were more a matter of me acknowledging the truth. I repeatedly pulled the veil over my eyes and told myself that love was enough. Over and over again, I’d feel this buildup of dread as time would reveal some other facet of his racism. Then we’d talk. Then we’d fight. Then we’d talk some more. It is painful and confusing to have someone love you, cherish you, support you, and then wound you with their inability to accept the whole of you. But how our love and communication about racism evolved is another story.
This is the story of the kind of love I have with my in-laws.
You know the expression about how you don’t just marry the person, you marry their entire family? This is both true and false, as it depends on how close your partner is with them. I am close with some members of my immediate family, but not others, and I have no relationship with my brother at all. My S.O. has a superficial relationship with his immediate family. We say hi and occasionally spend holidays together, but for the most part, we live in different parts of the country and rarely interact. We are casual Facebook friends, but have limited face-to-face time. When my S.O. goes to visit them, I go with him for support, but truly, these people are still kind of strangers to me.
I know that he has some resentment toward his family, which is something I’ve tried to help him work through. I’d just lost my father when I met my S.O., and while I was close with my dad, I still felt guilt about the many ways I wasn’t there for him. I don’t want my S.O. to experience that, so I encourage his relationship with his family as much as I can without forcing him into it. All I can do is champion and love him as he figures it out.
Yet even though I want him and his family to be closer, there is a part of me that is comfortable with the emotional and physical distance.
When I married my S.O., I married into whiteness and the bullshit that comes with it. He doesn’t remember this, but when he told his parents my name, there was a moment of pause from his mother. He mentioned that she expressed some concern about my being Black, but as he isn’t invested in her opinion, he didn’t pursue it. I, of course, was ravenous for information and completely unaware of how non-confrontational his family is. This family is comprised of passive aggressive people who will never confront you with their feelings and will visibly back away from you if you try to confront them. If you’ve read any of my other essays, you know that I am the complete opposite of that; if you are bothering me, chances are I’m just going to tell you. Not his family, though. If you bother someone, rather than tell you, they will tell another family member, and then another family member until everyone knows there’s a problem except you. They will make snide remarks, but the moment you try to talk about it, they will retreat behind the wall of, “Oh, I meant nothing by it. It’s not a big deal. Sorry.”
Habitual liars, the whole lot of them. And in fact, this was a habit I had to help my S.O. break. He would agree to things just to make me go away. One time he replied with something that was so obviously a lie that I had to ask, “Why’d you lie about that?” He replied, “I don’t know. It just . . . I don’t know.” Now he’s more honest about such things, and I love watching him assert himself and break away from that toxic dynamic he grew up in.
Old habits die hard, though, and when he and his family get together, I see him revert back to the passive-aggressive liar I once knew. He changed because it was damaging our relationship. Suppressing his needs to avoid conflict isn’t healthy, and because this is how his family operates, our relationship with them is not healthy.
I didn’t want it to be this way, a relationship full of meaningless lies and petty obfuscations. Yet, any opportunity we had to improve our relationship was met with banality and superficial happiness. We talk about the weather and good restaurants. When the conversation finally begins to attain some depth, it’s about work and people who don’t matter. The dance to avoid any topic that may contain meaning is intricate and empty. I do not like socializing with people who are afraid of themselves, afraid of making mistakes, afraid of being wrong. I do not like people lying to me and avoiding important topics because they make them uncomfortable. As much as they think they are hiding behind the curtain, it’s transparent and nothing is unseen. It’s just ignored.
A part of me feels guilty about not pushing to change our relationship, but the rest of me is glad that I can recognize emotional danger when I see it. They are dangerous in their deceptions. The honesty my S.O. and I share is too much for them. His mom was constantly taken aback at holidays when I would speak my mind. They worked so hard to maintain a veneer of civility and calm, but the veneer is thin. Easy to break. Just a little nudge and they are frantic in their attempts to mask the hole. I struggled to tiptoe through their world—it is ugly to me, and I want as little contact as possible. I often laugh to cover my distaste, but my laughter is often filled with bitterness and my disgust is apparent.
Because we had such little contact with them, there were few opportunities for their casual racism to show. But every opportunity they had, they took. Each and every visit there was one moment when my friends would be referred to as a gang, or there would be mention of some lack of Black something, be it angels, ornaments, cards . . . with no acknowledgement as to why that is. There would be a question asking how Black people did some common thing, as though there was some mystical secret passed down orally from mother to daughter, carefully hidden from prying white eyes. There would be some reference to pretty, interracial babies with lovely skin or an inquiry about the best plantations to visit while in Georgia. For the limited exposure I had to them, his family managed to slip in some amazingly racist comments. And out of a mistaken sense of duty, I ate the pain and let many of them pass.
The first time I truly learned what I was dealing with was when I confronted his sister for asking me about plantations to visit. She asked via Facebook, so she did not see me visibly recoil from the question. When I told my S.O. about his sister’s question, his response was, “She thinks of plantations like vineyards. She doesn’t know what she’s asking.”
I thought about that for several minutes. I know American history has been whitewashed into complete fiction in order to protect white people from the atrocities of their ancestors, but that level of ignorance was shocking to me. What I didn’t understand at the time was that white people care so little about the wrongs they’ve done to Black people throughout history that they don’t bother to get educated about the people they’ve wronged. I’d married into the intersection of intentional ignorance, casual disregard, and the mistaken perception of supremacy—what I like to call the white bubble of bullshit that continues to poison this country.
I took the time to craft a polite, but clear explanation about why this was not just an insensitive question, but fucking shitty as hell. Her response was to blow it off—she didn’t mean to upset me; no harm, no foul. Her casual dismissal and closing of the conversation sent me into a whole other level of rage. Between her dismissal and my S.O.’s defense of her fuckery, I was done.
That day, I told him that he was responsible for his family’s ignorance. No longer could he avoid addressing the shit they said. No longer could he defend them or their whiteness. We’d already addressed this with his friends, but now it applied to family, too. The one pass I gave him was his delayed recognition of racist shit, because for him it just sounds like everyday conversation. But once that shit was identified, it was his job to confront it.
For a while, this worked. Then his mother posted some video of a Black man co-signing on America’s racism and police brutality by asking for patience in collecting the evidence in the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. She captioned it with, “If only we could get everyone to understand this.”
Have I mentioned that his parents remain silent about anything having to do with racism? They avoid the topic like the plague. Then, when she finally says anything, it’s about waiting to find some reason to validate the murders of these two men who were visibly unarmed and shot by government-approved murderers. This post was so vile that I decided to remove her from my life.
Her replies to my telling her I no longer wanted her toxicity in my life?
“No matter what I say it’s going to be wrong.”
“I have friends that are black.”
“Shootings, no matter who does them are not always justified.”
“I love you both. I don’t understand. I am NOT for any group (BLM) or whatever.”
It’s times like this that I am grateful and sad for the internet. Grateful because I now recognize her responses for what they are—intentional blindness. This is someone who chooses to ignore and acknowledge the wrongness of this country because it makes her feel bad. Instead she chooses to pretend that she’s neutral, something I recognize better because, thanks to the internet, I see it more often. The downside is that thanks to the internet, I see white people ducking and weaving the truth on a national scale. It is a hard thing to witness. It feels impossible to fight.
She is not neutral. A part of me wonders if one of her Black friends got shot, would she wait for all the evidence? Actually, I don’t wonder. They aren’t really her friends and I don’t believe she is capable of having a discussion about racism with a Black person. I don’t think she’s brave enough to try. And her husband stands by her. They are a team and she is their representative, a person who cannot be honest about the country we live in.
That day I accepted that my S.O. cannot protect me from his family’s racism. That day I decided to be my own hero and remove them from my sphere of influence. I won’t make him choose between us; I know he needs his parents. I just won’t let them in my home or my life. Their values are incompatible with mine.
Some people will say that I should give them a chance. That I should keep working to meet them halfway. To them I say that while I chose to attach whiteness to my personal life through my significant other, I also choose to set limits on the amount of damage I will allow it to wreak upon my life. I will not tolerate being tolerated. I will not tolerate liars. I will not cuddle you in your white fragility and co-sign on your racist bullshit so that you can feel good about yourself. If you lack the humanity to see that my skin, my body, my mind is human just like you, then you are not deserving of me, my time, or my energy. I will not continue to prove my worth to people who are not worthy, even if I am legally bound to you. That brown skin is such a goddamn deal breaker for white people makes me vacillate between rage and despair for this country, for this world.
Releasing people from your life isn’t easy, and I don’t expect this to be easy. It’s only been a couple of weeks, so we’ll see how this eventually plays out. 2016 has been a shitty year for a lot of reasons. I stopped speaking to people I’ve known for years, and I’m watching many friends struggle with doing the same. This is the year of cutting ties and closing doors.
But let’s hope that this is also lighting the path to a better future.