July 21, 2013

What My Grandma Taught Me About Racism.

Photo: Dustin J McClure on Flickr.

If I’ve learned anything over the past few weeks following the Paula Deen scandal and the Trayvon Martin verdict, it’s that America still has a long way to go when it comes to race relations.

It seems that as a nation, we are divided on this. At the very least, there seems to be a group of people who feel, perhaps because we have a black president who has been elected twice, that somehow, the US is a post-racial society. I’ve heard arguments that someone cannot be racist because they have people of another race in their family and if they used racial slurs, it was done without hate.

In my own experience, I know that neither of the above is true. I also know it is possible to love someone who is racist even though you vehemently disagree with their views. I know this because I was raised by such a person: my maternal grandma.

In the 22 years that I knew her, I never once heard so much as a “damn” or a “hell” pass her lips. (Swearing to her was an anathema.) However, she used the “n” word and a host of other racial slurs the way some people use “hello.”

If you asked her if she hated anyone, she would say no. However, she believed that there was a natural superiority of races and the white race was  firmly at the top. She shared these views with anyone who would listen, including me.

The fact that she was so open about her racism to me—her mixed race granddaughter—never failed to amaze me.

At an early age, I knew she disagreed vehemently with my mother’s decision to marry my Chinese father. That marriage ended when I was three years old and when my mother and I moved in with her, she took a sort of delight in saying that she knew it would never work out.

I knew she despised my father, yet I also knew that she loved me unconditionally. It didn’t seem like a contradiction to me. To an outsider, it may not have made a lot of sense, but I knew my grandmother as well as anyone could. I accepted it as just a facet of her complex character.

Like a lot of people, my grandmother was a bundle of contradictions: on one hand, she thought nothing of buying me a brand new car when I was 20 but haggled with a small business owner over the price of a table that she believed was $25 was too high. She was a strong proponent of gay rights, which was rare for a woman born in 1916, yet she declared without irony that race mixing was unnatural, all while boasting that I was “the prettiest one” of her grandchildren.

Growing up, I had no doubts she loved me and I had no doubts she was a racist.

That is not to imply that we didn’t have our share of clashes. As a teenager, I became increasingly annoyed at her views on race. I had never agreed with them in the first place, but the older I got, the more absurd I found them. Not only was I biracial but I was someone born in the late 1970s.

I was part of a generation who found her views outdated and offensive. In one instance I was about 15 or 16 years old when she saw an interracial couple at a store. When back at home, she started to lament those “poor kids” who were born out of such a union.

“Those poor things! They have no idea what they are!”

By that point, I had reached my limit. For the first time ever, I spoke back to my cherished grandmother. In a clear, calm voice but one that was clearly upset, I replied that the real problem they had was dealing people like her. I said something like,

“I doubt they think about it. I don’t. You and people who think like you are the ones who care!”

She was shocked. After lecturing to me about respecting my elders, she asked why I was so upset. I told her the truth: each time she put down interracial couples or made these offensive statements about race, she was putting me down as well. She didn’t get it. Her reply was, “But you’re different. I love you!”

It took me years to make sense of that. Then, I finally understood: my grandmother didn’t see me as a member of one of those “inferior” groups. I was different. I and the few black people I heard her say good things about were the exceptions in her eyes, not the rule.She denied being a racist, though she clearly was because rather than see people as individuals or judge them on their merits and actions, she thought the color of their skin could tell her nearly all she needed to know.

Perhaps putting large groups of people in boxes and having stereotypes and prejudices made her feel safer as the world around her changed. I don’t know what she thought. All I know is she clung to her prejudices until the end of her life.

By time she died in 2000, however, even she came to accept that the world around her was different.

The world had moved on and her views on race now put her (no pun intended) in the minority. She knew not to say certain things in public. She knew that an interracial couple was no longer going to turn heads in most places; not even in the deep south were she spent a large part of her final years.

One of the last conversations I had with her before she died,  in which race came up, my mother mentioned that I was likely to marry or at least date someone who was black in my lifetime. Grandma was surprisingly calm about it.

“Well,” she muttered. “I guess it doesn’t matter so much as long as he treats you well.”

She then mentioned a while later how beautiful she found the actress Halle Berry. When I mentioned that Berry was biracial, she said, “Yes. I kind of thought that.” While this was hardly the same as George Wallace renouncing his stance on segregation, it was a huge step in my family—even if she didn’t like how things were, she could acknowledge them.

This brings me to the current situation in America: there is no doubt that huge progress has been made since my grandmother’s generation. However, we still have a long way to go.

It’s not easy or fun to admit that there are people like my late grandmother in the family or that even you may harbor racist attitudes. Again, it’s complex. “Hateful”  is not the word that pops into my head when I think of my grandmother. I loved her. She loved me. However, her racism hurt me and others even though she would swear that was not her intention.

I certainly don’t know how to solve a problem as complex as racism, but what would help is honest discussion about it. Racism isn’t even going to begin to go away until we do.


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Ed: Catherine Monkman

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