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3 Things My Conservative Mother Taught Me That I Wish I Could Forget

As an adult, I now see that many of the lessons I was taught as a child were products of my mother's and grandmother's own insecurity.

I think often of what my mother would say about this life I’m living. I think about it when I’m at home, (where I live with many people, none of whom is a dude I’m married to), when I’m walking around in my neighborhood (Brooklyn, largely West Indian population, not gentrified yet), when I get dressed (did I wear these pants yesterday? Will I probably wear them tomorrow? Yes and yes), when I’m traveling (alone, or to places where she’d probably rather I’d not go), and on and on. At my worst moments, it’s like she’s still alive, and I’m still accountable to living how she’d probably want me to live.

I’ve been accused of holding the politics I hold, because I’m rebelling. Look, it’s possible. It’s likely, even. There’s an incongruity, though, between the way we’re socialized to think about rebellion (something a spoiled child does) and what unlearning the stuff we’re programmed to believe really looks like. Unlearning means breaking ties—with people, perhaps, and also, within your own brain. It’s pretty terrifying to go from seeing through a certain lens, which you’ve likely believed has made you safer, to glimpsing how unstable, cruel, and crazy the world actually is, and that the tales we’ve told ourselves cannot protect us.   

It’s hard to talk about these things without feeling a certain sense of betrayal, even though everyone I’m about to mention is now dead (my mother died when I was 19, my grandmother when I was 25). It’s been essential, though, for me to sift through these memories and moments and stories, to look them in the face, so I can get a little closer to the life I want to live.

To be unlearned:

1. If someone’s not white, they’re dangerous, poor, and lazy.

The house we lived in until I was 17 was located next to an apartment building, which was populated mainly by folks of color. I can never remember having any particular encounters with anyone who lived there, but my mother was completely annoyed by everyone who lived there. She claimed that they were all living on public assistance and, therefore, were lazy and manipulating the system so they would never have to work. It seemed wrong to me, but I could never describe why exactly. My grandmother, who was basically my second parent, went along with this, referring to black people in particular as “shvartzas.” To this day, the moment she referred to Martin Luther King Jr. as a trouble maker, still sticks in my brain like a mouse in a glue trap.

My mother was angry at people she perceived as leeching, but she herself was struggling financially, as a single parent, to raise a kid and maintain a mortgage without a college degree and with consistently ill health. Looking back on it now, it’s clear that her racism—as well as her anger and fear—was an example of a political and cultural system that turns vulnerable populations against one another. It’s the sickening efficacy of that system that makes it difficult to see how toxic it is. 

2. Don’t be too independent.

When I was 16, I had a boyfriend. It was the most innocuous relationship in the history of high school relationships, in spite of the fact that I did not have any interest in following the rules. I’m not sure if anyone besides my mother was actually interested in the rules, which basically orbited around the principle of letting him pay for me, pick me up, hold the door for me, and ask me out. Needless to say, I was extremely uncomfortable with this (it will not shock you to learn that I still am), and I refused to comply, which made my mother really angry. It was the first time I ever heard her use the word feminist as an insult, this from the woman who had also taught me to have opinions and to hold them tightly and fiercely. (She would later be proud of me when I was named "Class Feminist" my senior year.)

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