Human Rights

The Heartbreaking Truth About My Mixed Race Family

It's one thing to confront a racist on the street. It's another to have one in your family.

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It was almost 10 years ago, and my little blond nephew couldn’t have been older than five when, during a game of making funny faces, I pulled my ears out from under my hair – which always smelled burned from the flat iron I used to tame my kinky curls – and puffed my cheeks out.

“You look like a monkey,” he whispered. I asked my nephew to repeat himself. “You look like a monkey,” he said. 

He couldn’t have known why I caught my breath, I told myself – he couldn’t have possibly understood that calling a black person like me “a monkey” was an old racist insult. I tried to feel confident in knowing that much, but a part of me still worried and panicked that the little boy I loved so much might grow up to be one of those men I hated.

I am the sole daughter between an older, white half-brother from my mother’s first marriage and a younger brother who looks like me – and I was 15 years old when my nephew, my older brother’s son, came into my life. The love I felt for him shocked me, despite the some 900 miles that separated us for most of his life: he was smarter and funnier and had more personality than all the other kids in the sandbox.

But around the time my nephew was born, I went to live in Massachusetts with my father, leaving most of my maternal relatives behind in the midwest. I felt isolated so far away from the family I’d grown up with – but it was preferable to living with my mother and her third, white husband who didn’t like (let alone love) his new wife’s two black children. 

But it wasn’t just my stepfather. There have always been moments with my mother’s relatives. There were the looks from distant relatives and even strangers, wondering who the brown girl was on the playground with my white, light-eyed girl cousins. There was the time my grandmother used the term “nigger-rigged” to describe shoddy work someone had done for her. There’s the confederate flag tattoo that eventually appeared on my older brother’s forearm – which he claims is about “heritage, not hate” despite having no ancestral connection to the Confederacy. 

And then there was the day last month when my nephew tagged me in a Facebook post listing the names of white people who have been killed by people of color this year, with the comment, “See. I told you this happens to all races” – the fear that I had kept stowed away since that day he said I looked like a monkey. His Facebook post came after a series of tweets calling the predominately African American protestors in Ferguson after the grand jury refused to indict Darren Wilson “animals”. It came after his mother – my sister-in-law – found my tongue-in-cheek suggestion in a Facebook status that people donate to the Ferguson Public Library in the name of their racist relatives so déclassé that she unfriended me. It came after a series of texts from my nephew which started, “What you need to understand is” and then denied both the existence of racism and my own experiences as a black woman who has spent her entire life navigating white spaces. 

I was sad and I was hurt, but I wasn’t shocked. Of course he said and wrote those things. I know that racism is learned, and I know that he grew up with parents who are more offended by the acknowledgment of racism than racism itself. I wasn’t crazy to worry some 15 years ago about who my nephew would become – but knowing that doesn’t make it any less painful or exhausting.

If he were a stranger or someone about whose approval I didn’t care, things would be easy: I would cut him out of my life. “There is no room here for people who do not value my very being,” I would say. But this is so very different. This is my nephew.

So I’m mourning the loss of the little boy who I have loved so much, and I fear that I can never get him back. I don’t know if there is a way to reverse not just the years of exposure to indifference to racism, but the adamant faith to which he was exposed that black people are just making it up. I don’t want to say it – I’m afraid there will be no going back if I do – but I’m terrified that my nephew is just another racist white man. And I’m more terrified that he is proud of it.

Having a black aunt didn’t save him. Having a black aunt like me – one who is loud and aggressive about her beliefs – hasn’t made him consider changing his mind. The hurt I’ve displayed to him hasn’t made him wonder if he could be wrong. I’m afraid it might’ve just given him more ammunition. 

I’ve been contemplating whether this is a relationship worth working on. I want to believe that this is a wound that can be healed. I just can’t help but fear that he is simply another one of those men that I hate.


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