What it took to finally confront my family about race and politics

As the mother of a mixed-race daughter, I was troubled by my white relatives’ views. Why was I terrified to speak up?

My four-year-old daughter has recently started to notice skin color. “Mommy,”

My four-year-old daughter has recently started to notice skin color. “Mommy,” she points out when we take a shower, “your skin is white, and my skin is brown, and Papi’s skin is brown!” With a four-year-old’s mania for classification, she lines up our arms in order of deepening darkness. She counts: “Two browns, and one white!”

The other day in the car when I said a curse word, she asked me why, and I said it was because Donald Trump was taking children away from their mothers at the border. “Why?” she asked. I tried to distill immigration down to a child’s logic: “Because where they live is not safe. So they come here to have a safer life. But some people get mad that they come here. They don’t want them here.”

“And he takes their kids away?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Her lip trembled. I once made the mistake of reading a library book about a hippo that lost its mother and she cried so hard I finally had to bust out a hidden stash of M&Ms.

I reiterated that some people don’t want these families here, and want to punish them. She did what she does with any situation that is incomprehensible: she just kept asking why, assuming there has to be an explanation that will make sense to her. Finally I said, “Because they have brown skin, like you and Papi. Donald Trump doesn’t like brown skin.”

“He doesn’t like brown skin?” she asked. I nodded.

“He doesn’t like me?” she asked.

“Well, no,” I said. Then, “Yes. But not you specifically. Just people like you. It’s not because you’re bad. It’s because they don’t like brown skin. You’re not bad. This is why it’s important to stand up for these other families.”

Her gaze was unflinching. I was flailing; my back hurt from arching around to look at her.

“It is very important to love people no matter what color their skin is,” I told her. “To be a good person. And to be proud of your brown skin.”

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I knew explaining race to my Mexican American child was inevitable, and I knew that I’d fumble through it. What I did not expect was how acutely I would come to feel my whiteness.

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, in a culture of extreme whiteness. There was only one black student at my high school; I knew no Latinos.

In college, my experience was not all that different, although my first real boyfriend was a black man whose father was from Ghana and whose mother was African American. On a trip we took together in Italy, I drank half a bottle of vodka, tripped, and smashed my face on to a stone plaza. Both of my lips were torn open and several teeth were knocked out. When we got to the emergency room, the doctors shoved my boyfriend outside, barring him from entry, insisting he’d abused me, making mock punches to get their point across.

I didn’t have the words to explain and they didn’t want to listen, so I sat for hours bleeding alone on a stretcher while he roamed the streets. We laughed about it on the way back to France, while I threw up every 20 minutes out the window, suffering the excesses of the night before. When we flew together, we’d conduct a little experiment: I would take all of our bags and breeze through security, and then he’d take all of our bags and every one of them would be inspected.

I should have known then about whiteness as a honeyed protective coating, one that would shield me but that could be lethal for everyone else. But in the way of so much of clueless youth, it was largely a game.

And then in 2006, in Oaxaca, Mexico, I met the man who would become my husband; in 2010, we married and moved to the US.

Jorge, too, had grown up in a highly homogeneous community in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte, and in his childhood rarely encountered anyone of another race or ethnicity. But whereas my homogeneity corresponded to a privilege I took for granted, his corresponded to an internalized inferiority.

He studied business administration because he did not think it was practical for a kid like him – poor, indigenous, rural – to study photography. I studied history of science because it was interesting. He cleaned hotels and worked as a barista, getting by on rice and tortillas prepared by a señora at a corner stand, all the while taking photography workshops, applying for arts fellowships, and making a name for himself. Eventually, he got a position as the darkroom manager at a prestigious museum that featured workshops with renowned international photographers.

He had no interest in coming to the US and was never mesmerized by my foreignness. He liked me, the fact that I was outdoorsy and slightly wild and very different from him: bold where he was shy, demanding where he was acquiescent, hungry for novelty where he was rooted in place, set on running loops around the local park while he listened to Yo-Yo Ma and sketched.

We were married in Mexico, but in the US my parents held a small reception for family. An uncle, a conservative who lives in the hyper-white, hyper-Republican suburbs of Cincinnati, asked Jorge in rhetorical tones if he was “happy to be in America”.

Jorge, being Jorge, did not mention that in fact his ancestors were the indigenous peoples of the Americas. He did not say, “No, I hate it here, the food is horrible and the culture is deadening and the people are ignorant and racist.” He did not say, “What in the world does that mean?” He said, “Yes.” We made chitchat about the weather and drank beer and thanked everyone for coming.

Central Americans head toward the US through Mexicali.
Central Americans head toward the US through Mexicali. Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

Five years later, when our daughter was one, we were at a Fourth of July party in the Columbus neighborhood where I grew up. It was a block party; people wandered on to the lawn from surrounding streets, carrying foil-wrapped American flag cakes and plastic cups of wine. I took my daughter to get some blueberries, leaving Jorge alone for a minute on the grass.

When I returned, a police officer was kneeling beside him. For a minute, I actually thought, “Oh, the police officer’s chatting with Jorge!”

This is when my white shame finally showed itself: after all those years of progressive politics, in that moment, staring into the righteous eyes of that white male cop who was asking my husband what he was doing here, I got it.

The rage that bloomed in me was like nothing I’d ever felt.

Being white, I got to act on it. The cop took one look at my white face and stood up, nodded, walked away. I followed him. “Why were you interrogating my husband?” I asked. “Why him? Why?” I began yelling.

Later, we would find out that an old white man in a red polo shirt, whom I’d noticed following Jorge with his eyes from the moment we arrived, had told the cop to interrogate Jorge, and the cop had done it. Later, after we filed a complaint with the police department, the cop would clarify that he worried Jorge was homeless and thought he might have a medical problem, despite the fact that Jorge is fit and trim and clean-cut, that he was wearing a new T-shirt and J Crew shorts and had not had a drop to drink.

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For years, both before and after that incident, I did not talk to my extended family about race.

While my immediate family is progressive, much of my extended family is highly conservative and tends to both doubt the existence of racial bias and sympathize with racist rhetoric about, say, the Obamas or immigration.

In 2016, most of them voted for Trump.

On the night of the election, Jorge laughed and I cried. He was utterly unsurprised. “This is your country,” he shrugged. “It’s always been like this.”

“It’s not the one I know,” I insisted. But it is the one I know now. Family members of mine voted for a man who campaigned denouncing Mexicans as rapists and terrorists and criminals, who used “Mexican” as a slur, and the same family members could not see how that might affect my Mexican American family. Many of them embraced the notion of “both sides” after Charlottesville.

In the year after the election, I tried not to confront them about “politics”, as if politics weren’t a series of decisions, from their votes all the way up to executive orders, that would reshape my life.

I didn’t talk politics, and then my healthcare premium went up to $800 a month with a $12,000 deductible because of Republican insistence on destroying the Affordable Care Act without any alternative.

I didn’t talk politics, and I saw families who looked like mine being separated at the border; a man my husband’s age, with a child our daughter’s age, who hanged himself in a cell when his child was taken from him.

I didn’t talk politics, and a Central American mother stayed at our house, slept with the light on, and sobbed so hard at our kitchen table it seemed her whole body might break.

I didn’t talk politics, and I volunteered after an immigration raid that detained 149 people in Salem, Ohio, watching a mother of five – who worked in a bacon factory producing food my extended family eats – weep while she prayed for her children.

I didn’t talk politics, and one Saturday morning, as I was running in our neighborhood park in Pittsburgh, I got a call from my husband telling me not to come home: there was an active shooter at a synagogue blocks from our house.

This shooter, it would turn out, had spent countless hours online being radicalized by the same far-right rhetoric – antisemitic conspiracy theories, fear and demonization of immigrants and refugees – that members of my family tacitly endorse.

It is thankless to get into Facebook arguments, and painful to enter into live ones. The latter experience floods me with dread and feels, in a visceral way, antithetical and unnatural. For whenever I meet my extended family in person, I am reminded that I like them. That they are just people, after all, people who give my daughter plush dinosaurs or make corny jokes.

They support me, always, even when they don’t understand what in the hell I’m doing. I could show up any night and sleep in one of their houses; I could leave my daughter with them, and they would cuddle her and feed her American Kraft Singles. At the same time, many of them sympathize with the ideology of the far right, which has made me fear for my husband’s life, which has led to a sharp uptick in the number of hate groups and crimes in the US, which has inspired a massacre in my neighborhood.

The idea isn’t to attack, demonize, or shame them – as Brené Brown has pointed out, shame is not a productive emotion. It makes people shut down rather than open up. But I have lived for too long in the cognitive dissonance of writing senators and representatives and marching and tweeting and Facebooking without ever actually talking to the people who perpetuate what I am fighting against.

On the left, in progressive urban areas, we have policed each other’s rhetoric for the subtlest infractions and slip-ups and called each other out relentlessly for ironies or privilege without really contending with the fact that a sizeable percentage of the country is OK with caging brown children and justifying white nationalism.

We condemn this without engaging with it, while it becomes clear that the rhetoric of the far right is acceptable, refreshing even, to a disturbingly significant swath of the country.

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A few days after the massacre at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, I heard an interview on All Things Considered with the Emory University religion professor Deborah Lipstadt. She pointed out that there had been a 50% increase in antisemitic incidents in the past two years in the US.

The host asked Lipstadt what people could do to combat antisemitism, and the single most important thing Lipstadt noted was speaking out against racist comments. She said: “You know, Thanksgiving is coming up, and we all have a curmudgeon uncle who may make some comment. And people around the table, you know, say, oh, that’s Uncle John, and they let it pass. We can’t do that. We may not get, you know, Uncle John to change his views, but silence in the face of bigotry is acquiescence.”

I reached that point last June, when my husband, daughter, and I went to the Families Belong Together march in DC. It was hot. By 10am my daughter was covered in sweat and begging to go home, and I was that mom, that indie-film-character-of-the-activist-mom, saying, “There are little children who don’t have their mommies who are suffering, so you can sit here on the grass and eat your apple!” She held out.

Sometime before the speeches started, I was interviewed by Fox News. I was holding Elena and sweating and she was burying her pouty face in my chest and sweating.

In the interview, I said I was horrified by what was happening since I have a daughter with roots in Latin America. On the drive back from DC later that afternoon, I got my first hate mail. Trolls on Twitter attacked me for all the usual reasons. And then I got a Facebook message from my aunt.

“We saw you on Fox News!” she said. “You were very eloquent and spoke well.” It was a very sweet message and very much in the white nice tradition, and finally, I saw my chance.

A vigil for victims of the synagogue shooting.
A vigil for victims of the synagogue shooting. Photograph: Jared Wickerham/EPA

I did not rage or blame. Instead, I told her what that protest meant to me. I told her I had helped immigrants who had been detained in a massive raid on a factory in Ohio. I told her what I’d seen there. I told her about Jorge’s family, about how with just a few different circumstances he might have been climbing the border wall at night with Elena in his arms. I told her about the migrant women who’ve stayed at our house after being released from Eloy, in Arizona, and how they sleep with the lights on, how their children were taken from them screaming in the middle of the night.

I told her, “I am telling you this out of love, as a godchild.” That was true. She used to feed me Cheez-its and tall glasses of whole milk when I spent the night at her house. She read my book and sent me a letter afterward praising me for my bravery.

It felt awful to write that message. I was sick to my stomach afterward. I thought, OK, maybe that’s the end of that. But she wrote back and thanked me for telling her a story beyond the fear-driven media narratives. I sent her an article that came out in the New York Times about the work Jorge and I have been doing and she read it. This feels like progress.

It is not about politics. It is about saying, “This is my life, and this is what I care about.” I care about immigrants. Here are some of their stories. It might be the same with any other issue: I care about healthcare. Let me tell you what I have suffered. Or: I care about abortion. Let me tell you the decision I had to make.

This is not politics. This is us: who we are, what we believe in, who we love.

At a candlelit vigil in Pittsburgh shortly after zero tolerance was enacted, when the ProPublica tape of children sobbing and begging for their parents had just gone viral, a Black Lives Matter activist chastised all the white people in the church. “This is easy,” she told us, and it was. It felt really good to be in a room full of like-minded righteous people, mostly white. The real work, she said, is exhausting. It isn’t just the Instagram post of a postcard to a senator. It isn’t just the rant over beers with a friend. It is a thorny, painstaking conversation with an aunt who lives thousands of miles away, remembering how she took care of you, remembering how she sends you the $25 gift card every year on your birthday, remembering her humanity, and then trying to show her the humanity of the people you love.

Raging at people “on the other side” in anger and righteousness is not likely to disrupt the cycle of hate; I can see this clearly. But being silent is not kind. It just hurts someone else.

Last weekend, I listened to the poet laureate Tracy K Smith on the On Being podcast. She has spent the past year traveling around the country, reading poetry and talking to people. She told host Krista Tippett that she is interested in “the way our voices sound when we dip below the decibel level of politics”.

I love how this sentiment gently undermines the division between politics and life. When I talk about politics, I am my most righteous, performative self. But when I talk about my life, my fears, my love, I am a person.

This past Thursday, I saw Smith in Pittsburgh. She took to the stage and said, smiling, “Love is scary.” I kept repeating this to myself all week. Many people I love are scared of difference, terrified to accept it, let it in. I am scared to talk to them, and also to love them when I feel threatened by them.

These are not equivalent reactions with equivalent consequences, but I think this can be a useful mental framework for moving past my own fear, deeper into love and its responsibilities. The scary kind of love doesn’t ignore difference. It sees it, moves closer to it, and engages.

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