Like most of America, I’ve had a week. Whereas Charlottesville, Va., touched off a week of necessary discussions, debates and arguments centering largely on our president’s ignorance and emboldening of the very real problems in America, I’ve had exhausting, draining and, ultimately, disappointing arguments about America’s race problem within my own house with my mother.
You see, my mother (and aunt) came to visit me from Michigan for a week to spend time with three of her grandbabies. Full disclosure: My mother voted for Donald Trump. She’s also white. And she and her (white) husband are members of the National Rifle Association, own two small businesses—including a gun shop—and were actually screwed by Obamacare. In short, my mother is probably what a typical, white Midwesterner looks like on paper.
Except, she’s not. She’s an immigrant. She moved to the United States from France in 1970 when she was (I believe) 13 years old. My family emigrated from France in search of new opportunities and landed in Washtenaw County, Mich., living in various cities around Ann Arbor, Mich., before settling in the Michigan city of Milan (pronounced My-lin). When my mother got to America, she knew very little English. When she was 18, she joined the U.S. Army and met my father, a black American from Alabama, while they were both stationed in the Panama Canal Zone.
That union birthed two children—me and my younger sister, who was born at the University of Michigan Medical Center. We are biracial, but we are black. Because life happens, we spent our early years with our mother, but when I was 6 (and my sister was 3), we were sent to live with our father in Frankfurt, Germany, where he was stationed. From age 6 until I graduated from high school, I lived with my father and mostly spent summers visiting my mother in Michigan.
I never struggled with my racial identity. When I was young, my father plainly explained to me that while my mother was white, I was not. I was raised in a black household by a black man who felt very strongly about making sure that I was prepared to be a black man in the world. I attended Morehouse College in Atlanta and then moved to Washington, D.C., for graduate school, work and family life. To say that I’ve lived a pretty black existence is an understatement. Even in graduate school, a bunch of my friends from Morehouse and Spelman College moved to D.C. at the same time, so my social circle was set.
During my early years in D.C., my mother and I used to debate race relations frequently. Largely because she felt as if I was the blackest person she knew and it bothered her that I wasn’t, hmm, acknowledging my white half and, by default, her. This wasn’t true. In any conversation about my background, I’d always acknowledged who I was and where I came from, but the truth is, it rarely came up. Most people who met me assumed I was just a light-skinned black dude.
Over time, I noticed that her opinions and politics began to skew right. Or at least, her rhetoric sounded as such. She often questioned my rage at injustices in society. Not so much the instances that annoyed me, but my belief that America, as an institution, was at fault. She preferred to believe that there were just bad apples out there making bad choices. My issues were isolated, not systemic.
No matter how I presented my case, she always found a way to insinuate that maybe it wasn’t as bad as I was making it out to be and that everything wasn’t about race. These conversations always frustrated me because I couldn’t understand how anybody who watched the news, and then heard her own flesh and blood speak passionately about his own experiences, could doubt with so much conviction.
If I’m being honest, there has been a very slow erosion of the relationship over time because of what I view as her lack of perspective about the life of her children. Maybe our reality wasn’t hers on a daily basis, but denying our reality, even passively, was eventually going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Ever since Donald Trump hit the scene, I knew my mother was going to be voting for him. But it wasn’t because of Trump; my mother hated Hillary Clinton. And it’s not about emails or, hell, anything substantive; my mother has a personal hatred for her that I’ve never been able to understand. So her vote for Trump wasn’t surprising or unexpected. But that’s my mother, so I have to love her. Also, again, it wasn’t about Trump for her. She never defended him or said that she believed he’d be this great president; she just couldn’t stomach the idea of Hillary Clinton.
Something, somewhere changed. Shortly after the election, my sister and I had planned to head to Michigan for the Thanksgiving holiday. That visit went off the rails before it even started when my mother decided that we would be going to my stepfather’s family’s house for dinner, a family I knew voted for Trump.
It was too soon after the election; there was no way the entire conversation wasn’t going to be dominated by politics and, in particular, Trump. I told her that I didn’t want to go because I couldn’t sit silently or not engage with people I felt had made a decision that was both ignorant and had actively put my own life in danger. My mother felt that I was being unreasonable but she relented, and we spent Thanksgiving at her house. We managed not to get into a single argument or heated debate about politics, though she and my sister managed to do so while I was out for two hours picking up baby formula.
But on the day my sister and I were leaving Michigan, as we stopped at the restaurant my mother owned, one of the town police officers happened to stop by. She wanted me to meet him so that perhaps I’d change my tune about the police (I have a standard-issue, black-man disdain and distrust of police). She managed to imply to the police officer that several groups (I can only imagine that she meant Black Lives Matter activists) were making it hard for cops like him to do his job. He took one look at me and sidestepped that land mine by simply saying, “There’s a lot happening on both sides that makes it hard for us all,” and then left. I appreciated him for that, honestly. On the other hand, I couldn’t believe what my mother had said. But I was leaving in less than an hour and didn’t feel like getting into any arguments. Besides, I knew there were plenty more arguments to come.
On the Monday before Charlottesville erupted into chaos, my mother and aunt came to visit. As usual, my mom and I had small disagreements about her support for Trump, but I noticed something different about our discussions this time: She was advocating for him. It wasn’t about hating Clinton; she actually liked Trump and what he had to say.
“He tells it like it is,” she said, echoing a common refrain from Trump supporters. On that day, I explained to my mother, in very plain language, why I felt he was dangerous, why Black Lives Matter existed (after she asked my opinion on BLM) and why I viewed the police, as an institution, as problematic. This happened while we were on the way to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
From there, I took her to the Mall. My aunt, who had never been to D.C. before, wanted to get some “D.C. souvenirs.” My mother wanted to get some Trump stuff, including a bright-red “Make America Great Again” T-shirt. She bought one for herself and her husband.
At home, we watched the news, and there was a news story about an inflatable chicken that had flown near the White House. My mother felt that was supremely disrespectful to Trump and voiced her opinion to me. I let her know, in no uncertain terms, that I didn’t care about him being disrespected because he’d disrespected me, my community, and any other possible community he could think of in both word, deed and attempted policy. My mother became upset with me and loudly expressed that he was worthy of my respect as a human being and that he was the most disrespected president ever.
I shot back with facts about the times he’d disrespected various communities, with quotes, and pointed out just how badly President Barack Obama was treated by publications and regular Joes while he was in office.
She informed me that she wasn’t aware of any of what I’d said. Apparently, the local affiliate she claims to watch in Lansing, Mich. (but we all know she only watches Fox News), doesn’t air anything that Trump has said or done. A shouting match ensued. We didn’t speak for hours. At around 11 p.m., I apologized for my tone and said that I’d never want to disrespect her, but I made it clear that I believed everything I’d said. She accepted my apology and said that people were entitled to their opinions.
The next day, my mother showed her entire ass. She basically became Trump, in my own house. My mother decided to don that bright-red “Make America Great Again” T-shirt and asked me to take her out to places while she had that shirt on, putting me in a position of having to appear to support Trump’s election. Again, I put my pride to the side. It’s my mother. She birthed me.
But this is when our relationship hit the point from which I realized we’d never fully recover. When we were getting in the car to head to Rockville, Md., she asked why I found the T-shirt offensive. I told her that by her wearing that shirt, it showed that she didn’t care about my life or those of her grandchildren or daughter; after we argued, she refused to speak to me for hours, again.
She wanted me to take her home. I offered to take her to the airport.
She was leaving the next day, Saturday, which, as we all know now, is the day white supremacists staged their rally in Charlottesville. Amid discussion—she agreed that the white supremacists were appalling and that the police had done a horrible job—she still managed to find a way to support Trump by complaining that people were waiting for him to say something and then complained that he didn’t say enough; her point was that, basically, he couldn’t catch a break.
I took her to the airport, hugged her, kissed her on the cheek, said, “I love you,” and then she said, “It’s been real.”
I read an article on CNN about how slow Trump was to call out the white supremacists in comparison with how quickly he’s called out literally everybody else. It made me realize just how horrible my mother’s ideology is. She is OK without facts even if that means her opinion is harmful and dangerous. I decided at that point I couldn’t deal anymore. I wrote this on Facebook:
Last week proved to me, pretty definitively, something that I feared but hoped wasn’t true: blood is absolutely NOT thicker than dangerous political and racial ideology. Who you support, or don’t, says everything about who you are as a person and what you think about the people around you.
I learned the hard way what happens when somebody you love, who you share blood with, is openly antagonistic to and ignorant about the safety and liberation of my family, my children, my community, and ultimately our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I don’t have space for those people in my life, regardless of who they might be. Choices come with consequences. When you choose to oppose progress and support ignorance, openly, and direct that hatred towards me, I [choose] to let you fly free.
It sucks. It’s disappointing. And I waffled back and forth about that for a few days. But the truth is I know the person on the other end of my dilemma isn’t thinking nearly as much about it as I am, if at all. The only thing they’re thinking about is their own feelings, like always. There are no winners here, but there are only so many losses I can afford to take.
Everybody has a right to their opinions. Once you decide to share [and] act on them, everybody ELSE has a right to respond to them accordingly.
I can’t sit and actively engage with a person—even if it is my mother, whose blood is running through my body—if she doesn’t care about me, my story or what I live through. If she can’t see past her own appreciation for a bigoted, dangerous man, who, because of the position people like her have placed him in, has the ability to do significant damage to my civil liberties, then I don’t know what place she can have, reasonably, in my life. It’s sad. It’s disappointing. It’s my mother.
Blood is not thicker than freedom and it’s not thicker than safety. Sometimes blood is just that, blood. I know my mother loves me; I’m her son. But, honestly, I don’t think my mother cares about what that really means.
Privilege is real. White privilege is real. It turns out, it can even trump blood. That reality is harsh. But it’s real.
Welcome to my reality.