I was five years old when I ran into my mom’s bedroom and shouted at the top of my lungs, “Mommy! I know who I'm going to marry! Ozzie Smith and Ray Lankford!"
I remember her laughing and telling me I’d have to pick one because I couldn’t marry both, and, in fact, I couldn’t marry either because they were both spoken for. Something I didn’t think about back then, but I realize today is that not once did any of my mother’s rebuttals have anything to do with race. Why would that be surprising to me?
I grew up in a homogeneous, conservative, farming community without any people of color. I grew up in a family that called me “nigger baby” because my olive skin would turn several shades darker in summer. I had a grandmother who called me “Jiggaboo” when I wanted my hair in small braids. I grew up in a family in which half of them don’t agree with interracial relationships. So, when I look back, I see how people from the very same family can have vastly different views about life. I understand racial divides. Racism isn’t always taught outright. Often, it's subconscious. It’s how we talk about things, what we think about things, and how those conversations affect what we believe.
As a child, I would entrench myself in National Geographic and encyclopedias. I was intrigued by everyone and everything that wasn’t like me. I knew, from a very early age, I would likely be in an interracial relationship. With that in mind, I geared my projects in high school and college around race and culture. I dedicated my master’s program to studying race in family dynamics. It didn’t matter how much studying, researching, reading, and projects I did. Nothing could have prepared me to be the wife of a Black man or the mother of multiracial children, nothing but the experience itself.
What is it like being a multiethnic family in 2020?
It’s beautifully complex.
It feels like you live between two worlds that you love without fully being a part of either. However, the weight of being a multiethnic family will never outweigh the blessing of perspective it offers.
For the first time in our 17-year relationship, JG and are being confronted with a very different type of racial tension, whereas before, we were often met with genuine curiosity of our relationship and how our families felt about it. Now, our presence seems to create tension in white and Black realms. We were used to the whispers of curiosity, but we weren’t prepared for whispers of traitorship. Much of our life, in this current moment, is spent doing one of three things: inviting, engaging, and ignoring.
Our interracial status offers us a unique position in society. At this time, we feel a responsibility to bridge the current divide that exists between our ethnicities, not only for the sake of our children, but for the sake of America. For a country that was born in diversity, we have surely forgotten where we all came from, how we all got here, and to whom we belong.
A family friend, Cornel West, once said, “A fully functional multiracial society cannot be achieved without a sense of history and open, honest dialogue.” Knowing that knowledge lays to rest assumptions. JG and I make it a point to invite conversations about race. We acknowledge that the current racial tensions in America have brought an almost “second awakening,” similar to that of the race riots in the 60s. We quickly realized that we were “neutral ground” for many thoughts and conversations regarding race. We have been approached to offer insight from both sides. This wasn’t easy for either of us. We had to willingly set down our own agendas and ask God to guide our steps, knowing that every conversation would be unpredictable. We had to accept that we might get uncomfortable and we might leave feeling misunderstood or hurt. We agreed that it was a risk worth taking. Our pastor once said, “Avoiding offense in your life is impossible, but living offended is a choice.”
With much internal struggle, we decided to shed light on our experiences regarding race, microaggressions, stereotyping, and racism. This was a part of our life we tended to only share with other families, like ours or other people of color (POC) in our lives, knowing that they will understand and not question the validity of our story or suggest the actual intention of those behind the hurtful acts. Doing this proved to be helpful in that our stories sometimes resulted in empathy and opened more doors to future conversations. Looking back, it proved to be more helpful than harmful but that doesn’t mean the process didn’t hurt or reveal telling things about people we love. By telling these stories, we invited people around us to engage.
Engaging was much easier than acknowledging the silence we first experienced. Had we taken the silence of some of our closest family and friends to heart, we could have allowed bitterness to damage those relationships. As we began to engage, we learned that those who had been silent in the past admitted that they didn’t understand, didn’t know what to say, or just didn’t know any better but they were now willing to learn. God revealed that it was better to assume the best of people rather than the worst. Doing so, even for those who still refuse to acknowledge the issues, is what He calls us to do.
We didn’t want to force engagement but we also wanted to acknowledge the silence of many. I finally opened up with a poem, one I would have never shared publicly but that I felt compelled to share at that moment. This was a poem about silence and coming together. From there, people began reaching out. Our most difficult conversations were and will continue to be with my side of the family -- a white, conservative, military, middle-class family from a small town. At the end of the day, we choose to focus on the opportunity to share our experiences and our fears with those who want to listen and have a desire to learn and even with those who want to argue because the truth of the matter is -- we are practicing unity, even with those who disagree with us. We have also learned that to maintain unity, you have to know when to speak and when to stay silent and pray.
Admittedly, my husband is much better at this than me. He says that part of that is born in the weariness of his words falling on deaf ears and the fact that he chooses his battles wisely. He quickly assesses if the conversation will be fruitful. If not, he chooses not to engage. I, on the other hand, am much more confrontational and a lot less diplomatic. My father-in-law lovingly refers to me as “The Bulldog.”
I had a hard time listening to my daughter tell me about how her friend called it “gross” because she kissed her Black dad goodbye. I had a hard time hearing about my husband being stopped and questioned in a store because he was carrying out our very light skinned, blonde-haired daughter who was having a tantrum. I had a hard time being quiet when my five-year-old daughter told me she couldn’t be in the sun because if her skin got darker people wouldn’t be her friend. There are some things in my life I can’t ignore, so it hurts when those I love ignore it. However, this year taught me that some things are worth ignoring for personal peace.
It’s difficult to train a river to flow a new way when it’s been flowing the same way for many generations; however, tending to the trickle of a path less taken will eventually lead to a greater flow down the new path. JG, myself, and our children are choosing to tend the trickle of people in our lives who desire to understand, and we are going to ignore the silence and offhand comments of those who just don’t want to listen or open themselves to be uncomfortable.
I’m learning that you can’t win them all. As my dad always said, “You can lead the horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” There are times when you have to choose to set boundaries and walk away. God has taught our family so much about boundaries this year -- why they are helpful, when they are helpful, and how they can be harmful. In fact, be sure to check back in for my series on boundaries that launches next week. I will discuss the importance of boundaries, testing boundaries, and setting boundaries. Boundaries are the most loving things we can set to protect ourselves and our relationships with others.