Racism is, inarguably, a foundational element of American society. Fortunately, many Americans have started to address their implicit and explicit prejudices—but if confronting our own racism is difficult, tackling the prejudices of our parents is damn near impossible. Whether it's embarrassing comments we'd rather ignore or destructive reactions that alter our relationships forever, the negative ways in which our parents engage with race has an impact on our lives.
Acknowledging a parent's racism can be awkward and painful, as well as a necessary first step to fostering constructive conversations. With that in mind, here are some stories from some forthcoming souls about the most racist thing their parents ever did.
THEY TOOK ME OFF THE FAMILY PLAN FOR DATING A BLACK MAN
My parents always got stiff anytime they talked to a black person, and they'd quickly change the channel when a "black TV show" came on. When I hit puberty, I found myself almost exclusively attracted to black guys. Meeting black guys in real life was too risky, so I opted for online dating, where my first relationship took place over picture messages and FaceTime calls. I always covered my tracks and kept my phone on hand, but I eventually slipped up: I walked into the kitchen, and my mom was staring down at my phone in horror at a photo of my black beau's smiling face. She looked up at me and—swear to God—shed a literal tear before leaving the room. Later that night, my dad told me I was no longer on the family phone plan. "You won't use something we pay for to talk to those people."
THEY GOT THEIR DNA TESTED
My mom's side of the family has always claimed strong English roots. I've never been convinced in the purity of our bloodline, though, because there's something not entirely European about our facial features. People throughout my life have asked me what I really am and are unsatisfied when I tell them that I come from strictly English stock. At a family reunion, I was sitting at a table with my mother and some family members, so I posed a simple question: "Does anybody know if we're part Asian? Maybe even Middle Eastern?" The idea was quickly dismissed. Later that night, I found out that my mom had spent a ton of money on one of those at-home DNA testing kits. "I thought about what you said at dinner," she told me, "and I just want to make sure nothing is wrong."
MY DAD REMEMBERED NOTHING… BUT HIS HATRED OF THE MIDDLE EAST
My father was born in West Virginia and lived most of his life in Ohio; in both places, he surrounded himself with other white people. That changed toward the end of his life when we sent him to live in a nursing home with a diverse staff. Even though the nurses were equally friendly, he showed a strong preference for the white nurses, saying things to them like, "It's just nice to know I'm in good hands now." He was suffering from dementia and struggled to remember anything. Since he virtually ignored the nurses of color, it was pretty obvious to us what was going on, but we shrugged it off until one day when we found my father watching wall-to-wall 9/11 anniversary coverage. At one point, a nurse who was clearly of Middle Eastern descent and wearing a headscarf walked in the room, and my father turned toward her and yelled, "Get the hell out of my room!" I was mortified.
MY MOM WAS RACIST AGAINST HER OWN KIND
My mom and uncle grew up in the hood. Their mother was chronically ill and their father left them at an early age, so they each lost huge chunks of their childhoods working side gigs after school to support the family. Fortunately, they each built pretty great lives for themselves and their own families. My uncle and his wife's first child was a girl, but some minor complications kept my aunt and baby cousin in the hospital for a few extra days. During that time, my mom invited my uncle to come over for a home-cooked meal, and as soon as she cleared the table, she dramatically clutched my uncle's hands and said, "You need to give that baby girl up for adoption. Black men don't raise girls right." I can still feel the weight of my jaw fall as it hit the floor. My uncle abruptly left, and it took years for them to rebuild their relationship (during which he very successfully raised his daughter, by the way).
WHITE PEOPLE SMELL LIKE SANDWICH MEAT
I grew up in a tight-knit, churchgoing community in rural Virginia. My family, my church, and most of my friends were black, but I had a few white friends from school. When I was 16, everybody from my congregation was going to make a road trip to Atlanta for a church convention, and since my pastors encouraged community building, my parents let my brother and I invite one friend each to come along. I picked my white friend Stacey, but my parents shut me down. "White people smell like wet dog and bologna," my dad said. "I'm not going to put up with that shit for eight hours." I ended up bringing a black friend who threw up in the back seat of my dad's car. It smelled much worse than bologna.
ONLY WHITES SUFFER FROM DEPRESSION
I was a sad, fat black girl without many friends who started cutting at 12. I eventually found my place within a ragtag group of misfit white kids who supported one another when no one else would. A few days after my 15th birthday, I reached a breaking point and told my mom, "I'm so sad, but I don't know why. Something is wrong with me." I'll never forget her response: "Girl, you better get out of my face, trying to be like your white friends. You're not depressed, that doesn't happen to black people."
MY WHITE MOM TOLD ME NOT TO EAT MY ASIAN AUNT'S FOOD
The first time my white family met my Asian aunt that eloped with my uncle was at my grandmother's house during a weekly family dinner. I was nervous about how my family would react, but it was a beautiful day, and everybody was having a great time. My grandmother's dog liked my aunt, too, as she played with it for a few minutes before retreating into the kitchen to prepare a salad. My mother's face froze, and as she locked eyes with my grandmother, I realized that they didn't trust my aunt to wash her hands before making the salad. At dinner, my mother and grandmother avoided the salad, and my mother physically stopped the bowl from reaching me. A week later, I was watching a show that mentioned the Chinese Yulin Dog Meat Festival, and my mother walked by and said, "That's why I didn't let you eat that salad."
MY DAD SAW WILLIAM HUNG EVERYWHERE
Like a lot of Americans in the early 2000s, my family was obsessed with American Idol. Laughing at the bad auditions was our favorite bonding activity—especially William Hung. Watching an Asian man sing "She Bangs!" for 60 seconds was the funniest thing my dad had ever seen, and for years afterward, my dad would chuckle and start singing "She Bangs!" under his breath every time he saw an Asian man in public. One time, we were at a baseball game, and my dad had a few beers under his belt, so he suddenly began singing "She Bangs!" loud enough for me to hear from a few seats away. I looked over and realized it was because an Asian man was walking near his side of the aisle. The white couple sitting behind my family realized what was going on, and audibly said "wow," which triggered the Asian guy to realize what was going on. He looked pissed, but my drunk black dad just sang louder—and he added a little dance, too.
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