Any holiday season can be stressful, but this year it is intensifying my already complicated family dynamics.
As we move into the era of the new President-elect, all over the web, in schools and at workplaces, many Americans are challenging and questioning interracial relationships in new (and old) ways. Unfortunately, many others are having similarly intense reactions from their loved ones around what this election says about us, as Americans and, ultimately, as individuals. Many people of color in relationships with white folks have recently seen sides of those they love that they hoped did not exist.
This complexity all became real to me a few days after the election as I was driving to my parents’ house in Plum Borough. (My parents are white, and they adopted me, a black Brazilian, as an infant.)
Driving through the windy road I usually take through many suburban communities to get to my mom and dad’s house, I was thinking about how surprised I was that there were no Trump campaign signs. Of course, the second I thought that, one sign after another became visible. As I saw more and more, my eyes began to well up. I wanted to scream. Eventually I did. I screamed and cried the rest of the way to their house. It was a kind of wailing, a mourning-a-death kind of sound.
I sat down at the table where my father was having lunch. I told him, “I have never been this afraid of white people before.”
I believed the election would give a pass to so many who were looking to be violent but had not yet. It made me think about the person who painted a swastika on a tree on Blessing Street in the Hill District right before Election Day. This is the neighborhood I live in and I drive by it every day. The city, after my numerous 311 reports, painted a black box over it almost a month later.
I felt a deep ancestral pain. I needed strength. This is when I tend to go to my parents’ house, when I need to feel safe and can be myself.
But my father became defensive at my comment. “Defensive” may be an understatement. He had never reacted this way before, proclaiming his inability to change that he is a white man. My father misunderstands my need to address truths and to challenge norms as “anger and angst.” It ended as one of the worst standoffs, if not the worst, in our entire history.
While these experiences are important, they can be very painful for both parties.
You see, when you are in a healthy interracial relationship, all bets are off. Vulnerability is imperative, while also having the patience and compassion to understand each other on a remarkably deep level. It is key to being sure the relationship is rooted in the right place, one of love and of cultural respect. When deeply internalized and often unchallenged beliefs arise, the tension follows suit.
There are racial and gender ideologies at play that cut to the bone on both sides that I have been more than aware of since I was young. That day I knew what I came with, but what did he come with? I was devastated and reached out immediately to people I hoped would understand and offer some insight.
I sat down with a friend and confidant who knows a thing or two about interracial relationships.
Amy Scott, 34, is a biracial Hapa whose Asian parents each remarried a white partner after divorcing. Growing up, Amy struggled to own her identity as an Asian woman while acknowledging the privilege she experienced as the daughter of white parents.
I wanted to see if Amy had experienced tension in any of her interracial relationships as a result of the election, and she certainly had.
Amy told me about a trip she took during the primaries with her stepmother and her white, conservative husband who she had married years after Amy’s father had died. Her stepmother had asked him not to bring up Donald Trump or the campaign. Amy is usually someone who enjoys just about any conversation, but she agreed that was the right call this time.
“We’re not very close, and I felt at a loss to show him how devastating the impact of a Trump presidency could be on people of color, immigrants, women, queer people, refugees, people with disabilities and many others,” she said.
“Either he doesn’t see it, or he doesn’t care enough to oppose it, and either way it’s awful. I haven’t talked to him since the election, and I’m struggling to decide whether and how to bring it up.”
This is a foreign feeling to Amy. Avoiding important topics. Before this divisive presidential campaign, she had chosen to take a different approach with her step-grandfather. Amy had been warned not to bring up race with him. He had made his racist beliefs, particularly about the Chinese, clear to the family and to her. But her willingness to challenge his beliefs, she says, “helped us build a more meaningful connection.”
She’s a bit more intimidated about confronting differing beliefs now, with other people in her white extended family and her network of friends who may have voted for Trump or tacitly supported his campaign by failing to challenge people close to them on their choices. Racism does not simply live in outward bigotry, like the “alt-right” or neo-nazism, but, more importantly, it lives in the denial of institutionalized racism and the refusal to grow past your own identity and its limitations.
“There’s a deep hurt underneath it all for me,” Amy said, “but it’s generally hard to share this with white people without feeling like they’ll respond defensively.”
Interracial relationships present unique challenges, and it always takes mindfulness. For Amy, the greatest challenges are in “deciding how much energy to expend supporting people as they navigate identity, how much to challenge them when they say or do something racist or fail to see how race intersects with every other identity.”
She added that “it’s exhausting being exposed repeatedly to your loved ones’ deeply ingrained rejection of your identities.” Yet Amy says she feels a responsibility to speak up; she views it as an expression of love both to herself and to the other person. I agree very much with this sentiment.
Having a fierce support network is a matter of life or death for so many living with complex and intersecting identities. Growth is always personal; it’s a choice we make. One can only hope that they are accepted and loved throughout the process. For me and my family, I am grateful that our love allows for the uncomfortable and often scary path to our truths. Together, we can navigate the deepest, most treacherous waters of self growth and accountability.
Liana Maneese is the director of Adopting Identity and The Good Peoples Group, a community support process with the motto: Confront yourself. Live with Integrity. Disrupt Oppression. Located at 460 Melwood Ave., Unit 211, Oakland. Liana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.