Breaking the Legacy of Silence #49
How I Fought Racism Within a Racist Family
Kim D. Bailey
“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” Malala Yousafzai
Some people urge us not to talk about it. They want us to pretend it isn’t there.
We are a “melting pot” or “tossed salad” with different colors of skin, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and political ideologies.
I was born in Chattanooga, TN just a couple of miles north of the Georgia state line. My family lived in Georgia, in a little city called Rossville, and my great-grandparents lived in a community called Brainerd, which is now incorporated into Chattanooga.
We didn’t come from money. My great-grandmother and great-grandfather both worked until she gave birth to my grandmother. Papa supported the family. My grandmother married and had three sons, and my grandfather worked three jobs to get her a nice house. She worked some, too, for the phone company as a switchboard operator. My dad worked mainly as a construction worker and with his hands.
My mother’s family was extremely poor, in comparison to my father’s. They lived north of the Tennessee River in Red Bank, now incorporated as part of Chattanooga, in a tiny shack with no indoor plumbing until my dad came along and installed it and built on a bathroom for his in-laws. My mother worked as a seamstress, in yarn and carpet mills, and waited tables. Her mother was 14 when she married my grandfather, and neither of them made it past the sixth grade.
Our ancestors were, from what I have been able to gather, mostly white Appalachian stock, a mix of Scottish, Irish, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Viking, and possibly Cherokee. The latter has been hard to tease out because most of those relatives are gone, and it was forbidden to discuss any Native American heritage or tradition among those who stayed in this area instead of going out West on The Trail of Tears.
It was common to hear racial slurs and doctrine in my family. The “n” word was used liberally. My dad forbade me to date any boys who weren’t white. It never crossed his mind to forbid me to date girls, and my first crush happened when I was 12 years old and in sixth grade. When my dad went into the Army, he made some friends who were black. He said they were all right, for “black folk.” I had a best friend while in fifth grade whose parents were from Puerto Rico. I wasn’t permitted to go to her house.
But my family wasn’t “racist.”
When I was around five or six years old, we were sitting in my great-grandparent’s home in Brainerd and my great-grandmother made a comment about a person walking by the house. The person was black, but she used the “n” word.
“Granny, that’s not a nice word.” I said.
“You don’t tell me what words to say, young lady. I’m your elder!” Granny’s blue eyes were gleaming with outrage.
My dad thumped my head with his middle finger, “Don’t you ever disrespect your granny like that again.”
Through tears I glared at them. “It’s not right.” I insisted.
I was a stubborn child, and quite vocal when something was unjust or unfair. I knew it was wrong to reprimand my great-grandmother, but what she said was wrong, too.
After my parents’ divorce we moved to Florida to finish high school. I grew up and moved away to Oklahoma, Texas, and other areas of the country and world, where I learned about other cultures, races, religions, and ideas. I instilled open-mindedness and acceptance of others within my children.
After 31 years away from this area, I moved back in 2012 to be near my supportive aunt and uncle.
And I married a guy who seemed wonderful, and who I felt was kind and good-hearted.
When we met, I told him about my two transgender sons. Let there be no mistake, I made clear that I was against any kind of racism or bigotry. I was vocal, I spoke my mind, and I stood up for other’s rights. He appeared to be okay with all of that. I didn’t hear any racial slurs from him, but I sure did from his family.
Our relationship deteriorated quickly and as it did, I saw the racism, blatant and ugly, in my ex-husband and in his family. They would proclaim they didn’t have a problem with any of those people, but in truth, they didn’t like anyone whose skin color was other than white. They didn’t approve of homosexuals or transgender people (like my two sons) but they said it was none of their business.
Meanwhile, my ex and his brother, his son, and several of his friends have all stockpiled munitions. When I asked why, he said, “A war is coming. Obama ran this country into the ground. We’re taking it back.”
On November 8, 2016, I knew I was leaving him. I cast my vote for Clinton while he cast his for Trump, and then boasted about it. He said it was my problem and I was the one walking away, which I was, but he didn’t take responsibility for the fact that he and his family were against me, my kids, and my voice—my column a source of contention, and any words I spoke against their ideals was not received well.
My ex began to use racial slurs and express racial doctrine openly. I pointed out he didn’t do that when we were first together. He said, “Nope, and you didn’t run your mouth with your writing like you do now, either.”
Just so you know, from an insider’s point of view—as someone who was raised in a racist culture—not all people who have a problem with other races, cultures, or beliefs are Christian.
The Charlottesville nightmare showed a lot of Nazi’s and White Supremacists spouting their Christian beliefs and quoting the bible. My ex and his family may claim they are Christian, but they don’t even know what books are in the bible, much less do they spout religious reasons for their racism. They simply hate anyone not like them. I am part of their targeted hate.
Despite the anathema of racism and hate around us, we can rise above it and overcome it.
I know, because I did.
I refused to allow myself or my children to be indoctrinated into a mindset that viewed any other person as less than because of their skin color. This refusal was extended to others with differing beliefs or lifestyles.
If you aren’t hurting others, intending to cause harm, and you are practicing compassion and peaceful disagreement—then you are doing the right thing. If you hate another for any reason, then it’s wrong.
Those who actively spout their hate, such as those in Charlottesville, are choosing a course of action and communication that is doomed to fail. No one can win.
It’s time to assess our own latent racist beliefs or indoctrination. Yes, many of us have them. Owning it gives us power to change and to denounce anything that extolls hatred or harm to another group of people. Period.
We must learn how to be effective allies to people of color, the LGBTQ/NB/GF/Asexual community, and to those who have different religious beliefs.
And let me tell you, if this Georgia girl can do it, anyone can.