I’m the daughter of Trinidadian immigrants to Canada—a Black woman of East Indian and African heritage, like Kamala Harris. Like the Democratic vice presidential candidate, I also went to high school in Montreal. And like her, my husband is white. With these similarities, I’ve wondered what Kamala Harris family gatherings look like. They have to be better than my own.
No matter what, relationships with in-laws can be tricky. But this is especially true in interracial relationships, where you could find yourself confronting a bright orange sign blaring, “Earth’s Most Endangered Species: THE WHITE RACE,” in your brother-in-law-to-be’s garage, while your toddler-aged daughter bounces on your hip. You might have to swallow your shock-induced nausea, return to the house, and compliment your sister-in-law to be on her manicotti, because these people are a part of your daughter’s family, because you are afraid, and because this wasn’t the first time you didn’t know what else to do.
While this was the first evidence of their sign-up-for-membership racism, it was far from the first time my partner’s family revealed their racial hatred.
The string of incidents began in 2008 when, after my not-yet-husband moved to Texas where I planned to join him, I accepted his mother’s invitation to a Fourth of July party. By then, he and I had been together for over a year, but this marked the first time I’d be on my own with his family. As a BBQ complete with stars-and-stripes plates wore on, it was late-afternoon before I finally slipped away to the bathroom, where, through the window, I heard: “That place is great because there are no (racial slur) there.” There was the giggle and a female voice. “Shhh…She’s inside!” Old tears spilled over. I wiped them away and returned to the party because I didn’t know what else to do.
On another solo visit to his mother’s house, I endured her account of how a Black priest (“Who was very nice”) administered last rites as her husband lay dying. As she told it, her husband, (“Who—no offense—was prejudiced”) woke to find a Black man standing over him, and she claimed the shock essentially pushed her husband to his grave. At her kitchen table, I said, “I’m sorry for your loss,” because I was too afraid to say, “Am I really hearing this?”
But when my not-yet-husband’s brother referred to a landscaping project as “(racial slur) work,” I couldn’t stay silent. “What’s wrong with you?” I demanded as he stormed away. His wife explained, “He’s mad because he swore he’d never use that word again in front of you. If you want to get him back, you should call him an asshole. He hates that word.” In that moment, I might have laughed, because I wanted to cry.
Years later, on an island in the Caribbean, my partner asked me to marry him. Surrounded by sun and surf, our families so far away, getting engaged seemed like the logical next step after moving across the country together, enduring the natural highs and lows of any relationship, and navigating a range of tensions—racist family-members, awkward looks in still-segregated neighborhoods—that came with being a biracial couple. But three years after he offered me a ring at sunrise, we couldn’t get it together to plan a wedding—maybe because I couldn’t imagine spending what should be one of the most beautiful days of my life with people who felt comfortable using racial slurs.
As it turns out, having a mixed-raced child is easier than planning a mixed-race wedding.
In 2012, we welcomed our little Texan. Our daughter is the first girl in her father’s family in more than one hundred years. And on her second trip to New Jersey, she clung to me as I wondered: What exactly is Earth’s most endangered species?
In the ensuing years, my to-be-mother-in-law tried to slow the growing silence between us, and I grew tired of her pleas. “What do you want me to say? We’re family,” she’d explain, as if my being tied to her would dilute their racism. I grew tired of my fianceé’s brother’s versions of an apology: “I don’t mean you. You’re different. You have an education.” I was also angry with my fiancée for relentlessly asking, “What do you want me to do?”
In the beginning, I did try to answer his question. But I became overwhelmed by the fatigue that comes with educating people who might not want to learn. And I stopped looking for answers, because his family’s can’t we all just get along? began to feel more like can’t you just make us feel better?
For years, the fights were regular, heated, and tearful. I wanted nothing to do with his family, and some days I wanted nothing to do with him. But we continued to manage increasingly stressful visits to see family in the Northeast—the mere anticipation of which would cause relationship strife for months prior.
However, things changed.
When my fiancée and I signed the wrong domestic partnership paperwork at the DMV and were accidently married, maybe our new commitment brought new hope. Or maybe things changed when our friends celebrated our accidental marriage by throwing us a wedding party and the racial slur-using brother, who was invited, didn’t come. Or maybe things changed when I stepped back and my husband stepped forward—signing his mother up for an online unconscious bias training course. And long before there was a run on White Fragility and Tears We Cannot Stop and How to Be an Anti-racist, he read each of the books, even before I’d heard of them. He did his work while I tended to my own pain.
Last fall, my husband, daughter, and I returned to the Northeast for a short visit. We ate pizza in Manhattan and snacked on West Indian food in Brooklyn. When I asked my husband if he would let his family know we were just 30 miles from where he grew up, he hesitated. “Maybe this can just be a family trip,” he said, meaning just the three of us.
Over the phone, his mother cried when she realized we’d made the cross-country trip but didn’t cross the Hudson River. For the first time, she might’ve realized that “all of this race stuff” is more about protecting the three of us than about making her feel guilty.
As scores of Americans wake up to the reality of systemic racial oppression, for Black people, the wake-up is validating, but it also compounds a profound fatigue. Yet for our family, the wake-up also affirms the work we’ve done, while re-emphasizing that our story can’t be unique, even if we often felt alone. Our work isn’t just about making family-gatherings more hospitable—it’s about changing the country, one family at a time.
Recently, our daughter asked from her booster in the back seat of the car, “What’s the n-word?” With a gulp, I explained it’s used to hurt Black people and stings like no other word. She cried before she said, “Well, maybe white people use that word because they feel bad about themselves.”
Wise words. Still, I don’t want her to be hurt, even by those who are in pain themselves.
My husband’s family has plenty of reasons to feel bad—the sudden loss of a patriarch, the daily grind of trying to make ends meet. And while my daughter’s wisdom is a simple way of understanding his family’s pain, it doesn’t make me understand their racism. I can never go back to the house where I found White Power propaganda, even if I know we’re all hurting.
This is not an attempt to shame my in-laws. Nothing positive would come from that. Nor is this an argument for, or against, free-speech—experts far more compelling than me can argue both sides. But this is an account of how not “cancelling” my in-laws took me to places I never thought I could go. Growing up, I didn’t talk about race with people who didn’t think like me—we all stayed on our own sides. So how could I imagine getting close enough to marry someone who grew up in a family so different from my own? But in 2020, we’re all inching closer to each other, because enough is enough.
These days, my mother-in-law and I exchange cordial texts for birthdays and holidays, and she and my daughter video-chat when I’m out of the house. I haven’t seen my brother-in-law since that visit to the garage years ago.
It’s easy for cancel culture to play out online—where we can cancel from a distance, often without even knowing a person. But real-life doesn’t fit the same mold. In real life, we’re just doing the best we can.
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