here’s the thing. i was raised to have a very strong belief in equality. i’m not sure why my parents, especially my mom, felt so strongly about it–if it’s because of detroit’s storied past of racial strife or if it’s just because she’s a good person who believes in civil rights–but she did. and she really raised me to believe in fairness and justice, to admire people like Martin Luther King, Jr., to stand up to kids who used slurs or disparaged non-white classmates. that wasn’t some natural toughness i had, it’s something my parents cultivated in me.
but i’m also an upper-middle class white girl who was raised in an upper-middle class white suburb. i didn’t actually hear someone use the n-word until i was 19. i remember my grandpa would say it, mostly to piss off my mom, but i always heard about it second-hand; he never said it in front of me. i was in my sophomore year of college before i met a group of kids whose casual racism was absolutely baffling to me. they didn’t seem to feel any shame about calling a faint mustache a “spic-stash”, about chastising a friend for having “n—– breath,” about having seriously vandalized Louis Farrakhan’s house. i’m somewhat ashamed to say i stayed friends with these people–not close friends, but friends. i made it clear that it wasn’t ok to say such things in front of me, but now that i’m older and more secure in the things i believe and less interested in being liked, i wonder why i didn’t just tell them to take a hike.
speaking of being older, i’m now almost 30 and married and about to have my first child. i happen to be married to a mexican man and carrying a son who, obviously, will have his father’s and my ethnic heritage. my frustration with and intolerance for racism has definitely increased since edgar and i have been together–“spic,” “wetback,” even “illegal” become very different words when applied to the man you love. they aren’t abstract epithets anymore. they’re brutal and cruel attacks on the person you love more than your own life. in a political climate where mexicans are described as alternately lazy or stealing american jobs, but regardless always unwanted, i want to stand up and scream about how my husband and his family risked their lives to be here, that he works harder than anyone i know, that he’s a better person than any natural-born american i can think of.
and then there’s the baby.
anyone who’s a parent or is about to be a parent will tell you that even more than the love you feel for a child, the extraordinary, primal need to protect your child is something to behold. i was relieved when i learned i was having a baby boy because i was honestly worried that if i had a girl, she’d be compared to my niece, who is so cute it hurts. i mean, near-strangers have friended my sister on facebook to be able to see photos of jonah. she’s that cute. she’s like, baby mary tyler moore. (oh man, i have to teach her how to toss her beret in the air.) even the notion that someone might say, “oh, yeah. courtney’s baby is cute, but ooh, not as cute as jonah. who could be?” hurt in my bones. and not because i care if my kid is cute, but because i hate the idea of anyone saying anything mean about my baby.
i’ll tell edgar about news stories like those linked to above and he’ll shake his head and laugh sardonically. i told a black friend about it yesterday and she did the same. people who grow up being personally subjected to racism seem to build up a resistance, like they’re inoculated against it. but i don’t have any of that. in fact, what i have is worse: a deeply held belief that racism is fading, that justice will win, that my child will be raised in a world slightly better than mine. people like edgar have never had that belief. part of it is his personality, part of it is not having raging hormones that make me scream, “WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY ABOUT MY CHILD??????” when i read a story like the first one, but part of it is the simple fact that there is no powerful racial slur anyone can or has called me. honkey? that word is hilarious. it sounds like donkey. i call people that all the time. cracker? probably my favorite “dave chappelle” sketch of all time was when he asked white people who loved the confederate flag if the’d mind if he modified it. and one design replaced the stars with saltine crackers. i. was. dying.
there are a lot of challenges that i knew edgar and i would face. i know the notion of miscegenation is not such a thing of the past as i’d like to hope. i know we come from different cultures and that blending the two, especially when you create your own family, can be complicated. i was prepared for some bigot to look at us sideways. but i never thought about how it would impact my children, and how much it would break my heart to see my child subjected to something that i can neither take away nor honestly say i’ve experienced and understand. i guess that piece is something his dad can help with. but i’m experiencing for the first time the pain of seeing your child hurting (though this is really my vicarious hurting for him) and knowing there’s nothing i can do to take it away, except continue to believe in justice and equality, and raise my children to believe in it (despite experience to the contrary) like my parents did with me.