So, yes: I survived the weekend with the family.
All in all, they’re a pretty innocuous bunch: quiet, soft-spoken, conservative. (Very conservative.) Thrifty, though most have good jobs and could afford to spend a little. (And live a little.) In other times, they might’ve been the sort to iron their jeans. Today, the boys stay in to watch NASCAR and football, while the girls go out shopping. They’re a lot like the family on that Reba McEntire show, but without all the shouting and Reba McEntire.
Despite that — despite their low energy, despite their fear of conflict, despite their worries about expressing an opinion that might differ from the other people at the dinner table (that’s “dinner” in Southern vernacular, meaning “lunch”) — I love them in my own way. I’m particularly fond of my father, who’s a completely different person now than the man I knew as a kid, which is a very good thing. My father used to be angry, bitter, exceptionally narrow-minded. I’m guessing that’s because he was married to my mother who was and is enough to drive Baptist deacons to drink. (Even my father, who is, as it turns out, a Baptist deacon.) Since their divorce, dad’s gotten better, and with his new wife — his third — he’s best of all. She’s smart, gainfully employed, a great cook, good company, and a great partner for dad during his golden years.
However, I think I’ve reached the end of my rope.
Somehow, this weekend was different. My family and I, we didn’t do anything out of the ordinary, but at supper on Saturday night, I had a lightbulb moment, and I saw my family the way that a stranger might see them. They were not terribly attractive.
Some backstory: all my life, I’ve been around people of color. For the first 12 years or so, most of those people were hired help, like my babysitter, or the farmhands with whom I fed the cows and hoed around trees in the pecan orchard. Even so, most of them treated me more humanely than my family — at least they really talked to me — and I respected them in return. In fact, I loved my babysitter, Marshalene Ducksworth (I kid you not), as much as my own mother.
When I got older and enrolled at the public junior high, my circle of peers became far more diverse. (The student body at my elementary school was as white as Sean Hannity’s teeth. Which is perhaps the most appropriate similie I’ve ever written.) At the same time, I started noticing that at dinner, much of my family’s conversation revolved around racial issues, and the “N word” was a frequent guest at the table.
Of course, I’ve never been especially shy about speaking my mind, and I took my family to the mat on those occasions. I pointed out to my father that he depended on people of color for his help, his clients, his livelihood. He resented being called out, but I think he knew I was right, even though he didn’t change his habits. The subject continued to come up, but being the forgiving type, I wrote off dad’s chatter as the product of nervousness — nervousness about a changing world that was vastly different from the Mississippi of the 1950s in which he was raised.
Twenty years later, dad may have become more sensitive to race issues, but the dinner-table talk remains. The “N word” isn’t tossed around much — or as much — but still, many conversations revolve around what’s “black”, what’s “going black”, and what’s “still good”. The curious and unsettling thing is, it’s not my father who’s doing the talking anymore; it’s my brothers and even younger people. It’s my friends who stayed behind in Mississippi. I used to want to write off such casual racism, I used to think everything would change in time, I had faith that future generations would see that this was wrong and they would fix it. That hasn’t happened.
For some reason — really, I don’t know why — all the talk this weekend struck a chord with me, leaving me frustrated, angry, and unsure of what to do. I don’t enjoy being caught up in that oppressive atmosphere, and I certainly don’t enjoy making Jonno endure it. But at the same time, I feel like I’ve done all I can to convince my family that their attitudes need adjusting. And I know I’ve done all I can to ignore it.
I’m sure I’ll still see my family, I’m sure I’ll still go home, just maybe not as much.