I dropped my son off at my father’s house this summer for his annual visit. We were exchanging light conversation when my father looked around his yard and said, “Well, I’m glad your son is here to help me pick up this yard. It would be nice if it looked like a white person lives here.”
He laughed, my son laughed because his grandpa laughed, although I am certain he did not understand the meaning behind his grandfather’s words.
I did not laugh. I grew up listening to racist phrases like this. They seemed innocent when I was 7. I knew my father spoke like this to get attention, to be funny. He was raised in the South, and his parents are devout Southern Baptists who attend church regularly, run Bible study, and have no tolerance for people who have decided to live a different lifestyle than what they have chosen for themselves. They believe they are superior. Their behavior, while very passive, is damaging, and I am saddened by the fact I didn’t catch on and speak up to them until I was in my 20s (better late than never, I suppose).
While I never spoke like my father, I never thought it was terrible either. I would shrug it off and go about my business. Shame on me. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that it truly started to affect me the way it should.
It lit an angry fire in my belly, and it made me feel gross. It’s not the kind of thing I want my kids to hear ever. I know I can’t protect them from all the racism, hate, prejudice, and bigotry in this world, but I can certainly step in when I hear someone talking like an asshole in front of my child, even if it is my big, intimidating father who believes what he says is harmless. To him, they are “just words,” so they don’t hurt anyone.
Except they do hurt. They hurt the people they are directed toward the most, but they also hurt the ears that hear them. The ears of our future generation whom we are shaping to be stronger, braver, and more accepting of all people than previous generations.
We must break the cycle. The vicious cycle that has been swirling around generation after generation. This vicious cycle that hangs on for dear life no matter how many steps forward we take. This vicious cycle that is the cause of so much fear, angst, and anger and has cost so many innocent people their lives.
It needs to end with us. With you. It needs to be something the next generation is free from.
It is a rare occasion that I speak up to my father, but that August afternoon I took a hard look at myself and realized my voice had not been big enough. My little hints about him needing to settle down when he made comments about my son wearing a necklace or being a mama’s boy had not been heard. And on this day, he had taken it too far.
“No, Dad, don’t talk like that in front of my son. Your grandson, he hears you.”
My father, who stands over 6-feet tall with a broad chest, stood and looked at me for a moment before his eyes fell to his feet. “I was just being funny. That’s all.” “Not funny, Dad. Not even remotely funny.”
He hasn’t said anything of the sort in front of me since. I hope that I forced him to think about his words, and remove those thoughts from his head completely, but he is in his 60s. He has grown up thinking those things are OK, acceptable even. He believes he is better than most people. It makes me sad for him.
He is my father and I do love him, but he has missed out on so much because of his screwed-up, ignorant way of thinking. Most of all, it shows he is not fully accepting of himself. If he were, he would be more open to equality and more accepting of all groups of people.
You know, I’m glad my son heard him that day. Because if he hadn’t, I honestly can’t tell you if I would have reacted at all. I might have blown it off again, written him off as a lost cause.
More than anything, I’m glad my son saw me stand up to my father. My son heard me speak up for what is right. He saw me reject my father’s excuse. He saw me speak up for him and myself and for everyone else whom my Dad offends with his language.
It’s time. We must break the cycle. Starting now.