A Message For My Racist Family Members

by T.L. Donatto
Five pairs of feet standing on the road, and their large shadows visible on the road
Elva Etienne / Getty

This letter has been a long time coming, and I bear the burden of responsibility for not having written it sooner because I had the privilege not to. I am accountable for not having written it the first time I heard you use the n-word at a family holiday. Issuing a simple, “It’s not okay to use that word in my presence,” or even leaving was not then and never has been enough.

I am accountable for not having written it the moment I began to understand that you weren’t simply ignorant of the world around you or insulated from others unlike you — you willfully choose to practice bigotry as a daily devotional. I had to have been about seven or eight years old when I first heard you jokingly refer to the fact that “every southern family got a n*gg*r in the woodpile cause we used to own ’em.”

As if the inter-mixing of the black and white races through rape and slavery were an embarrassment to the family because it sullied the family whiteness rather than because our family and white racial legacy was a shattering horror.

What’s even worse is that you choose to be associated with whiteness in this context; I have yet to see any evidence that anyone in our family has ever actually owned slaves. Our family were poor Italian and Acadian immigrants to rural Louisiana and, later, San Antonio, Texas. Our family was too poor to ever own slaves; yet, the fact that some white person somewhere has ever owned some black person somewhere is somehow a point of pride for you. You brag on white supremacy using the proverbial “we.” It’s something deeper than pathetic.

Our family is no shining example of what “whiteness” should be, even if such a concept were valid. I recently changed my last name from the German last name I was given at birth to my paternal Grandmother’s maiden name because: (a) the paternity of her children (my father included) is in querulous doubt, and (b) I want zero association with the patriarchal systems that led me to inherit a German name meaning “king” that I have nothing to do with in genetics, ethnicity, or spirit.

At the vehement insistence of yours, Dad, and against my own nausea, I left my son’s last name yours when I changed mine so that you could die knowing you had some form of legacy (changing my last name didn’t bother you because I am only a woman, after all). I wanted to keep the peace. However, part of taking accountability for my role in perpetuating systems of racism and patriarchy (two sides of the same coin) is taking action against it. Not only refusing to participate in the existing systems, but creating entirely new systems where the old systems have no influence.

The first step I can take to remedy my role in the perpetuation of racism and patriarchy in our family is to change my son’s last name to my last name. A name I chose from you, Grandmother — a woman. I acknowledge that you inherited it from your father; however, I am the first woman in this family to choose her own name rather than take the one she was given and the first to create a matrilineal familial structure moving forward. My son will have two progressive mothers who are equally dedicated to eradicating the forces of racism and patriarchy through action, presence, and entrepreneurship.

I know there are those of you in our family who do not subscribe to this bigotry, but you are married to those who do and you allow it to represent you. I encourage you to speak up with me. To stand with me even against your own husbands. Some of you were the first to extend your loving support of my partner and I when I came out to our family as a queer woman — but only because she is white (even though you didn’t say that, it’s a fact).

I feel the need to point out that — unlike a hobby that can take up a small portion of your personhood without defining you — bigotry, even if it’s just partial or just “about some things,” is utterly personhood-defining. You do not get to be only a “little” bigoted. You are either a bigot or you are not. Whether our presence or example as a couple changes your minds on bigotry or not though, we will continue to show up.

I struggle with the concept of changing closed minds. My hope in allowing you as my extended family to “change the topic” when the discussion about race or politics around the holiday table got too heated each year for the last decade was that perhaps you’d later thoughtfully consider what I had said. I thought I could shift the needle on your intolerance incrementally if I articulated my resistance to it in small enough portions.

I assumed that conflict with me about these topics would only push you further from the ideas of love, acceptance, and grace. That my job was to be an example of love to you even if it meant choosing sometimes to stifle my own repugnance at your ideology. However, my desire to be a positive example for my son in how to walk through this world outweighs my desire to be “pleasant” in the face of racism and patriarchal sexism any longer for the sake of your personal comfort or my misguided notion of how to express love (I realize now that love is not expressed through silence; it expressed through honesty and vulnerability).

My son is old enough now to take note in how I navigate social situations and is constantly absorbing the information I present to him in the form of my actions. I am sorry that it took his awareness to motivate me to finally draw a hard line in the sand with you that I will not tolerate racist, sexist, misogynistic, patriarchal rhetoric or action in my presence ever again, no matter how innocuously or nonchalantly it is presented.

You’ve all known where I stand since I was old enough to speak, but I haven’t insisted that you hear it every single time I see examples of your racism and patriarchal beliefs because I grew exhausted by constantly having to explain and defend views of mine that are actually just human decency. But hear me and hear me now — from this point forward, I will go to bat with each and every one of you every single time you have the gall to be either obnoxious or subtle about your savagery. Every. Single. Time.

Your niceness in other ways and your “good intentions” are not enough to offset the effects of the systems you are perpetuating with your language.

I will call it out it in front of my son. I will allow him to see for himself exactly what you are until you are wholly something else, and I will show him what it means to stand against vitriol even in one’s own family so that he knows how to stand against it in the world at large. Though a white male, my son will have every opportunity to explore his own gender expression, interests, and advocacy free from the incipient poison of white supremacy. He will not be subject to your ideas about the inferiority of Black people and Hispanic people and women. He will know that your entire current worldview is immoral and barbaric. He will know that you didn’t actually earn what you have, and that is why you are so fearful for it to be taken back. He will know that you are cowards who shield yourselves with the comfort of white supremacy to avoid facing the sad reality that you are incapable of true love and connection with anyone who doesn’t look like you because you are shallow and fearful of vulnerability.

Specifically, when I take my son’s last name I am taking from you the last vestige of your “legacy,” Dad, because it seems to be the only thing you value more than your own hyper-masculine self-image as a superior white male. You will have no one in your lineage passing down your name. You will have no one in your lineage passing down your views. You will no longer have anything in me or my family that represents your dogma.

If your racism and bigotry has never cost you anything before, let it cost you this.

This isn’t a call for accolades. It’s a warning to you as my family as we continue to share holidays and events together, an apology to the society I live in for my role in perpetuating patriarchy and racism, and a hopeful step towards redemption through action in my immediate family and beyond.

If you’re reading this and could have written one yourself but haven’t… Do.