Why I Can’t Give Up On My White Grandma: A Guide to Talking to White Family about the World

There was one woman in my life who could always stand up to my mother. That was my grandmother.

And I loved my white grandma.

When my siblings and I would go to her house, she always made pancakes or took us to Chuck E. Cheese’s. She bought most of our clothes, most of our Christmas presents, and if we showed interest in anything, she would get us into lessons. During the summer, she took us to the pool, and every year, to her beach house.

My granddad was always there too, but his love for us definitely stemmed from his unwavering love for her. My grandparents had only begun dating when my mother, at 15, was first diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. And they married 8 months after my mother, at 17, had my older brother. My granddad officially adopted her after the wedding.

My mother decided not to get help for her illness. She chose to see it as an “excuse for sin” that only God would deliver her from… through her prayers. So as her symptoms manifested into all sorts of abuse, my grandparents were always there taking roles in which they exemplified the power of honesty or unconditional love. My Grandma especially.

Like when my brother and I ran away at 3 and 4 years old. One Saturday morning we decided it was enough. I still don’t know how a thought like that even enters a toddler’s mind… I guess that alone gives you a picture of the circumstances we were in. We lived right next to a highway and got to the main strip before a man picked us up and (thankfully) took us to a bank at the shopping center on the other side. Obviously the tellers were quite disturbed by two children roaming a highway, but we knew who to call. While my mom slept in, it was grandma who picked us up.

Or when I was 7 years old, and we got Daisy. We brought Daisy home after she was born at the neighbor’s house. She was the feistiest tortoiseshell cat to ever walk the earth, and it only took a few weeks for my mom to really hate Daisy’s spirit. So she put Daisy outside all day, and when she brought Daisy in, she locked her in the closet. But that never stopped Daisy. Daisy learned how to jump up and turn the door handle, and would trot around us with pride of her escape.

I remember the day… we all had just gotten home from work and school, when my mom instructed one of us to go and get Daisy from the closet and put her outside. Maybe she did it herself. I was 7. I just remember the cat was put outside outside and she told us,”We’re not letting her in anymore. She can go find a new home outside.”

You can’t tell a 7 year old that.

All I could think was: This was a cat, a living creature! We couldn’t put her outside… to die.

I bawled my eyes out. But the decision was made.

Except my grandma was coming over that night to pick us up for the weekend.

“Don’t say anything!” My mother warned us.  I remember that when Grandma finally got to the door, I ran as fast as I could to open it first. Because nothing would stop me from communicating to her the wickedness going on.

I love the way my grandma tells this part of the story. How she got Daisy, or as she always says “How we got Daisy”.

She always makes big circles with her hands and puts them over her eyes, “Your eyes were this big!” she says, “And you said to me–” at this point her voice jumps up to a squeaky pitch and she says really fast, “‘Grandma! Mommyisn’tlettingthecatinsideanymore! Can you take Daisy?'” then she changes her voice to it’s normal pitch again, but adds a bit of bass and sings, “I was Super-grandma! I went out in the backyard, found that cat, and we took her with us.” then finishes with a punchline: “The whole drive home I thought, ‘How will I explain this to my husband?'”

And we all laugh.

15 years later, I came home last Christmas to her giving Daisy insulin for her diabetes. That’s how hard she cared for that cat. I had to really talk with her… tell her that she did enough. And with heavy hearts, we took Daisy to the vet together. It was time. This was one of the deepest experiences of my life thus far. I will never forget those moments as Daisy was being put to sleep. The room was filled with the sound of my grandmas’s cries, and in between the whimpers, story after story about the cats she had cared for throughout her life. She had cared for every one until death.

That’s my grandma.

The examples are endless. From her eating the piece of cake my sister slobbered on on her first birthday because my mom was going to make me eat it, to her preparing the game day meal for my high school football team the night she had a stroke. Or 5 years earlier, when my grandparents took us into their home so that we weren’t all split up by the foster care system, because that’s usually what happens when abuse is discovered by Child Protective Services and dad is 5 different men.

Like I said, the examples are endless.

My grandparents gave some Black and PoC children everything. And not because they wanted something back, but because they felt unconditional love for us because we are family.

So no matter what structural issues exist, our personal relationship will always be filled with love and appreciation. This is why I can’t give up on my white grandma. Even though she is conservative. Even though her Christianity has that flavor of fundamentalism to it. Even though she says racist things.

When Paris was attacked by terrorists last Friday, most of the West was awake, learning about it moment by moment as 130 lives were taken from this earth. Every one of us felt horror, anger, frustration, and sadness and let those emotions manifest into the opinions we hold about the situation right now.

Many people say that this should be the wake up call for us citizens. That this attack was an eruption in response to the policies our governments currently execute in other countries, and that this matter is more comhistorically  to stand up against our governments and the imperialist system they are enslaved by business to perpetuate through the failed War on Terror.

But another camp of citizens have allowed their emotions to settle on xenophobia and racism. It’s no surprise to PoCs that this camp is predominantly white and conservative. Two things my grandparents happen to be.

So what do I do?

Well… I talk to them. And I’m sharing

My Guide to Talking to My White Family Members *especially Grandma, who I love most*:

  1. I limit our conversations.
    I try to talk to my white grandma once a week. Sometimes I talk to my grandma twice or three times on a good week when we can have really good, progressive conversations. Since Paris, I’ve yet to have made my weekly call. She posted something on social media (yes, my Gram is online) that was racist and really hurt. I know she doesn’t even realize it was racist. I’m confused how she can be so concerned for Black Lives (a conversation we have often that I almost always find constructive), and then respond with Islamophobia after the terrorist attacks.
    But even in my pain, I wonder if it’s not me, who will reach this white lady? A few months ago, I heard words that will stick with me forever, spoken by activist Alok Vaid-Menon: “The most revolutionary work that I do is calling my mom every week and explaining my politics to her.”
    I can’t save the white women of the world, but I can talk to one white lady with patience and love. Conversations with grandma are my revolutionary work.
    In the same moment, I cannot give my best work if I am injured or unsafe. Conversations with white people can easily turn violent, and white family members are no exception, so I limit our conversations, and when we do talk…
  2. I Have to Be in a Mentally Safe Space
    Timing is everything. If I wake up to news of white terrorist murdering 9 Black people in a Church, or shoving a Muslim woman into a speeding train, it’s safe to say that this will not be the day I call my white grandma. It’s my way to preserve our relationship. I know if she says something racist when I am emotionally raw, it could unravel everything. So usually I call after a few days filled with good reading. Good reading for me are articles on the structure of these issues and personal strategies for dismantling these structures. Everyday Feminism and The Body Is Not an Apology have a lot of good reading. I always feel prepared to talk to my white grandma after soaking up their articles. Also…
  3. I Play Tetris
    Studies have shown that Tetris can help with trauma, and every PoC knows that conversations with white people about the intersectionality of structural racism can be traumatic as fuck. I’ve noticed that playing tetris while talking to my white grandma really has helped me respond with clarity when she says triggering things. I’m upset, but most of the stress is transmitted into the game.
  4. I’m Honest
    This isn’t my time to “tell” my grandma everything she’s doing wrong. Just the fact that her Black granddaughter has to explain these things to her is blatantly problematic.
    And ultimately, I live across the world now and miss my family lots. So when I talk to them, I want it to be filled with positivity. I never know if I will ever see them again. And the attacks in Paris are a reminder of that. So when we talk, we talk about family-things or current events. The usual. And it’s in the cracks of those conversations that Grandma will say something… and I call her out on it with love. This is usually how we get into a conversation about race, and I speak honestly about racism, from the structure of it, to it’s influence on Black and PoC lives, to the way it manifests in personal interactions, and what white people need to do if they really want to dismantle it. Sometimes I get anecdotal. And it gives my grandma two choices: Accept it or reject it. And my grandma is old enough and open enough to know that Black People, and Black Women especially, are having a different experience than her. She sees me, and has heard my horror stories while abroad. And in her love, she believes me. There is no devil’s advocate there. So we can talk. And my grandma listens, because despite her conditioning, her core will always be the lady ready to go out and save Daisy.

It’s very painful and confusing when the people who have shown you the power of unconditional love and honesty don’t love other Black and Brown people or want to see their own involvement in the oppression of those peoples. This is the Tragic Mulatto’s exclusive heartbreak. But this experience does not have to be a part of our existence that breeds self-hatred or self-denial. In understanding the intersections of my identity as a mixed-Black woman, I understand where I stand on the battlefield, and that love is my greatest weapon. So I say I love you to my grandma and we hangup and I close out of tetris. Until next time.

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