Content warning: the following post contains racial slurs and frank depictions of racist hate speech

I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out my approach to writing down my memory of this event. I considered writing a dramatic reenactment as a screenplay. I might still, but after much thought, I think I shouldn’t hide behind anything less than a direct retelling of the story as I remember it. Or, as the other person who was there put it, “wasn’t it dramatic enough?” lolol I couldn’t agree more. I guess I was still afraid of putting this incident to “paper”, even though it took place almot 30 years ago. So…. direct and to the point I shall be. All names have been changed to protect the innocent… and guilty.

Setting the stage: I had just graduated from Yale in the spring of 1995. Sort of. I was 1 credit shy (don’t ask) so I had to stay over the summer and take 1 remaining course to graduate. I stayed in an apartment with a few classmates and also worked as custodial staff for the Special Olympics, which was held that year on the Yale campus. It was at the Special Olympics job that I met Liz, and we started dating. Because of a series of unfortunate events, she needed to crash at our apartment for the last few weeks in August. At the end of the month, my parents were driving over from Arkansas to pick me up, and we had the brilliant idea to have dinner with them before we all went back to our respective homes. I feel the urge to tell this story because it demonstrates how little I understood about racism at the time, how deeply brainwashed I was by white nationalist evangelical culture, and how we subject those we care about to needless harm and trauma when we don’t stand up to racism and misogyny when we encounter it. The one thing I wish I understood about racism at the time is that there’s no such thing as an innocent bystander. If you’re a passive bystander witnessing someone else’s racism, you are allowing them to inflict harm on others, effectively aiding and abetting them in the process.

In hindsight, I should have known how this was going to turn out, but at the time I was naive (22) and still not far enough removed from my evangelical Christian upbringing to understand how toxic and hurtful my family was to others. This was long before I was aware of the famous Maya Angelou line, “When they tell you who they are, believe them.” In this case, when they (my father) used the word “coon” in his first phone conversation with Liz just to see how she would react, that was probably a good clue. See, she was of mixed heritage with a Puerto Rican mother and a mostly nordic father. And since my father knew nothing about Puerto Ricans other than what he saw on TV, he was, uh… “curious” about her ethnicity. And since he was the only father I had ever known, it didn’t seem the least bit weird to me when he asked to speak to her during one of our phone calls once he learned of her existence. He was my father, and I did as I was told. Once on the phone with her, my dad proceeded to interrogate her, including the question, “what do you call black people?” I don’t know exactly how Liz answered that question or how the conversation unfolded afterwards, but somehow my dad thought it pertinent to cheerily volunteer that “out here, we call ’em coons.” He hadn’t yet even seen a picture of Liz, but what he *really* wanted to know, without stating it, was, “does she look black” and “how black is she.” Because I was a product of his tutelage and hadn’t yet addressed my own racism and misogyny, I thought I was being helpful when I said, “No, no – she doesn’t look Puerto Rican (black) at all.” I don’t remember if this all happened during the same phone conversation or a different one, but it doesn’t really matter. This was all a prelude to the main event – my parents were picking me up from college, and I was leaving New Haven to go back to Arkansas, until I could put together a plan for San Francisco, where I wanted to relocate.

I am painfully aware of how terrible this all sounds. All of it. Casually dropping a racial slur in conversation. The inappropriate line of questioning. The bizarre interest in skin color and ethnicity. The idea that it was acceptable to interrogate someone you’ve never met about their ethnicity and personal family history. To this day, Liz maintains that she wasn’t particularly offended, because for her it was an “anthropological experiment” and she knew she would never have to see these people (my parents) again. That said, it definitely alarmed her at the time that someone could be so brazenly racist. She had not encountered that before. For me, it seemed all too normal. I wish I could say I learned my lesson from this incident, but… I did not, at least not completely. That may have to wait for another post.

On the fateful day that we were expecting my parents to arrive, we were not exactly calm. Liz had spoken to my father a few days earlier for the first time, and now she would be meeting him in person. Liz decided to make arroz con pollo, because she wanted to make something authentically Puerto Rican. I don’t remember much from that day before they arrived; I just recall a slow-burning and ceaseless state of elevated anxiety while trying to relax. And then came the phone call – they were here! Time to swing into action. The food was mostly prepped, but it would take an hour or so to cook. In the meantime, we would chat and, ya know, get to know each other. Liz felt like she was viewing another species of human – it was a real-life anthropology lab. At some point, my mom smelled the pot of chicken and remarked, “that smells very…” searching for just the right word and then looking at Liz before finding it: “ethnic”. One of Liz’s great qualities is that she’s able to put people at ease because she’s very talkative and can easily draw people into conversation. At some point, she started talking to my mom about social workers and the difficult job they have. She mentioned a family with a young boy who took care of his mother, who was disabled, and that the overworked social worker assigned to them was in a bit of an ethical quandary. My mother helpfully jumped to the conclusion that the mother must have been on drugs, and Liz paused to explain that no, the ethical dilemma was about not reporting the family because the likely outcome would be foster care and the mother would be without her caregiver. I don’t believe that race or ethnicity were ever mentioned in this story, but I’m pretty sure that my mother assumed the family was black. I remember being shocked at how little my mother understood of the world.

It just kept getting better from there. At some point, we finally finished cooking and sat down to eat. The rest of the evening is pretty much a blur, but 2 things stand out. For one, my father decided that one racial slur wasn’t enough. No no, he had to say it again – for the same reason as before: to make Liz as uncomfortable as possible. And the 2nd thing that still stands out is Liz and I decided to go to the rooftop of the apartment building to be alone, because frankly, it was a lot. I mean, imagine being in a summer fling, your last chance at carefree fun before being forced to deal with the realities of post-college life, and you are subjected to… <waves hands around> all of *this*. It was… a lot. For our sanity’s sake, we needed 15 minutes alone on the rooftop in order to keep it together. I didn’t fully appreciate just how bad it was at the time, but I certainly do now. Reliving this evening to write it down is equal parts catharsis and relived trauma.

As the evening wound down, Liz’s father picked her up to take her home, and I was alone. My parents were there, but I never felt more alone than in that moment. They stayed for the night, and in the morning we packed up my things, and I left New Haven forever. To me, this evening will forever live on as the moment where, for the first time, I saw the stark relief of a clash of civilizations. Up until that moment, I could live in the self-delusion that we all lived in the same universe, obeying the same laws and social mores. From that moment on, it became increasingly clear to me that this simply wasn’t the case. We did not, in fact, obey the same laws and abide by the same moral code. I felt trapped between both – desperately wanting to escape my family, but never quite accepted by the prep school kids who dominated college life. It was a long drive from Connecticut to Northeast Arkansas, and for most of the trip, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” rang through my head as tears threatened to well up at any moment.

When we finally got back home, there were a few conversations about Liz. One was my father telling me that he “approved” of her. Uh… thanks? But the other was when I overheard him talking to someone else about Liz, about how she was some “Puerto Rican girl” as if she just fell out of a West Side Story production into my life. I protested with the “defense” of how she “looked white” to which my dad responded, “oh yeah, with dark eyes and dark hair.” At the time, I didn’t understand how deeply racist my response was, but I still remember being very confused by his response. Dark hair and dark eyes? Would this description not equally apply to my own mother? I’m pretty sure I had not heard of the “1 drop rule” at the time, but this was the first time I came face to face with it. Unlike stories of Sally Hemmings or other “white-passing” slaves from the 19th century, this was an actual event I lived through toward the end of the 20th century, involving someone I cared about. It brought home how deeply ingrained white supremacy is in American culture in a way that no history textbook ever could. As white people, we too easily dismiss the harms of racism as something in the distant past, something we have evolved beyond. That is simply not the case.

Some years later, I married an immigrant from Hong Kong. I wish I could say I was smarter and had learned from my previous experience. I had not. There were the same suspicions; the same interrogations; the same dismissiveness of her experience; and the feeling that she never quite belonged and was not “one of us”. It took some years, almost 2 decades in fact, until she decided enough was enough, and it was either me or my parents, but not both. It was only at that point that I finally understood and came to terms with my own tacit approval of and participation in white supremacy. It was then and only then that I understood how I had to turn the page on my own family and choose to move forward with my spouse. But not before years of trauma and harm were visited on people that I love. It was a hard lesson, but the takeaway is thus: there are no innocent bystanders to bigotry. When you “stand back and stand by” while bigotry is perpetrated on others, you are silently sanctioning the harm done to them. You are aiding and abetting the willful commission of white supremacist hate on your neighbors, friends, lovers, and yes, family. We are all children of Jim Crow, although we only apply that term to the black communities who suffered under its persecution – and prosecution. We seem reluctant to apply that term to white communities and families even though they were very much influenced by the Jim Crow era, segregation, desegregation, and bussing.

We are all children of Jim Crow. We just lived on different sides of it, and its legacy is very much with us today, no matter how much we would like to dismiss it and pretend otherwise.