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.

1985: Rural Northeastern Arkansas

When I was 12, I had an… well, I don’t know quite what to call it, but I think of it as an existential crisis. It started as an overwhelming sense of dread whenever we would drive in to our place of work. We ran a crafts business, and I was one of the employees – me, my older brother (17), and our parents. It was just us. We had moved to my mother’s small, rural hometown in northeast Arkansas to launch a business and capitalize on her family’s help in the form of free or cheap housing and office space, not to mention sweat equity partners like my aunt and uncle.

Anyway, every morning we would make the short drive to the shop, and every morning I would feel a sense of overwhelming dread. A sense of neverending doom and dispair that this is it. This is my life. It’s never going to evolve from this into something better. Such was my mental state that when I somehow heard about Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” in response to the philosophical question of whether or not we are real or merely living in someone else’s dream, my brain went absolutely wild. I went from an overwhelming sense of gloom to a full-on panic. Every day, I would question whether my world was real or imagined by someone else, and every day I would come to the unsettling conclusion that I didn’t know. An uneasy feeling settled in the pit of my stomach, and it wouldn’t budge. It was at this point that I started to wonder, “Is this what it feels like to go insane?” Cue another panic attack, but now, instead of thinking about the uncertainty of existence, I was dogged by the uncertainty of my sanity. Naturally, I dealth with these issues by… never telling anyone.

At some point, after some months of mental anguish, I decided that if this is a dream, then I may as well make it a good dream and have fun with it. And that’s how I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t crazy. No crazy person could make such a logical deduction! Looking back, I like to think that it couldn’t have been that bad if I came up with a way to cope with it. But there’s a reason why that particular time period was scary for us and why it led to the summer of panic in 1985 – and also explains why this blog/newsletter is called “son of a preacher man”. 1984-1985 was a period of great uncertainty for us, much of it self-inflicted by my parents, and specifically my father.

Flashback: Southwestern Missouri and the Ministry

Before launching our business, we were a church-leading family in the Southern Baptist denomination. We were “in the ministry”, and my father had been a music leader, youth pastor, and associate pastor in Northwestern Arkansas, and then became a head pastor in 1980 in Southwestern Missouri. After being voted out of his first church after his first year (I’ll come back to this episode in a future installment) he and his followers decided they were going to start a new church, Victory Baptist Church. My father developed some rather strident views: The Southern Baptist Convention was “too liberal” and was insufficiently unkind to those in queer communities. He also was not fond of recent trends to ordain women. He was extremely bigoted against blacks and immigrants, as was our mother. As with most southern moms, she held the same views but was highly skilled in hiding it with a veneer of niceness and civility. They would never admit it, but they were functionally segregationists.

Victory Baptist was where we were free to be us, shedding the official ties to the “liberal” SBC and putting all of our fundamentalist beliefs out in the open: scientific evidence of creation theory, avoiding the path to damnation paved with the gay agenda, abortion is murder, and the end times and the rapture were just around the corner. The rapture scared the shit out of me. I lived much of my childhood convinced that at any given moment, my mom would disappear and I would be left behind. Cue a number of moments where I would desparately try to find my mother out of fear that she had been taken away. Underneath that anxiety was the dual fear that I had been left behind because I didn’t pass muster as a Christian. So we created a small school to avoid the herecy rampant in our government schools and teach our kids the values of homophobic, racist, fundamentalist Christianity.

Over time, my father grew increasingly frustrated with this ambitious project. I’ve honestly never quite understood why. From a career perspective, he probably felt that he could never achieve greatness as a politico-spiritual leader. One of the themes I’ll return to in this blog is my father’s narcissism – and my grandmother’s. But there was also undiagnosed mental illness and severe bouts with depression. He certainly didn’t have any changes in belief – his core beliefs are the same now, several decades on. Whatever the reason(s), by the summer of 1984, he was done, and he quit, throwing the family into chaos. We were unable to make mortgage payments, and we lost our house by that fall. This precipitated one of the most unsettling incidents I’ve ever witnessed. While we were moving out of our foreclosed house, my father suffered what I believe was a nervous breakdown and blacked out over a period of several hours. He started acting weirdly, eg. while loading a moving truck, placing furniture in a position on the edge where it would certainly fall off onto the road. When someone pointed this out, he shrugged it off and walked away. I’ll never forget walking into our house looking for my parents, and seeing my dad with his head buried in his hands. He kept repeating, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it” with my mom assuring him, “Yes, you can.” By this point, we had frantically begun to look for others to help us with the move move, and thankfully, they showed up to do the thankless job of making sure my dad didn’t place himself or others in harm’s way. When it came time to make the first delivery to our new rental home, a 30-mile drive on rural roads, they convinced him to get on the truck but would not let him drive – he was clearly too incapacitated to trust behind the wheel. He was characterized as “off” and not really present. At some point during this drive, he “work up” and wondered where he was. He had completely blacked out and had no recall of the preceding events.

What It All Means

It would be all too easy to look at these events and say, aha, that was some real trauma, and believe that this was the extent of it. But the fact is that our lives in the evangelical community prepped us for a lifetime of trauma and abuse. The irony is that the difficulties I outlined above are part and parcel of a lifetime spent moving from one traumatic moment to the next. The trauma of never knowing if you were good enough to get into heaven. The trauma of believing in a literal hell that awaits you if you don’t measure up. The trauma that stems from a continuous fear of being “left behind” by the better Christians. The trauma of believing we were heading into the “end times” and preparing for the 2nd coming of Christ. The trauma of living in a household with a Father who saw himself as the anointed head of household and head of the church, our “Christian flock”, coupled with the stress and paranoia that stemmed from all of the above. And then, ultimately, how it all fell apart when we could no longer maintain that veneer that we had strived for so long to present to the outside world.

I tell this story, because, while my personal crisis the following year pales in comparison to my father’s, it shows a direct link between a traumatic period of our family’s life and my inability as a child to process all of the prior trauma. This period of time, during my most formative years, had a profound effect on who I am today. As an adult, looking backwards, I often return to that traumatic time, haunted by its many ramifications: a brother who later came out as gay, whom I would describe as “psychologically broken” by my fundamentalist parents; a father and mother who never evolved emotionally, choosing to remain steadfast in their awfulness; and a strong desire to seek a replacement for the certainty of fundamentalist Christianity, as abusive as it was, which meant I have often been vulnerable to charismatic grifters with good storytelling skills.

In many ways, our family’s story of the past 40 years is America’s story of the past 40 years, especially evangelical Christian America. Abusive relationships with authoritarian Christian leaders, hateful bigotry, an ambition to purge America of its sinful waywardness, a desire for the freedom to dominate others that we deem to be lesser, and most of all, political striving – it’s all there in our family. I don’t think most Americans truly understand evangelicals and the dangers of their beliefs. In this blog series, I plan to peel back the layers that we wanted everyone to see and show the seedy underbelly of how this culture functions – or, rather, doesn’t. I will lay bare our unapologetic racism. I will expose our suspicion of democratic principles and our cavalier dismantling of them. And I will hopefully show that there is no compromise with those who sincerely believe that they are liberating America from Satan. But I’m not going to create boring academic lectures; I’m going to pull examples from our family’s history to *show* these principles in action, laying bare the subtext and speaking the unspoken. I continue to be disappointed with how most of our media cover the evangelical movement. I hope that by putting a human face on this movement, I can help others to understand this world more fully.