By Heather Millar
Like most people in this country, I’ve been arguing a lot this year. Pointing out racism and lack of empathy on social media. Bristling a bit when made aware of my own racist missteps.
Doomscrolling and raging against the headlines.
I’ve been a journalist for most of my life, though I’m now pandemically unemployed. Among many other things, I’ve covered jails and prisons, politics and social policy. I thought I “got” this country’s racism. I knew it was foundational to our nation’s problems, central to our history. I volunteered regularly; protested occasionally.
But then, this spring, the pandemic threw the monstrousness of white supremacy into the harshest relief: people of color disproportionately suffering economically, politically and physically. Dying. Then Breonna Taylor was murdered, and then George Floyd, and then Rayshard Brooks.
I realized I’d been fighting racism only when it was convenient. What did I do? Well, I organized a couple things, and joined SURJ Bay Area. But mostly I argued, fell down some rabbit holes on Facebook. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing. I just felt I had to speak out.
All the while, I worried — no, obsessed — over how to interact with certain family members, how to have the “Big Argument.”
One person, I could not bring myself to call: My Aunt Nancy. Most of us have an Aunt Nancy, a person whom we love, a person whose ideas on race are spectacularly retrograde.
My Aunt Nance is 81, a retired maternity nurse who lives on a 200-acre ranch near Mt. Shasta. She’s like a mom to me, a grandmother to my teenage daughter. She makes cookies and pies, pickles and jam. She nurtures and fusses over any living thing in her orbit: kids, grown kids, cats, dogs, fish, chickens, wild birds. She once bought some Muscovy duck chicks to raise for meat and then didn’t have the heart to slaughter them. Those breast heavy ducks and their descendants puttered around the ranch for years. She gives bracing, all-enveloping hugs. She can build a fence, repair an irrigation line, crochet a blanket, and shoot a ground squirrel dead at a hundred paces. (Ranchers hate ground squirrels; they create holes that make cattle stumble and break legs.)
I adore Aunt Nancy. Her political views? Not so much.
Forever, Aunt Nancy and I have known that our politics are so far apart they might as well be on opposite rims of the Grand Canyon. She’s constantly sending me memes and videos about the American flag, the imagined threat of sharia law, the problems with immigrants entering the country illegally. I’ve ignored this for years, just as I’ve tried to steer conversations away from touchy subjects toward bunnies and cooking and craft projects.
Then this spring Aunt Nancy added to her usual repertoire “All Lives Matter” memes and “Blue Lives Matter” videos. And didn’t I know that George Floyd had a criminal record? It can’t possibly be that police culture is racist. Didn’t you know that most Black people are killed by other Black people? Sure, free speech and peaceful assembly are protected by the Constitution, but look at all the property damage! And yes, we should punish those cops who are assaulting unarmed protesters with batons, rubber bullets, flash bangs and tear gas. We should discipline those highway patrol officers pulling guns on Black people during routine traffic stops. But of course, those brutalities are the exception, not the norm! I’m not racist, I think all lives matter!
As a Black friend from college tells me all the time, “One of the most important things anti-racist white people can do is to stop being afraid of being uncomfortable. Stop being afraid of making someone else uncomfortable: Ask the question. Point out the contradiction. Explain why a comment or an action is offensive.”
Beginning a few months ago, I stopped changing the subject and ignoring things. Each time Aunt Nancy sent an outrageous email or posted something on Facebook, I would respond with an anti-racist counterargument. Each time, it felt completely futile when I saw a new offensive meme or email pop up. Each time, I put off calling her. I felt a little bit sad all the time.
I asked friends and family what to do. Again and again. I read lots of articles like this one, about how to engage people with very different views. I took the SURJ class, “Difficult Conversations About Race and White Supremacy.” Everyone in my breakout group had an Aunt Nancy. Everyone.
Basically, the advice from the class boils down to a few points:
I tried to do all these things by email and Facebook and Messenger. And still, it felt futile. I kept putting off making that phone call.
I had never gone so many months without talking to Aunt Nancy. But this disagreement, this failure to convince her, had become huge in my mind. If I talked to her, I felt like I really had to have it out with her. Rhetorically, I would go down to the mat until she saw, as James Baldwin said, that white supremacy has made us monsters. Wasn’t that what I had to do? Doesn’t silence equal violence?
Finally, I asked advice from one of the priests at Grace Cathedral, the progressive Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco that is my family’s spiritual home. This priest, one of the wisest and kindest women I have known, asked me the questions that broke the problem open for me:
“What is your goal? Do you want your Aunt Nancy to be part of your life? Do you want to be right? Do you want her to embrace anti-racist views?”
“Yes,” I answered. I want all those things.
But the key insight, for me, was, “What is your goal? Do you want her to be part of your life?”
Yes, I wanted Aunt Nancy to be part of my life. Realizing this, I concluded that the solution to white supremacy is not for all of us white folks to cut off all contact with friends and family who deny white supremacy. We don’t need to have the Big Argument; we need to have lots of little arguments.
The next day, I made that dreaded call. It had been so long since we talked that we didn’t get around to politics or white supremacy. She caught me up on some family drama, on the forest fire that had come within a quarter mile of her place the week before, the new baby goats, how the dogs and cats are getting along.
It may be my imagination, but I think she’s sending fewer flag memes these days. And the next time she says something racist, I’m going to call her on it.
I realize that I need to be patient. I still want to be right; I still want her to acknowledge white supremacy. Yet the idea that I could completely change her in one conversation is ridiculous, I now see. Rep. John Lewis fought for racial justice for more than half a century, never saw it completely happen, and last month still died with hope. Thinking I could do it in a day or a week or a month is wishful thinking.
Aunt Nancy is 81. People on her side of the family live well into their 90s. But even in a decade or more, I may never get her to be a full anti-racist.
Still I’m going to keep nudging and pushing and pointing out. Collecting your cousins, or your Aunt Nancys, takes time. It can be uncomfortable. But it’s a challenge I’m finally ready to face, and I hope you are, too.
For more resources on how to have difficult conversations, check out: https://boldconversations.org/
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