I’ve been watching with some dismay comments from people near and dear to me. I grew up among very politically conservative Christians in Virginia. My dad was a dyed in the wool Republican his whole life. As he got older, his views became more and more rigid. He’d listen to Rush Limbaugh religiously. He was also a fan of D. James Kennedy, a very conservative Presbyterian minister who had a very right wing religious program that aired every Sunday. I remember how D. James Kennedy railed against liberal politics, particularly anything having to do with abortion.
And yet, as conservative as my dad was, and as racist as he sometimes was, he was probably among the least racist in our family. I think his years in the Air Force made him more open to people who weren’t just like him. Still, I remember a couple of very embarrassing incidents in restaurants in which my dad was egregiously racist toward the wait staff… the only excuse I can think of for him was that he was suffering from the beginnings of dementia.
I remember, on occasion, racist words used in my presence as I mingled with family members. I remember an aunt who told me about how she’d been accused of racism by a former student when she taught high school. At the time, I was surprised. Then, months later, I heard the same aunt casually drop the n bomb in front of me. I heard racist jokes from uncles and cousins, and we all laughed because they were “normal” in my family.
Then, in the mid 1990s, I joined the Peace Corps and left Virginia for Armenia, a country that was once part of the Soviet Union. I met different people from the United States and from other countries. I became exposed to people we used to collectively call “commies”, most of us not knowing the first thing about communism or socialism or the people who lived within those regimes.
Granted, the media and entertainment industries didn’t help. In the United States back in the 80s, Eastern Bloc and Soviet countries were routinely referred to as evil and oppressive. In fact, I specifically remember an episode of Fame, one of my favorite shows back in the day, about a pretty blonde Czech student who had come to New York to study for a month. The principal, Mr. Morloch, says “You’re in a free country now, little lady…” as if she should be thrilled to be in America, even though she’s followed by minders who make sure she doesn’t try to defect. Naturally, she falls in love with Chris Donlon, an American guy who tries to save her from communism.
My time in Armenia forever changed me. My world view was broadened significantly and it seemed like I couldn’t unring the bell. Now, when I am exposed to certain people in my family, I wonder how it is that we’re related. One of my cousins has been spewing some pretty offensive stuff lately. What’s shocking to me is that he’s still a young man. His father is my first cousin… and his grandfather was my uncle, a wonderful, kind, affectionate man. Yet somehow, I’m still sharing the same genes as a guy who seems to be trying desperately to minimize the horror of George Floyd’s public execution by cop last week and the ensuing protests…
Here are a few recent posts by him. He seems very much entrenched in the conservative mindset and despite his protests, is kind of subtly oozing racist proclivities:
He’s definitely not the only one in my family to display this attitude; he just happens to be the most recent one to do so publicly. In his defense, I know where it comes from. My family is from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, which is full of people who were steeped in old style values. Although most people in my family have either been in the military or went to college or both, I wouldn’t say most of them are travelers. They place a lot of stock on “family values” and protestantism. Most people in my family are Presbyterians, at least on my dad’s side. I don’t know nearly as much about my mom’s side, although I think they’re more liberal– that wouldn’t be hard, though. They’re good people, but they are very much stuck in this way of thinking, and they are not flexible.
I often wonder what they would be like if they spent time out of the southern United States among people who aren’t like them. Would they experience the same “awakening” I did? I’m not saying I’m the world’s most “woke” person, because I’m definitely not, but I can’t support Donald Trump as president. He’s inhumane, racist, and power hungry. I can’t blame George Floyd for being killed last week, even if he didn’t have a clean rap sheet. George Floyd allegedly tried to pass off a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. He didn’t deserve to be tortured and killed for that offense. I think the fact that he supposedly went to Minneapolis to “make a new start” is irrelevant. In fact, if anything, I think his decision to try to start anew is admirable.
There was a time when I had a similarly narrow view. I grew up in a small, conservative, predominantly white, southern town. Many of the people I knew when I was growing up are a lot like my relatives. They are good, decent, hardworking, salt of the earth type people. But they also steadfastly support Donald Trump and his ilk as world leaders. And when someone like George Floyd gets publicly executed by a cop, they try to excuse it.
I used to be much like that myself. What changed me was leaving that environment and being among other people with different perspectives. I’m glad I did this with my life, but now I can’t relate to my family anymore, because I am no longer with them politically or religiously. Some of my friends make me feel uncomfortable. I remember them as wonderful folks, but cringe as they proudly defend Trump and people like Derick Chauvin.
On the other hand, just last week, I defended Amy Cooper, and a lot of people would disagree with me about that. However, I don’t see that situation as the same as this one. I do think people should be able to call the police if they need help, even if other people don’t feel the call is justified. BUT– I feel even more strongly that the police should try their best to do their jobs without killing people. There is NO REASON George Floyd should be dead today. It doesn’t matter if he has a checkered past, and to be honest, I didn’t bother reading the link to see why Floyd needed a “new start” in Minneapolis. I don’t think it matters. What matters is the day he died. He was not a threat to anyone on that day, in that situation. He shouldn’t have been killed by a cop.
I have an uncle who, for years, used to send me racist spam in my email. He was always one of my favorite people. I love him very much, even today. But we haven’t spoken since early 2017, because he kept sending me racist/politically conservative Trump loving spam and I finally asked him to stop. I was relatively respectful at first, but then he called me a “liberal nutcase”. I proceeded to tell him off, including using the word “fuck”. He became enraged and sent me an angry response that was much like the spew I would hear from my dad when he was angry and drunk. It really brought back some horrible memories… and now, I don’t think I want to see my uncle again. I probably won’t see him, because he’s in his 80s and I have no plans to visit Virginia anytime soon. That makes me sad, because I still have some great memories of growing up with him as my uncle. But I can’t abide naked racism on display, especially since he’s not the kind of person with whom one can have a civilized discussion. He has a tendency to argue a point to the death and doesn’t consider the other side.
Fortunately for my family, I don’t think my empty seat at the Thanksgiving table is particularly missed anymore. Last year, when one of my beloved uncles had a stroke and later died, I found out about it on Facebook from a friend of my cousins. No one thought to tell me about it. Their excuse was that they told my sister to tell me. I used to feel very close to these people, but none of them thought enough of me to send me an email or a private message on Facebook. Maybe they see me as a defective member of the gene pool for turning out liberal…
I’m not the only one, by the way. I have another cousin who is a black sheep because he’s not only liberal, but gay. We often commiserate. Last time he went home to see his father– same guy who sent me racist videos and emails– he got into an argument with him about racism and homophobia and was turned out of the house in the middle of the night. This was in November in rural Virginia, so it wasn’t like he could go to a hotel with ease. So much for a loving and supportive family, right? Only if you think and act the way they do…
It occurs to me that this may be why I relate so well to ex Mormons. People who leave the LDS church, particularly when they are members of families with a long history and heritage in the church, are generally very brave individuals who can’t unring the bell. They can’t align with the church anymore, so they strike out on their own. They get ostracized and ridiculed and shunned… and they often turn out to be very interesting and empathetic people who can relate to others.