My baby cousin, Sebastian was in my arms. At the time, he was less than a year old. As he wiggled in my arms, I felt his blond hairbrush up against my skin; skin that is about a shade or two darker than his. Like many Dominican families, we all range in appearances. Many of the boys on my mother’s side are born with blond hair or light brown hair and usually, develop into dark brunettes in their pre-adolescent stages. Sebastian inherited these features, an inheritance my family considers a blessing.
Then it happened. It happens often. Someone said something racist. Someone always says something racist. When this would happen, I often ignored it; maybe even laughed it off if it was intended as a joke. This time was different, this time it made me angry. I was an undergrad and had just switched my major from Education to Africana/Puerto Rican and Latino studies; and this time, I was going to tell them why they were wrong. This time, I was going to educate them on our history. Inform them that we have more black ancestors than we can count. Remind them that our family photos display a full range of black, brown and white faces. Perhaps advise them that Hispaniola is the origin of the black history in the Americas. But I did not choose my words so carefully. To make matters worse, I had forgotten to consider that the offending comment came from my grandmother.
She is the woman from whom I inherited my brazen tongue, enthusiasm for education and general low tolerance for nonsense. She is my symbol of strength. She has outlived my grandfather by 21 years and is not showing any indication of giving out. She is the rock of my family, where all of our morals, values, and traditions reside. She is the Queen Bee and we are all her proud little hive of workers, living out her and my grandfather’s legacy in the United States.
Respect I have for her aside, in this moment I thought back on memories I was not so proud of. Moments where I thought she projected self-hate through racially driven insults towards black people we would see on the television and in the street. Or the time she and my mother told me that as a baby I cried when I saw her brother because I was afraid of his black skin -I still have an emotional reaction to that story; to me, this is an example of exactly how racism is taught. The constant comments about my “undone” hair, styled in natural curls. “Doing” your hair in our culture means a blow-dry and various products that will keep hair straight and silky smooth. I have always felt that my family’s greatest pride was that we all inherited White-passing hair. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone in my family to have inherited the hair of our African ancestors. If I feel so troubled when asked to erase my blackness, I can only imagine what it would be like if I couldn’t blow dry it away.
So, with little emotional intelligence, and the weight of the oppressive ideologies perpetuated by my family, I spoke. With little finesse and probably too much passion, I cried out “BUT WE’RE BLACK, WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? I’M BLACK, YOU’RE BLACK, EVEN SEBASTIAN IS BLACK!” I was confident and stern about what I had emotionally blurted. I needed to be humbled. My aunt looked me in the eye and muttered “shut up Minerva.” but it was too late. They heard me. My messy, angry and underdeveloped thoughts were suddenly occupying the space outside of my head.
My grandmother’s eyes opened wide. Her lips parted as she gritted her teeth in embarrassment and shame. This was prior to her brush with death. Before she vowed before God that she would abandon vanity. Her hair was dyed jet black, styled in the classic Abuela small curls that bounced just over her ear as she stomped past me, huffing in frustration. My grandmother made her way into the kitchen grabbed the first black thing she saw, a black container, the kind that comes with take-out food. She charged out of the kitchen, her brown eyes piercing at me, screaming “THIS IS BLACK! THIS IS BLACK!” as she waved the plastic container in my face.
The look in her eyes, I had seen it before. Humiliation. I humiliated my grandmother. Like a splash of cold water, it hit me. I knew better. She did not have to remind me that she grew up as an oppressed black woman in the Dominican Republic. I knew that in our high context culture, my words were not a stand-alone thought. I knew that Dominican communication is built on nuance and inference. I knew that what she heard me say, was “you made us black.” As though my grandfather’s whiteness was some kind of cure, and her biological presence, a blight on our family tree. I had oppressed my grandmother. I, her white, privileged descendant did much more than call US black. I called HER black.
I was told my grandmother would take my mother out as an infant for walks in her stroller. There were many occasions where my grandmother was asked if my mother was her child. She would respond in the affirmative. Sometimes people would reply, “but she’s so white!” When my grandmother tells this story, I always sense a mixture of pride and pain. I wonder if my grandmother thought about this when I said what I said. I did, but only afterward.
So I sat down.
That was over 10 years ago. I have learned a lot since then. I know my place in this conversation now. I know I don’t have to laugh if the joke makes me uncomfortable. I know I should ask more questions and listen.
The way I responded to my grandmother lacked compassion and understanding. It was unsuccessful because I lead the conversation (if you can call it a conversation) with the self-righteous belief that I, her white descendant, was appreciative of our history and she was not, that I was proud of who we are and that she was not. I don’t know if she’s proud of her blackness or our ancestry and the reason for that is, I never asked her. Before I spoke, I only considered my own experience and not my privilege.
My grandmother and I never discussed this interaction. I don’t know how much time I have to do so. I know there is an opportunity to learn more about how my grandmother sees her blackness. Moreover, I hope there’s an opportunity for me to share that having her, a strong black woman as a role model has made an immeasurable impact on my life. I hope I can muster up the courage from the pain of hurting her to get to have that conversation before it’s too late.