Of flags, privilege, and family

A few days ago my brother changed his Facebook profile picture to the confederate flag. I am not sure what to do in the wake of this small, harmless, heinous, ugly action. I am torn between my identities as an antiracist activist, an antiracist educator, a sociologist, and a sister. Not to mention a friend. Am I a bad person if I continue to allow a person in my life who openly proclaims racist attitudes?

As you might imagine I am not exceptionally close to my brother. We are almost a decade apart in age and have never lived in the same house. We are different in lots of ways. Example: he never went to college, I am a college professor. We have other things in common, like we both talk unstoppably and are pretty loud about it. And we both hate cops, although my brother has spent some time in jail while I’ve never been. I love him because he is my brother but if blood ties were socially meaningless we would never even speak to each other.

So I could detach from my brother; it would not even be that hard. I could stop sending him cards or asking my dad about him and I could be curt and polite when I see him on visits to other family. We had that kind of relationship for several years and no one would really say anything if our relationship became that way again. I wonder if maybe that is my moral obligation. Maybe I am cheating, relying on my white privilege, when I leave my antiracist politics at the door in order to have a relationship with my brother. Relegating these deeply held beliefs to a set of political opinions like who I vote for that I can just set aside for a while in order to have a conversation about gardening with someone who will only disagree with me about anything else. I do not know if it would be so easy to relegate my antiracist beliefs if they were actually about me instead of just my friends, or if they were about my partner or my children. Why do I even want to have a conversation with someone who flies a confederate flag even though he knows it symbolizes the belief that some human beings are not, in fact, really human beings?

But I guess there’s the rub: family is not socially meaningless. It is, as Bodhi just reminded me, the place where I’m from. Family and home form a core part of me, I guess, even if it’s a part I’m ashamed of and sometimes repulsed by. I wonder if that’s why I never feel more impotent as a teacher, sociologist, and activist than with my family.

I am proud of the success I have engaging university students to think about white supremacy in 2015 and in their own lives, but I worry how I can convince anyone in the broader world of anything if I can’t even convince my own family, the people who supposedly love me best. My family are some of the few people I interact with who have truly divergent views from my own, not counting students who are directly subject to my authority. They are one of my few chances to preach outside the choir. When I can’t do it, when I know it’s useless, I feel like a complete and utter failure.

Worse, I know that any descendants of slaves who might look at my Facebook page and see that flag will know that I am not the kind of white person that can be counted on. I often feel proud of my relentless efforts to remain close to my family and that they are part of my integrity as a person. But I guess right now I stand (ambivalently) for family, but also for racism, and what kind of integrity is that?


Ode to Idyllic Places

Why is it that idyllic places that are green everywhere the eye can see, with no glass monstrosities marring beauty, why is it that these places are also the most explicit in their misogyny? The West does a good job of hiding hate beneath layers of talk about equality and anti-discrimination and diversity. Idyllic places show no such artifice, and a part of me admires this honest cruelty – it seems easier to battle something that is visible and out-in-the-open. I come from an idyllic place and everytime I take my husband and kids there, I feel pride and yearning and I want them to love-this-place-like-I-do, and I spend much time translating away all the weirdness, and equal time cringing in horror, angry at all the unnecessary ignorance. If I give directions to the taxi driver while my husband stands silent, the taxi driver becomes monosyllabic and rude and finds it hard to answer basic questions like the rate and how long it will take to reach; at the temple, if I step forward ahead of the husband (yes, I do that, badly bought up that I am) and ask the priest what time the darshan will start, he averts his eyes and mumbles to the floor since talking to me, a woman, will risk…I don’t know what…something horrific is sure to happen; oh and then there are the countless men at every store who speak to my chest (I am flat chested but that does not seem to discourage them); at the ancestral home, my aunts are sweet and motherly and stand as we eat, waiting to serve us, and then they ask me later what my husband does (and I tell them, failing to mention what I do, filling in all the empty spaces with much talk about the kids – why spoil a perfectly smooth interaction and the yummiest meal I’ve had in years); at the neighbour’s house, the girl whispers and asks me how I snagged him, my husband (because he is fair and I am not, and my parents must have paid a bomb to purchase such a fair husband for me); and all the advertisements for cholis and dhotis and elaborate silk sarees have happy-looking white people modelling them (tis better to be white, even when wearing a fully embroidered gold and red colored Ghagra and Cholli); and then on our last day in my idyllic homeland, a kindly aunt compliments me that my daughter is fair – she is being nice – it is much harder to marry off a dark-skinned girl and all the marriage ads are full of “wheatish” skinned prospects – no one of marriageable age in Kerala is brown. Let’s not even get started about racism and homophobia, and all the sly comments about “those people”…..

No. Idyllic places cannot be accused of pretence – hate is all very explicit and clear.