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I've Known He Was Racist Since I Knew What Racism Was

by Samantha Blake about a year ago in grandparents
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How to keep loving a grandfather who doesn't understand.

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

I was twenty.

At a hotel, on vacation, in a mostly White area. We walked across the courtyard of the hotel and passed a young Black woman who had just sat down in one of the chairs, looking at her phone. A total stranger; presumably another guest on vacation.

My grandpa, wagging a finger at her in mock scolding, “You’re slacking on your job, young lady.”

Her, looking up, bewildered and then obviously offended: “I don’t work here.”

Him, surprised: “Oh… sorry.” Walks on.

Me, to her, mortified: “I’m so sorry.” Following him.

I was seventeen.

I’d come to visit him that summer and had been swimming every day. Him from across the dinner table: “You need to stop getting so much sun, Samantha. You’re so dark you’re starting to look like a Mexican.”

I was twenty-six.

Talking to me about his nursing home, and the caregivers they have there: “I have a nice man, John — good decent White fellow, a family man — who takes care of me during the week. Only bad thing about him is he doesn’t want to work seven days a week!”

Me, concerned: “Well grandpa they must have other people who can help you on the weekends?”

Him: “Well… yes I suppose, but they’re Black, so I mostly just make do until Monday.”

I’ve known my grandpa was racist since I knew what racism was.

And after each time he would say something like that, I would tell him it was offensive and explain why he couldn’t say those things, and that he was hurting people by doing so. I’m embarrassed to say in my younger years I didn’t notice as much — and yes, I realize that means I was and still am part of the problem. But the older I got and the more my worldview expanded, the more vocal about it I would be, and the more frustrated I became with his ignorant remarks.

For a long time, it got better — he seemed more open and understanding, less set in his ways. But now it’s as if the more he ages, the more slurs slip out.

My grandpa isn’t a malicious man. And before you criticize — I know a lot of people have racist relatives, and a lot of people will try to defend them. But I’m not.

I say he’s not a malicious person partly from my life experience with him, but also because each time I challenge him or bring up the problem with whatever remark he made, he genuinely wants to know why. He doesn’t lash out, he doesn’t get angry, he simply does not understand why what he is saying — and his overall view — is derogatory and hurtful and straight-up wrong.

But isn’t that the issue with racism? People only think they’re racist if it’s obvious? And a lot of times it isn’t.

But good intentions and blatant ignorance don’t excuse offensive behavior.

“He doesn’t mean it” doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt. And “but he’s a good person” doesn’t mean he’s not wrong and shouldn’t know better.

For a while, I and everyone else around him made excuses: he was raised in a different time, that’s how it was in his family, he’s stuck in his generation, etc. And maybe those could have been slightly more understandable (though still unacceptable) excuses at one time, but by now, after so many years of me and others telling him to stop saying things like that?

The fact that he hasn’t stopped makes me convinced that his beliefs are so deeply engrained, that now in his old age they are coming back to the surface.

He somehow still considers the views and opinions of his own parents and people he grew up with more valid than anything we, his current family, have said to him at all. He’s in his nineties — and sometimes I think he isn’t even aware of what he’s saying.

How can I have any hope of changing him?

The last couple of years he’s been living in a nursing home. His health has declined, he can’t get out of bed most days without a lot of help, and now because of COVID-19, for the past year and a half, he hasn’t been allowed visitors or even been allowed out of his room for months at a time. He’s lonely, bored, sad, and scared.

He has cried on the phone with both of my parents, and my grandfather doesn’t cry. TV, letters, and phone calls from family (nearly all of his friends have passed already) are currently his only source of joy.

It makes me angry that I feel pity for this man who can’t seem to have empathy or understanding for entire races, but I do.

I’ve been avoiding calling him.

I feel emotionally tapped from the events of the past year, and I feel guilty even saying that, because I’m aware my privilege has allowed me to NOT be emotionally tapped for my entire lifetime.

I know I will call, and he will inevitably bring up everything that’s been happening on the news, and probably say something offensive. And then I will have that hard conversation again. And it will likely happen the next time we talk, too. And the next time.

For so many years I thought he would change, but he never did. I wish I could say I believed he was capable of opening his perspective and stop being a bigot, but I don’t.

And I know a lot of people aren’t going to like hearing this but… if he is so set in his way of thinking that I don’t believe he’s going to change, and he is potentially in the last year or two of his life — is it really worth the fight?

At what point could I set aside fighting for what’s right and just have compassion for my aging grandfather, if ever?

There really isn’t a choice. It shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be an ultimatum, because the only factor that stands between the two is my own willingness to have that conversation. I shouldn’t have to appease him to still be a loving granddaughter, and I don’t.

Despite our somewhat strained relationship my whole life, I do love and appreciate my grandfather. And despite the sometimes very tough love, he has supported me in (most) of my life choices and I don’t believe he deserves to die alone.

But neither did Breonna Taylor, or George Floyd, or any other Black person who died a senseless victim of the systematic racism in our country — and that’s the reason I should and do care. My belief that my grandpa won’t or can’t change his mind — doesn’t matter. Because ultimately it’s not about me.

The fact remains that I have a racist grandfather.

And I know that a lot of people won’t care.

But even if it might do nothing, I can’t stop trying to combat his views and remarks simply because it drains me emotionally. Staying silent and allowing him to let slip ignorant, racist comments unchecked makes me a contribution to the underlying problem.

If it’s compassion and a familiar voice on the line that he wants, then that’s what I’ll give him.

But being compassionate to his situation doesn’t mean I’ll allow generations of ignorance and bigotry to win in the process.

© Samantha Blake 2021


About the author

Samantha Blake

Writer, storyteller, dreamer, doer. I believe everyone has a story, and that the power of words and human connection can change the world.

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