Last weekend I did something I thought I never would do. I got into a public Facebook argument with my family.
It started when my dad shared a graphic asking why there hasn’t been as much outrage over the murder of 5-year-old Cannon Hinnant as there’s been for George Floyd.
Usually, when I see something like this from my dad, I’ll talk to him about it on the phone. It’s so much easier than trying to discuss something so emotional and heated over social media or text.
Then two of my aunts commented on the post, both pretty much saying the same thing – they thought progressives were ignoring Hinnant’s murder because it didn’t fit their “narrative,” whatever that means.
This is where I chimed in, bringing up police brutality, power dynamics, and who’s getting justice and who’s not.
I mistakenly thought things would stop there.
The first two aunts, both of whom I’m close to, stopped commenting. Then another aunt, from the other side of my family, came in with some of the most hateful rhetoric I’ve ever seen outside of a Trump tweet.
Enraged, I asked if she really believes that nonviolent, unarmed people who are posing no threat whatsoever should be killed by police. I’ll give you one guess as to what she said.
In addition to her resounding yes, she added that people who are shot or killed by police deserve it because they’re “criminals.” I pushed back and she hit me with “let’s agree to disagree, sweetie. Love you, miss you.”
First, in reality, she neither loves nor misses me; we haven’t seen or spoken to each other in 13 years. Second, the hypocrisy was absurd considering the illegal things people in my family, she included, have done. It’s not like we’re the Mafia, but we’re also not perfect.
Finally, I do not “agree to disagree” with racists. I ignored her platitudes and asked if she really thought innocent people should be killed. She “liked” my comment, giving me my answer.
It all could have ended here. I could have walked away, let her live in ignorance, and forgotten about it. But I couldn’t. I was too angry. I wrote a passive-aggressive Facebook post about unfriending racist relatives and how all they are to me are blood relatives, not family. I’d unfriended that particular aunt and her brother, my uncle, months ago when I reached a breaking point with their blatant racism and lack of humanity.
Well, this is when more members of my extended family came out to play. Lots of shock and outrage, blah blah blah. And then word got back around to the unfriended aunt, and she was enraged that I did the very worst thing you could ever do to a white person: call them racist.
The original thread took off again, gaining input from more aunts and uncles as well as random strangers. To them, I was crazy, elitist, misinformed. They said they felt bad for me and that it was “so sad” that I couldn’t see how wrong I was.
We went back and forth for most of the day with me trying to explain systemic racism and them denying its existence and their own racism. They just about lost their minds when I said all white people are racist because it’s how society conditions us. I told them white people could be anti-racist, complacent, or just straight-up racist, but they wouldn’t hear it. In one sentence they insisted they weren’t racist at all and in the next they sanctioned the shootings of Floyd and Jacob Blake.
Not only was everyone mad at me, but they were also horrified to discover that I’m no longer the quiet little girl who barely said a word around them. They wanted me to be complacent in their racism and I couldn’t. Not any more. I used to be afraid to jeopardize my relationships with them (which were pretty much nonexistent anyway), but their feelings and comfort are not as important as Black lives.
It would be easy for me to question how I share DNA with these people, but that’s not the right question to be asking. Of course I share DNA with racists – I’m white. I also used to wonder if I have any ancestors who were feminists or anti-racists so I could find someone in my line to make a connection. But again, that’s not the right question.
Where I come from – where most white people come from – is a history of racism and discrimination. One person in my lineage wouldn’t erase that. I need to confront this and understand that these people led to me being here today.
So, how do I own the past and reckon with that pain so my descendants don’t keep perpetuating it? That’s the question I’ll keep asking moving forward. I urge other white people to do the same.
Kate Gardner is a Portland-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, SELF, and Bustle. You can follow her on Twitter @katevgardner.