Rachel Elizabeth Weissler, a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, has the kind of close-knit relationship with her dad most people would envy. He lives in Southern California, where Weissler spent most of her childhood, but the two talk frequently. She calls him her “biggest cheerleader.”
But there’s one topic they always seem to dance around: race.
Weissler is biracial: Her dad is white and her mom is Black. Though her dad loves Black culture (“Black TV especially,” Weissler said) and clearly, Black women, he tenses up when his daughter wants to talk about what it’s like to be Black in America.
“He avoids the subject, and when he does bring it up, it’s often in an extremely superficial way,” Weissler said.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic racism, her father’s silence became deafening for Weissler. While she was preoccupied with work and taking care of herself in the days after the murder, she wondered what her dad thought. It had been radio silence on his end, so she decided to text him. She couldn’t help but take a sardonic tone.
“What do you think about all the black people that keep getting murdered!” Weissler wrote.
“Yes, he left me on ‘read,’” Weissler told HuffPost a month after the exchange. He finally called her the next day.
“He said he didn’t know what to say about what’s going on in the world right now and focused on asking me if I was safe due to all the ‘looting’ going on,” Weissler said. He probably also mentioned Trump, she said.
“In almost every conversation with him, he tries to remind me that he ‘didn’t vote for Trump,’ as if that exonerates him from being complicit in racism,” she said.
Weissler has learned to redirect, though.
“I often remind my dad that he has a Black child, and he usually just laughs,” she said. “I will say that I have deep love for my dad, and something I am so grateful for is that as I’ve grown up and into my ideologies and feminism, I feel empowered to share with him when I think he’s said something wrong or racist or insensitive, and he does listen and let me talk.”
It’s hard to broach these conversations. While her dad never corrects her or dismisses her experience, Weissler can only hope that he’s truly hearing what she says.
“Is he absorbing what I tell him? That I can’t tell you. But I am grateful he lets me call him out, and listens,” she said.
Weissler’s story isn’t unique: As the national conversation about race and longstanding systemic racism continues online and in our homes, many biracial adults say they are struggling to connect and get through to the white side of their families when discussing what it means to be Black in America.
Family or not, it’s impossible for a white person to fully understand the deep-seated grief a Black or biracial person experiences every time another Black person is needlessly killed by the police.
“It’s common for my family to just not talk about things which are contentious. … At first I was really grateful, but it then eventually did start to feel a little bit like, ‘Um, are you noticing what’s going on?”
– Jessi Grieser, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee
You might assume that a white person with Black family would have an easier time understanding that pain ― that hearing about the racism and lived experiences of, say, your granddaughter or cousin, would move you beyond the naïveté or willful ignorance most white Americans have about modern racism. That you wouldn’t have the luxury to remain complacent or indifferent to racial injustice because you’ve seen your own flesh and blood experience it.
But as many biracial people in the U.S. will tell you, dynamics in multiracial families are a lot more complicated than that. Sometimes, the silence is more comforting on both sides. When you’ve been vulnerable with your white relatives and shared your experiences with racism and they still deny it exists, it’s exhausting. In a scenario like this, avoiding any and all talk of race is a way to preserve your sanity.
Last month, Nicole Holliday, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted about that very disconnect.
“Shoutout to all my fellow biracial folks who are dodging calls from white family members right now, because they can’t risk having to hear some racist BS from their own parents,” she wrote.
Holliday, who identifies as Black and biracial “in that order,” grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood.
Her dad, who’s Black, wasn’t in the picture much during her childhood, but his family was. Her mother, who’s white, made sure Holliday understood Black history. In college, Holliday’s Black social and political identity took hold and flourished.
But for the white side of her family, “it was very important to my family that I was always referred to as ‘biracial,’ never ‘black.’”
“I think my family members, many [of] whom are conservative, really struggle with understanding how the entire social and economic system of this country was built on black exploitation, and they’re pretty quick to give excuses for racist behavior, especially when it comes from Trump,” Holliday wrote HuffPost. “I think they think he’s a buffoon who’s been good for their pocketbooks, but who isn’t genuinely a racist person.”
As Holliday’s tweet suggests, she isn’t in the habit of discussing race with those family members, but her mom is a different story.
After Eric Garner’s murder, there was a long period when they didn’t talk (“I felt like she was unquestioningly defending the cops”), but given the relentlessness of similar incidents in the past six years, Holliday thinks her mom is starting to get it. It’s impossible to look away.
“She seems to understand how routine police violence against black folks is, and how it creates a situation in which we live with everyday terror,” Holliday wrote.
That said, sometimes getting through to her mom feels like one step forward, two steps back.
“It’s really complicated lately because I know she’s really heartbroken about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, but I’m not sure she sees the other victims in the same light,” she said. “I talk to my mother but for the first time, I’ve actively started shutting her down and changing the conversation if she starts to defend racists, especially Trump.”
Holliday is wary of what her white grandma will have to say each time the police kill another Black person, but she usually reaches out anyway. She refuses to give up on either woman.
“I’ve been avoiding calling my grandmother because I’m afraid she’ll be really negative about the protestors and I just don’t want to hear it,” she said. “I’ve already been out of touch with the rest of my white family because of their reactions to racist incidents in the past, but I really don’t want to lose my mom and grandma.”
The idea of “losing” or giving up on a family member due to their failure to recognize racial injustice in this country is all too real for Ethan HD, a professional wrestler and comic shop owner in Tacoma, Washington. Luckily, he said his mother, who’s white, has been incredibly understanding about what’s going on.
She, like many white parents, tries to learn and understand how she can help.
“She’s witnessed racial prejudice firsthand when she would be out with my father in public back in the 80s,” HD told HuffPost in an email. “She’s never once tried to play devil’s advocate when discussing our country’s systemic racism.”
But his extended white family views things differently. He’s had to cut off contact, at least on social media, with some family members, including a cousin he’s gotten into Facebook arguments with often in recent years.
When quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016, that cousin told HD that siding with the NFL player was “disrespecting [their deceased grandfather] who served in the military.”
At the height of the protests, the same cousin started posting videos of police hugging children and Black citizens on social media.
“I explained that she’s covering up the issue by pretending like there aren’t dozens of videos being posted daily showing police officers assaulting black folks and people fighting for the Black Lives Matter movement,” HD said.
His cousin argued that she was married to a police officer and had to be careful about what she posted online.
“I replied that agreeing that ‘Black Lives Matter’ shouldn’t be something you get in trouble for saying and then I dropped the issue because I knew where it was heading.”
“I finally gave up contact with my cousin and my aunt when I saw them posting ‘All Lives Matter’ nonsense,” he added. “I decided to block them on social media.”
Jessi Grieser, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, is multiracial and transracially adopted. Her family members on both sides are white, except for one of her two brothers, who is also adopted. She’s never had to block a white relative on social media. Her family, she said, is very “Midwestern nice.”
“It’s common for my family to just not talk about things which are contentious. So mostly [BLM] hasn’t come up,” she said. “At first I was really grateful but it then eventually did start to feel a little bit like, ‘Um, are you noticing what’s going on?’”
Grieser said she thinks her parents wait for her to initiate these kinds of conversations, which seems thoughtful but inevitably creates “extra work” in terms of emotional labor for her.
She credits them with paying attention to Black issues in the news, seeking out Black-owned businesses, and staying in their integrated neighborhood long after their Black kids had moved out. And they read all the obligatory books about being anti-racist that topped The New York Times bestseller lists the last month.
But she says they struggle to conceive of themselves as doing racist things, outside of simply being a part of a racist system.
“I do get accused of picking on them ‘about everything,’” she said. “For instance, if I point out that asking the taxi driver (micro)aggressively ‘where are you from?’ isn’t actually a friendly thing to do. Everyone’s feelings get hurt pretty fast.”
She added: “I’m really not supposed to point those things out, and if I do point them out and they say they’re sorry, that’s clearly supposed to be the end of it, whether it happens again or not. It’s exhausting.”
Her extended family hasn’t reached out since the protests, but she’s actually glad about that.
“I don’t usually talk to them, so if anyone got in touch to ‘check in and see how our Black relative is doing’ it would have been very performative and probably would have made me mad,” she said.
Grieser said her family, like many white families, likes to flaunt having a Black relative as “proof” of how post-racial they are. As biracial artist Nicole Linh Anderson recently pointed out, “people love biracial babies because it feeds into a feel-good melting pot narrative.” Of course, a multiracial person and/or their white relatives can still benefit from white supremacy and hold racist views.
“I think some of my family members truly don’t understand that proximity to blackness isn’t the same as being black, and that there are parts of my experience that they’ll never understand.”
– Nicole Holliday, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania
Grieser said most people in her extended family “seem to think racism is pretty much just over, or if it’s not, it really only exists in the form of people yelling the N-word. White people adopt Black kids, my cousin is married to a Taiwanese man, obviously, all this is evidence that we left racism behind a few decades ago.”
That “evidence” makes it incredibly hard to get through to them that racism is alive and well. Griesler said the majority of her white relatives subscribe to the “good/bad” binary of racism that sociologist Robin DiAngelo talks about in her book “White Fragility.” It’s the idea that racism is only inflicted by “mean” or evil people who engage in deliberate racist actions.
“They think that as long as they weren’t deliberately trying to be cruel, nothing they say or do could possibly be racist,” she said. “I had to actually tell my aunt to her face at Christmas that Sierra Leonians not being nice to her when she was in the Peace Corps is not a glimpse into what it is like to be Black in the United States and that it was a very wrongheaded thing to say to me.”
Griesler gets frustrated to think that relatives might use her as an excuse to claim they’re not racist, especially when they make her uncomfortable all the time with comments about racism. She wants her white family members to see race so they can recognize racism ― boldfaced and obviously cruel, or quiet and systematic ― and realize that you can be a good person while still existing in and benefiting from a society that’s deeply rooted in racism.
For many biracial adults, what’s almost more frustrating than silent white relatives are white relatives who claim they can’t be racist because they have biracial kids in their family, Holliday said.
“There’s a regular scholarly conference called Critical Mixed Race Studies and a few years back I went to a panel about white moms who claim that they ‘get it’ because of their black kids.”
It’s the oldest story in the book, she said; multiracial kids hear it all the time.
“In my case, I think some of my family members truly don’t understand that proximity to blackness isn’t the same as being black, and that there are parts of my experience that they’ll never understand,” she said. “Their investment in colorblind racism is an emotional shield for them, but I feel like it also keeps them for really and truly seeing me.”
Like many white people, Holliday’s relatives endeavor to look beyond her race ― as a sort of “favor” to her ― when all she really wants is for them to acknowledge her Blackness.
“If they ‘don’t see race’ then I think that they’re choosing to ignore seeing the part of me that they don’t like,” she wrote, “because that’s also the part that’s most different from them.”