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My Grandparents & Race

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MuggleMaybe

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My DnD group has paused our campaign to spend the summer reading/viewing racial justice related texts and discussing them, which has been awesome. Tonight we discussed the documentary I Am Not Your Negro about James Baldwin. (Yes, it is on Netflix.) Our convo inspired me to call my parents and find out what my grandparents thought about the civil rights movement, and it was immensely interesting to me, so I thought I'd write about it. 

 

Apologies in advance that some of the parts that most interest me in this are more about the history and identity of my family personally than about actual race issues. The TL;DR of my grandparent's racial conscious is, in one case, "they were very racist," and in the other "not good, but better than i expected."

 

I'll start with my Dad's parents... putting this in a spoiler tag because of racist rhetoric :/

Spoiler

My dad's parents were pretty overtly racist, which i already knew because everyone was super surprised, when my grandpa's affair was discovered, that it had been with a woman of color because, as my dad literally said, he was a bigot. Apparently his mom/my grandma had similar views, which i wasn't really sure about before. My dad said some specific things about their views but I'm not going to repeat them because they were gross and harmful and also (obviously) egregiously inaccurate. 

What really interests me is that my paternal grandparents were Jewish and only one generation removed from immigration. (my grandmother was born in NYC but her sister was a baby when their parents came to Ellis Island.) And yet they COMPLETELY FAILED to have solidarity with other marginalized peoples and it infuriates me, but also is not an unusual story in Jewish history/culture, unfortunately. I think younger generations of American Jews are doing better at this, but it is a very disturbing part of my own background.

 

My mom's parents were white, middle class Christians who lived in the rural midwest, so it is perhaps surprising that they were actually more supportive of the civil rights movement than my dad's parents were. (An admittedly low bar.) According to my mom, they felt scared by the civil rights movement at the beginning of the 60s. They also had effectively zero exposure to diversity at home, so they hadn't really witnessed direct racist actions first hand and didn't understand the extent of the problem, at least according to my mom. But they were against segregation, which is heartening and SUPER surprises me, if I'm being honest. So, like I said, they found the civil unrest threatening and were not very supportive at the start of the 60s, but my mom says that watching the situation unfold over the course of that decade they came to agree that equality was needed and they supported Martin Luther King, Jr. by the later years of the decade. That being said, they definitely bought into the inaccurate media portrayal of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers as terrorists and seem to have clung to the version of racial justice activism that did least to challenge their own place in the world. Not surprising, i guess. I definitely don't want to seem like I'm trying to paint them as super woke or anything, because they weren't. And I'm sure they (like most white people breathing our society's racism-laden air) held and accepted plenty of racist beliefs, whether they knew it or not. But it's still better than I expected?

My mom and I had a great convo about what might have shaped her parent's views to be different from many other people of their demographic at the time. It wasn't their parents - my mom stated unequivocally that all four of her grandparents, and her grandfathers in particular, were overtly and unapologetically racist. Part of it might have been education. They both attended college - my grandma was a nurse and my grandpa was a veterinarian - which was definitely not commonplace in their community. Also, my grandfather was a WWII vet, and one of the roles he served in his military duty was acquiring supplies for US/Ally troops stationed in Japan during the occupation after the war ended. (The occupation obviously has it's own huge set of issues to be addressed and I am not remotely qualified to speak to them.) This job required him to actively communicate and make business deals with Japanese suppliers and the Japanese people who worked for/owned them, in addition to interacting with a much more diverse array of people who were fellow soldiers/military personnel than he ever would have at home in rural Iowa. My grandfather died before I was born, and while I knew he'd been in the Pacific theatre during WWII in some capacity, I never knew he did this specific job. It's really interesting to me!

 

I guess what makes me emotional about hearing these stories is the way that everyone's experience is so intertwined with everyone else's. and also the way our lives and values materialize differently from how we might expect. If you don't already know and you have a way to find out, i definitely recommend learning your grandparent's views on these issues. It put my own experiences with social justice into context in a way i found surprisingly meaningful.

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