I grew up in a large high school in a small town, the kind of school that was known for good athletics and better academics. People from neighboring towns would cheat the system, saying that they lived in Milford to send their honor student to our school. In relative terms, Milford, Ohio, was in the middle of nowhere. We knew we were considered “country folk,” the name of our town said with an air of condescension by those who lived in Cincinnati proper — but at least we weren’t Goshen or, God forbid, Owensville.
I’d never been to Owensville, but I knew that it was a place you didn’t want to go, where the light doesn’t touch. We were better. We were hicks, but we were hicks with a sense of class. I grew up in a trailer park, so I didn’t know anything about that, only understanding wealth secondhand, living vicariously through photos of my friends’ European vacations. They got cars when they turned 16. I got to ride on the bus again to school — just a little older this time. When I outgrew the other passengers around me, mostly freshmen and other underclassmen, I learned to walk along the highway to school or go through the woods.
The side of Milford I lived in was more diverse than the rest of our town — because we were poor — and I lived around working-class, immigrant and black families, the latter of which were a relative scarcity in our town. It took me a while to understand this because I didn’t realize what race was until a surprisingly late age. When I was growing up, my mother’s best friend was black, and because we were always at each other’s houses, I likewise became best friends with her daughter. I would play the cowboy to her Indian, always ready to run after her and shoot her head off. Clearly I didn’t get racism yet, and I didn’t even realize it mattered that she and I were different.
I had no idea that difference was something you hated other people for until it was explained to me. I was at a wedding with my stepsister, accrued from my father’s second marriage to a woman who lived down in Kentucky, where we spent our summers, and she asked me — out of the blue — if I would ever marry a black person. I thought of Lauren, my best friend, and all the fun we had together. Could I shoot her head off for the rest of our lives? I thought I was up to the task. “Sure!” I yelled. “Wouldn’t you?”
Kicking up her pink flower girl dress, she laughed and made a choking sound of which I didn’t understand the meaning. “No, that’s disgusting,” she said, twisting up her face as if her Shirley Temple had been replaced with horse semen. Ever the melodramatic child, I threw my hands up in the air and made a ripping gesture, tearing up the contract of our friendship. I told her we couldn’t be friends anymore. “We’re done,” I barked.
My father quickly took me outside, grounding me for making a scene at the table. The issue here wasn’t that we married into racism but that I was making a big deal out of it. I didn’t understand because my parents allegedly taught me to stand up for what I believed in and what I thought was right. Wasn’t I right? My father told me it wasn’t about that. I wondered what it was about.
Years later, my father divorced his second wife — of whom we now do not speak — and married a woman named Charice, a mail-order bride he met on the Internet. The thing is, though, I don’t actually know if they are married. I assume so because (a) they live together (b) what’s stopping them? and (c) green cards are not that easy to get. I know this because I saw that Andie MacDowell movie with Gerard Depardieu. However, my father’s never told me. I’ve asked him about it, many times, and he always says they aren’t. I’m not so sure.
The first time I met her he told me she was the babysitter, and he’s never bothered to ever tell my grandparents who she really is. When he came clean to me and told me they were together, he made me swear I would never tell them. “I think they figured it out by now,” I said, but he vehemently shook his head. “Either way, just don’t bring it up,” he ordered. I asked him why. He told me that they wouldn’t accept her. He sighed, “They’re old, and they come from a different generation. Things were different back then.”
This wasn’t the first time I had heard this. I don’t remember ever officially coming out to my father, but I assume that I had to, right? I remember him repeatedly asking me if I was “well, you know.” He asked me in the car while we were listening to “Back Dat Ass Up,” and he was pretending that he knew this song and that he was into it by moving his shoulders around and awkwardly gyrating like he was an eighth-grader trying to twerk. He asked me again one morning while he was spreading potted meat on his sandwich.
Each time I said no. I didn’t want to come out to him on his terms. I wanted to come out to him on mine, except that I don’t remember when it happened. We don’t remember 99 percent of our lives, but I wish I had kept that 1 percent. I wish I could visualize the look on my father’s face when he knew that he knew, years of whispers and suspicions proved correct. I wish I could see his eyes to see what difference looked like.
However, I do remember our second conversation about it: “Don’t tell your grandparents. They won’t understand.” We were sitting at the dining room table, one of many meals that were silent when they didn’t have to be.
But I knew they knew, even if I didn’t say it. I brought my boyfriend, Mark, around all the time. They set a plate for him at the dinner table and bought him presents on Santa’s behalf every Christmas. He even got his own stocking one year, hanging right next to mine and almost touching. We’ve been broken up now for four years, but each year I find another gold-wrapped box with his name on it: “To Mark, From Santa.” They told me they knew in a million ways, but they were just too polite to bring it up. Even if they didn’t say it, they loved Mark because they loved me and loving him was a part of loving me.
But the thing that made Mark an acceptable houseguest is that he was white, unlike my father’s possible secret wife. The year after Mark and I broke up, I brought another boy to Christmas, a skinny Kentuckian named Jesse with a gentle lisp and a silent disposition, as if he were too bashful to ever be the first to speak. Without really knowing him, my grandparents made sure there was a gift for Jesse underneath the tree. In case he planned on sticking around, they wanted to make sure he didn’t feel left out.
It’s not the same, though, with Charice, who occupies my grandparents’ house like a ghost who lives in the attic, and she and my grandmother never speak directly to each other. No one is under any illusion as to why. I listen to the way my grandmother talks about the black women with whom she and my grandfather work at the government jobs they’ve held for decades, forever connoted as being lazy and ignorant. It’s the same tone they use to discuss their transgender coworker, whose six-foot stature makes her an unmissable target for sideways gossip. Everything comes out in a whisper, as if they know they shouldn’t be saying it too loudly. Someone might hear.
For my grandmother, there is something innate that divides us, a biological quality that makes black people inherently different, one unexplained by Achilles’ heels or cocoa butter. I remember the white kids in my neighborhood who were so convinced that black people “smell funny,” but I know for her, it’s deeper than scent. I call my grandmother every day, and one day I told her that Walt Disney may have been a white supremacist, a factoid I had recently heard and thought was worth mentioning. She told me that maybe he had a point.
My grandmother and I live in different Americas, ones that construct separate but overlapping histories; hers is an America where blacks continually abuse the system at the expense of whites, who are slowly being forced to give their power over to them, as if affirmative action were a plot in a spy movie. When I told her I saw The Butler, I mistakenly thought we might be able to discuss Oprah’s performance in it. Everyone likes Oprah. However, she immediately derailed the conversation. She said, “I’m so sick of those movies being made.”
I hoped she was talking about Oscar-bait movies, because I’m sick of those too, but deep down, I knew what was about to happen. I asked her, “What kinds of movies, Nana?” and I waited. After considering her answer, she broke the silence, finally. She said, “No, movies about how bad they had it.” Every time I want to close my eyes and forget we’re different all over again, my grandmother reminds me.
However, I know that my grandmother doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She hasn’t been lynched or had to drink at another fountain because people were worried her lips might contaminate her water. She’s never had to go to a separate school or use the legal system to demand to go to the same school. She’s never had an employer throw away her application simply because her name is “LaToya Davis” and the company doesn’t want someone like that working at their company.
As an effeminate queer man who couldn’t hide if I tried, I don’t know what it’s like to be a slave, but I do know what it’s like to have people turn away from you because of who you are — the way you speak or the way you dress. When someone took a swing at me on the street for the simple fact of my identity, for swishing too much when I walk, I was reminded that I’m also like that; someone might not want me to exist too. After all, my assailant didn’t plan on missing his mark.
The thing is, though, that my grandmother also had to fight for her place in the world, both as a mother and a woman. She grew up in a neighborhood poorer than mine, like something out of Frank McCourt, a place where she couldn’t console herself by being higher on the social ladder than anyone. She had no one to feel better than. This was also the 1950s, a time when women could be legally raped by their husbands. She was abused by her second husband and cheated on by her third. She married her first husband, my grandfather, out of love (kind of), but it was just as much commerce as it was romance. My Nana was 14 and looking for a way to provide for herself and her brothers and sisters, of which there were four. My grandfather was a Navy man, which meant steady income. It was food on the table.
My Nana’s own father wasn’t around and her mother couldn’t handle taking care of the kids by herself. Her younger sister — my great-aunt — required constant attention after their brother died in a car accident. She watched the life slowly drain out of the boy in front of her, as he bled out from the head. My aunt was 7 years old, and the experience would scar her so badly that she never developed after that. She will be 7 years old for the rest of her life. She will die the same little girl, just a much taller one.
The way people talk about my great-grandmother, I assume she lost her mind that day and never found it again. When I was a kid, both of my mother’s other children were born with a genetic illness they never recovered from. My mother called them vegetables, but growing up, I didn’t know what that meant. They didn’t look like any cucumbers I had ever seen. Cucumbers didn’t have faces and their eyes didn’t close when they went to sleep. When my mother had to make the decision to pull the plug on each of them and remove the machines that kept them alive, I wondered what vegetable eyes look like when the lights go out inside. Do they stay open?
My family never recovered from those days, and our entire lives have been shaped by death. When you live in the shadow of loss, one of two things happen to you. You stay in the dark with the demons, like my mother has. You become dead along with them. Or you become my grandmother. You spend your entire life overcoming death, like a zombie who refuses to stay in the ground.
My Nana found a way not only to raise all of her brothers and sisters but also to raise her own children and to raise my brothers and me, all while holding down two to three jobs at a time. Whenever I ask her how she was ever able to do that, she tells me that she doesn’t remember anymore. I think she just got so used to having to provide for everyone else around her that she didn’t even think about it. Providing just became a trick of muscle memory. If you tap my grandmother’s knee, she doesn’t kick. She puts a gift under the tree.
I have nothing but love and overwhelming gratitude for this woman who raised me and who taught me what it was to be strong, and it pains me to think that someone who has been able to deal with so much in her life might not be able to see that other people are fighting too. How could she be so blind to others’ oppression? After everything she’s been through, how could something as comparatively small as the race of her in-laws matter so much?
I know I could bring home as many men to Christmas as I wanted, but if I brought home a black man, that would be a very different story. I might as well kick the cat when I walk through the door. It’s like the Jewish mothers who are OK with their kid being gay -- so long as they don’t date a gentile. Sucking dick is fine. Eating heathen cock is another matter.
Other than Mark, my most significant relationship was with a Chicago public-school teacher, who I was on-again, off-again with for years, before he finally stopped letting me break his heart. Some bad relationships you can blame on your significant other, and some are mutual. This was definitely my fault, but at the end of it, I was strangely relieved. Even if it did work out — and I could finally care for him the way I wanted to — I knew loving him wouldn’t be so easy for my family.
This has long been a problem for me in my dating life, as I have a habit of attracting men of color. They think we’re on the same team.
Being racially ambiguous, I’m often read as nonwhite or “vaguely ethnic,” as a friend put it. Having a name like “Nico Lang” certainly doesn’t clear up the confusion. I’ve been mistaken for Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Latino, Jewish, Middle Eastern, Greek, and just about everything you can think of. A man once grabbed my butt at a conference and said, “Oh, baby. You must be Puerto Rican.” I responded, “I’m not anything.” He laughed. “Oh, baby. You’re always something to somebody, even if you don’t know it.”
I have a friend who is half black and doesn’t look it at all, her Greek heritage overpowering any visual manifestation of the other aspecits of her ethnicity. She gets white privilege, even though she isn’t actually white, a living testament to race as both reality and perception. I’m perceived to be something, and people can’t figure out what that something is. When I come out to guys as “nothing” and pull out my white privilege card, they always seem vaguely disappointed. I’m just another white activist and social justice fetishist who thinks he knows about race. “I’m learning,” I always respond.
Like most people, my grandmother hasn’t been taught to think critically about race, and I wonder sometimes if my grandmother thinks of herself as being racist. I highly doubt it. When you get to my Nana’s age, experiencing everything she has, you feel like you’ve earned your opinions. You’ve lived enough life to be entitled to what you think and not have to apologize for it. No one her age looks in the mirror and says, “I’m a racist. I am bigoted. I have prejudiced views that are harmful to others.” No one says that at any age.
Yet each of us who are born white and operate within a system of power and privilege are racist, in subtle ways that we don’t notice. We’re like fish that swim in racist water, not able to see it in what we breathe. It surrounds you and gets inside you.
In that system, racism isn’t just twisting your mustache and cackling or spitting in someone’s face. It’s complacency and ignorance, a process of fighting your way to the surface as best you can. I’ve made a million excuses for myself when I don’t make it all the way there, but how often do I give my Nana the opportunity to learn to swim? I’m beginning to think my father and I doing a disservice to her by keeping her away from the issue, if we still aren’t trusting her to keep fighting the current she was born into.
When I eventually came out to my grandmother, she said she wanted to say something to me. She was just waiting until I was ready. She knew since I was 4. I asked what tipped her off, and then I remembered putting on a live performance of a Britney Spears routine in my eighth-grade English class, complete with full song and dance. I spent weeks at home memorizing the choreography, and my grandmother helped me practice. She even bought me the CD, smiling as I played the same song over and over again.
I remember how badly I wanted to go to her concert and how she often to take me — just the two of us. But after being teased for listening to her music on the bus, I didn’t want to go, because “it wasn’t what boys did.” She told me, “You can be any kind of boy you want.”
Some kids have to come out. I was never in.
Harvey Milk used to say that the reason queer people need to come out is so that we can stand up and be counted for who we are. Being our authentic selves in public, as flamboyant or brilliant as the fire with we were made, allows people to get to know us. Queer people are much harder to discriminate against when they aren’t just the people on television but your neighbors, your friends, and your relatives.
Since coming out, I’ve given my grandmother the opportunity to know the real me, but every moment I stay in the dark about race, I’m not being authentic. I’m not the kid who got grounded for speaking up. I’m the one who is too afraid of punishment to make things a little uncomfortable. Over time, I learned to be quiet.
When I look at my grandmother, I know that racists aren’t just the people we see on TV, ones standing at picket lines to block the way of progress. Racism is also nice people who are so busy trying to be nice that we don’t have a real conversation, scared that we might raise the dead. Racism is a deeper and more complicated issue than anything we’ve been taught, one that doesn’t go away when we pretend it doesn’t exist.
My Nana might have a race problem, but so do I.
NICO LANG is a correspondent and blogger for WBEZ (Chicago’s NPR affiliate), the cocreator of In Our Words, and a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media & Cinema Studies program. He writes about LGBTQ issues in Chicago and contributes to the Los Angeles Times, Thought Catalog, and The Huffington Post.