I’m the daughter of a bigot, who is the son of an unashamed racist. She was also terrified of cats, any kind, not just the black ones. But the black ones sent her into a conniption.
I sometimes talk about my grandmother’s phobia of cats– or, ailurophobia– as a charming anecdote in conversation. She lived in a white house at the back of the family compound, behind the tall pine trees of her youngest sister, my Great Aunt Mildred, and kept a skeptical eye on the renters in her mother’s old house across the driveway.
When a stray cat would appear, she’d hide in her house, calling my father by phone to have him “take care of it.” My mother always blanketed it for me, but he’d often leave with a gun.
The power of fear is that it can kill cats.
I was never allowed to have a cat. It’s taken most of my life to come around to them. It required intentional interaction and continual effort. Cats were bad. Dogs were good.
I’m going to stop the metaphor, now.
Because part of becoming anti-racist is to look the racism squarely in the eye and call it by its name. And racism is not a cat. It’s a fucking disease. And I have it. It’s a public health crisis, and I am perpetuating it.
I knew which words were racial slurs and which were not by my father correcting my grandmother in front of us. After she passed, he started using the words himself, often during a joke at the dinner table or at the company picnic. Then it was his children’s responsibility to correct him. He’d laugh and brush it off. He wasn’t a racist. Grandma was a racist. He was having fun.
I thought that my dinner table objections starting at the age of 5 somehow disqualified me from being a racist. And yet, when I met a person of color, my brain would scan the information and find my father’s and grandmother’s voices, making those jokes, saying those words. I’d want to throw up. And then, I would remain silent. My interactions were stilted and limited, afraid that the voices that existed in my brain would somehow surface, that the people I was interacting with would somehow hear it and see me as a racist.
This is not how to become anti racist. This is suppressing the problem.
That’s what I’ve learned this week.
And now, I am doing things differently.
I am identifying those voices and I am chasing them out. I am admitting that they are there, and to do that I have to turn on the lights. Because the first step to change is admitting there’s a problem, and my internal narrative is a problem. There are too many people in there. As much as I believe there is generational trauma, I believe there is generational hate, passed through the DNA of my grandmother’s white racist blood through my father to me. I listen to it spew out of my sister and brother’s mouths. I hear it bubbling up from my nephews.
I hear it in my spiked heart rate when I pass through a “bad neighborhood.”
Dispelling racism is more than calling it out at the dinner table. That’s still making me the good guy. I have to do one better than just doing a little better than the generations before me. I need to recognize it in my blood and get a transfusion. And then, I need to do it again. Racism will never be in remission. It will require constant vigilance, treatment after treatment after treatment.
I’m not yet a cat person, but I am a people person, so it’s about time I cut the telephone cord to my past, step out of my white house, and act like it.
I guess the metaphor works, after all.