Being an incognito bi-racial person with bi-racial siblings is a funny thing. On the one hand, you don’t sit there constantly reminding yourself that you and your family’s DNA are mixed. On the other hand, you find yourself endlessly seeking acceptance from others that are 'full blooded'. And on the other, OTHER hand you find yourself remaining quiet when people say racist, fucked up shit in your presence. Ah, the frustrating reality of being non-confrontational and anxious. But while you don’t necessarily expect highly of strangers and acquaintances, you expect better of your own family.
Before I go into that, it’s only fair that I give you a bit of backstory. In 1986, my father, James, who is of Italian and Scot-Irish descent, had my half sister Jennifer with an African American woman. This wasn’t an immensely popular event in the eyes of his mother and sister, but my father never cared much about the opinions of others; even those of his family. In late 1990, he stepped on their toes once again when he eloped with my Puerto Rican mother and then had me in October 1991. I wasn’t aware of any familial tension during my childhood, but I was probably too busy playing with Pokémon cards to notice.
Let’s fast forward to 2013, shall we? I’ll set the scene: I’m 21 and I’ve just lost my virginity and then broken up with all in a matter of 24 hours. Fun, right? But to make matters even better, I’m also homeless and heavily suicidal. All caught up? Good!
With no alternatives at my disposal, I break down and call my dad for help in spite of having an immensely fractured relationship. He comes and takes me to my childhood home. He decides what I need is a change of scenery. To get out of the state. To see my grandmother and aunt who I haven’t seen in years. So he calls my aunt and explains the situation, asking if I can stay with her for a couple of weeks. She says no. 'What if she kills herself in my house, Jim?' she says with less concern for my life in her voice and more concern for my fragile state violating her domicile. My dad hangs up angrily and books flights and hotel rooms for us. If my family won’t help me, he’ll take me himself he says. A few days later I’m in Connecticut, the state I was born in, hugging my grandmother. I’d missed her so much and it was so amazing to feel something other than depression for a moment. She insists we go see my aunt in spite of my dad’s protests, and three hours later that’s what we’re doing. My grandmother says it’ll be a lovely surprise if I go knock on the door while they wait in the car, so I do. While I wait for her to answer the door my mind is racing. Will she recognize me? She hasn’t seen me since I was nine years old. Will she look the same as I remember? Will she be happy to see me? I quickly have my answer. The door opens and my aunt’s face immediately falls. 'Christine,' she says as her eyes dart around the surroundings behind me, 'How did you get here?! Are you alone?' I quickly put her fears to rest and wave my dad and grandmother out of the car. And moments later we’re sitting in her living room making small talk. The doorbell rings less than ten minutes into us sitting there and my aunt answers the door revealing her father in law on the other side. Except we don’t immediately know who either of us are until my father introduces us. The wheels start turning in my head: I always thought this man lived in Germany. He lives in Connecticut and yet the whole time we lived there we never saw him? Not for Thanksgiving or Christmas or anything? Something about this feels weird. Wrong. I whisper to my dad I want to leave and we do.
The next day my aunt comes over to my grandmother’s house and I ask her to explain why I’ve never met her in laws. She starts spouting nonsense about how we don’t live in the state and she doesn’t like big elaborate parties. All bullshit and I tell her that.
'Why have I never met them?' I ask again more sternly.
'Because they were embarrassed of you,' my dad says referring to my aunt and uncle. My aunt begins to protest, but dad continues. 'They had separate holiday celebrations for them and us because they didn’t want to explain you and your sister to them and the fact that you’re mixed.' I looked at her as she hung her head. The cat was finally out of the bag. I looked at my grandmother, 'And you allowed this? You’re ashamed of us, too?'
'I’m not ashamed,' she said, 'But they’re very closed minded people.'
'That shouldn’t matter. You should never hide your own family!'
I stormed out of the house and haven’t talked to either of them very much since. But I learned a lot from that incident. I learned for the second time in my life, that being family doesn’t automatically mean someone deserves a free pass. I learned that even your own family won’t always be there for you. And I learned to hold people accountable for hurting me. These all sound like relatively harsh lessons, but it’s things like this which helped me develop an immense amount of self respect and cultural pride. I’ve learned most of all that it’s important to always find the good in the bad, and that’s what I aim to do from here on out.