Race, Psychology, and Family Dynamics
Someday someone will explain to me this fascination America has with the idea that Michelle Obama has white relatives like it’s remotely unusual for a descendant of slaves in America. I notice with all the talk of “So and so was impregnated by X slaveowner” and the rush to interview the white relatives so they can say the obligatory “I’d love to reunite with that side of the family and talk about our history” no one discusses exactly how so many mulattoes came to be born during and after slavery. I know the story of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings has been played as very romantic, but I sincerely doubt that even if it was that way for them, the same is true of Michelle Obama’s great great great grandmother’s relationship with the man that bought her when she was 6 and impregnated her at 15.
I know romance has nothing to do with why my maiden name is Irish. The slaveowner on that side kept very detailed records of everything. Including Or why my grandmother’s mother had straight hair. My great great grandfather raised her (and presumably loved her) anyway, but there’s some pretty clear evidence in the records that their reasons for moving north to Chicago weren’t based on a desire to leave the farm land that he worked so hard to acquire and hold onto through Reconstruction. My great grandmother was born in 1894 and she’s listed as mulatto, but her parents are listed as black. It’s on that list of things that was never explicitly discussed, but no one in our family is laboring under the delusion that the way she got here was about romance you know?
The power dynamic between slave and slaveowner is almost never recognized in these romanticized revisionist histories, much less what it meant to be a WOC assaulted and impregnated by a white man in a society where you had no hope of him ever facing anything approximating justice. There’s a lot of talk about how long ago slavery ended, but there’s not a lot of talk about the impact it, (and all the events that followed) have had on family dynamics in the black community. Or the psychological effects of institutional racism in any community. Even here there’s no discussion of how the white relatives feel when the new found cousin isn’t the First Lady. Because let me tell you what, our Irish relatives weren’t so excited when we found them. A whole lot of those “Cherokee” relatives people like to claim weren’t NDN, but it was a convenient lie for white families looking to avoid the stigma of having been touched by the tarbrush.
I blog a lot about sociology, critical race theory, and history. I’m not alone, after all there’s tons of research being done in those areas. Not so much when it comes to the psychological effects of racism on an individual level. It’s difficult enough to talk about being a POC and what we deal with as a result of modern institutional racism without trying to articulate the generational emotional and physical trauma of living in a society that’s innately hostile to your very existence. There’s been some work done but it’s not an area that’s easy to navigate academically or socially. Because really when you’re talking about these kinds of family stories it’s easier to smile politely and just not discuss it than to dig up all those bones and really face the pain.
There’s such a stigma attached to seeking mental health assistance (including some very specific intra-community impediments) that I can completely understand why this is the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to discussing race and racism. But (like all the other aspects) it’s one that cannot be ignored. Because even when it’s not acknowledged the fact remains that racism has an impact on every aspect of life. Everything from parenting choices, to jobs, to housing, to how our communities function is impacted by this huge awful weight and that doesn’t happen in some emotionless vacuum. Even the “positive” stereotypes are hurtful because they’re rooted in deeply ugly historical and social context. Is it really so difficult to at least consider the psychological impact of that kind of ongoing trauma might be beyond the grasp of the casual observer?