Browse By

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?

52 thoughts on “Race, Psychology, and Family Dynamics”

  1. emma says:

    well you know me, and you know this because we have discussed this before . . . but i am very much the white descendant of people who were unquestionably slave owners. and it really wasn’t that many greats ago. personally, i don’t even really know how to begin approach the fact. my first name (ashley) is from a male ancestor who owned slaves and fought for the confederacy. the funny thing is, i have only met one other white person to have ever admitted that her family had owned slaves. only one, when there are undoubtably so many. i guess i don’t really have that much to add to the discussion except yes, it is a giant, ugly and unapproachable elephant.

  2. Emily says:

    I really cannot imagine the psychological toll that the inability to protect your children from state-sanctioned violence and murder takes. Of course we cannot protect our children from everything, or from being the victim of a crime, but there is a value to the knowledge that should god-forbid something like that happen, it will not be swept under the rug, excused, etc. for the benefit of the perpetrator.

    But one danger of examining the effects is ending up using it to blame individual pathology for current systemic problems. I’m reminded of the Moynihan Report controversy in relation to this post.

  3. Craig Gidney says:

    My high school history teacher made a point of saying how sometimes slaveholders sometimes felt like that their slaves were their family members, and loved them as such. At the time, I thought how f*cked up that was–having a family member that you owned and could make do hard labor or whip at will. Maybe “love” was apart of those relationships, but it didn’t do away with the problematic issues.

  4. Juan says:

    Turning an ugly truth into a made-up romance–never fails at making me want to vomit. Even more so at people who honestly believe it and queasy when people write works of fiction around it. Just… no! x.X

  5. Marlene Parker says:

    Some free women of color chose to have babies with white men, because it was socially unacceptable to have them with slaves.

    1. karnythia says:

      It was a lot more than socially unacceptable. Those free women of color were trapped in a situation where they had no way to refuse an interested white man without fear of the consequences and even getting involved with a free black man was no guarantee that they would be able to sustain a home and family without interference from white men. That’s before we get into colorism and the need for those free WOC to have some kind of protection in a society that was innately hostile.

      1. delux says:

        You know what this person’s comments remind me of? Remember that website we were all looking at a while back, the global prostitution site? The one where men claiming to be contractors and the like in iraq were busy mansplaining and justifying their exploitation of destitute women in war zones with talk of how these women were freely ‘choosing’ to be with them and it was ok b/c everybody got something they wanted and besides they thought western men were desirable?

  6. Witchsistah says:

    But we’re not talking about free women of color. We’re talking about SLAVE women for whom consent was not at all present.

  7. marlene says:

    Some slave women thought it would mean better treatment to sleep with her owner. The overseer fathered children as well. It was not always rape.

    1. karnythia says:

      Marlene, you seem to be laboring under the impression that a choice made under duress is an actual choice. Slaves couldn’t say no without fear of reprisal. Rape doesn’t have to include physical violence to be rape. This fiction that slaves had the ability to choose in a country where white men weren’t prosecuted for sexual assaults on black women until the 1950’s is ridiculous. The sheer power imbalance alone is enough to make coercion part and parcel of any “relationship” regardless of how the women rationalized it to themselves so they could get through their day to day life.

    2. msday says:

      Hmm, if you had a choice of sleeping with the slave master or overseer, tied to a tree and whipped until the skin formed a keloidal tree, strung up and burned or sold away to someone who may have been ten times worse, what would you have chosen. You are applying modern day freedom of choice to people who were considered property.

  8. marlene says:

    Guess what people. I have done my family tree. The black women who had children with white men inherited property from them. You all have valid points however. you cannot make generalizations. Not all laisons between a white man and a black woman were based on coersion. I have an ancestor, a black woman who chose to have children with a white man. She hated black people. It could be because of the racial climate. Who knows. Y’all just can’t handle that can you?

    1. karnythia says:

      We can handle the idea of internalized racism just fine. It seems like you can’t handle it though since you refuse to consider any of the context surrounding her decision. Lots of us have done our family tree, we even have our own family lore about how we got from point A to now. Of course you couldn’t ask her yourself so you only have that tidbit 5 or 6th hand. And the fact that some women inherited property (usually the house they were kept in) doesn’t mean that there wasn’t coercion involved in their relationship. She could say yes, but she couldn’t say no.

  9. Juan says:

    You have an ancestor who chose to have children with a white guy, she hated black people, you wonder if it had to do with the racial climate, the matter has been pointed out in the article and the comments–yet you say we can’t handle it or any other dynamic in the matter?

    Please check your wire, ma’am.

  10. marlene says:

    Did you see the part about inheriting property.

    1. karnythia says:

      Yes. So what? Inheriting property after death (or being freed after his death) doesn’t indicate anything about the power imbalance of the relationship.

  11. marlene says:

    Ok I reread the article Juan. Y’all are just angry about being mixed. Embrace it don’t be angry about it. We were all forced together because of colonialism and slavery.

    1. karnythia says:

      We’re not angry. We’re just recognizing how we got that way.

    2. Juan says:

      *face-effin-palm with a half-twist and back-of-the-headtable*

      1. karnythia says:

        So I tried to copy that move and my neck protested. Who knew you could get too old to boggle at a comment?

      2. Witchsistah says:

        I wasn’t gonna risk a trip to the ER (and explain what happened) to try and execute that move.

      3. Juan says:

        What can I say, that foolishness shorted out my brain long enough to not for it to not register pain. Good lord I hope she isn’t a writer or dares to write a historical piece on this subject.

      4. nojojojo says:

        ::holds up a “10” card to Juan::

        To Marlene: whiskey. tango. foxtrot.

  12. marlene says:

    I truly believe that the dominant culture has delibertly divided us by not recognizing the fact that a lot of mixing did happen. Not all of it was by force or rape. The were many communities in this country where black, white and indian people lived together and had babies together. This is common knowledge in South America and the Caribbean.

    1. karnythia says:

      The communities runaway slaves escaped to did have a lot of mixing and of course there was mixing after slavery. But the kind of choice you seem to think WOC exercised when it came to their relationships with white property holders did not exist.

  13. emma says:

    I didn’t see the ABW say anywhere that it all happened one way. Its called dynamics for a reason. I think we can all agree that under any circumstance there is an area in between romance and rape. I don’t think she is saying that it was all unequivocal rape, but that WOC had very little choice in a number of different ways. In fact, women of all colors were unable to have a bank account seperate from their husbands, vote or pursue a career. so when you add the enormous burden (burden isn’t even the word, i can’t think of the word) of a racist society to this . . . choice was at least not what we think of it today.

  14. black yoda says:

    “I think we can all agree that under any circumstance there is an area in between romance and rape.”

    Emma, that was funny to me. I think it’s just the close proximity of romance to rape in the sentence. In this case, I suppose there’s a thin line between romance and rape. :-) I get your point about gray areas. Still, I think Karnythia hit the nail on the head.

    I think we all try to act within our sphere of influence. I also believe many people will try to carve out some bit of happiness for themselves despite the terrible circumstances they find themselves in.

    However, you don’t have a choice if there’s no alternative. Some may have made the best of their situation. Some may have come up with various psychological defense mechanisms to protect their sanity. I’m sure some may have even convinced themselves they were in love with their owners ( Damn, am I talking about people or pets here?) :-(. Some may have truly believed they were in love. Bottom line: They were property and legally they couldn’t say no. They couldn’t legally refuse the slave owner any more than his Ox could refuse to pull a plow.

    Anyway, there’s way too much white-washing and sanitizing going on when it comes to looking at past events. People love to put frosting on a turd and call it a cupcake. Have you ever noticed that whenever you watch a documentary about the Civil Rights era or desegregation they always interview white people who admit that it was a “tumultuous time” but they never admit their willing participation in making it like that? :-) They always talk about the past like they were a fly on the wall watching. They never were the ones doing the kicking, spitting or lynching. They just watch, silent observers waiting to testify to what they saw 50 years later on a documentary. It funny how some things change and others don’t.
    This country is still not ready to have an honest, national conversation about “race” and “racism” (even with an African-American President) because too many want to sugar coat what happened. Some don’t want to feel uncomfortable. And others don’t want to be the cause of discomfort. I say get a backbone and stop the lying. We’ll all be better off for it.

  15. Digital Coyote says:

    I took a course called “The History of Sports in America” as a gimme class during my last semester of undergrad work. Our teacher had been sure to touch on the relationship and sports in a bunch eras. The shit hit the fan in class when he got to Jimmy the Greek: my classmates (~90% white) couldn’t understand why the comments were so controversial and wrong.

    When he pointed out that even logically it didn’t make sense–as many black Americans are not 100% African in origin and are not a homogeneous population, there are any number of reasons they could’ve been good athletes–they acted like he’d grown an extra head. I think, in some ways, they culturally need that willful ignorance to make the injustice of the past and present more okay. It’s one thing to do something to a stranger and something else to be doing it to a person you know you’re related to.

    The fascination white people have with discovering PoC, especially famous ones, with white ancestry is three-fold.

    First, they get to pretend that they didn’t know this went on and thusly it’s a “discovery” or “exceptional.” The rest of us roll our eyes.

    Next, it can be used to “explain” why a PoC is successful. There’s this idea floating around that Europeans were chosen or superior because of their contributions to history, science, etc. This is often contrasted with the assertion that Africans never “developed” because they didn’t have a need or the ability (with the present state of some countries being served as proof of continental/racial failure). We’re only smart because we got those “good” genes, no matter what badness happened as part of the process.

    Lastly, it seems like it’s used to explain why a PoC could possibly be attractive to others. Because of the “neutrality” of whiteness–meaning it’s assumed to be not jarring to the eye as an “exotic other” is–any mixture can only “improve” the group being mixed with. I see this in which women are selected as examples of beauty for non-white women in media; they are more likely to reflect a white ideal or interpretation of an ethnicity rather than various types of beauty in a group.

    At the heart of it all, finding one lone pale individual in someone’s family tree makes them less threatening, makes it easier to force them in to that “not like the others” box, and maybe steal a bit of their shine by focusing on that one ancestor and not the others. It’s a bunch of crap and the main reason why I don’t tell folks about my family tree.

  16. Digital Coyote says:

    ^ “Our teacher had been sure to touch on the relationship between ethnicity and sports in a bunch eras.”

  17. marlene says:


    Get over it girl.

    1. karnythia says:


      Revisit the rules and then occupy yourself elsewhere if you can’t handle an actual discussion of the issue.

  18. marlene says:

    I suppose your will have a problem with the movie The Princess and the Frog. Her knight in shining armour is spanish, not black. Ha. My ancestor made a choice. Sorry your have a problem with that. You are the one with the problem. Bet you are single. Angry and single. good riddance to you girl. Delete my email.

    1. karnythia says:

      She doesn’t get a knight in shining armor and in fact they spend the bulk of the movie as amphibians. You can accept that crumb as a good thing if you like, but I have higher standards. I’m happily married with two kids, but I’m not sure what bearing that has on this conversation since you seem determined to ignore the climate in which your ancestor had to make her “choice” in favor of rewriting her history to suit your issues.

      1. delux says:

        Girl, your *husband* is a sock puppet? I bow down before your gangsta, b/c you have internet GAME, son!

  19. marlene says:

    Don’t you dare speak for my ancestor you black bitch. You don’t have the right. Go to hell.

    1. karnythia says:

      No. You can get as upset as you like about historical facts, but that doesn’t change them. Enjoy being banned.

  20. marlene says:

    The fact that some of these women had more than one child with a white man does not indicate rape. Rape is a one time thing. Good riddance

    1. karnythia says:

      In what reality is a rape a one time thing for a woman that’s been enslaved? Or one that’s trapped in a society where she has no recourse? Pick up a history book or three. Or some of the primary source material like the interviews done with former slaves.

    2. Witchsistah says:

      Rape is a one time thing.

      She actually wrote this. OUT LOUD!


      1. LDR says:

        Ick, ick, ick.

      2. karnythia says:

        I read it and my laptop threatened to quit.

  21. marlene says:

    The ancestor I spoke of was never a slave.

    1. yeloson says:

      And clearly you’re making her proud by showing that emancipation did nothing to free people from slave mentality…

  22. Val says:

    Eeesh. Back on topic.
    “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.”
    This particular line touched a chord for me, because my southern African family are guilty of the same thing. We have Japanese, Cape Malay, Indian and European in our heritage, but it is practically forbidden to speculate that there might be even a tiny bit of black African somewhere in the family tree.

    1. msday says:

      Don’t forget that Cherokee plantation, which was owned by a Cherokee slave owner was one of the largest in the region. If many of them are claiming Cherokee ancestry, there were Cherokee’s who raped as well. The Cherokees were hugely involved in slavery, owning both black slaves and other native tribes from the east coast.
      There are a lot of people who cover up white ancestry by claiming Native heritage. However, it was and never will be a walk in the park being mixed with Native. Unlike Mulatto’s many were stigmatized as desperado’s, mean-spirited, crazy, and alcoholic. Ask your grandparents, people didn’t just claim native to cover because it wasn’t something to be proud of in a lot areas.

      1. dianne says:

        MSDAY – this is a good point. I am someone who actually IS of Cherokee descent (with parents from a part of the country where that’s shameful). Both grandfather’s were half, so I have that “fabled” great-grandmother on both sides – only we didn’t make them up, not to cover anything, not to prove anything.

        Many who are of Native descent do KNOW it (rather than it being a family “rumor”), and it was often a family secret – as in my family. I have decided not to perpetuate the lie ~ and when people tell me I must be or “should” be proud, or suggest that my white Southern ancestors were slave owners (nope, too poor), I tell them about the Cherokee being slave owners. In short, I don’t want to hide my ancestry (and anyone who lives near Cherokee populations instantly knows I am of this descent anyway), but I don’t want to pretend it makes me or my ancestors “noble” either.

        Maybe it’s a little perverse; I enjoy shaking people up w/ this information, especially if they are pulling “noble savage” crap out of their bag, but I also hope it makes them re-think things.

  23. marlene says:

    Many african-american families claimed Indian heritage to cover up the fact that an ancestor was the product of massa and slave.

  24. LDR says:

    Historical reference: the novel Minnie’s Sacrifice (published 1869) by Frances E. W. Harper discusses relationships between slave women and white men.

  25. Helen says:

    Dr. Joy DeGruy has done amazing work about Post-Tramatic Slave Syndrome. I do not think it is an unapproachable topic but care MUST be taken so that the tired dynamic of white folks dominating the conversation, whether with denials or guilt. As a matter of my opinion, I think that this issue MUST be talked about in a much more frank manner for healing to ever occur.

  26. dianne says:

    Both of my grandfathers had Cherokee mothers, and I have often wondered how voluntary those marriages were – given that these 2 Cherokee women married white men right at about the same time as Andrew Jackson’s forced removal. His census takers were told to record any Cherokee women married to white men as “white” (which is one of the reasons matrilineal descent can be tough to document). Maybe there was love in these marriages, but as these women aren’t around to ask, I can’t assume that choices weren’t made for other reasons. I suppose I could ASSUME love, but that seems…naive.

    The slave/former slave/free woman who might become a slave at any moment/Black woman in a soceity that denied her full humaity dynamic clearly had to have a powerful effect. How could it not? Maybe there was sometimes love, but speaking from experience, I can confirm that when there is a serious power imbalance, you do what you have to do to survive. I would be beyond foolish to assume what was true for me *due to class issues* 20 years ago didn’t apply to Black women 3 or 4 generations back. (And really, that’s NOT that long a time ago.

    A power imbalance often plays into a woman being afraid to say “no.” As a young woman from a working class family, who attended college on scholarship 20+ years ago now, I can tell you that the sons of the rich and poweful knew that they could employ tactics ranging from coercian to violence and that girls like the me would have little recourse…and these tactics were generally employed on the same girls over and over and over…it was rarely a “one time thing.”

  27. Amanda says:

    I recently saw “Dark River” (, which is an opera about Fannie Lou Hamer. Very deliberately, I think, the director cast people with a variety of skin tones. One line in the score referred to it. Paraphrasing: Fannie’s mother pointed out how blacks all had different colored skin. White men, for all their talk against racial mixing, didn’t see it that was for themselves. Fannie’s mother told her to be careful and that her body was her own.

    Fannie looked around nine years old at the time.

  28. Barb says:

    Holy shit, I cannot believe some of the comments here. Proves the slave owner mentality is alive and well–that such a thing could be anything but coerced. I have white privilege, but ever since I read a book in freshman lit (Diary of a Black Slave Woman, or something to that effect) that included a real life account of a slave woman-slave owner “relationship” (shudder). It stuck with me *hard*.

    Here is where “there is no race” (as so many racism apologists like to say)–any race can understand how awful that is, and any race can be sad at how that reality affects the current-day situation, because the feelings involved are human. Of course the root of the injustice is strictly racial.

Comments are closed.