My first swear word was “shit.”
I used it in a very specific and, I might add, sophisticated way. I was three years old, sitting in the back seat of a car. My grandmother and another adult were in the front. They were talking about my mom, clearly assuming that a toddler wouldn’t understand.
Much to their shock and amusement, I cut off their gossiping with: “Don’t be talking about my momma! Sheeee-it.”
Yes, reportedly I delivered it with that precise, very adult, multi-syllabic and sassy intonation: “Sheeee-it.”
It was my first time witnessing a conversation that upset my sense of loyalty. It wasn’t my last. As a Mash-Up, I often get an up-close view of bigotry, because people don’t know their bigotry applies to the person standing right next to them — me.People can be completely reprehensible in their attitude towards “others” when they think no one outside the fold is listening.
I’m not alone. My mixed friends have heard their own family members say racially or ethnically derogatory things in front of them. This is awkward as hell, to say the least. In my own experience as a person with a black mother and an Indian immigrant father, I have heard my black family members rail against immigrants. I even had one family member stand up and shout at a movie screen and walk out of the crowded theater in dramatic disgust because the film we were watching centered on a black American woman’s relationship with an immigrant man.
I have also been in situations with Asians where my black ancestry was unknown. People have made offensive remarks about “ghetto” types, “hoodlums,” “thugs” or used various other code words that are clearly meant to refer to black people. At times, they just blatantly made racist comments about “blacks.”
Whenever this happens, my immediate instinct is to call upon my inner foul-mouthed three-year-old. “Don’t be talking about my momma! Sheeee-it.”
It’s a complicated predicament. Sometimes the offender is someone close. Part of me wants to shame the hell out of them. Another part is a pacifist sage, who presses me to think of this as a teachable moment.
Which instinct prevails? There is no hard and fast rule. It sort of depends, for me personally, on how much energy I have to be combative or impart empathy at any given moment. There have been times when I have been strident, others when I have been a gentle voice of compassion and others still when I have been exhausted and disgusted and ended up just walking away.
One thing I’ve learned from being an outsider on the inside (when everybody thinks I’m an insider too!) is that people can be completely reprehensible in their attitude towards “others” when they think no one outside the fold is listening. It’s not quite as dramatic as the famous Eddie Murphy Saturday Night Live skit when he donned white makeup and witnessed the champagne slinging, loan approving, fraternal shenanigans that transpire when the last black person leaves the scene… but for some of us ethnically ambiguous mixed folks, it’s not too far off either.
Based on physical appearance alone, I am sure this happens for some of us more than others. Are you a mixed person who encounters this dynamic? If so, how do you deal with it?
This piece was originally published in The Mash-Up Americans, the place to go for real talk about the tangle of culture, race and religion in our country. Sign up for their newsletter for more. Get to know yourself, America.