CW: racial slurs
My mother has seven children. The first three are white children from her first marriage. The last three are mixed, Black and white, children from my mother’s second marriage. I am smack in the middle, and this is important to note because I am the outlier—in many ways. I am the first of the mixed children and the product of a fling. Unlike the rest of my siblings, I felt like the accident of the family, and like most accidents, I spent a majority of my time trying to make up for the fact that I was born.
No one has ever blatantly called me “the accident” to my face—my family does not operate that way. We are passive-aggressive and avoidant, our emotions are read in-between lines and shadows. For instance, the way my mother would slam the door when she came home from work, alerting us to the mood she was in. Our home was filled with the echoes of words unsaid, in the way my mother reminded us not to “end up like her,” a single mom with more debt than money, reminding us that her life would have been so different if not for us. She, swindled by lustful men with empty promises, gave birth to children she could not afford and though she loves us, she is tired. Her eyes are lined with shadows and deep circles, and her body is “bigger” and “scarred.” She reminded us that this was because of pregnancy. She didn’t say it, but we felt it in the air, thick like molasses, the regret seeped from her and enveloped us. We were defenseless, and so was she, to the life of poverty we’d found ourselves in.
Over a decade ago, when I was about 14 years old, my oldest brother Paul was still living with us. Paul, who at this time was about 24 years old, had come back from the Marines a few years prior and had not done much with his life since then. I remember being terrified at this age, lining my eyes with black eyeliner and frying my bangs straight until they covered the acne on my forehead. By 14 I had been bullied enough by other kids that I knew pain was waiting for my younger siblings, and I wanted to protect them as much as possible. Having my older brother living with us during my most formative years did not help with my self-esteem.
You see, Paul was fury–ripples of rage and licks of resentment coating his tongue and lashing out at anyone within proximity. When he walked into any space within our tiny, green rented home, we’d feel an immediate discomfort. Within moments, we’d all leave whatever room he was in to find another place to seek shelter. When he wasn’t brooding silently, he was yelling—at us, at our mother, and at the world. He was consistently negative and put people down every chance he got. Living with him was a special kind of hell, and because my mother worked nonstop as a single parent, us younger kids were often alone and forced to deal with him. My siblings, 13-year-old Rachel, six-year-old Rebekah, five-year-old Solomon, and I did our best to avoid him, staying in our rooms and saying few words to him, but there were times when it was unavoidable.
I could not tell you what started it. Perhaps I had been playing music too loudly or one of us had eaten all of the snacks in the cabinets. I’m not sure, but Paul and I got into it fiercely one day. All of us, including my mother, were tired of living with him, but that day I remember I was especially tired. Animosity had been building up between us. I resented him staying with us and bringing with him a cloud of cruelty. I resented having to hide out in my room like a prisoner or else face his wrath. I was tired of living in that small space with him. But most of all, I was tired of my mother coddling him. “Be nice to him, Taylor!” or “You don’t understand what he’s been through.” As if each of us children had not struggled or suffered in some way. As if we were not children having to deal with a grown man. Years later my mom would discuss the traumas of my brother’s past, which she believed excused his volatile behaviors. But in that moment, and sometimes even now as an adult, I struggle to find empathy for him.
I remember telling him as he stood in my bedroom door that he was a “pathetic loser” for still living with his mom and that he should “grow the hell up.” As soon as the word “loser” left my lips, he came closer, a finger wagging in my face. I remember us screaming back and forth. I remember him towering over me, screaming in my face. I remember feeling adrenaline in my blood and feeling slightly lightheaded because I was not often involved with confrontation. I remember my two youngest siblings hiding in their rooms, but Rachel stayed next to me on the bed. She was keeping watch out of concern, perhaps knowing that this would escalate.
And then he said it. I never expected it, but strangely felt like I should have after it was in the air. He called me a “fucking nigger.”
I expected this day would come. It took time, but like all of the unsaid things within my family, I felt its lingering presence every day of my life. I was the first of the biracial children; I was the beginning of what some of my white family members believed to be a “tainting” of blood. Again, these things were unsaid, but biracial children, like myself and my three younger siblings, did not need for it to be explicitly said. We felt it when they stared at us with eyes that asked, “What are you?” We felt it when they struggled with combing our hair, often angrily ripping through our knots and tangles as if we had planned for this to happen. And we felt it when they commented on how “dark” we had become because of the summer sun, a warning perhaps that any darker and we’d become unacceptable.
To be completely honest, my memory is fuzzy after that word was uttered. I remember Rachel gasping and then grabbing me. I remember her jumping from the bed and yelling back at him. Rachel was always the fighter back in those days. I was the silent and obedient one. We called my older sister Amanda to pick us up. I don’t remember what we did while we waited for her to come, but when she arrived, I loaded Rebekah and Solomon in the car, securing them into their car seats and climbed into the front, next to Amanda. She was 21, the oldest daughter, and she often found herself in a caretaker role, with me as her sidekick. She was angry and disgusted. “Mom has to kick him out now!” she said. I was on autopilot, noticing my surroundings but not feeling like I was part of it.
Amanda took us to my aunt’s house, where my grandmother also lived. She informed them of what had occurred. They called my mother at work. I felt secure and safe in those moments. It was out in the open. They knew, and I thought they would protect me. They had raised me to believe that certain words, and the people who used them, were unacceptable, but that day when my family sat us down, they said things that I will never forget.
My grandma pursed her lips and gazed at me with pity. She had a way of letting you know immediately, without words, that whatever she was going to say would crush you. “You know, this is partly your fault. You said some nasty things to your brother. He was acting out of defense! He didn’t mean it!” I remember gazing at her in disbelief. She couldn’t even say the word, just “it.” I remember feeling so incredibly hurt that I was breathless.
Now that I am older and a therapist with years of training, I think I understand what she was really saying to me. I believe she was telling me that certain words were justifiable when Black people lash out, retaliate, or in any way attempt to rise above where they are thought to belong. I’m sure my grandma, who was born in the 1940s, has said the “n” word. I’m sure she was raised in environments where you did not need a reason to use it. Having biracial grandchildren did not erase her upbringing. Her need to protect white feelings and experiences took precedence.
My mother was next. She came home from work, and with her arrival my last strands of hope dissolved; hope that any of them would understand how excruciating this was to hear from my own brother’s mouth. I had been called “nigger” before. I was raised by white people in white neighborhoods and in white schools. The racism and microaggressions, vocabulary I did not have then as a child, were plentiful. While I would later realize that covert racism was a staple of my family and my childhood, language surrounding our skin colors and hair types, for instance, this was the first overt display from a loved one I had ever experienced. My mother shook her head, a look on her face that suggested she was uncomfortable having this discussion. “You encouraged him, Taylor. You know his feelings are hurt from what you said!”
I was 14. And yet over and over I was reminded of how it was my job to tuck my feelings deep down and pretend that what he said was insignificant. That the word he had used was nothing compared to what I had said to him. That my hurt feelings meant less than his. It was my job to comfort, to take care of others, to remedy issues, and to pretend. It had been my job since I was born, the role of the accident. When my brother used that word, suddenly all of the lessons my family had taught us previously about racial equality meant nothing. My place as a brown girl in a white family, went from hidden and unsaid to out in the open. The word suddenly was not quite so serious now that one of our own had used it.
Words, and the significance behind them, are determined by those in power. In my case, the matriarchs, my mother, grandma, and aunt, decided that the use of “nigger” was acceptable because I had been “mean.” Because my brother needed compassion more than I did. Because he was suffering. Because, because, because. There is always an excuse, always a reason, for why those with significant power, ability, and means can say and do things that those without cannot. They decide who gets to be hurt from a situation.
It has been many years since this incident, but it has ignited a search for understanding. I want to understand how a family could allow racism and sexism to impact how they raise their children. Modern society will tell you that biracial babies will solve the race issue. I see it all the time on Facebook: “Post to ruin a racist’s day,” captioned next to a picture of a light-skinned or racially ambiguous child with perfect teeth and two parents. It’s clever when you think about it—convincing all of us that mixed children hold the key to tolerance. It makes the discussions on race easier to handle, easier to swallow.
But the truth is that loving a Black or half-Black person does not mean you love Blackness, and this is a distinction created by a failure to address racial realities, a failure perpetrated by American society and by American families, including mine. For instance, I have 3C hair, while my younger siblings have 4A and 4B hair. I was regularly told as a child that I had “good” hair by the white people in my life, which meant that it was a little “easier” for them to detangle and style. I remember one particular time that my little sister was berated by a white stylist who struggled with her hair texture and said, in disgust, “God, I couldn’t imagine having this hair.” In reality, my hair was not, and is not, better than my sisters’. This stylist, and the many women in my family, had never taken the time to learn about hair textures outside of the ones they were familiar with. This may seem like a small detail to a white person who has never had issues finding a stylist that could safely and accurately handle their hair, but this is how anti-Blackness spreads.
The anti-Blackness spoonfed to us from birth will grow with each of us unless addressed. Within my family, that anti-Blackness shaped how I looked at myself, how I looked at my family, and how I looked at the world. Anti-Blackness also impacted my family’s ability to see me. Biracial babies will not solve racism because when we do not address the internalized prejudices we have about darker skin. Moments like the one I had with my older brother aren’t just possible, they’re inevitable. My family did not see my humanity, did not recognize the blood shared between us. They saw Blackness and this made me an outsider within my own home.
However, flawed though they are, I love my family, which is why I share my stories with others. There is pain, yes, but there is also healing in reflecting on the ways we have contributed to the scars of this world. This memory with my family is one of my scars that has shaped who I am today, but I am not entirely innocent. Like I have mentioned, anti-Blackness spreads and this memory is one small piece of a large web that makes up my life; and in that web there are examples of me as a perpetrator, which does not excuse my brother. I admit that I have not forgiven him or my family for that day, but this moment where “nigger” slipped so easily from a family member’s mouth helps to explain how proximity to Blackness does not make you immune to anti-Blackness.
“But my sister’s Black…”
“But my partner’s Black…”
“But I’m half-Black…”
Taylor Thomas, pronouns: she/her, is a writer born and raised in South Bend, Indiana. She will be attending the University of Notre Dame’s Creative Writing MFA in Fall 2022, where she also works at the University Counseling Center as a staff counselor. Her work has been published in Bayou Magazine, The Indianapolis Review, root and branch, and Indianapolis New Voices. She received the Outstanding Literary Essay award from Voices of Diversity in 2021. Facebook/Instagram: @Taytom13