Family Gossip, Acceptance and Racism

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’ve never really considered L and me to be in an ‘intercultural’ relationship. Cultural differences don’t figure that much in our day-to-day lives (unless you count our heated differences of opinion!), or even in our plans and hopes for the future. Yet I started this blog because I closely identify with issues being discussed on existing intercultural relationship blogs. Reflecting on my responses to other bloggers, I’m increasingly realising that it’s more my relationship with my parents that is ‘intercultural’ than my relationship with L.

This observation must be obvious to anybody who knows me. But as L and I are going through a tumultuous, uncertain time at the moment, I’ve managed to forget for a while the equally pressing issue of whether my family will ever actually accept him. When I was still living with my parents, I often aggressively confronted them about their (non)acceptance of L. Unsurprisingly, given my juvenile mode of communication, this never turned around their attitude towards L. But until reading some stories in the intercultural blogging world (thanks to all bloggers who share their experience :)), I haven’t directly confronted the question of broader family acceptance, beyond a tacit recognition that it will never occur without a bunch of relatives I don’t really like gossiping and judging me behind my back.

Don’t get me wrong – my parents’ acceptance is the thing that means the most to me. Neither of my parents are gossipers, and they’ve brought me up with the belief that uninformed gossip and judgement of others is distasteful at best, and harmful at worse (i.e. it’s bad bad karma). Since moving to the same city as certain members of the extended family in my teens, I have actively avoided having to spend time with them. I certainly have not confided in them regarding my relationship. Unfortunately though, as my mum likes to say, you might avoid the gossip but the gossip never avoids you.  These loud-mouth relatives are an integral part of my parents’ social world, and without ever reflecting on it explicitly, I have even convinced L to follow me to the other side of the country in the hope that we can be together without having to deal with the hurtful comments of ignorant aunts and uncles. (So much for my self-professed claims that I don’t care what other people think!)

One aunt in particular comes to mind. She is well-known for her hospitality, particularly towards nieces and nephews who have just arrived in Australia, but at the same time she is just as well-known for judging and criticising these same guests behind their back – down to their looks, the shade of their skin, the fact that they are overstaying their welcome. This might seem like an irrelevant aside, but I’m struggling to understand why people act like this (I’m probably indulging in ‘uninformed gossip and judgement’ right now…my parents would be disappointed).

In particular, I find it unsettling that a lot of ‘ignorant aunt’ comments I hear are blatantly racist, especially towards black people, and I’m hesitant to expose L to this. My mum has expressed some racist views too, but at least I’m close enough to her to challenge them (topic for another post). I’m quite happy to confront other family members on their views…if I share any trait with my family, it has to be my sharp tongue. But alas – I can only express my witty, sophisticated responses in English, a language not fluently understood by middle-aged relatives (at least not to the point where they pick up on ironies and nuances in meaning). And alas – it’s not just particular relatives in Australia, I’ve noticed that a lot of relatives in South Asia can hardly talk about black people without throwing in some kind of derogatory, racist remark. Here are just a few examples to illustrate my point (I’ve thought long and hard about expressing racist views on this blog, but I can’t really talk about them without tackling them directly):

Example 1 – A visiting uncle from America describing African Americans as lazy and crime-prone (that’s the toned-down version). I was in my late teens when this occurred and decided to argue the point with him…he was quite shocked at the ferocity of my attack (‘what’s so racist about stating the truth?’) and I was reduced to tears about the fact that somebody I am related to could be so ignorant (I had just been exposed to the rest of the family at this time ;))

Example 2 – Aunt commenting about Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s appearance  on the evening news. “Look at him, his skin’s like that, his face is like that.” Fortunately her husband jumped in and pointed out that the guy has been tortured numerous times…

Example 3 – Uncle in South Asia…without giving away the details because I don’t want this post to appear on google searchers by crazy white *supremacists, let’s just say he drew parallels between certain types of people and certain types of primates. This time his daughter, who had just returned from studying in America, confronted him and countered his argument (not that it changed his views). And this guy is an urban, educated college professor…

Example 4 – Aunt in South Asia going through her daughter’s wedding album with me. She spoke proudly of all the white and brown-skinned guests at the wedding, but then gave an embarrassed laugh and skipped quickly over photos of the black guests…they’re ‘just the guys’ her daughter worked with last year at UN.

To give an idea of how unthinkable it is amongst the extended family to marry somebody black, at family dinners some of my cousins will mercilessly tease their parents with the “I’ll marry a black Muslim” jaunt. Apparently this is the ultimate threat, but always said in jest because everyone implicitly agrees it will never happen. Again in this view black people are not acknowledged beyond the colour of their skin; there blackness is instead a currency, a barometer-measure of a person’s intended (never actual) rebellion against parental expectations.

I wonder why there’s such a tendency towards racism amongst South Asians, and I have found myself increasingly resentful of the extended family as, over the years, they have heard through the grapevine that I’m with L and have taken the opportunity to throw in snide remarks here and there. People will always talk, but obviously the nature of the talk would be very different (and much less hurtful) if I was with a fair-but-brown-skinned Brahmin doctor. I would love to heal the rift with my parents, but if I’m going to be honest, as long as my parents live in the same city as extended family I wouldn’t want L and I living there, or if we do I can’t imagine ever socialising with these relatives in a positive way.

The irony here is that the extended family is not rejecting me for who I’m with – at the end of the day, as long as I’m not their own daughter, they don’t care beyond the juicy gossiping opportunities L and I create. Instead, I find myself rejecting THEM for who I’m with, partly out of growing frustration at their ingrained racism, and correspondingly out of a desire to shield L from such unacceptable views.

Perhaps, in this matter, I am the one who has to accept them?

10 Comments

Filed under Cultural Difference, Family Acceptance, Interracial Relationships, Parents, Race, Racism, South Asian Marriage

10 responses to “Family Gossip, Acceptance and Racism

  1. prabesh

    like u said its a part of South Asian society. Even for whites, u prolly mite hear similar remarks. this is bcoz most south asians especially in inner part of the subcontinent have not been exposed to western culture. for blacks its the worst coz of their portryal in both hollywood and bollywood movies/media as gansta/(not decent people). abt the uncle from america is no different than alotta non-black americans who express/have similar views again due to media and just plain racism. I think it is also our job to educate our parents/family members that blacks/whites/asians/hispanics all of us are no different than them. for southasians to be most accepting, its gonna take quite a time coz most people are uneducated back home and the educated ones also follow the culture of the majority uneducated ones. Like i said, not interacting or rejecting ure family members is no good, coz u like it or not, they are ur own. so its our job to enlighten them or atleast try. trust me other cultures have such people also. so i wud recommend u think they are oblivious to other cultures thus are ignorant. next time they say smthg like that tell em to look back at their own roots/culture and see what it says. “Bashudaiva Kutumbakam” Humans are all one family.

    take care

  2. Thanks heaps prabesh for your comment. You’re absolutely right, of course, that other cultures are just as racist (and, in the case of white racism, it’s systemic and structural and has way more far-reaching effects than just-my-racist-grandmother, whose influence is limited to her own home). Back to South Asian culture though, I struggle with the paradox of the fact that a lot of South Asian religions preach the equality of all beings on earth (my dad used to say that the life of a bacteria is worth just as much as that of the queen) but then are also so caste and race conscious. Although my parents are Hindu, I have never been religious or identified as such, because I’m really put off by a type of thinking that is constantly ranking people in hierarchies – whether it’s on the basis of caste, gender, race, age, the head of the family Vs the new daughter in law who can just get kicked around, “Mr Doctor Patel” Vs the guy who cleans the toilets and so on….

    (That’s not to say other cultures don’t have such paradoxes – western liberalism, for instance, preaches equality and tolerance for every individual, but then goes and declares war on whoever they view as ‘intolerant’ or in dire need of democratic enlightenment…but anyway, this rant can be left for another post!!)

  3. I think it’s the way our society is set up in a caste hierarchy that makes racism inevitable. I think sometimes that I get off so easy with my family for (gasp) living together with someone without marrying him first because he is Indian, with an MBA, and from a good family. It also helps that they love him and his sense of humor. I wonder sometimes if I would have had a lot more animosity thrown towards me if I was living in with (for example) a Tibetan artist without a formal university degree.

  4. Hi Kay thanks for your comment.
    There’s a lot truth to what your saying regarding my own family – they would definitely have had a more favourable reaction if I was with an Indian, or even a white Australian guy (my mum has said this to me openly)….anybody, really, with whom they can relate. Unfortunately at the moment they hold too many racist stereotypes against L to relate to him in a positive way.
    Sounds like you have a very supportive family though 🙂

  5. First, your post is thought provoking, especially for a younger generation South Asian, at so many levels. I find it really hard to understand why our South Asian Hindu culture looks down upon Blacks and Muslims and exude pride in doing so. You may explain away the hatred towards blacks as lack of exposure to the race in our part of the world or ignorance (not a good enough explanation anyhow) but how can hatred towards Muslims be anything other than anger, hatred, and bigotry.
    Irony though is whites somehow get seated on a pedestal.

    • I also find it difficult to understand why South Asian Hindu culture can be so anti-Islam. You got me thinking about why white people are put on a pedastal. Maybe, when people think in terms of a racial hierarchy (light to dark, with light at the top), they pander to those at the top, the ones with fair skin, because by putting them on such a pedastal you can kind of gain access to their privilege and power. Certainly, if you think in terms of racial hierarchy, then putting down black people lends more privilege to fairer-skinned South Asians, at least in relation to black people if not white people. You can always afford to put down the people ‘below’ you, but of course not the people ‘above’ you.
      Thanks for your comment!

  6. O

    As someone in a relationship with a Muslim guy, this post resonates with me in a big way.
    “I find myself rejecting THEM for who I’m with, partly out of growing frustration at their ingrained racism, and correspondingly out of a desire to shield L from such unacceptable views.”
    I know I do this. And as much as I want to buy into Prabesh’s “not interacting or rejecting ure family members is no good, coz u like it or not, they are ur own. so its our job to enlighten them or atleast try”, I cannot. Not yet. Maybe someday. It is too bloody exhausting, especially when it involves something so very personal.
    I just went through a phase where I spent so much energy attempting to get my parents to accept my relationship with the boyfriend. Now that things are settled, I am struggling to be emotionally invested in my relationship with my parents. It scares the shit out of me (because I do want a good relationship with them and I know they worry/care). I am carrying out the motions, giving it time and hoping that I will want to be emotionally invested soon enough.

    • I agree, it’s exhausting to constantly have to justify your relationship. I don’t have the energy to reach out to my family either. I will make an effort with my parents, but the rest of the family (who don’t actually approve or disapprove of my relationship, they just want something to gossip about) aren’t worth the emotional energy at the moment. That probably sounds cold, but their attitude is just so petty and hurtful in ways they don’t realise. Even from my parents, I’m keeping my distance, and like you am hoping it’ll get better with time because I do of course want to be close to them.

  7. Bharatiya Nari

    While we’re on the subject of Muslims, what about the innate “religionist” attitudes of the Abrahmic faiths, particularly Christianity and Islam? By religionist I mean religious exclusivist wherein they think their religion is superior and all others must convert. Of course not ALL Christians and Muslims think like this, the more non-religious and secular ones tend to be the ones who don’t. But for the devout, it is a major part of their religions to preach and convert others. The Only Way Syndrome.

    • O

      I think a lot people have The Only Way Syndrome, irrespective of their religious leanings.

      I also think many things can be said about the innate “religionist” attitudes of the Abrahmic faiths, particularly Christianity and Islam.

      In my experience, it has only been the Muslims who have ever said things like, which one of you will convert, you cannot really get married without being a Muslim and so forth. These people were the boyfriend’s acquaintances at best. These comments came before we had talked about the future and they would catch me off guard. And yes, I found them really insensitive and hurtful.

      On the other hand, the boyfriend never asked me to consider converting, even superficially. I told him way too early in our relationship (you know, after other people’s comments caught me off guard) that if we did end up getting serious, he better not have any hope that I may one day convert. He said okay. That was that. No one close to him has ever brought conversion with me. His mom would have preferred if her son had picked someone of his own kind (she uses the term “culture”, never “religion” to describe the boyfriend and my differences), however, she has decided that she is going to be happy for her son.

      And you can make whatever you want to make of my experience.

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