I noticed the shift in atmosphere on Facebook sometime during President Barack Obama’s last term in office. Our family is interracial — my family is black (and liberal) and my husband’s family is white (and conservative). Their posts on my timeline started to resemble the stream of fake news and hate speech I’d seen elsewhere on social media. The two sides often would convene on an article I shared, trolling one another with language and evidence that was false or simply abusive.
So I was not surprised when my older daughters, now adults, were drawn into the fray. Many parents of biracial children (like me, a black woman married to a white man, raising six kids) know all too well how families try to draw the children into the role of savior, tiebreaker or “proof” of a point in their debates. For example, Grandpa gets called a racist for posting a clearly racist meme. He responds by tagging his biracial grandchildren in a comment that asks them to weigh in. Or, Gramps declares he is not racist and these black grandchildren of his are proof. The children’s testimony is not required, but tagging them brings them into already contentious arguments full of fallacies, inaccuracies and coded hate speech. As parents, we have to shut this down — and quickly.
My oldest girls, now 18, 20 and 22, were new to social media when the 2016 presidential campaign started to get ugly. Facebook, a place where the girls once chatted with friends and exchanged silly videos, became a battleground for our adult family members. The war was fought with memes, GIFs and misinformation splattered across my children’s timelines. Our relatives started tagging my biracial children in these conversations to prove that they weren’t being racist or extreme in their views. Even if they didn’t participate, my children were being used for social credibility.
Where one meme illustrated the Obamas as primates, another showed white Southern voters as toothless, dirty and fumbling to decipher the words on a ballot. A fake news report, shared by several of my husband’s relatives, mused about gay agendas and Pizzagate. On my family’s timelines, there were warnings of white people amassing an army to cleanse America of black people. Long arguments erupted whenever anyone tried to inform the poster that the information quoted was wrong. Saying nothing was the only safe option — or so I thought.
One day, amid the usual chaos online, I overheard my three daughters talking about how they avoided Facebook because of all the hate speech and false information. It had become a daily battle to wade through it just to see what your cousins were up to or to connect with friends. Even the chat function was hazardous as relatives spammed chain messages besmirching the presidential candidate opposing their own. My oldest waded into a few conversations and quickly found herself too overwhelmed by the rhetoric to continue. “Mommy, I am telling them how this is wrong — they are wrong — and they don’t want to listen.”
The girls also described how scrolling through their timelines meant wading through a couple dozen anti-liberal, anti-black posts. It was nearly impossible to find a post about the big buck Granddad shot or photos of their cousin’s new baby.
Our families are scattered across the country. My husband’s aunts and cousins live in California, Texas and Minnesota. My relatives reside in Georgia, Texas and Michigan. There are uncles and cousins in Florida and other nooks and crannies across the country. Everyone is so far apart that Facebook became a convenient way to communicate. But how could I expect my children to want to be on a platform where their black family is hurling insults indirectly at their white family and vice versa?
I decided to step in and talk to the adults. I published posts reminding everyone that the kids are biracial, one is a part of the LGBTQ community — and that the memes and GIFs meant to be political are actually painful. I asked everyone to be mindful. I even called my father and asked him to help spread the word. He tried. My husband went to his family with the same message.
But rather than calling a truce on their meme warfare, they increased it, along with lengthy posts justifying the material hurtful to my children.
“Why is this racist? I didn’t say the n-word. I didn’t call anybody anything,” was followed by a diatribe about how black people were no longer oppressed and racism was not “a thing.”
“Everybody is offended by everything these days. I can’t help how sensitive some people are.”
“This is the world we live in and if you want to hide from it, then block me!” This one, from a distant relative on my side of the family, surprised me. It was followed by a post against black men and women marrying outside their race.
Because the adults wouldn’t listen, I decided I had to protect my daughters from them. I told my girls they were not responsible for the hate speech and stupidity their relatives lobbed at one another. They were only responsible for their own actions and their own well-being.
“Unfollow, unfriend or even block a family member whose posts become too much to bear. Feel free to cut ties with the families at war on these timelines. We can reconnect with everyone after the election.” (Unfortunately, many of those relatives are still blocked and unfriended because the rhetoric never died down.) I was not going to see my kids mentally scarred by family who refused to consider points of view outside their own.
Today, many of my relatives only see posts from my children if I share them on my wall. The same goes for my husband’s family. If the adults can’t see eye to eye, that’s something they have to deal with. American race relations are too complex and cut too deep to be resolved by biracial people alone. It is a history that cannot be reconciled until everyone is ready to accept their responsibility in the healing process.
Jonita Davis is a freelance writer based in Indiana. Find her on Twitter @JonitaLDavis.