My grandparents loved to take photos, but there are no pictures of them holding me as a baby. They weren’t in attendance at my birth, my baptism or any of my birthdays. That’s because for the first few years of my life, my grandparents rejected me and my two brothers because we are black.
I’ve hesitated over the years to share my story publicly out of fear that I would embarrass or hurt the people in my extended family, but with the demonstrations taking place around the country after the police killing of George Floyd, I feel it has never been a more important time to reveal my personal experience with racism and explain the different ways it has shown its face within my family. The age of “going along to get along” is over.
From the moment my white mother started dating my black father in the late 1980s, her father disowned her. From that point forward, on my grandfather’s orders, my parents were disinvited from all family gatherings. My grandmother — who said from the beginning that she was against the idea — still complied. Neither attended my parents’ wedding.
Once, after hearing about a large family event that had happened not far from our home in the San Francisco Bay area, my mother confronted my aunt about not inviting our family.
“We had to make a decision,” my aunt told her. “And we decided we wanted our kids to have their grandparents in their life.”
In other words, it was easier and more comfortable to put up with racism than to have us there. To be fair, some members of the family did confront my grandparents about it, but that didn’t stop them from abiding by my grandfather’s rules.
After a few years, my grandmother made small efforts to visit with us alone. Once, my mother drove us to visit with her outside her house in Novato, Calif. My older brother and I sat in the car while our mother chatted with our grandmother on the sidewalk. After mentioning that we needed to use the restroom, my grandmother said her goodbyes so that my mother could go find one for us at a nearby gas station. My brother and I weren’t allowed indoors. This is my very first memory of my grandmother.
My grandmother and I actually have the same first name. I share the name with both my white and black grandmothers, who coincidentally had the same name. My parents say I was named after both of them, but I’m certain that if my dad’s mother had a different name, my name wouldn’t be Carolyn.
My relationship with my grandparents shifted after a back surgery briefly left my grandfather bedridden and he had a realization. I can’t say for certain what it was that got him to open up his mind a little bit, but we were permitted to attend family events from then on.
Things began to change slowly, but to me and my immediate family, race was always the elephant in the room. My brothers and I even began to make a joke out of it and played a game for years that we called “find the black people” whenever we attended large family gatherings. It was an impossible game because that side of our family never invited black people.
The racism didn’t end once we were given the green light to attend family events — it was just less obvious. There were comments and cues over the years by my grandfather, like when he’d introduce me to someone as “Carolyn,” while introducing my cousins to that same person as “my granddaughter.” They were small things, but I noticed.
As a teenager, I decided it was time to clear the air. I knew I was old enough to have a mature discussion about race and thought I’d have a chance at getting through to my grandmother. I poured my heart out to her in an email. I told her how her actions hurt me, how I still didn’t feel fully accepted by her and my grandfather, and how I couldn’t understand why someone who claims they aren’t racist would comply with their husband’s orders to reject their own grandchildren. In hindsight, sending an email wasn’t the right call.
After getting no response, I followed up with a phone call. She said she didn’t finish reading my email and that the events I described “happened a long time ago” and “we don’t need to talk about it.” That was the end of the discussion.
In later discussions with members of my extended family, I noticed that the blame was put solely on my grandfather, as if my grandmother and my mother’s siblings weren’t complicit. Most of them made excuses for my grandmother’s actions.
It wasn’t my grandmother’s decision to exclude us, but to me, she was worse than my grandfather because she knew better. I could brush my grandfather off as a racist old bigot, but my grandmother knew it was wrong and still complied. Other members of my family complied, too. They were unwilling to examine their own actions or sacrifice their comfortable lives to include us. No one thought it was their battle to fight.
At my grandmother’s funeral in 2017, my brothers and I stood stone-faced as our cousins cried over her grave and reminisced about what a wonderful grandmother she was. At that moment, all I could feel was resentment. I never knew the grandmother they described. I could barely think of a happy memory with her.
I was also frustrated with myself for not making more of an effort to talk to her about how I had been feeling all those years. Not making a more concerted effort to confront my grandmother is one of my only regrets in life.
After the funeral, I knew that if I wanted to get some closure, I needed to find the right time to try to have a conversation with my grandfather.
In 2019, I drove two hours to see him. I calmly described the pain he caused my family and told him how I never felt like he loved me. He didn’t deny most of the events I mentioned but insisted he wasn’t racist because he had hired black people to work for him in the past.
I asked him whether he had any regrets. He didn’t. He never apologized, and he died a few months later.
What I wanted was an acknowledgment of what happened and that it was wrong. Silence is deafening to those on the receiving end of racism.
He’d been a disappointment to me my whole life, so I wasn’t surprised after our conversation. In fact, I felt good I had said my part. It was freeing, in a way.
The thing is, if my grandparents had asked, I would have forgiven them. I do believe my grandmother carried some shame, but she never said so. I would have respected her more if she had just admitted it.
We were all expected to move forward as if nothing had happened, but that level of racism is too personal, deep and hurtful to ever forget.
I don’t think a person can ever fully recover emotionally from an experience like that, but it is possible to prevent it from taking over your life and evolving into bitterness. Despite my virtually nonexistent relationship with my grandparents, I had an abundance of love in my life that I was able to lean into. I was even able to occasionally find humor in their small-minded lives.
I learned a few hard-fought lessons about how critical it is to speak up, rather than to always try to keep the peace. I spent too many years waiting for my grandparents to bring up the topic I desperately wanted to discuss with them because I was concerned it would make them uncomfortable or defensive.
I’ll never understand the prejudice of my grandparents and the complacency of other family members, but here’s what I found out: Speaking up and coming face-to-face with the cause of that pain gave me what I needed to finally gain a measure of peace and acceptance — and hold my head up high.
Carolyn Copeland is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay area. She works as a copy editor and reporter for Prism, primarily covering issues related to racial justice.
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