Sunday Pages: "The Intimacy of Racism"

An essay by Fiona Helmsley

Dear Reader,

This is the week we found out for sure that Trump knew how bad the virus was in early February, but continued to downplay it, and lie about it, because he feared that a volatile stock market would hurt his re-election chances. (Bob Woodward also knew that Trump knew in early February and declined to mention it until now, but Bob Woodward is not the president).

There is no more debate. You either support Joe Biden, or you support a president who willingly, knowingly, and perhaps eagerly sacrificed American lives—and American jobs, and American mental health, and American freedom to travel abroad and sit in crowded restaurants and attend Broadway shows—to help himself. If you are third party, undecided, too apathetic to vote, whatever, then congratulations, you support the Donald John Trump Death Cult.

We were also reminded this week that plenty of Americans are still ugly racists. When players from the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans joined arms in a show of unity before kickoff of the NFL season on Thursday night, many in the socially-distanced crowd of 22,000 began lustily to boo during the moment of silence. Were they voicing their displeasure for the attempt to call attention to social justice? For social justice itself? Does it even matter? This is the same mentality of MAGA minions who want only to express their lack of compassion and human decency, and “own the libs,” even if that means death by covid. Maybe they wanted politics to be distilled out of sports. Instead they got the opposite—they were the story for most of the night. Football free of politics is a luxury—nay, a privilege—we don’t deserve right now, if indeed we ever did.

Fiona Helmsley, my friend from my days at The Weeklings, is a savvy writer who has produced two excellent books of autobiographical essays: My Body Would Be the Kindest of Strangers and Girls Gone Old. (She’s also a stalwart anti-Trumper.) Two weeks ago, she sent me this new piece, on her struggling to process the baked-in racism of her parents. After what we heard on Thursday in Kansas City, it is, sadly, apropos.

My mother is 73. We’ve been quarantined together since mid-March. The United States, always a simmering powder keg of class and racial resentment, is now exploding. In her younger years, my mother was an Irish nationalist. Since then, she’s become a classic armchair liberal. She yells at the T.V. screen. She wishes comeuppance for Republicans. She doesn’t go out much because of her vulnerability to coronavirus. I watch on the couch as she raises her fist to the T.V. screen in solitary to the end of Black suffering.

Seeing her do this rankles me because, although my mother’s not a racist, she’s spent a good portion of her life cowered by the racism of those around her.

My sibling says I should be more understanding—all those holidays growing up, when our uncle made racist jokes at the dinner table, our mother couldn’t challenge him because after our parents’ divorce, she needed his help. When our mom tolerated the racism inside the Irish nationalist movement, it was done in service to the higher cause—Ireland’s freedom—an idea that is itself bigoted, though, as my sibling notes, in the 1970s, there wasn't much awareness of intersectionality or common cause. My sibling says that when our grandmother made remarks like “it’s the children who suffer” about our cousin’s interracial kids, or used “colored” instead of “Black” until the day she died, our mother had to sit there silently because she was dependent on our grandmother’s financial assistance. My sibling thinks I should interpret our mother’s raised fist more judiciously, as our mother’s liberation. It is what it is. Keeping the family peace just enables white supremacy.

But I do say something when my mother raises her fist because I think her ability to compartmentalize racism taught me to compartmentalize racism. I think it led me to view racism as a character flaw to be negotiated.

I grew up in a family that venerated maleness, that deferred to its wants, passions, and whims. The men were the arbitrators. All the family gatherings, all of us congregated at the table, waiting, waiting, for he of whatever generation to grace us with his presence, so that feeding could commence. There was no higher honor: we don’t eat till you do, like pack animals.

When I was about six years old, a Black family lived next door to us. One afternoon, my sibling and I went outside to play and noticed that some of our toys were missing. After some reconnaissance, my father discovered that the toys had been moved into the Black family’s yard. I recall his language, his threats of violence, as he went next door to retrieve them. I remember not wanting him to go, being afraid of what might occur. My father returned a few minutes later, silently carrying the toys. There had been no exchange of words, no confrontation, just the ugly performance he’d put on for his family.

My father wasn’t in my life long. My memories of him are fading. But one thing I will never forget is the baton he held in his hand as he prepared to go next door that day. It was a small wooden police baton, compact enough to fit into a deep pocket or to attach to a belt loop. I don't know why my father was racist, not that anything could justify it. I used to wonder if his racism stemmed from envy of the Black Panthers. They were the political organization that captured the cultural imagination of the 1960s and 1970s, not the I.R.A. in America. What is striking to me is that my father thought of himself as a freedom fighter.

The influence of the racist men in my family fell away by the time I reached high school. My father died; my uncle split up with his wife, and we didn't see him as much. Only my grandmother remained, using southern belle colloquialisms until the day she died, playing uncomprehending each time she was corrected.

As I write this, I imagine what my life would look like if, in my foursome decades, anyone who revealed their racism to me disappeared from my life at that moment—revelation of racism, poof, gone. What I’d keep would be a lot of acquaintances. Because, for the most part, outside of the internet, the revelation of racism necessitates a closer proximity. Trust and the assumption that it will be tolerated. The sharing of racist sentiment is an ugly intimacy. That is why it is so often saved for family, close friends, and lovers.

I have learned of the racism of others in the bedroom. Remove your clothes, lower your racist inhibitions. The revelation would usually come during the disclosure of our previous sexual histories. Have you ever had sex with a woman? (Yes.) Have you ever had sex with a Black person? (Yes.) Then varying degrees of I don't think I ever could.

It’s hard to write off someone once they’ve played a role in your well-being. It’s hard to write off someone once they’ve shown you care, despite their own moral failings. It’s one of the ideas that underwrites the whole family structure, temperance in the face of failure. I know what the revelation means for new relationships, but it’s harder for the older ones.

And maybe my sibling is right: perhaps I’m not being generous enough in my assessment of my mom’s tolerance. While she didn’t leave my father for his racism, she always encouraged us to play with the kids next door.

After a few days of tension, my mother and I talk. We’ve been existing in such close proximity, although we’ve existed in close proximity in one way or another my whole life. Besides my child, I love no one else more, which is why, I suppose, I want her to admit she could have done more. I want her to admit it, as I’m admitting it. I could have done more.

For her re-admittance into the COVID world, we go to a protest. We wear masks and hang in the back of the crowd. The sign she holds has a James Baldwin quote. It reads: Nothing can be changed until it’s faced.


Fiona Helmsley’s writing can be found in various anthologies like Ladyland and The Best Sex Writing of the Year. She is the author of two books: My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers and Girls Gone Old.