Victim Blaming And My Dear Mother-in-law

“I don’t understand these made up names, like LaWanda or D’Quisha. You’re not helping yourself out. When they send a resume or apply for a job, people aren’t going to take them seriously.”

Racism is at its most dangerous when it is couched in everyday actions, familiar statements and sentiments, and seemingly sensible statements. This is how it is passed along, how it becomes normalized. The above quote – paraphrased, as it was a while ago and I don’t recall the exact wording – comes from my mother-in-law. If pressed, I’m sure she would rationalize it with a perfectly valid explanation in her mind as to how it’s not racist, possibly twisting it into being helpful advice. (Aside: she can rationalize anything. An. Y. Thing.)

It struck a chord with me because it is pure victim blaming. She’s putting the burden of avoiding being a victim of racism squarely on the victims. “Don’t use those names if you don’t want to be judged by them.” It’s not far off from saying that women shouldn’t dress a certain way if they don’t want to be harassed or worse. But there’s no way she’d see it that way, sadly. The whole “made up names” idea is another thing. As opposed to what – those naturally forming names? All names are made up. What she really means is names we don’t use in white American culture (if that’s even a thing).

The difficult thing is that my wife and I just had a baby girl. My wife technically had her, all credit due, but I did hold a leg and offer words of encouragement. They both did great, but that’s another story. And of course my mother-in-law, or Babcia as grandma’s are called in Polish, has a right to get to know her granddaughter. So she’ll be around, but at the first sign of her spewing latent racist garbage there’s going to have to be a serious reassessment of the state of affairs.

She goes to church at least once a week, loves her family, and sees herself as a genuinely good and caring person. And in some ways she is right. And that’s one of the hard truths of life, that there are no pure heroes or villains. There are, however, subtle undercurrents that we must be aware of, lest we be doomed to repeat ourselves. I want better, not just for my baby daughter, but for her the entire generation. The status quo is unsustainable.

Nobody Click On Grandma!

It was a nice day outside so I figured I’d take a stroll through my local internet. I went to a major news website, I won’t say who but they have a 3 lettered name that rhymes with ZNN, and was shocked to find, buried among the legitimate stories, all these absurd and irritating “click-bait” links to sponsored content. The idea is that people are compelled to click on the link simply because it is sensational and outrageous, however dubious the source. Of course some people are going to mistake them for actual news content and that’s a legitimate gripe for those who are concerned for the state of real journalism these days. But I won’t get into that now.

So anyway, sprinkled in and among news items I’m reading these inflammatory article titles, often hinting that you’re doing something wrong or telling some terrible truth about a popular topic. And then I realized – this is just like my thanksgiving.

Sure, there’s some actual content – maybe Cousin Dave got a new job or something – but then there are the click-bait comments courtesy of my mother-in-law. Actually, I’m starting to wonder if she isn’t writing those articles. “You’re paying too much for car insurance!”; “How Old Is Too Old To Have Children!”; or “Here’s Why Hilary Can’t Be Trusted!” Two out of the three are from her, see if you can guess which.

I can’t exactly remember, to be honest. It’s all one big stuffing and gravy drenched blur. Though I’m pretty sure the anti-Puerto Rican ones are purely hers. The real click-bait writers, manipulative little weasels they may be, have some sense of decorum after all.


I didn’t really know him. I knew things about him…maybe that’s as close as we can get to knowing another soul. We talk of “walking in somebody’s shoes” as if it was a possibility, but we cannot try on the experiences, fears, and dreams of anybody else. We’re barely acquainted with our own, at various points in our lives. The waters of another life must remain distant and impenetrable, much like a painting of a seascape hanging on the wall, and are not something we can ever dive into.

But back to the man: He was with my aunt for many years – as long as I can remember. They never married, she had once before I think but this was something my family never spoke of. He was from Maine. I remember that he was from Maine because he told me a story one Christmas of buying a truckload of Christmas trees and driving them down to sell in western Massachusetts, which is where my aunt was living. He may have told this story a few times, on those awkward holidays when he and my aunt accompanied my grandparents on their annual visit to our home in the eastern part of the state. More than likely, this story was repeated because it was apropos and also because there wasn’t much common ground between him and my brother and I. He was seemingly from rugged, rustic, working class stock and we were adolescents in an upper-middleclass suburb, the sons of writers. He was often dressed in flannel, and always carried a jackknife. I kept mine in a drawer since my lifestyle dictated that I rarely, if ever, needed it.

There are other things I can recall about him. He was an alcoholic, I don’t know how severe or how it impacted his life or those in close proximity to him, claimed to have seen a mountain lion once, hated the lounge singer Robert Goulet. Something about his face reminded me of Johnny Cash. In typical old New England fashion he wasn’t very talkative, but again, maybe he was open around people he felt more comfortable with.

He seemed to have a connection with the natural world, grounded and terrestrial, and not one for flights of imagination. But maybe I’m wrong. After all, I hardly knew ye. You have returned to the earth from which you came. May you rest in peace, Dave.

August 27, 2015