‘Listen to me, if you ever bring home a non-white boy, I will disown you.’ If I wanted to date outside my race, I’d have to do it in secret.’: Woman raised in racist home urges ‘create a family that radiates love’

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“Growing up, I was told these embellished stories of what sounded almost magical. My mom told me stories of wizards and knights that marched on Pennsylvania Avenue and kept neighborhoods safe. Giant flags with Knights of the Klu Klux Klan were pulled out of boxes and admired. Wooden chalices with KKK carved in them sat on display. Stories were told to me about my grandparents who I did not meet, and how they were part of this elite group of people, keeping the world safe. I felt pride. I felt like a princess in a Disney movie. But I didn’t realize how much of the truth was being left out.

At age 10, my mother told me how her mom died when she was 12. Her mom had been in a terrible car accident, and flipped her car multiple times and died. It turns out my grandfather had cut her brake lines because they were going to separate and he didn’t want to pay child support. Unfortunately, my grandfather’s ties with the KKK bled into law enforcement, and he was never held accountable for it.

Courtesy of Shiana

The first time I realized what my families affiliations actually were I was about 12 years old. My mother had remarried, and we had moved from a trailer park into a nice suburban house. We were going through a box of old pictures from my mother’s childhood when I saw one photo that changed my life.

It was an old 4×6 photo. A tall large man all in white with a hood over his face stood next to a smaller woman. The woman was in black face. There was dark brown makeup smeared all over her face, and pale pink lipstick on her lips. A noose wrapped lightly over her neck, held up by the man. And a smile on her face. I asked my mom who was in this photo. I expected her stomach to sink when she saw it, much like mine did. Instead she smiled.

‘Oh, that’s my mom and dad. This was their favorite Halloween costume.’ I felt like I was going to throw up. Why would they dress like that? Why is that funny?

‘See, that’s the Klan outfit my dad would wear to meetings and stuff like that. They were going to a Klan party.’ It seems almost silly now, but when I was 12 years old, information was not at my fingertips like it is today. The information that I had gotten about our family and their affiliations all came from my mother. I never remembered any talk of violence, or racial hate. Not until now.

‘What is the KKK?’ I asked.

‘They make sure to keep neighborhoods safe.’ Then my mom said, ‘Once when I was younger a black family moved into a house on our street. The Klan was so angry! We spray painted n***** on their car and garage. My dad burned crosses on their lawn, hung nooses from their trees until they left.’ I couldn’t even comprehend what I was hearing. I started crying immediately. ‘Why would they do that to someone who didn’t do anything to them?’

‘Because, once one black family moves into your neighborhood it’s only a matter of time before another one does. Then before you know it your once peaceful and safe neighborhood is overrun with n****** and is now the new ghetto.’ I fought with my mom on this logic. It didn’t make sense to me that the color of someone’s skin was dangerous. I was trying to navigate the information I was just given. It was a stark contrast to the stories I remembered of knights and wizards growing up. My mom just assumed I had not had enough life experience to understand what I was talking about. The conversation ended.

But it wasn’t the last one.

Courtesy of Shiana

As time went on, and I learned more about the world around me and current events, the arguments between me and my mother about race increased in severity. I was 15, and a news story was on the TV about a violent crime that happened in Philadelphia, PA. It was in a high poverty area, and the topic of race started almost immediately. ‘There are black people, and then there are n*******, and those are n******.’ My mom and step dad started talking back and forth, saying vile things.

‘I don’t think it has anything to do with them being black.’ I could tell that the atmosphere in the room totally shifted once I said that. Both my mom and her husband were giving me reasons as to why what I said was incorrect. Giving me what they thought was proof. ‘They don’t work. They want hand outs from the government, they do drugs, and they commit crimes.’ They rambled one thing after another. I sat and listened.

‘Okay, can I talk?’ They gave me the stage. ‘Everything you are saying these ‘black people’ are doing, I see white people doing too. I remember living in the trailer park, no one worked for anything. Mom, you aren’t working right now. You say my biological dad has a drug problem, and mom you drink vodka every day. Also, didn’t YOUR dad KILL YOUR mom over child support? Isn’t that an awful crime? Why when a white person does the same thing it is different?’ At this point, logic was thrown out the window. They no longer wanted to hear from me. The facts I have given had been disregarded and I was told that I was naïve. The conversation ended by me being grounded, and sent to my room without dinner.

At 15, I was allowed to date. The first time I asked to hang out with a boy, the first thing my mom asked was if he was black. He was, but I lied. ‘Listen to me, if you ever bring home a black boy, I will disown you.’ That was the dating advice I got. I questioned it, I fought it, I tried to find the logic. But there wasn’t any. All I could do was let the conversation end. I knew that if I wanted to date outside of my race, I would have to do it in secret. And I did.

When Obama was elected president the first time, my mom and stepdad had complete meltdowns. Not only was he black, but my mother swore he was a Muslim terrorist and anti-Christ who was going to end the world. In public, my stepdad would yell ‘TOWEL HEAD’ or ‘SAND N*****’ at Middle Eastern individuals. I would cry from embarrassment, or slouch so deep in my seat that I couldn’t be seen. I hated it.

In high school, my best friend was from India. To my surprise, my parents loved her. I thought maybe their views were changing. But despite their love for my friend, they were unable to see the logic that MAYBE they would be able to have fulfilling relationships with other races if they gave them the chance. At 17, I was kicked out of the house for other disagreements not race related. It was freeing because I was able to surround myself with who I wanted, and not have to keep it a secret. I was able to love who I wanted to love, and associate myself with who I wanted. I no longer had this cloud of anger following me.

In 2012, I met my husband. We both worked together in retail while in college. We pretty quickly started dating. We fell in love quickly. I can’t remember a day we didn’t spend together. We often took trips to the Art Museum in Philadelphia and sat at the top of the steps looking out to the rest of the city. We loved trying new vegan and vegetarian restaurants in the city, our favorite being Black Bird Pizza. I was still not in contact with my family. Because my view on family was so distorted, it took me three years to want to meet my husband’s family. I was concerned they wouldn’t accept me because I was not Muslim, or from Kurdistan. I was met with the complete opposite response.

Courtesy of Shiana

My in-laws welcomed me into their family and showed me warmth and love that I didn’t even know existed in family dynamics. They never made me feel like I was different from them, and they were open to answering questions I had about their specific celebrations or traditions. I loved hearing stories from when they lived in Kurdistan, and their amazing escape from war to our country. There would be days I would sit in my Father-In-Laws living room for hours, drinking tea and listening to him tell stories of him growing up in Kurdistan. He would sit on the couch playing his Oud while I sat across from him, totally enamored with stories of a country that seems like a totally different world.

Eventually, as the years went on, my stepdad reached out to me. He was looking to rebuild our relationship, although my mom was not willing to do the same. I took it very slow; I was unsure of what his views were, what he would be like without the voice of my mother in his ear. I knew my step dad was reaching out in hopes that he would be able to convince me and my mother to make up. He was like a dad to me, for the most part. I never doubted he connected with me because he loved and missed me.

My stepdad was much kinder. Much more understanding. It seems like the worst parts of him came out around my mom. In passing, I introduced him to Zee (my now husband). After the first time they met, my stepdad asked me, ‘So where is Zee from?’

‘Kurdistan, Iraq.’

‘Oh? Is he Muslim?’

‘Yes.’

‘Shi, you need to be careful. He might try to get you to convert or control you.’

‘I’m going to stop you right there. I have been with him for 3 years. He is a kind man; he doesn’t want me to convert and he is not in any way controlling. You have his culture misunderstood. His family does not have the radical beliefs you think are standard.’

‘Okay.’

I knew my mom didn’t like that my stepdad and I were connecting again. I am not sure how much he told her in the beginning about my life, or my boyfriend. But in 2016, I was getting married. I still had not talked to my mom since 2008. My stepdad had been in my life off and on and had not said anything bad regarding my husband. When I told him I was getting married, he was happy for me. He said that he knows Zee treats me well.

Courtesy of Shiana

My stepdad came to my wedding, which was small. My husband and I took my in-laws and my stepdad and sister out to eat after the wedding, and my stepdad paid as a gift. He got along well with my husband’s side of the family. I think my stepdad offered to pay because he felt like my in-laws had given me a lot more than he and my mom had. I believe he felt guilt that him and my mom didn’t accept me, and now I am thriving and being shown love.

I do believe as they got older, my stepdad and mom started to disagree on more fundamental views than before. It seems like my stepdad became softer, more kind, more loving. His upbringing was very different than my mothers, less rough and tumble. I don’t doubt some of his views were adopted from my mom in order to stay in good graces with her. She was never a woman you really wanted to disagree with.

Our wedding was small, and non-denominational. We hired an officiant and had a small ceremony at her office in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Both my husband and I wanted to make sure the marriage was about our love for each other, and not religion based, because of our differing views.

Courtesy of Shiana
Courtesy of Shiana

After our wedding, my mother and father in law asked if we could also hold a small Muslim ceremony at their house, with just them and their Muslim priest. With the agreement that I was not converting to Islam, I felt there was no harm in completing a ceremony that was important to them. I wanted their faith to honor our marriage as well. I made the decision not to tell my step dad about it, because although he seemed accepting, I didn’t trust his reaction to something like this.

So about two weeks after our wedding, my husband and I went to his parent’s house. His mom had cooked an entire feast for us! We sat down, ate, and laughed. Once the priest got there, he sat down as well and ate with us. Before the ceremony started, my father-in-law came to me and took my hand. He said to me, ‘Typically the father of the bride is here. The father’s role is to take responsibility for holding your husband accountable to treating you correctly. The father must agree that he will do what is best for his daughter, and as a witness will hold your husband to that standard. Do I have your permission to take the role as your father?’ Of course I accepted!

The ceremony was very different from anything I had ever experienced. It was done in Arabic (my husband only speaks Kurdish) and there was a translator that came with the Priest to offer everything in English. During the ceremony my husband and I agreed to each other that we would take care of one another. That we would honor each other and never let the other one fail. At one point, my husband and his father (taking the role of my father) had to stand and face one another. My husband needed to promise in Arabic (with the help of his dad) he would take care of and protect me. After the ceremony I had never felt closer to my in-laws or my husband. We were even given a ‘marriage license’ stating that the our marriage was recognized. It was a great feeling to be part of something that meant so much to my family.

Courtesy of Shiana

It wasn’t until 2018 that my sister told me that my stepdad had told my mom about my husband and told her that we were getting married. When my mom found out my husband was Middle Eastern and Muslim her response was, ‘She is going to get acid thrown on her the first time they get into an argument.’ For good reason, my sister did not tell me this information until after my mom had passed away. Unfortunately, I was not able to reconnect with my mom. We shared very different views, and I told her I couldn’t carry around the weight of her hate with me.

Leading to, and after my mother’s death, I was very close to my stepfather. We spoke almost every day and saw each other regularly. He often told me how he regrets allowing certain abusive situations to happen while I was growing up. He admitted that my mom had hateful views she could not change. He blamed a lot of it on her upbringing, and offered pity for how she was raised. He tried multiple times to get us to repair our relationship, but it was too far gone. My mother was not willing to accept me for the way I was like my stepfather. He would often avoid conversations he knew we differed on because I was stubborn, much like my mother. His love for me went deeper than our beliefs.

When I think back about how my mom acted, I see that she was human. She was dealing with things, information the best that she could. I often think she didn’t denounce the KKK because it would put too much guilt on her shoulders for what she saw take place. Sometimes it is easier to convince yourself you were right than admit you were a part of something terrible. For that, I understand.

The best advice I could give to someone going through something similar is to not lose your individuality. Sometimes you need to keep your thoughts to yourself to stay safe, and that is okay. Your family’s hate is not your burden to carry, and it is okay to lay it down and say it stops with you. Be patient, there will be a time when you can freely express yourself without fear or retaliation.

While I was in high school, the relationship with my family was at its worst. Every time I got kicked out, my friend’s family was there for me. They offered me a home when I did not have one, they gave me food, clothes, and love. They accepted me into their Temple and allowed me to celebrate with them. Being accepted into a culture that was not my own during a time when my own family was pushing me away gave me the strength I needed to go my own way.

When the time came for me to be on my own, I knew I would be able to find people that loved and accepted me. I knew they were out there because I was shown it through families other than my own. I didn’t give up hope. There are other people that think like you, that share the love for the world that you have. Surround yourself with them,  and create a family that radiates love and positivity. It WILL drown out the hate.”

Courtesy of Shiana
Courtesy of Shiana
Courtesy of Shiana

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Shiana. You can follow her journey on Instagram here and on Tiktok here. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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