In February of 2016, I answered a robocall from white supremacists supporting Donald Trump at my mother’s house in Vermont. It was a shocking, gut-wrenching thing to hear the tinny voice of a white nationalist gripe about the dearth of “beautiful white children” in our school systems.
If I’d had any idea of what was to come, I would have hung up before that disembodied voice could even utter the words, “gradual genocide against the white race,” but I listened all the way to the end, shaken by the gleefully hateful rhetoric. I was alone at the house at the time, and I remember shutting all the blinds of our rural home, miles from our neighbors. I felt physically vulnerable in a way I never had in my beloved home state.
This isn’t to say I’ve never experienced racism while living in Vermont — one hilariously blind racist at a gas station couldn’t even come up with the appropriate slur and called me the n-word — but, generally, it has presented itself through systemic injustices, sheer ignorance, or the fetishism of my “exotic” background. The robocall was a deliberate assault on my home, a strategic message meant to intimidate Vermonters’ sense of safety and security. And it worked.
My white mother, my staunchest ally and most fierce protector, was furious and distraught. Our stronghold had been breached by men who viewed her as a race traitor for her marriage to a Pakistani immigrant. But the deeper wound for her, amid a presidential campaign filled with openly racist language, was the idea that the robocall had occurred because she was a registered member of the GOP, and longtime Republican National Committee employee. She berated herself for the idea that the call had been made because of her allegiance to a party she no longer recognized as her own.
In the end, it wasn’t her fault we’d been targeted — the American Freedom Party, the group responsible for the message, called every landline in Vermont — but I noticed a distinct shift in our conversations. We’d never discussed race in our house when I was growing up, even though we were a multiracial household. My mother had celebrated my brown skin and participated in the traditions of my father’s culture, even going so far as to wear a white sari on their wedding day, but real conversations about racism were nonexistent.
That changed after the robocall. We’ve had many painful, uncomfortable, and frustrating conversations over the course of the last year. The concept of “white privilege” has been one we’ve discussed at length, although the actual phrase is guaranteed to put her on the defensive — we’ve talked about that defensiveness, too. Further discussions about systemic racism and structural inequalities have given our already solid relationship new depth.
Some of my brown and black friends have made comments about how I’m doing emotional labor I shouldn’t have to in order to facilitate these conversations. But a few weeks ago, I read an article by Panama Jackson, Senior editor of Very Smart Brothas, titled "How Trump Ruined My Relationship With My White Mother." I sent it to my mom, with a quick text that said, “This is devastating. The only reason it isn’t true for us is because you hear me.”
I agree that the expectation for people of color to do this kind of emotional labor is unfair and exhausting. I’m certainly not willing to do it for most people. But many people of color in Maine have white family members, partners, and close friends — people with whom we cannot have meaningful relationships if we feel unsafe.
I certainly don’t judge anyone who chooses to distance themselves from those who refuse to do their own work, but I can’t help but wonder, if we’re not willing to do the work, and other white folks won’t step up to the plate, who’s going to do it? If I’m not willing to sit down and have hard talks with my own mother about racism and how it affects us both, will there ever be someone I deem worth the effort?
Earlier this week, I was ranting to my mom about how the cigarette industry targets minority communities, and she listened patiently while I cursed the tobacco industry at length. When I paused to take a breath, she said, “You know, I’m coming around to the idea of white privilege. The word privilege still bothers me, but I understand it better now.” After a shocked pause, having learned from her example, I shut up and listened.
Sultana Khan can be reached at email@example.com