SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2015       Personal Memory Ethnographies


The Old Blue Van Revelation:
The Day My Grandpa Stopped Being My Role Model

         I was 8 or 9 years old when I learned that my grandpa was a racist. The old, blue van that my sister and I were in at the time was the primary vehicle that we rode around in. Many different conversations, arguments, physicals fights, and other things that occurred in that vehicle. The revelation of my grandpa being racist trumped all of the other crap that occurred in that old blue van. We lived in a suburb about an hour south of Chicago, called Bourbonnais. Semi-trucks passed through the town on a regular basis as they made their way north or south to and from Chicago, leaving a wake of diesel fumes polluting the atmosphere. Anytime I smell the strong smell of diesel gas, I am reminded of home, even now.

         I don’t exactly remember how the conversation came up on that faithful day in 2000 in Illinois, but while I was travelling in the old blue van with my mom and two sisters, my mom said something along the lines of, “If you dated a black person or a Mexican, your grandpa would disown you,” to my older sister Cassie, who was 12. Even at my age, I was shocked, angry, and in disbelief. I refused to believe that my grandpa, my biggest role model behind my own dad, was a racist.

         My best friend at the time was a black kid named Reggie, and we spent a lot of time together playing video games, tetherball, and whatever else, and it boggled my mind that my grandpa would hate someone who was so much like me, someone who was so much like any other friend I had, of any “race.” It didn’t make me love my grandpa any less, but I think I looked at him a little differently afterwards. How could someone who I had always thought was so smart be so ignorant?

         Looking back on the incident in the context of history, it’s incredible to me that my grandpa could feel this way. In 1967, in the case of Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that interracial marriage was no longer a crime. My grandpa was born in 1943, so he was clearly old enough to comprehend and make his own decisions regarding his feelings on this case, as well as the Civil Rights movements and their subsequent victories in 1964 and 1968. My grandpa grew up in a racist, white world, and so I think I can understand why he felt the way he did up until his death in 2002. But now that I think about it, it’s amazing that blacks and Hispanics were an issue for him. His son (my uncle) had married a Vietnamese woman (my grandpa had fought against her people in the Vietnam War), and he was apparently ok with that. I don’t recall ever seeing my grandpa treat my aunt in a negative way at all.

         Ten years following the revelation, I was dating a Mexican girl named Valerie, and my younger sister Courtney began dating a black guy named Javonte. One day I remember talking my older sister Cassie, who told me that my mom was “pissed” that Courtney was dating a black guy, adding that our grandpa “was rolling in his grave.”

         I found out that my youngest daughter, Courtney, is dating a black boy named Javonte at school. My son, Joe has already been dating a Mexican girl for the last few months, but this one came as a little bit of a surprise to me. I know that my dad would NOT be happy about this at all, or about my son and his girlfriend either. He’d be rolling in his grave. Even I am a little unsure of what to think. Courtney’s transgender black friend Darion is one thing, but this is totally different. Joe is an adult, but Courtney is only 16. I don’t want my daughter getting involved in a relationship and coming out of it with a child, so I don’t feel comfortable with her going over to his house or for him coming here. I know I could easily keep an eye on them here, but at his house, I have no control. However, I don’t want Courtney to think that I don’t trust her.

         I talked about the situation to my oldest daughter Cassie, and I get the feeling that she left the conversation thinking that I disapproved of the relationship, and that I was pissed off about it. I disapprove, but I’m not angry. I think any parent would be sort of wary of their youngest daughter starting to date, and this is Courtney’s first real boyfriend.

         When I talked to my younger sister, she said that she was embarrassed to have Javonte over because she was afraid of how our mom would treat him. One of her best friends at the time was a transgender black girl named Darion, and I remember pointing out to her that mom treated her just fine. My mom’s house has always been a chilly place, as she never seems to feel the cold that my sisters and I could feel. When we’re freezing, she’s sweating. When I went to confront her about what she had said about my sister’s boyfriend, and whether or not she had said anything negative about my Hispanic girlfriend, I remember feeling quite chilly. It was as if my questions themselves had frozen, reluctant to come out. What if she did have a problem with my girlfriend? I had no idea how I would respond to a situation like this, and I didn’t want to drive a wedge between my mom and I.

         Thankfully, she denied being “pissed” about anything, saying that the comment about my grandpa rolling in his grave only pertained to his views, not her own, and that my older sister just insinuated that she was angry. When I asked her what she thought of Valerie, she said pretty much the same thing, and that she was happy that I was happy. It was a relief to me that my mom didn’t hold the same ignorant beliefs that my grandpa had. The whole situation has left me feeling as if my grandpa was not the great guy I had thought he was, and I eventually learned more negative things about him. But, he was still my grandpa and I still loved him, despite him being a racist asshole.

         I loved my dad, but he always had an old world view on race. He’s racist, but I’m not. At least not to the point where I would forbid my children from dating whomever they please. I decided that it would be ok for Courtney to visit her boyfriend’s house, but only if I could meet his parent’s first. I want to make sure that we’re on the same page in regards to keeping them out of each other’s pants. Prom is coming up soon, so I want to make sure that Courtney has a good one. I need to relax and let my children live.

         Because of the Civil Rights Acts of ’64 and ’68, as well as the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, I’ve grown up to view blacks, Hispanics, Asians, etc. as equal to whites, and I don’t feel the same feelings that my grandpa did. My mom was born in 1969, and yet she still holds some racist feelings, but these could be derived from her upbringing with her parents.

         I think it’s important to once again take note of the differences in time and upbringing between my grandpa and myself. My parents never openly admitted their prejudices to me or my sisters, and so we were given the opportunity to form our own opinions, as well as experience, in our everyday lives, these ethnicities that my grandpa felt were beneath us. So when my sister was dating a black kid from school and I was dating a Hispanic girl, the issue of “race” was never an issue for us. My sister and I were just dating two people who happened to have a different skin color than us. To people from my grandpa’s time, this would have been viewed negatively. But thanks to cases like Loving v. Virginia, people are free to be with whomever they please, no matter their “race.”

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