In 1977, Robert Black walked up a steep driveway and into his one-level house in rural Virginia, expecting to see his mother in the kitchen. Instead, he saw an overturned pair of electric beaters, still dripping with cake mix, sitting on the counter. He called for his mom and received no reply. Suddenly, he understood what had happened. His mother had been taken up to heaven, along with the other good Christians. He was left on Earth with the sinners. He was warned about this during weekly church sermons, and somehow, he had failed to understand. This was it. Here he was, stuck in this 70’s kitchen with its stucco ceiling, for the rest of eternity. Everything he was told about had come to pass.
In 2017, I found myself struggling to find a way to debate with two boys in my first period class one day. They had asked, rhetorically, why they couldn’t make jokes about black people if the comedian, Chris Rock, could and made money doing it. I was struggling to condense my thoughts on this matter, but when I caught up with one of the boys later, I found the words.
“Hey,” I said, “I just don’t think it’s a good idea to joke around with an experience you haven’t lived.”
“Okay, I get you,” he replied, which surprised me.
Even if he remembered everything else I said as a bundle of shrill hysterics, he and I could agree on the idea that sometimes, you needed to stay in your lane when cracking jokes.
I attend school in Washington D.C. but live in northern Virginia, so my dad and I have the mutual enjoyment (and, sometimes, frustration) of daily car rides with each other during the week.
My dad, Robert, was born in the “sticks of Virginia” in 1969 to a family of fundamentalist baptists. In other words, until he was sixteen, he believed the world might end at any instant, and he was not allowed to listen to rock n’ roll or read comic books. Aside from this, he also grew up a young Republican, for whom gay marriage would have been out of the question, and gender roles were as tight as his laces. In his last years of senior high and first years of college, his horizons expanded through his professors as he drifted away from his small town’s attitude. He met my mom, switched Christian denominations, registered as a Democrat, and had three children, me being the oldest. He now works in Washington D.C. with a progressive Christian social justice organization that collaborates with churches like his old one to solve social problems he only really understood halfway through his life.
Forty years ago, my dad might have been joking with those guys in class. Because both Northern Virginia (where I live) and D.C. are generally politically progressive areas, I was surprised when I met some more conservative students in my classes and felt the need to talk to them. After all, I knew my friends had enough trouble avoiding archaic slurs in public school, so I thought I had a duty to confront people in my school who might have toxic views.
More often than not, the car rides I share with my dad are filled with me expressing frustration about the teenagers I know are ignorant of how their actions or words affect others.
In the fall of this past year, I recall jumping into our silver Volvo, throwing my bags in the back seat, and catching my breath after running to the car.
“How was your day?” came my dad’s obligatory parental line.
I sighed deeply, wondering whether or not I should tell-all.
“We had student government speeches,” I replied. “I have never hated my classmates more.”
My dad raised an eyebrow.
“Bad Adam,” is all I needed to say.
Bad Adam was how my dad and I referred to a boy I was continually frustrated with. My rapport with Bad Adam probably began in my freshman year French class when he referred to feminists as whales. Bad Adam was extremely capitalist-minded and a diehard patriot, which I saw was clouding his ability to reason. Last year, Bad Adam ran for Student Government Representative.
“He gave a speech?” my dad asked.
“Oh my gosh,” I began. “His speech literally started off with, ‘We need to take back our grade!’ What does that mean? The whole thing was filled with rhetoric taken from a Trump rally. He yelled ‘Make our class great again!’ at the end, and all his friends applauded.”
The intensity of feeling made me sit forward and, at this point, my nose was practically touching the dashboard.
“So… he wasn’t taking the speech seriously?” my dad said.
“Definitely not. And I hate that all those guys cheered for him afterward. They don’t understand that I have friends in our grade whose families might be hurt by this administration. It was embarrassing. I looked at my shoes the whole time.”
“Those guys… I was probably exactly like them,” my dad said after I finished my interpretation of the day’s events.
From where my dad started, he has done a full 180 in terms of his concept of himself in the universe. He is no longer striving for a grace he can achieve, a promise of salvation that is dangling above his head. He no longer sees everyone around him as a soul to be rescued, a possible convert. To this day, he’s seen his mother threaten strangers with hell: janitors at school events or men who worked on our neighbors’ houses. My dad’s done with that life. He also used to carry with him a glorified, incomplete version of America and its role in the world. Jesus and the United States were both divine forces that had, and could, save more unfortunate souls. My dad’s eyes have since opened to see painstaking flaws and cracks in his previously simple world.
I asked my dad when he started to wake up to another view of the world. He said it was his freshman year of college at a small school in Richmond, Virginia, when he was introduced to ways of seeing the world that were unlike anything he grew up with.
“Professors introduced me to the scientific method, which alternately challenged or destroyed my understanding of Adam and Eve as real people,” he said. “Same with Anthropology and Political Science professors, who shifted my understanding of American exceptionalism. Same with my Sociology professors, and my understanding of feminism was placed in a different light. Christianity was taken apart and placed in the context of other religions’ regional dominance. I was forced to choose between a life-giving truth that would allow me to truly breathe for the first time as an adult, and retaining my comforting, but rigorous, fundamentalist Christian worldview. On the one hand, you have comfort and lies. On the other hand, you have truth and freedom, but the destruction of all you’ve known. Which hand do you choose?”
Many of the peers, whose beliefs I confront (or just hear secondhand through my friends’ outraged texts or word of mouth) appear to have, as their basic values, some concepts that my dad once trusted in. I know many people I have interacted with, conservatives especially, shared the same beliefs as their parents and have been raised on certain teachings, rhetoric, or media. This was certainly my dad’s experience growing up. His parents imprinted on him their morally strict religious and social beliefs. Still, imagining my dad as a teenager, making enraging comments that deeply misunderstand feminism or American history, is somewhat hard to imagine. If my dad concocts a future spouse or significant other for one of us kids in a passing joke, he is careful to not assume anything about the gender of who we may love. He has a nuanced understanding of poverty, which is a requirement of his job. He even calls himself a feminist, a far cry from his original fear of the term as a “dirty word.”
Sometimes, I can’t help speaking up if I hear an intolerant joke or a questionable statistic. The reason I care about influencing my more closed-minded peers is because I’ve heard my dad talk about his metamorphosis.
I think listening to my dad is telling about his upbringing. The people he still knows through social media, who have never left his town and have retained their decades-old viewpoints, have given me a greater sense of empathy for my peers whom I disagree with. Oftentimes, they seem to feel almost under-attack by my fellow liberals who slap labels on them like “racist,” “sexist,” or “transphobic,” rather than taking the time to get to the bottom of a rude remark or provide evidence.
Being calm in the face of an inflammatory statement can be the greatest weapon against ignorance. As my dad did in the 1970’s and 80’s, my peers have reasons, however buried they may be, for saying what they say. I suspect that all it takes to make someone reconsider their viewpoint is a single example or distilled idea.
While it is discouraging to think about it, I know that not everyone who is young and closed-minded now will be different as an adult. Common knowledge says that of all people, teenagers should be open to new ideas. So, if a person doesn’t become more accepting throughout their time in high school, will they ever change? I have had to acknowledge that people my age might be scared by the concept that their remarks hurt people, and will just react to some confrontations by being defensive and standing their ground. All I can do sometimes is make sense of why certain words are harmful, and provide some common sense in the middle of emotional arguments between my friends and the more right-leaning students in our school. The adult world itself, with real consequences for the intolerant, will shape many of my peers like it shaped my dad. And now, of course, my dad helps people to become more tolerant within their religious frames and language. There is a cyclical element to equality and love. Accepting people influence their peers who, in turn, become more accepting and have loving children and friends, who teach tolerance to their peers, and the cycle continues.
Believing in the equality of every person and giving humanity some compassion, understanding, and sensitivity has made my dad a happier and more pleasant person. As he describes it, it allowed him to “breathe.” Even if the reality of divorce or climate change makes the world more complicated and might taint a person’s faith in their religion or country, it also allows them space to see and empathize with others.
Concepts like agenderness and fat-positivity exist because the people behind them are trying to explain the complexities of their lives. While it might seem unnecessary and almost silly to my conservative peers now, my dad’s inclusivity, or his admirable understanding of our country’s failings, help us, his children, in unforeseen ways. After all, how we are raised determines a great deal of what we believe.
Every day, there is probably some degree of teasing going on in our house. Often, the brunt of the mocking falls on the youngest sibling, Owen, who is ten. We make fun of him for not liking potatoes, or spelling “faucet” the wrong way. Sometimes, we joke about him being married one day and still having his idiosyncrasies, which will have to be endured by his future partner.
“What is your future wife — or husband… spouse — going to think of that?” my dad laughs.
He knows including multiple pronouns is important for our concept of who we can be.
“Wife, Dad. I know,” Owen might say.
But one day, he’ll appreciate having been shown that another kind of love is beautiful and normal, especially when not all of his society thinks that way.
My siblings and I don’t fear being different or the devil or science or rock music. We don’t ignore uncomfortable realities, and we welcome being held accountable for accidental biases. We want to learn, and we’re not afraid if it means the end of some small part of our world. After all, my dad’s world ended some thirty years ago and, since then, a new one has started.
My dad was taught to fear nearly everything as a child, so he makes sure we fear nothing. I want to show others how to breathe and how to learn, so their children can be fearless.