When was the last time you gagged? When was the last time your throat restricted involuntarily, the muscles contracting to forcibly expel a foreign object? Was it a fishbone? A pill? A dentist’s tool? A putrid smell?
Was it a family? Have you ever gagged at a family?
Much has been written about Richard Cohen’s choice of the word “conventional” in the indefensible Tuesday column, “Christie’s tea-party problem,” in which he wrote:
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued at the Atlantic, “The problem here isn't that we think Richard Cohen gags at the sight of an interracial couple and their children. The problem is that Richard Cohen thinks being repulsed isn't actually racist, but ‘conventional’ or ‘culturally conservative.’"
While I agree with Coates on this point, I don’t think it’s actually necessary to limit to one the number of problems with the paragraph. The entire piece, the fact that it was published by a respected outlet, the fact that it was defended – all of it is, to reappropriate Cohen’s plaint at being charged with racism, hurtful.
I read the column Tuesday morning, and I was angry. After working, after reading the cathartic flood of outrage on Twitter, after contributing to the deluge myself, I realized that I was no longer angry. Whatever I was feeling, it was closer to sadness; it was tender, and it hurt. I kept thinking about gagging. I kept thinking about what that means.
Gagging is an intimate act. An object must make its way to the soft tissue at the back of our throats to trigger the complex set of neural reactions required. We don’t gag until the offending object is about to enter our bodies. It’s a last line of defense, learned in infancy, keeping us safe.
I asked if you’ve ever gagged at a family. What I really meant was have you ever gagged at your own?
Many of us in interracial families deal with that gag reflex in person, in our families, among friends. With 87 percent of Americans expressing approval of interracial marriage between blacks and whites in a recent Gallup poll, I’m hopeful that fewer mothers of multiracial children will be accosted in grocery stores by hostile white men asking, “Where did you get that child?” as my (white, Jewish) mother was about me, her brown-skinned, half-Chinese daughter. But the disapprobation of strangers can’t wound us half as deeply as that of our own relatives.
I was only a baby when my grandmother returned home from a dinner party, shaken and upset. My grandfather, she told my mom, had gotten in a fist fight with his own brother. This brother, my great-uncle, had called my sisters and me “half-breeds.”
A punch, a fight, an early departure. The story is part of my family’s repertoire, an anecdote told with pride in our pop’s loyalty and love. But it’s not actually a fun story. My grandmother never spoke to her brother-in-law again, holding her silence until she died of breast cancer not long after. My grandfather, who would live another 25 years, never spoke to his brother again either.
My great-uncle effectively expelled us from his family. Or my grandparents expelled him from ours. Either way the addition of a Chinese husband and mixed-race babies to the Stone family tree led to the subtraction of a different branch. This is the result of the gag reflex. Relationships shatter. Weddings go unattended. Children grow up not knowing members of their own family.
I do not believe that such bigotry is innate. It is our instinct as humans to love, to grow close. When groups of people meet, individuals fall in love, regardless of race. The fear of miscegenation (a word only coined in 1863) is linked to anxiety about whiteness, to the desire to maintain a system of white supremacy. As Lieutenant Cable learned in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical "South Pacific" about interracial love and racism during World War II, “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/ before you are six or seven or eight/ to hate all the people your relatives hate/ you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
This is why Cohen’s invocation of a reflex is so wrong, and so damaging. While it’s unnatural to recoil from families like the de Blasio-McCrays, perpetuating the idea that such a reaction is “conventional” reaffirms those false teachings. It is just another in a long line of pseudo-scientific justifications for wholly manufactured beliefs, akin to the ideology of racial inferiority that forms the basis for systemic racism and persists to this day.
In reality there is nothing particularly unconventional about a white male politician fathering biracial children. From Sally Hemings to Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the United States has a long and sorry history of political leaders hiding their “other” families. What’s remarkable, and exciting, about Bill de Blasio is the way that he proudly claims his family, and the way his family claims him back. That may be a hard pill for the Richard Cohens of the world to swallow, but for mixed kids like me, it’s only natural.