“You’re more moderate than I thought. You worried me, but it looks like you’ve landed more in the middle.” My dad said while I stared at the last bites of eggs and hash browns on my plate.
We were packed tightly in a booth. Utensils clanged while my siblings continued to eat. My dad sat right across from me. He had been listening closely to my responses when the conversation shifted to politics—his go-to for any and every conversation.
It was springtime. I came home on a long weekend for my older sister’s college graduation. I and my brother and sisters went to go pick him up from the airport. None of us had eaten yet, so we went to the nearest Denny’s. Because I didn’t see my dad much, I didn’t know how to act around him. My interactions with him were stiff and awkward. My dad acted as we’ve never skipped a beat. However, our physical and emotional distance was never lost on me.
“Oh yeah?” is all I said, feeling the sudden weight of my food in my stomach.
“Yeah, last time you sounded like you might’ve been institutionalized by the university.” His words were punctuated with jabs of his fork onto his plate. “You were talking all this radical stuff.”
I might have given some sort of denial. Maybe said a passing comment to move the conversation along. Speaking to my dad left me with a sense that he did not know me. He was surprised I was studying literature and creative writing in college, not computer science or engineering. My fleeting interest in computers as a child was my way of being close to him. We don’t agree on a lot of things anymore.
My dad’s concern over my palatability bothered me. I was becoming something he did not like or identify with. His comment also showed me what he thought about college. Ideas that universities are full of professors who spoon-feed students information specific to their own political agendas. That I, and all the other students, simply absorbed the information unblinkingly. No one strong-armed me from questioning or even disagreeing with the material.
Those same echos of my father come out of my brother too. He is quick with a snide comment about my college education. They see universities as liberal hubs. A bubble for snowflakes and social justice warriors, as my brother would probably call us. My school had that reputation, among others. The self-proclaimed authority of questioning authority. Both of them doubt my ability to be a critical thinker. Never mind that critical thinking was the cornerstone of my degrees (and literally in the name of one of them!). Yet, I don’t ever hear those comments said to our older sister, who had just finished college.
“Do you want to talk to Dianna?”
I grabbed the phone from my sister and stepped into the girls’ room. My dad and I tumbled through life updates and small talk. He congratulated me on graduating college and asked what my degrees were in.
“Bachelors in Literature with a concentration in creative writing, and a Bachelors in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies.” I resisted my reflex to downplay them as a mouthful as if they haven’t found a home on my tongue after three years.
My dad then asked what my long term goals were. I’m going to become a full-time writer. I brought up an internship I had with a literary magazine and a little bit about my own writing. White people were going to be the villains in my stories rather than the heroes. Dead white man canon beware. On the other side of the line, I heard my dad sigh.
“You need to write something that will last.” He said and then added, “Be careful about what you say. There’s power in being a writer.”
“Have you heard about Kyle Rittenhouse?”
“The kid with a gun in Kenosha, right?” I replied and wondered if he knew Jacob Blake’s name like he did Kyle’s. “He shot Black Lives Matter protestors.”
“That’s not the whole story, they attacked him.” My dad said quickly. “He was acting in self defense.”
The tops of my arms tingled. I could see where the conversation was heading. I refer to my classes and books I read in college about systemic racism. So I ask him to imagine what BIPOC protestors might have felt seeing an armed white person who was said to have shot other protestors. Imagine the danger and vulnerability they felt at police presence alone, compounded with the visible threat he posed and the fact that the police did not flinch at Rittenhouse’s presence. When a few days before, police killed Jacob Blake on the mere suspicion of a weapon. How can one reconcile those discrepancies?
I stared at the far corner of the bedroom as my dad rattled off one conservative talking point after another. BLM protestors were likened to Nazis in tactics and ideology. Anti-fa was called a highly organized group funded by billionaires. The people should arm themselves and form militias. He went on to talk about individual choices.
“Everyone I knew growing up was in gangs or did drugs, lots of them are dead or in jail now. I grew up poor and around drugs, look at where I am now.”
I thought about the war on drugs and poverty when he said that. About the prison industrial complex and the mass incarcerations that targeted BIPOC at a disproportionate rate. All done with the express purpose of stealing and preventing the production of wealth in those communities. I even mentioned this to him, but he didn’t hear me. He was talking to change my mind and exercise his own.
“Try reading from the perspective of the other side. You can learn a lot from that.”
My throat was tight, and tears of frustration stung my eyes, but I was no longer talking. The call had gone over an hour, and my sister stood at the bedroom door. She wanted her phone back.