In America, we have trouble even talking about systemic racism. When we do, we don’t agree what the “real” issue is, nor what the priority issue is, let alone the degree to which systemic racism even exists. It’s easy to talk past each other. The conversation can become so strained that continuing to talk seems like the real problem. Wouldn’t our shared life be more peaceful if we stopped trying to talk together about things that just get us fighting?
With that as background, the following is a parable. As with any parable, there is a flexibility of meaning, which may run beyond this author’s intent. However, a decent metaphor should have a life of its own. This is because to provoke thoughtfulness is partly to release the need to control how others think.
Nevertheless, here are a few hints for interpretation: First, some major societal responses in the conversation about systemic racism are embodied as individual characters. Second, my goal is that you ponder how the problem of systemic racism is embedded in national “family dynamics.” This is a primarily a parable about the trouble internal to our conversation and secondarily about the trouble that occasioned the conversation.
If you want further guidance, there are some thought questions at the end, and even a “key” to a few basics.
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They didn’t find the cancer until they did the scan.
For the past two years, Rog had been complaining about the dull pain in that stubborn way that brings up an ache only to dismiss its significance because, “I’m fine.” His wife, Mary, had been worried, but Rog had always been tough/not-tough like that, so perhaps he was just getting old. When the bump under the skin changed shape, he marked it down to getting a knock on a job site. He’d be better in a couple weeks, just not tomorrow. Rog mused that so much was different from when he started with the company. Same bruises now as then; different body. He told Mary maybe he’d get it checked out at the annual physical that he never had. She knew that getting more than that concession wasn’t going to be worth it.
But when one bump became five in three places over the next two months, his four kids thought they might need to stage an intervention. Their collective phone calls, delicate conversations in the company office, and loving harassment eventually got Dad to concede one, just one, doctor’s appointment. If only to get them off his back, he thought.
That one appointment led to three more. A consultation, a biopsy, and bad news. Mary wrung her hands. She’d known something should have been done sooner. Rog admitted that could be true, but, “look, lots of guys have stuff like this, and the ones I know keep going just fine. Maybe this one is so slow-growing that I won’t notice.” The four kids sighed, but at least there would be some accountability now. Dad could change. Treatment had to happen, and they could verify it.
Little did they realize that with time, they would become weary of Dad’s verifications. Every chemo week, he made sure they all knew, in exhausting detail, how his bones ached. At first, they felt compassion, coupled with hope that the pain would be worth it. They tried to encourage. But during weeks of rest between treatments, Dad would tell them how much he grieved not being able to work like he used to and that he was actually angry with them for putting him in such a spot. They let this go at first, counting it as a side effect of treatment, or an adjustment period, or emotional acting out. But as weeks became months, the kids started breaking down under Dad’s relentless reports of how he’d been wronged.
Son Mark counter-attacked, blaming Dad for everything since Dad had habitually ignored ventilation protocols when working with chemicals, among other bad practices. Daughter Maya tried to reason with the emotions, stating to all that Dad’s cancer wasn’t his or their fault, and was more a lamentable product of the times in which they had lived. Daughter Amber soothed whichever relationship needed it at a given moment. She thought she helped, maybe, but Mark accused her of undermining chances at clarity. Maya just asked more analytical questions. The youngest son, Jay, tried to humor Dad with back-handed affirmations of his obstinacy, but Rog caught on and then wallowed in a week-long sulk. Plus, righteous resentment energized Rog to return Jay’s fakery and, when convenient, claim an ally against the depredations of medicine. After six rounds of treatment, and uncountable and exhausting family conferences, it was almost like the cancer was secondary. The bumps would come and go, here and there on Rog’s body, but the tension in the family and at the business, where they all had various roles, was constant.
Mary began paying more attention to the garden squash and just wished things would calm down. Rog suspected the reason behind her sudden cheery obsession with vine vegetables and began to resent her, too. Other guys, those with life-threatening cancer, were worse off than he, why couldn’t his family appreciate him more? Couldn’t they just be grateful he’d agreed to the treatment, which wasn’t really necessary anyway? One day, Rog decided he’d just stop the madness and go on with his life as before, without the interference of kids whose diapers he’d changed, thank you very much. He made clear to Mary that if she brought up missed appointments, he’d get mean. He broke a plate when she cried at dinner. He threatened to cut Mark out of the will. He shunned people who cared enough not just to ask, but insist.
As the months passed and the tension tightened, Rog’s behavior fragmented erratically. Some days he dissolved into tears-laden confessions of how recalcitrant he’d been and how, this time, he’d change. Other days he raged that everything had been fine until he’d gone to the doctor. Amidst the chaos, the kids endured and the wife survived on social visits with friends, during which they savored her excellent pumpkin pie.
That fall, Mary called together a Thanksgiving dinner. She prepared all the old favorites and stayed busy putting a happy face on everything, sure that a good family meal would bring everyone back together the way things were. She fantasized that everyone would realize that the current strife was just the current and yet passing thing. But then, just as Dad denigrated Mom’s sweet potatoes, Mark finally let Dad have it. Mark was merciless, having the learned the skill throughout childhood.
“Dad, enough. I’ve had enough. And so have all of us. You treat us as if we don’t care about you, when that’s simply untrue. It’s not just the cancer, it’s the business decisions, the family trips, everything, for years, and it’s way past time someone in this sham of a family told the truth. It’s not about you all the time! You’ve lived your life getting your way, and now that you can’t, you blame everyone else. Do us a favor and do the thing you always told us to do: Grow up!”
Maya, lost in a swirl of relief for some truth, began to nod very slowly, measuring the rationally-safe amount of affirmation. Amber, who really preferred not to rock the boat, inhaled with terror for the coming storm. Jay, foolishly feeling secure in his enlightened perspective of youth, sat up with morbid interest. Mary may have whimpered, regretting the ruination of her dinner just before dessert. And Rog? He smiled with vicious pleasantness and asked for the salt, having finally proved to himself that the real issue wasn’t cancer, it was these ingrates.
After the showdown, Dad was dreadfully the same. The sameness had a malicious edge to it, since everyone knew that things being the same was actually impossible. Rog also tried to change his legal will, “because times change and the next generation has different needs.” He’d changed his will before and in better circumstances, so why was this time any different? It was different because this time Mary said she was satisfied with the will as written. She spent the rest of that year quietly self-satisfied. Her moral antennae had detected the subtle immoralities of vengeance, and she’d been strong enough to put it to a stop, right?
So life went on. The business went on. Everyone made a living out of tolerance. Dad stayed sick, and everybody played their role, just as they had done for generations.
Later that year, Jay tried not to notice some bumps on his shoulder.
1. Which character do you identify with the most and why?
2. What are the issues in this family? What’s the biggest issue?
3. Is the family’s dysfunction “real” or the product of their collective emotional imagination?
4. Under what circumstances will the family talking more about their issues help or hurt?
5. What kinds of pain should be endured, what kinds chosen, and what kinds avoided?
6. How could this family become emotionally healthier?
7. Who in the family could most shift the entire dynamic and why?
8. What if the six family members voted about “the issues”? Would that solve anything? Or would that “politicize” their family dynamics? What is the meaning and connotation of the word “political”?
9. What if the family business had previously belonged to another, and this family had come into it via hostile takeover? Would that history affect their ability to reckon with their internal dysfunction? How?
Rog = those who deny the existence or minimize the strength of systemic racism
Cancer = racism (it comes in many forms individual, group, institutional, and systemic)
Treatment = civil rights and law, diversity & cultural training, hiring practices, etc.
Treatments are almost always imperfect and commonly have side effects.
Mary = those who value apparent peace over real peace, see also: silence is compliance
Mark = those who are self-righteous in their aggression against racism
Maya = those who rely on persuasive reason when so much depends on emotion
Amber = those who are too attentive to emotion and lose sight of truth
Jay = those who indulge in “Ok, Boomer” snarkiness
The family business = The American economy
The will = Legal or economic structures that affect who has access to what opportunities
The other family who once owned the business = Native Americans