The lesson my 92-year-old Gran taught me about race and politics

A month or so ago, I received a Facetime invitation from my Dad while he was visiting my grandmother at her home in Florida. My kids were both resting, so I accepted the call and smiled wide when the image of these two people, whom I love dearly, appeared on my phone screen.

My Dad and grandmother both have beautifully thick, wavy, snow-white hair and sitting side by side, their familial resemblance was particularly strong. I quickly realized this wasn’t a call to chat, however. They were trying to register my grandmother to receive my blog and needed my help.

I’m sorry, what?! I broke into a cold sweat.

I write a blog chronicling my attempts to address and combat systems of oppression, such as racism, within the context of family. My ultimate goal is to raise socially conscious children. My grandmother is a 92-year-old white woman who was born and raised in the south. She is politically conservative. I grew up listening to my Dad and his siblings have heated arguments with my grandfather over their different political beliefs.

I was worried what I write about might upset or offend my grandmother and I didn’t want to create any friction in our relationship. In the past five years, we’ve become particularly close and we haven’t discussed politics much at all.

I sent my dad a panicked text after we hung up to question whether signing my grandmother up for the blog was a good idea. He quickly wrote back assuring me it would be fine. My grandmother is level-headed and likes hearing multiple sides to an issue, he reminded me. But I still felt anxious.

Life quickly distracted me and I forgot my grandmother was now receiving every piece of writing I published. Shortly after I posted “On hashtags and fleeting white outrage,” I received an email alert that someone had commented on the blog and saw it was my grandmother. I again panicked.

Was she offended? Had she written a dissenting opinion? My mind raced with the possibilities.

Here’s what she wrote:

Dear Shannon, I’m so proud of you. Your latest column was so well written and certainly made a deep impression on me. It made me realize that there is much that I could do to advance better race relations in a limited way. Keep up the good work. Loads of love to you and all the family, Gran.

Well, I’ll be.

Because my grandmother identifies as a republican, because I was reared listening to my family have emotionally rough conversations around politics, because my grandmother is the epitome of a southern lady, because I write about race from my perspective as a white person, I made a whole lot of assumptions. And they were all wrong.

I’ve looked up to my grandmother my whole life, but in this interaction she inspired me more than ever before. She reminded me that I shouldn’t censor myself out of fear of offense or disagreement, especially with family, where there is a foundation of love to lean on. She reminded me that I should push back against my assumptions around how a conversation about race and politics might go and come to the table with an open mind and an open heart.

Not everyone is going to agree with what I believe or what I’m trying to accomplish within my family. This is a hard truth, but a truth nonetheless. 100% agreement should not be the goal. I should strive to create conversation, to foster better understanding, but not to proselytize.

When I shy away from political conversations with family members because of fear based assumptions no progress will ever be made. If I prioritize human connection over being right, I can carry a dialogue much further and have a fighting chance to bridge the gaps between differing world views.

As a white person with many societal privileges, this is a huge part of my work. I must be willing to engage with my people who I know think differently from me. I am brave enough to write the words, so I should be brave enough to speak them to family and friends.

My Gran reminded me that when I approach political discussions with love rather than fear or self-righteousness, traditionally “tough” conversations don’t necessarily have to be contentious. And I certainly shouldn’t let my worry over the outcome stop me from having the discussion in the first place.

Thank you, Gran. I love you.