By Coco McCracken
This past summer, over dinner, one of my in-laws asked me to elaborate on how I felt about racism today. They asked about the uprisings among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and if I felt targeted racially. They looked confused when I said yes. “But,” they protested, “we don’t see you as Chinese. You’re just Coco to us.”
At first, I felt thrilled to be given space to talk about a topic I’ve been stewing on my entire life. The room quieted; forks were set down; eyes and ears waited for my response. But the words I spoke did not come out as I hoped. Instead, I delivered a messy monologue that was scattered and confusing. I became flustered, and the conversation turned into all of us speaking over one another. It ended with someone saying, “See? This is why we can’t talk about hard things at the table.”
No politics at the dinner table. How many times have we been taught that? Growing up, my parents worked late so we didn’t often gather around a familial table. Many nights, my sister, brother, and I would unfold TV trays and eat our meals in front of “The Simpsons.” Some of my friends joke about how sad that image is, but it was actually the opposite. Our parentless dinners allowed us to talk and joke about social issues that mattered to us then. Our basement might have been filled with salt shakers and hot sauce bottles, but it was also filled with laughter.
“To be asked to explain my experience as a minority woman in the family, surrounded by the pomp and circumstance of my white and affluent relatives, is a symbol of the same power inequity I was attempting to describe.” “— Coco McCracken
When we did eat as a family, we went big. With our Chinese side of the family, our favorite way to enjoy a meal together was at a dim sum restaurant. This is a type of brunch where small steamed dishes are carted around by servers, who scream their presence with “Har Gow!” or “Shumai!” Raising your hand, you yell back what you want, and they fling the plate on the plastic covered table. It’s loud, really loud. Aunts, uncles and cousins pile on the gossip over flying bits of fish. No subject is off limits. To clean up afterwards, the workers simply grab the edges of the plastic tablecloth and scoop up all the dishes into a massive dish pit for everyone to see.
Today, my relationship with the dinner table is more complex. I married into a fairly large, white American family, which stages the dinner table like we live in Victorian England. There are salad forks on linen napkins, and the glow of oil lanterns diffuse vases of fresh flowers. Nice wine chills in carafes. TV – absolutely not! Eating with my new family made me feel ashamed at first, thinking about the soy sauce dripping from the plastic bins in Chinatown. I soon got used to a patriarch sitting at the head of the table, directing the conversation like an air-traffic controller. The deafening quietness in between metal clanking on fine china made me feel so out of place, I sometimes felt like I was in an alternate universe.
I have come to adore and respect the beauty of these new traditions in my life, but after that question about racism was asked, I realized I was entering a rigged game. To be asked to explain my experience as a minority woman in the family, surrounded by the pomp and circumstance of my white and affluent relatives, is a symbol of the same power inequality I was attempting to describe. A sort of inception of how deep systemic racism is; how much it hides in plain sight. It’s not that I don’t want to be asked that question again. On the contrary, I am happy that our family is even talking about “hard things at the table.” But I hope they realize that it’s not a fair playing ground. Even asked with love, when you ask a person of color or someone who’s been oppressed, to explain themselves, it can feel more like a trial than a conversation.
Coco McCracken (she/her/hers) is a photographer & writer who lives in Portland with her daughter and husband. Born in Toronto, Canada, Coco has always been interested in writing about the intersectionality of place, race, and identity. She currently has a newsletter called Coco’s Echo, and is working on her first book