It was Christmas morning, not the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, that broke me. My husband, Eric, his sister and I gathered around the fire in our home in Illinois, coffees in hand and cookies within arm’s reach. It had been the deadliest, most infectious month of the COVID-19 pandemic yet, as patients struggled to breathe in their hospital beds and raspily said goodbye to families through phone screens and window panes. Eric had suddenly lost his uncle to the virus a few weeks ago. So it was decided: We would spend Christmas away from the extended family, nestled in our tiny, tested bubble, and call into the celebrations while the rest of the family gathered with one another as they did most weekends, pandemic be damned.
I knew the routine from the past few years. On Christmas morning, Eric’s parents’ quiet country home became a cacophony of dogs barking, children yelling and footsteps reverberating on the hardwood floors. One of the kids would “accidentally” let a chicken or a goat into the house, and the adults would be speaking to one another in the only two modes that got the job done: loud or louder.
Sure enough, as we crowded around the phone screen, a tapestry of voices met us. The kids were opening presents ― baby Yodas and coloring books this year. Henry, our sweet rapscallion of a nephew, stood near the camera and alternately narrated the bounty and made faces at us. We made faces back. I told him I loved him and missed him. It was always easier to be tender with the children than with the grown-ups in Eric’s family. For the adults, growing up in a chaotic family of seven meant that each of them carried a history of not being heard or seen. It made them insist they were right without listening, react strongly to the smallest triggers and point fingers at one another in blame. I always braced myself before a visit.
It was the grown-ups’ turn for presents. Tradition was to do a swap-or-steal gift exchange. I watched as my brother-in-law, a usually mild-mannered man, picked a gift and then shook it at the camera in our direction, a taunting glint in his eye. I looked closer. Whoever had wrapped it had meticulously taped a $2020 bill to the top, with Donald Trump’s smug face glowering on it. I grimaced. I didn’t look at the then-president’s face or listen to his voice if I could help it anymore.
My sister-in-law was next. She unwrapped her gift and held it up for all of us to see. It was a red football jersey with “Kaepernick” printed in big white letters across the back. The three of us on our side of the screen reacted with excitement before realizing that what we thought were cheers from the rest of the family were, in fact, jeers. They laughed with derision as they passed the jersey around and heckled the Black football player who had dared to peacefully protest police brutality and racism. Only one of my in-laws claimed the jersey and wore it with pride. Something sunk inside of me.
On to the next gift.
“I watched as my brother-in-law, a usually mild-mannered man, picked a gift and then shook it at the camera in our direction, a taunting glint in his eye. I looked closer. Whoever had wrapped it had meticulously taped a $2020 bill to the top, with Donald Trump’s smug face glowering on it.”
Later that morning, I sneaked away, stood in the shower and let the hot water wash over me, exhaling the breath I had been holding in until then. Why had the gift exchange bothered me so much? Why did I feel such a weight in my chest?
A memory clawed its way through my body and burst before me. I sit in a wooden chair on the second floor of the Kelly Writers House in college, as one of my beloved creative writing professors lectures. The class is “Writing From Photographs,” and Prof loves showing us the ways that photographs can both reveal and obscure stories. This photograph ― the one he is projecting onto the screen ― shows young and old white women and men gathering outdoors in the growing darkness. Some are dressed up in hats and ties for the occasion. A young couple holds hands and leans into one another as they smile. A short, tattooed man points upward and looks directly into the camera, a warning stare in his eyes. Two young Black men, their clothes torn, their bodies bloodied and broken, hang by their necks from a tree. The faces in the crowd are luminescent in the night.
I read about the photo, taken by Lawrence Beitler in 1930 in Marion, Indiana. I learned that it was often Christian leaders, bankers, managers, governors and the educated elite who egged on and incited these mobs. They were considered “good” people. “Respectable” people.
I learned that these two Black men were not yet men, they were teenagers and were named Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith. I learned that the white woman they had supposedly raped later testified that nothing of the sort had ever happened. And I learned that children and adults often scrambled for the relics of bodies after lynchings ― bones, charred pieces and scraps of clothing were kept as keepsakes or sold. I imagined Colin Kaepernick’s red jersey, passed around, laughed at, mockingly draped around shoulders ― another one of those keepsakes.
It suddenly became harder to breathe. I knew that tossing a jersey around was not the same as a lynching, but those actions stemmed from a similar sinister place. It was “good” people who lynched those boys. It was “respectable” people who stood by and watched as it happened. I thought of the violent history of this country and the rhetoric that has inspired these kinds of unforgivable actions and how alive those beliefs still are today. I thought of how quickly thoughts and feelings and “jokes” can evolve into the unthinkable ― a lynching. An insurrection.
For several years now, some of Eric’s family have brought “Make America Great Again” paraphernalia, Trump bobbleheads and the like, to the annual gift exchange, hoping to get under the skins of their left-wing family members. It’s a move similar to their spreading of coronavirus misinformation online, calling us self-righteous for insisting on the efficacy of masks before we gathered for his grandfather’s funeral and intentionally sending GIFs of Trump to the family message thread. I have wondered these past years: How can people who are intelligent and generous, who often show up for one another, also spread lies, stand behind a racist, sexist and xenophobic president and think that labeling him as such is an “exaggeration” and “overly sensitive” response? How could our realities be so different?
I had so wanted to be a part of this family. Before Eric and I had started dating, we became friends in a graduate class on religion and immigration in the United States. There, I learned that he came from a small-town conservative white Midwestern family whose beliefs he had gradually come to disavow. In his house, “feminism” had been the f-word. I, on the other hand, grew up in a family of immigrants who came to the United States from India shortly before I was born. My father had been born into a poor and middle-caste farm family on the edge of Bihar, India’s poorest state. My mother’s father had spent much of her childhood jailed for his resistance to British colonial rule. As a child, I was told these stories over and over: the time that my mother warded off the British authorities as a young girl when they came to her door searching for her father; the way my father had walked unpaved roads to and from school without shoes until he was in high school. I noticed how the calluses on his feet would hurt him to this day. I was told his parents, who could neither read nor write, sold pieces of their land to pay his tuition. He told me that his mother would wander the village in search of someone who could read whenever he wrote letters home.
“I have wondered these past years: How can people who are intelligent and generous, who often show up for one another, also spread lies, stand behind a racist, sexist and xenophobic president and think that labeling him as such is an 'exaggeration' and 'overly sensitive' response? How could our realities be so different?”
I was surprised when I first met Eric’s father, the gun-owning, Fox News-watching, small-town veterinarian I had heard so much about. We had driven to Wisconsin for the summer, and his father had dismounted from his tall Ford pickup to greet me with a giant grin, a squeeze and a kiss on the cheek. Immediately I felt loved. That kind of welcome and embrace was one that Eric hadn’t even received from my own family, who had judged him as a white intruder on their and their daughter’s lives before they had even gotten to know him. His mother was even sweeter and reminded me of my father ― tender, spiritual, introverted ― my kind of gal. She loved animals, and when I got to their home, she asked if I wanted to help bottle-feed a newborn calf and see her new ducklings and chicks. I could not have gotten the farm boots on fast enough.
Over the next few days, I met his siblings, their spouses and their children, and was overwhelmed by the noise and the playfulness, the presence of young life after having grown up in a home that felt cold and colorless. His family had no lack of liveliness ― 11 nieces and nephews, with more on the way. It was charming.
I had always yearned to be part of a loving web, a khandan. But migration meant that my mother’s siblings were largely back in India, and my father, one of nine, was the only one who had come to the States. My cousins and I were an ocean apart and strangers to one another, and we only became more distant as the years went on.
Eric’s family was a chance to experience something different ― a family that lived within minutes of one another, spent their weekends grilling at each other’s houses, who seemingly could not get enough of each other. I imagined my children would grow up with cousins who were like siblings and that I would have in-laws who were both friends and family. There would be no lack of people to turn to and be supported by.
We were married three months before news of COVID-19 began making headlines. Eric’s Trump-supporting brother had lovingly built us a strong and beautiful mandap of beech trees from his dad’s woods. My bridesmaids and I decorated it with flower garlands. Family from India flew out to Wisconsin, and his family enthusiastically showed up in traditional lehengas and saris. We ate biryani and danced to bhangra and reggaeton. But once the pandemic hit, things deteriorated.
Not being able to see one another in person meant being more easily able to dehumanize one another. We put each other in boxes and labeled one another “good” or “bad,” “racist” or “liberal snowflake” for what we posted on social media, what jokes we found funny, what we chose or chose not to respond to. We tried to have conversations about issues of race, class and gender both in person and from afar, but those conversations often devolved on both sides. My blood began to simmer. Then Ahmaud Arbery was killed. And Breonna Taylor. And George Floyd. I knew that some of them believed the ahistorical, racially charged rhetoric: “But he had a criminal record.” “Why was he running there anyway?” “Blue lives matter.” “Black Lives Matter are the ones who are violent.” My blood began to boil.
How could they love me, a brown-skinned woman, if they believed lies that placed whiteness and the power of empire above all else? Above me? My parents’ lives? The lives of the people who made this country? Could they love me without truly seeing me, in all my identities? Would they love me only if I stayed quiet and looked the other way from their racism and support of institutions that have been hurting Black and Brown people since they began?
And then on Christmas morning, I boiled over. My brother-in-law, who had once marveled at my father’s migration story, waved the Trump dollar at our faces, and my two middle fingers raised themselves at the camera in protest. I walked away. I don’t know if anyone noticed the gesture in the hubbub of paper tearing and children chattering. You shouldn’t have done that, the immigrant daughter in me immediately said with remorse. They’re elders. You’re supposed to respect your family. But another voice roared, Respect?! Respect the colonizers? Respect the ideology of whiteness being spewed through that screen? No.
“We put each other in boxes and labeled one another “good” or “bad,” “racist” or “liberal snowflake” for what we posted on social media, what jokes we found funny, what we chose or chose not to respond to. We tried to have conversations about issues of race, class and gender both in person and from afar, but those conversations often devolved on both sides.”
We had moved to the Midwest to be closer to family, but that closeness has made it more difficult to ignore the myriad ways that white supremacy weaves itself into the fabric of our family’s everyday life. Trump may no longer be president, but the bigotry that he freed from the shadows remains.
I debated whether to publish this piece. I feared these words would create even more of a rift between my in-laws and me. Many of them will read these words and think they are an overreaction. That I couldn’t take a joke and that these small moments have little to do with the larger phenomena of Black people being killed every day by the police, of members of law enforcement and the military joining the Capitol riot, of people with more melanin like myself feeling as if they are second-class citizens in this world.
But these seemingly inconsequential moments are the insidious ways in which something like what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6 becomes possible. An insurrection doesn’t come out of nowhere. We expect our enemy to look like a horned monster. We expect that it will show up marked by its grotesque dressings and that we will be able to see it clearly for what it is and banish it from our midst. Instead, the monster lurks in the everyday actions of our neighbors, our siblings and ourselves. My hope is that this piece will start a conversation about those actions, not just for my family but for families across our divided nation.
The thing is, I still want my in-laws to love me and I, them. A real relationship, though, will require a reckoning. Until then, we will remain in the realm of niceties and holiday cards and small chuckles over the children when we gather. Until then, anything deeper will remain out of reach.
Shrestha Singh is a writer, spiritual director and trauma therapist-in-training who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University. Originally from the California Bay Area, she now lives in Northern Illinois with her husband/best friend, Eric, and their sweet rescue pit bull, Clooney.