I’m starting to believe that my boyfriend’s father is the New England mascot for the worst of white male privilege. Naturally, such privilege is bedazzled with the nicotine-flavored, boisterous rumblings of unflinching homophobia and an admiration of Reagan-era conservatism. It’s a badge of paternal lordship, sharpened by the nervous-titters of his obedient family members, people who adhere to specific stage blocking not like trained actors, but well-worn chess pieces.
My boyfriend’s father knows that I have made a few (sad) attempts to become an established writer. Unfortunately, such career aspirations are viewed as a hobby, some mark of the mysteries of feminism, like when gaggles of women go to the bathroom together. My boyfriend is quick to say that his father is a connoisseur of literature. In reality, his father’s bookshelves are lined with the usual paperback junk food: Tom Clancy, Daniel Silva, David Baldacci, Vince Flynn, etc, etc. No women writers allowed.
True to his personality, my boyfriend’s father praises the male writer, especially ones that favor Michael-Bay-style action sequences and shifty spies over the thorns of social and cultural issues. When I told him that I was thinking about writing a novel about the psychological effects of institutionalized racism, he looked at me as though I’d said I was going to fly across the world in a hot air balloon.
I sit across from my boyfriend’s father in this dimly lit restaurant and feel a flurry of wasps, kill-hungry and vicious, as though they were built with switchblade wings. His father grimaces and folds his arms across his chest. I feel as though the differences between my boyfriend’s father and myself are larger and deeper than skin color, the result of clashing life mantras, conflicting philosophies that are sacred—philosophies that I hold tight with the sincerity of a devout monk.
“Do you have a gun?” he suddenly asks my friend, who is picking at her bowl of macaroni and cheese. His face is a strange experiment of textures, like leather, like alligator scales, like the drooping jowls of a basset hound. His question isn’t softened by the small smile on his thin lips.
“Um, no?” She answers as though she’s on stage for a national spelling bee, wilting in the sickly fluorescent spotlight, about to blow her chances at gold. (Or maybe her inflection is warped by my subconscious, the feeling that I am too uncomfortable and too tired to say anything that could spark an argument.)
His father chuckles, a dry guffaw, a verbal cue as to the cold resentment tugging at his patience.
“Who has a gun? Or even a knife. I’d like to shoot that kid,” he mutters. He suddenly reminds me of a talking boulder.
I feel as though he’s got the gun trained on the center of my forehead. It makes me think of that famous black and white photograph taken during the 1967 march on Washington of the hippie placing a flower in a soldier’s gun.
“God, I’d really like to fucking shoot that kid,” he repeats.
This is the old establishment, putting muscle into its last stand.
My boyfriend’s father glares at the object of his wrath. The target kid is sitting in front of us with a couple.
This is the old establishment, flexing its might.
He is a man who favors order and structure, one who would have been drinking buddies with Don Draper, guzzling cocktails that sting the throat. He is a man whose gruff exterior is not a protective shell for a soft heart. He is not a man constructed of the disarming angles used to deflect unwanted attention.
I am the new establishment, a progressive rabble-rouser, a woman who cut her teeth on Model UN and a liberal arts education.
My boyfriend’s father is a man who could have watched the bullfights in Spain accompanied by Ernest Hemingway and traded barbs with a heavy-lidded Norman Mailer or Charles Bukowski, any one of those great icons of heterosexual white male righteousness.
The “kid” in question is a high school acquaintance of my boyfriend. This thirty-year-old man is out and unquestionably proud. I have never spoken to him and don’t follow him on Facebook. However, I have been told that this man colorfully relives his same-sex escapades on social media, his constant stream of narration teetering the line of shock-value exhibitionism. My boyfriend claims that he doesn’t care about his ex-friend’s sexuality, but his fidgeting, the uncomfortable shrug of his shoulders, and the slight scratchiness of his assurances seem forced, a little bit of the lady doth protest too much. It seems that most of the friends in my boyfriend’s circle have unapologetically disowned this man. The fact that he is gay is presented as not fuel for the bonfire, but the ultimate downfall of his character, the final grievance in a never-ending list. His sexuality is not viewed so much as proof of deviance but moral weakness, a deliberate disruption of acceptable social conduct. It is not so much the person they fear, it’s the culture. For my boyfriend, this man is now a different person, a stranger. He does not hate this man; in the grand scheme of everyday life, my boyfriend does not even think about this man.
On the other hand, it’s quite clear that my boyfriend’s father hates homosexuality and wouldn’t mind if some rabid Republican lawmaker proposed that we all start putting the heads of gay people on spikes like they did to traitors in Medieval days of yore. (Or maybe I only have come to this gruesome conclusion because his voice is plump with conviction, ripe with nuclear resolve, the kind of tired disgust that my own father, a retired state police officer, reserved for his daily dealings with murderers and rapists.)
I shouldn’t be surprised that my boyfriend’s father is so repulsed by the physical presence of a man who beds other men. This a man who is a Norman Rockwell painting of the whitewashed American Dream.
Despite his faults, my own father doesn’t hold such disgust for homosexuality. He doesn’t fully understand it but unlike my boyfriend’s father, he remembers that gay people are still people. At work, he has befriended the front desk receptionist, a young gay man fresh out of high school. No one has openly disapproved of this man, but he notices some of the patrons’ lack of acceptance, can feel it when they speak to him, their voices taking on that sour note of thinly disguised aversion. He confided in my father that someone has been leaving him nasty voicemails, condemning his sexuality, demanding that he quit his job. It seems that my father is this young man’s only ally at work.
My father is more accepting of differences than one would expect. Then again, this is a black man who has witnessed the rise of the Civil Rights Movement as an impressionable teenager only to realize that the poison of racism is easily adaptable, mutatable, breathing in a cornucopia of strains.
I wonder if my boyfriend’s father has had prolonged exposure to many minorities. I wonder, if in secret, he tells his son that he doesn’t like that he is dating a black girl, especially one that has vehemently challenged his views in the past.
I wonder why my boyfriend’s father chooses to value one aspect of human life more than the other.
I may seem green to my boyfriend’s father, a walking representation of those black people who are “obsessed” with the sociopolitical nuances of racism and the evolving canon of black racial identity. But I have come to realize that the the criticisms of white America do not define me. The past few years have tumbled forward with the palpable tension (terror) of an exorcism and I have had to clear house and home, mind and body, of parasitic demons.
I am still young but old enough to grow, to change, and time is not a luxury that my boyfriend’s father can ever again claim.
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has been featured on Thought Catalog, The Toast, The Hairpin, Literally, Darling, and Bitch Media. She is a Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review and writes at www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com.