Respectability Politics In My Relationship With My White In-Laws Was A Mistake That Shifted Nothing
My attempts at deep, meaningful interactions were met with forced smiles and obviously fabricated excuses to leave the conversation.
May 12, 2021 at 4:45 pm
Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.
What do you do when you don't get along with the family you married into?
I moved to Europe for graduate school. At 25, I found myself engaged and living my Mediterranean fantasy. When it came time to meet my soon-to-be in-laws, I was a bit hesitant. Not only was I plagued with the typical thoughts of, "Will they like me?" and "I hope I fit in," I had the extra hurdle of marrying into a Maltese-Australian family.
You might be asking, where is Malta? My thoughts exactly. My in-laws live in a small village, on a very small island.
“We're not on the South Side of Chicago anymore,” I thought when landing in Valletta for the first time.
I was raised right (Thank you, mama!), so I came bearing gifts and the biggest smile my cheeks would allow. Did I complain when Malta's hard as f**k water wreaked havoc on my curls? Not a peep. Did I make a face when they served a piping hot plate of rabbit, a very typical Maltese dish, to this life-long plant-based kween? Nope! Did I run away when asked to attend their very somber, Mediterranean Catholic mass although I'm Methodist? Not at all!
But despite my best efforts, things didn't seem to click.
My attempts at deep, meaningful interactions were met with forced smiles and obviously fabricated excuses to leave the conversation. (Do you really need to sweep the patio, ma’am? Right this very second?)
What happens when there are fundamental differences that separate you and your in-laws, such as language, geography, faith, socio-economic background and education?
I knew they liked the presents I brought, so being met with closed doors and cold shoulders, I turned inwards to figure out if I was the problem.
On a good day, I’m invisible and inoffensive to them. But on a bad day, I’m the angry Black puppeteer mind-controlling their baby boy with my vegan dishes and castor oil concoctions. We’re different. I get it; they made that abundantly clear. But I was still willing to try. Some may even say I tried too hard.
Without realizing it, I had applied the same rules of respectability politics to my relationship with my white in-laws. And frankly, we all know where that gets us.
I thought if I stayed on my best behavior they’d like me. If I ate what they ate, did what they did, didn't make waves or disagree, smiled big, didn't take up too much space and always said the right thing that maybe, just maybe, they'd accept me instead of exclude me.
To those struggling: it's normal to want to fit in when you're the new kid trying to find a seat in the cafeteria, but knowing when to walk away from people who simply don't want you around is key. This needs to be more of a common truth: people not liking you is their problem, not yours! Although I’m a physical example of my in-laws’ polar opposite, I refuse to spend my life auditioning for their approval.
Here are three hard truths I’ve had to accept:
- A marriage certificate does not make a family.
- Being tolerated is not the same thing as being fully accepted.
- Sometimes people make up their mind about you before they know you. You can’t control that.
To those struggling with fitting in with their in-laws, try your best and stay on the same page as your partner. Remember that one person bending to suit another is not reciprocity — it’s a pointless solo game of Twister. More importantly, know when to step back to protect your peace. Your relationship (and your sanity) is more important than being invited to their crusty, dusty, biannual family zoom call anyway.
Thank God for your chosen family, right?