Getting Real with Shadra Bruce

My notion of what defines family has changed over time. When I was growing up, my family was big and glorious and messy and wonderful. I grew up surrounded by 16 aunts and uncles, 6 great aunts and uncles, 3 sets of grandparents, and 2 great grandmothers. I was the oldest child in my family, the first grandchild on both sides, and for 5 years, the only grandchild. That exploded to 25 or more cousins (it’s hard to keep track). Huge. Family.

As I grew up, I collected a few friends – friends like my first best friend. We met when I was 4 and 44(!) years later, we’re still friends. I met others through school that I’ve known since 5th grade who are still friends. And when I turned 18 and moved out, I stayed connected to my family but also began making my first adult friends – many of whom are still a big part of my life. I learned that friends – the people you choose to have in your life – can be just as much a part of your family as the people you’re related to by blood.

Family Is More than Genealogy

Over the past few years, thanks in part to the political disaster we’re living through, I’ve lost many family members. Sure, my mom passed away, and so did my favorite great-uncle and all but one grandparent. But the loss I’ve experienced has been more devastating because it’s like someone filled in details that had always been smoothed out for me. I realized that many people I had been close had hate-filled hearts or deep-seated racism built into their DNA – and no matter how many times we tried to “discuss” it, the conversations ended with me being called an idiot, or me being told that I was “too hung up” on what was happening, or me being told I needed to just shut up and deal with it because “the voters had spoken.” I was even accused of having a hand in hastening the death of someone because I caused so much stress with my political views.

(My views aren’t really all that extreme – I believe in better healthcare (minus the profit motive), criminal justice reform, gun reform and consistent gun laws nationwide, legalized pot with amnesty for anyone convicted on pot possession charges, and student loan debt reform).

The hate and vitriol became extreme enough that I decided to remove it by unfriending/unfollowing people on social media. Apparently, if you unfriend a family member on Facebook, you’ve literally deleted them from your life. But when people share things like photos of Michelle Obama being compared to an ape, or call for all welfare recipients to be rounded up and summarily removed, or the nasty conversation of immigrant “filth” reaches my ears (my son-in-law is an immigrant) that’s something I’m ok without being exposed to – and even more ok that my kids aren’t exposed to it.

Redefining Family

Family isn’t always just the people we were born to; it’s the people we collect – the ones who lift us up, support us, respect us, and care for us. The ones who stick around even when we aren’t doing something for them that they need. The ones who love us the way we are and not for what they think they can force us to be. The ones who want us in their lives. The ones who don’t have hate and harm in their hearts. If those people don’t share DNA, that’s ok with me.

So my kids are growing up in a smaller, tighter circle.  It’s still a great big, full of love, three-generation family. I wish things were different. I wish I had a relationship with the people in my family. But I also know that protecting myself – and my kids – from unbridled hate, judgment, and gaslighting is a necessary thing in today’s world.