The Racism of People Who Love You

Mehta pulls off an impressive set of balancing acts, weaving theory through stories, knitting personal memories, public histories, family dynamics, and cultural norms together with brutal honesty and no small amount of tenderness as she attempts to understand hurtful behavior without excusing it.

The Racism of People Who Love You: Essays on Mixed Race Belonging (2023) by Samira K. Mehta
Cannonball Read 15, review #3

Book: 5 stars
Audiobook narration: 5 stars

First things first

Full Disclosure: The author is a friend. That doesn’t have any bearing on my review of the book, though it did affect some of my experience of reading (listening to) the book.

The review

The Racism of People Who Love You is a very good book, and you should read it. In seven thoughtful, compelling, and sometimes (frequently) devastating essays, author Samira Mehta examines the broad concept of what she refers to as “mixedness” through the lens of her particular lived experience as the daughter of a South Asian immigrant father and a white American mother. The essays are about her and her family and about race, culture, and belonging both within and beyond her family. They are also about gender, friendship, work, and class, among other things. Mehta touches on a lot in this fairly brief book, but it all comes up organically because Mehta’s identity and experiences are touched by all of it. Throughout, Mehta pulls off an impressive set of balancing acts, weaving theory through stories, knitting personal memories, public histories, family dynamics, and cultural norms together with brutal honesty and no small amount of tenderness as she attempts to understand hurtful behavior without excusing it.

Belonging of the sort under discussion here is, by definition, a communal activity, so I hope many members of many communities will read this book. Mehta’s writing is clear and compelling, and she moves deftly between anecdote and analysis. The combination means that once the book is in paperback, I can easily imagine it being used in classrooms, passed around between friends, and slipped into the hands of family members. That last possibility is the one I hope for most: that mixed-race people find these essays and see themselves and their loved ones reflected in ways that resonate. In addition to the power of feeling “seen,” even—perhaps especially—when what is seen is difficult to witness, I think the book offers tools that could help mixed-race folks have conversations with their loved ones that might be difficult but are definitely necessary (and precisely because of the realities and power dynamics that make them difficult).

A note on the audiobook:

I was concerned that the fact that it’s my friend’s book, which is specifically about her experience, but not my friend’s voice might be a distraction, but it wasn’t. The narration was great. Fun fact: I mentioned to the author that there’s a little bit of vocal resemblance, and she told me she and the narrator had spoken of it and that the narrator leaned into some of the places where their voices and accents are already similar, which I thought was cool.

Quick thoughts on entertainment and critical thought


Fantasy reflects your subconscious desires.

–Aamer Rahman, “Game of Thrones and Racist Fantasy

Worth a read, I think. Rahman points to some of the obviously (to my mind) problematic aspects of race in Game of Thrones. I love Game of Thrones (have only watched the show, and am unlikely to read the books for quite some time) and am totally on board with this critique. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of defensive behavior in response. I think the conversations that come out of articles like this are really important, though, and I have to believe that they have some positive effect. There will be jerks, and the positive effect may not accumulate as quickly as I’d like, but I still think it’s worthwhile.

I think that one of the most difficult parts of these sorts of conversations is how to articulate, and convince others, that books, shows, movies, etc. can do one thing well, while still doing another thing poorly. They can be entertaining but not actually well-told. They can subvert one type of assumption while supporting another. Or the same one, in a different scene. I think, for a lot of people, getting something right means it’s either unfair or unnecessary to talk about the things that are less successful — like if you’re good on gender in some way, then you can’t also be bad on gender in some other way. Or on race, or class, or…

Sadly, it’s not a matter of either/or. GoT is actually a great example of this. As is Man of Steel, for that matter, though I’d put them on different parts of the quality spectrum (click here for my review). And I don’t think that quality determines whether we should just accept what’s presented, either. Game of Thrones may be more substantive and more complex than new-school Star Trek, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy them both, and it doesn’t make either of them exempt from challenges to the images they use to tell their stories.

And, once challenged, how wrong is too wrong? What takes a media product have from being something I can enjoy, but maintain that it’s important to think critically about, to something I just can’t participate in? I love Whedon, but there are issues. I watch, but I also attempt to engage with the issues. I enjoyed Man of Steel, and I do think that Lois Lane was well done, in some ways. But not in all ways. I watched, and I liked it, but I felt like I needed to say that there was room for improvement. And then there’s something like True Blood (SO MANY ISSUES), which I just had to let go of. As I write this, my brother is watching the season premiere, and I am hiding in another part of the house, to keep myself from getting sucked back into something that was fun (sometimes), but also so offensively racist and misogynistic that I just couldn’t, anymore.


My geekery would probably be much easier for me if I didn’t think so much, but I also think that would just enable me to be passively part of the problem. And I’d like to be a part of the solution. If only to make it easier for me to enjoy the geekery.

I am judging your red flag.

The internet is abuzz about that Brad Paisley, LL Cool J song. You know the one. No? Well, trust me: it’s a mess. And I’m not linking to it, nor am I embedding it, but you can go look it up, if you want to. I had actually been trying to invoke the Sweet Brown Rule on it, and was doing well until a friend emailed a few of us about it, and another friend responded, and then I had thoughts, and…ugh. Here we are.

So, someone replied that the lyrics didn’t seem so bad, and that Paisley had “tried.” I think that’s what I really felt the need to reply to, because I think she’s right. I don’t know that I’d say that the lyrics aren’t that bad, but they could certainly be way worse, from a racial standpoint (I think they’re pretty terrible, from a lyrical standpoint). And I think Paisley is trying — I think he is probably sincere in saying (via his Twitter) that he hopes the album this song is on “raises questions,answers [sic].” He may even be sincere about wanting to start conversations about race and other important issues (as mentioned in interviews and, again, on Twitter). The thing is, I just don’t think that “Accidental Racist” is a very good attempt.

Listen: I’m not saying that Paisley (or his lyrical counterpart) *is* racist, but I am saying that that thing he wore (so, that thing he did) is. Now, I’ll admit that I have a pretty strong allergic reaction to that flag, but that’s because it’s got a lot of really heavy, really racist baggage. Allergic reaction notwithstanding, I’m perfectly willing to believe that not everyone who flies (or wears) it *intends* to be racist, especially given how good a job its proponents have done of deflecting attention from that racist baggage, and controlling the cultural dialogue around it. But is “I don’t mean to be racist, so let’s just move on and let bygones be bygones” really a compelling line of thought? It’s not, for me. At best, I think it’s mistaken and severely misguided — the fact that you didn’t intend an action to be racist doesn’t actually mean that it wasn’t, so why should I just be ok with it? At worst, rather than being an honest mistake, it’s willfully obtuse, and in a way that is, more often than not, intended to deflect criticism of behavior you already know is unacceptable. Sometimes, it’s just intended to avoid asking one’s self uncomfortable or challenging questions, but if you’re fighting the questions that hard, I suspect it’s because you already know that the answers will not reflect well on you, or on something you value.

Also, wearing a do-rag and wearing a confederate flag are not at all the same, and the gold chains/iron chains trade off is not at all a fair trade. And that line about still sifting through the rubble after 150 years? Is thoroughly tone-deaf and lacking in self-awareness.
And ain’t nobody got time for that.