How Microaggressions Destroyed My Dream of Living in Suburbia

Living comfortably was not exactly the same thing as living happily or living safely...
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My daughter was barely a month old when I bought into the dream of the suburbs. I was cranky from lack of sleep, perpetually unwashed, and worried about raising our child so far from family. Austin, Texas, was pricing us out of homeownership, and I fussed about snaking lines of traffic, restaurants with hour-plus wait times. The summer our daughter was born, the 100-degree heat rushed at us like a fiery flood, punishing in its relentless onslaught. In the throes of post-partum hormones, I longed for something easier, even as I knew that ease was an unattainable dream with a newborn.

In the decade my husband and I were together, we’d moved like nomads, from Chicago to Cleveland and then Austin, jumping rentals in great, gulping leaps of faith. We loved the museums, the food and diversity, but we were convinced we could live quieter lives. We could trade some of the excitement for familiarity. I had a dream buried in my subconscious, handed down from my Vietnamese immigrant parents, of neighbors waving across flat green lawns and children hopscotching at dusk. It represented what could be, if only we worked hard enough, pleased enough people. Staring down at my wide-eyed newborn, I wanted nothing more than to snatch at that dream.

My husband and I decided to move to a former farm community twenty minutes from where he was raised in Northern Ohio. The houses sprang up like pert white flowers, dotting sprawls of now-unused farmland. His parents still lived in his hometown, and we knew they would be eager to help out with their grandchild. They were thrilled, we were thrilled; the beads of inevitability strung themselves together.

When we drove through our new town for the first time, we saw actual white picket fences. Fall was beginning to creep into the landscape, brushing the trees with tawny reds and oranges. Little wicker scarecrows leaned against porch posts like sentries. Holding my daughter’s tiny curled hand in mine, I pressed my nose against the car window, hoping for a whiff of Americana. It was unlike any world I’d been a part of and my heart soared at the thought of finally rooting ourselves.

After we moved in, we painted rooms and unpacked boxes like we had a deadline to meet. I baked cookies that first weekend, breathing in the dancing scents of cinnamon and vanilla. Home is a smell, I thought. I waited eagerly for my first neighborly visit, jumping at every ring of the doorbell. A couple weeks went by and no one came. We waved at neighbors we saw in the street, but they avoided our eyes, shifting their gaze to the grey of the sidewalks. Well, okay. We were reasonably extroverted. We could make the first move.

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One cold October evening, my husband and I walked over to our next door neighbor’s house, our girl latched to my hip, bottle of wine in tow. When our new neighbor answered the door, his eyes slid past us, as if he were surveying a lineup. When we introduced ourselves, he asked me to pronounce my name for him three times, finally giving up in frustration. Each time I repeated my name, my chest hollowed out a little more. There was something barbed about the exchange, as if I were attending an interrogation I was ill prepared for. He refused our wine, offering no reason, only stoic silence. He didn’t glance at our baby. And when we left, my husband and I were silent too. Our excitement dissipated in the night air, leaving a shadow of dread in its wake.

My husband and I are a biracial couple, yet previously, we hadn’t felt anything but support from our communities. Our friends and family embraced us. They wanted to hear the story we were writing together. And in all the places we’d lived before, biracial couples were part of the landscape. The shape of our relationship was so commonplace that we joked about ourselves as a stereotype.

In our new town, we found things we enjoyed — a bakery with palm-sized cookies, a consignment store with musty blazers from the 80s, a popcorn shop where samples were plentiful. On Saturdays, I’d load up the stroller and take our daughter to the farmer’s market in the town square, stuffing my bag with gourmet pretzels and overpriced jam. Things were slower in this town. I never had to wait a minute for a table. Everything was affordable and we lived comfortably.

Yet I began to feel that living comfortably was not exactly the same thing as living happily or living safely. I began to feel ill at ease in public, preemptively defensive in social interactions. At first, I thought my expectations of our reception had been raised too high after living in the legendarily friendly city of Austin, where grocery clerks asked how you were doing and wanted to know. Plus, I had a tendency to romanticize, so it was inevitable that small-town life wouldn’t live up to my expectations.

But I couldn’t ignore the way vendors avoided our eyes when we entered their stores, the coldness with which I was greeted when I entered a restaurant. When I tried to strike up conversations with mothers at the playground, they gave halfhearted smiles before turning back to their friends. There was something in their expressions that stopped me from trying eventually. I felt they were amused by my attempts at companionship. As if I had forgotten my place. I spent those first months wondering if I were too sensitive or too dull. If it weren’t for my husband, I would have been driven deep into paranoia.

Lest you think me naïve, I’m no stranger to racism. I grew up in a diverse yet boldly bigoted part of coastal Florida, where slurs flew as blithely as mosquitoes in a swamp. But what was happening in my new town was something completely different and harder to pinpoint. It was the exclusion that happens so passively and sneakily that you begin to question your worldview. Microaggressions do their most potent work through gaslighting. They shake your sense of identity. They coat you in Otherness while leaving the evil nameless.

We struggled through the fall.

That winter, a young husband and wife moved in next door. They were bright and perky, and came from our old stomping grounds in blue-collar Cleveland. Desperate for friendship, we descended on them with welcome muffins and invited them over. As we sat in our basement one night, drinking Moscow Mules while our daughter slept upstairs, I allowed myself to tug loose the strands of anxiety around my chest. This feels normal, I thought.

The wife, like all of us, had a little too much to drink. She began to gossip about the old homeowners who lived next door before them. The house had been vacant when we moved in, so we hadn’t met the neighbors. She leaned in, her curly hair brushing into the charcuterie. “You know, they didn’t fit in. They had a Black Lives Matter sign in their yard. All the neighbors talked about it.”

My husband and I glanced at each other. Those barbed strands began to tighten around my chest again. We couldn’t—or didn’t—stop the flood that spilled from her lips. Her husband seemed to be staring off into space, whether out of shame or sleepiness, I’m not sure which.

She ended by brushing her hands and stating loudly, “Well, whatever else you may say about them, they kept their house very neat.”

After that day, we smiled in passing and occasionally stopped for a quick greeting on the street. But we never invited them over again, and they didn’t invite us over either, both couples mired in secondhand embarrassment from the night. And so almost a year passed in the town that never managed to feel like home.

How do these things pile up? It’s not like a mighty Midwestern blizzard, fast and sure, the white heft of which barricades your windows and doors. It’s more like a drift, that slow dusting, with pressure softer than a breath. We couldn’t name it until we were in the thick of it.

We knew we couldn’t stay in that town, but still, we questioned ourselves. Were we giving up too soon? Our daughter was beginning to grow into a charming, spirited toddler. Would it be too painful to take her farther away from her grandparents? I wondered about the moral imperative to stay and become an advocate, a representative of diversity in the town. I had seen a handful of other BIPOC in my time there. The day I saw a Black man walking across the street, tears of relief and joy sprang to my eyes at the sight of another non-white person. Was it my duty to stay and better my community, rather than abandoning it? But then I imagined my biracial daughter growing up in this town, possibly one of the only non-white kids in her class, possibly isolated for her difference. I saw her beautiful confidence waver in the wake of unwelcoming faces and strident ignorance. I asked myself what I would be willing to risk for her future.

When we told my husband’s parents that we intended to move, they couldn’t comprehend our decision. I tried to explain what I had been feeling, but my words were halting, unformed. As I said, microaggressions subvert one’s reality precisely because they are so easily excused—especially if they are not happening to you. Listing those microaggressions suggests an inner pettiness on your part, as if you just couldn’t be a good sport. My in-laws had grown up in this community and they couldn’t believe what I was saying. Their incredulity cut me deeply. They protested, “But we don’t even think of you as another race.”

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The next Christmas, my mom flew up from Florida to visit. She and my daughter got along beautifully; their souls seemed to sparkle a little more insistently around one another. Like any other grandmother, my mom wanted to shower her first and only grandchild with gifts. I took her to Target to load up her cart, which she did, with no restraint at all. I smiled at the sight of her arms full of fluffy toddler dresses and oversized stuffed animals. Her hands were coated in glitter. It was such a sweet holiday moment that I found myself looking around to share a convivial glance with someone else. I met the eyes of a man in a blue cap glaring at us, his fingers drumming violently against the handle of his cart. He didn’t say a word, only stood there, fixing us with that piercing and unflinching look. The shock of it made me catch my breath. He hates us, I thought, irrationally, yet with certainty. I remember looking around, thinking I’d knocked over his child or something equally unforgivable. But we were just existing.

My mother fell silent and we quickly went to check out, our mission half-accomplished. I don’t think either of us said another word until we got to the car.

Growing up, quite unbelievably, my mother and I didn’t speak about race. I certainly never told her about any moments of racism I experienced as a child and young adult. Like me, my mother was married to a white man, and our differences had blended with our husbands, to the point that we sometimes forgot how marked we were. And beneath it all, we were trying so hard to protect one another that we forgot how to exist with the ugly truth. I never told her about what I had been feeling in that town; I described street fairs and music classes and ice cream stands instead. I wanted her to believe I was still living our dream.

And in that Target parking lot, still, I felt the urge to forget the hatred in that man’s eyes and talk about anything else in the world.

But I asked, “Mom, did you feel it? Do you see what it’s like to live here?”

“Of course I do,” she said quietly. “I saw it all.”

We put our house up for sale two months later. It didn’t sell immediately, but we emptied the house anyway. We were moving back to Columbus, a mid-sized city where I had gone to graduate school. I felt relief gushing out of me, even as I mourned our quick departure. Before setting off on the two-hour car ride south, we took a tour of the white-picket-fence town one last time.

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As the car moved past the sweet bakery, the splash pad where my daughter ran through ice-cold sprinklers, the pretty town square with its white gazebo and flapping American flags, I remembered what my mother-in-law told me the night before.

“Soon all you’ll remember of your experience here is the quaint little town where your baby said her first words and took her first steps.”

I understand the desire—the need—for tidy endings and expansive forgiveness. I understand, yet I can’t quite capitulate to it. I think back to my first weekend in that town, when my husband and I painted the mustard-yellow walls of our new house a pale grey. When we were done with the first coat, we could still see the undertones of the decades-old paint underneath. So we covered it up again and again, until the layers of new paint sat thick and opaque against the foundation of the house. Somehow, our histories begin to look like that, a covering and whitewashing until we can’t remember the original colors at all. As the town faded behind me, it blurred in my periphery, the dream we were lucky to escape.