by Michal “MJ” Jones
“If young people would talk to old people, it would make us a better people all around.”
I’m on the phone with my mother, growing increasingly impatient with her lack of knowledge and sensitivity around non-binary genders.
“Have you talked to her at all?” she asks.
This is the final straw of the evening.
“No, I haven’t talked to them!”
There is a long silence over the line and frustration on both ends.
She hates being corrected; I hate that she doesn’t “get it,” yet, and “needs” to be corrected. She asserts again and again that she is old fashioned, that nothing of the sort existed when she was growing up. She isn’t used to going around the circle asking for preferred gender pronouns. Her uncle wasn’t gay; he was “different.”
She is tired and “doesn’t want to learn about any more of this shit.”
I add gender pronouns to my growing list of things she doesn’t understand adequately, along with why I don’t want to call my locs “dreads,” why I identify as “queer” and not “lesbian,” and how “people my age” can hold intimate feelings for more than one person at a time. I remind her (like she’s forgotten) that she—as a diversity educator—needs to make the efforts to learn and understanding the changing times. “It really isn’t that hard,” I tell her. In my mind, it simply takes five minutes a day of research and reading. Besides, her default is “tired.”
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Eventually, I apologize for my impatience, letting her know that my snapping was the result of me struggling with my own gender identity and being microaggressed all week. But the conversation leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I complain about it to my partner and friends—they smirk and share similar frustrations about their parents and grandparents.
A week later, I am speaking to my mother again. She is frustrated after attending a “safe zone” LGBT ally training for her work.
“It’s like if you don’t know everything or aren’t updated, you’re just useless,” she says, sounding wounded.
Part of her resistance to me “updating” her on this lingo is that it is “for white people.” She feels that Black people “don’t talk like that.” Recognizing that helped me realize that what I have been trying to get her to understand are contemporary white constructs of queerness and gender, not language that people in my communities always speak. In conversations with my mother, it’s like I’m stuck between adopting white, queer lingo around gender, sex, and relationship structures and connecting with my own communities and cultural upbringing.
If a brother greets me with, “Hey, sista, how you doin?” or the like, should I lecture him on my preferred gender pronouns?
What exactly am I “teaching” my mother?
But I could not understand my mother’s language, either. Eventually, it finally dawned on me what she means when she says she is “tired.” My mother is from a Civil Rights activist father. She is from shots fired at their childhood home. My mother is from hiding herself again and again. And she is tired from decades of anti-racism work in a room of smiling white, gay men who know nothing of racism, of the language she speaks, but will rip her for not knowing what “pansexual” means. They are not interested in creating a “safe zone” for her.
To me, she is always tired. To her, I am always impatient. In these two extremes, neither of us have heard each other.
“Well, I’m not even gonna talk to you about this anymore, since you’re so tired,” I say one day, exasperated.
In other words, I’m operating from the assumption that she won’t understand or accept me because she is old, Black, and tired. It makes me wonder how many young people forfeit relationships with elders because they are wounded and don’t want to be hurt anymore.
It’s true—sometimes I am rightfully frustrated by my mother, but her lessons can never be lost upon me. I look at her and see resilience and it reminds me of my own inner strength. At the end of the day, I know she may fumble over preferred pronouns, but she will hold me as I am. Can I not do the same for her?
I complain to my friends about my family and their staunch ways and often these complaints are defensible. At the same time, I look around the rooms of the organizing meetings and justice events I attend, and I see no elders. I fear that we may be cutting ties with the most crucial knowledge we have access to because we put up defenses, because we are impatient and lack empathy.
I don’t argue that impatience is not our right as multiply oppressed people—anger and passion are often what fuel our movements, but I am asking if we are as understanding of where our elders are coming from as we expect them to be of us. Where is our intentional outreach of elders in our demands for inclusion and justice?
“But what about elders that never stopped being impatient, who are demanding their rights with the same passion?” I ask, sitting at the foot of her bed.
“It takes all of us, the tired and the impatient,” she says with a tired smile. “But we are not disposable.”
Our elders are not disposable and they are not for us to hide away. They are the most valuable legacies of resilience and strength we have. This isn’t about just letting shit fly or about my mom not having accountability; it’s about finding a balance in how we talk to one another across generations. I’m sure there’s an equal list of things I “don’t understand” that my elders can school me on.
So instead of shutting down, I’ll take a deep breath.
“Ma, I really need you to understand this…”
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MJ is a Black queerdo masculine of center educator and songwriter based in Seattle. They believe in the power of vulnerability, creativity, artistic expression, and music to radically transform individuals and connect community.
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