Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Mayo is a digital producer for CNN’s “Early Start” and “Starting Point.” All this week, “AC360°” airs its special series “Kids on Race: The Hidden Picture” at 8 and 10 p.m. ET on CNN. Thursday’s installment will focus on interracial dating.
Elizabeth Mayo says she and her husband met in their teens
She says her dad was outraged to learn she was dating a man who’s half-black
She says she hid romance from dad for years, then confronted him when she planned to wed
Mayo: Dad finally accepted love of her life, showing change is possible, forgiveness important
It all started on my second date with Alex. It was 1997 and on a whim we went into Manhattan to see the ball drop on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. The closest we could get was 55th Street and Seventh Avenue. That’s pretty far away, but we could still see the glittering ball touching the sky. He was 19, I was 17.
For him, I was his childhood dream girl: I’m tall, have curly brown hair and I play cello, so I was the real-life version of Sigourney Weaver’s character in “Ghostbusters” (his favorite movie). To me, he was smart, doting and hilarious.
On what had to be the coldest night in the history of the ball drop, we shivered next to each other waiting patiently, with a few thousand spectators, to get one year closer to the millennium. At midnight, the ball dropped and the crowd erupted.
We looked at each other in anticipation and we kissed. Fireworks went off. Literally, behind us in Central Park fireworks set the sky ablaze to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the five boroughs constituting New York City. And when the heck did that saxophone player show up playing “Auld Lang Syne”? We took this only-in-the-movies moment as a sign from the universe that we were meant to be together.
There was one problem: Alex is half-black. I am white, half-Spanish in fact.
In the back of my mind, I knew Alex’s race would pose a problem for my family. Not to get explicit, but racial epithets were common in my house. My dad emigrated from Spain in the early 1970s and worked in construction.
The culture on the job, coupled with his solid self-righteousness and Old World thinking, led to an intense hatred of anything “different.” The N-word, the C-word, the other C-word, the G-word, the S-word – they all echoed in my house regularly. My mom, who moved to New York from Iowa, was indifferent on race but wasn’t about to challenge my dad’s way of thinking.
How did I come out of this house without being a racist? That I can’t answer. Race wasn’t an issue for me. I grew up in Queens and was exposed to all races when I was young. When I met Alex, it sounds corny, but I never saw a color – I just saw Alex.
Fast-forward to senior prom: I decided this would be the time for my parents to meet the guy I’d been dating. I looked stunning in my red-sequined Jessica McClintock ball gown, and Alex was dapper in a tux and top hat. We had already, by that point, said we loved each other and knew this was something special. I thought that introducing him to my parents in a public place where my dad couldn’t freak out was the way to go.
The conversation in the parking lot at the prom literally went like this:
“Dad, this is Alex.”
“Nice to meet you, Alex.”
“Nice to meet you, sir.”
“OK, have a good time.” Then my dad walked away.
Alex and I danced through the night and left the next day for the customary fun weekend to the Jersey Shore with my classmates. I returned home a day later.
Saying a nuclear bomb went off in my family would not begin to describe what happened. My dad lost it. He had stewed while I was away, waiting to unleash his fury. I was led to the basement to receive the lecture of my life. No way was his daughter going to date a black man.
“Do you want to be a big mama … barefoot and pregnant for the rest of your life? Do you want a bunch of black babies?” he screamed. “You’re going to throw your life away on that n—–?”
Those are just some of the lines I remember. It went on for hours, and he said a lot more, but I had shut my brain off after the first few minutes. In my mind, I was just dating Alex. In my dad’s mind, my life was over.
The fallout continued for months. My dad refused to talk to me or co-sign my school loan papers for college. I was kicked out of the house on more than one occasion. Alex felt helpless, livid at being judged by a handshake and his skin color, but he knew it didn’t have anything to do with him. It was all in my dad’s head.
From what I’d heard about Alex’s parents, it sounded like we were on track to repeat history. Alex’s mom, a white woman from Long Island, had a troubled relationship with her own father as a result of her dating Alex’s dad, a black man from Georgia. I was grateful that she let me hide out in her apartment and served as my refuge, and she stayed out of the drama. We had to figure this out on our own.
All the fighting never changed my feelings for Alex, and I never considered breaking up with him to appease my family. I knew Alex was “the one,” and I wasn’t about to let my racist father get in the way of my happiness.
For the next eight years, I dated Alex in secret. My dad didn’t know a thing. It didn’t matter since we barely talked. My mom had an inkling, but I didn’t tell her much. Alex and I had milestones, we went to friends’ weddings, became honorary aunts and uncles. We even moved in together, and for years my parents were none the wiser.
By 2006, I was well into my job at CNN. My colleagues knew what was going on and encouraged me to talk to my dad again, this time as a strong adult woman who was succeeding in a career and no longer financially dependent on my parents. They were right. It was eating me up inside that I had to pretend that a huge part of my life didn’t exist.
I took my parents to lunch, hoping again that there would be safety in a public space. Sometime before the entrée, I explained that I was still dating the same man who was rejected so ferociously nearly 10 years earlier. I told my dad I understood he was trying to protect his daughter, but he should have trusted me to make the right decision for myself. I said I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t with Alex, we wanted to get married, and to be a part of my life, they had to accept it.
“Do you love him? And does he love you?” my dad asked cautiously.
“Yes. He’s my soul mate,” I answered.
After eight years of tears and anxiety, my dad conceded.
I sometimes wonder why my dad had a change of heart, because all discussion on the matter ended that day. I don’t think he had one “aha” moment, but maybe it just took years of rolling it over in his head and realizing that his preconceived notions of what would happen to me if I dated Alex were wrong. I was neither a “big mama” (what does that even mean?) or barefoot, pregnant or destitute. I was solidly in my adult life and happy in love.
Alex and I were married on August 4, 2007. My dad walked me down the aisle
It’s been 14 years since the roller coaster started. It almost seems like the lying, the hurt and the drama happened to someone else. Alex is my family, my other half, the love of my life. He’s just as much a member of the family as anyone else. Alex visits my parents often, and my dad sometimes calls him just to chat. Sometimes my dad will jokingly refer to him as “chocolate milk” or “Barack Obama,” maybe as way of relieving some tension around the intense hatred he had once possessed.
We even took a family trip to my dad’s childhood home in Spain. I think my dad was secretly thrilled to have Alex to share his stories of walking for miles as a 5-year-old to see my grandmother in the hospital, or throwing a cat on a horse’s back just to watch both animals squeal. Slowly, my dad shared the family myths and stories with my husband and we grew closer.
As we get ready to start our own family, I think about how I will explain this all to my future child (or children – that’s still up for discussion) about what we went through to be together. Cheesy as it sounds, I think I’ll tell them that love really conquers all, and time, with a dash of patience, heals many wounds. I’ll teach them that change is always possible, even when you think it’s not. And I’d emphasize that forgiveness for someone else’s misperception doesn’t have to come from an apology, but can be a way of allowing yourself to deal with a situation that is out of your control.
And I’ll make sure not to censor anything, because they deserve to know how we found a way to break through hatred to find acceptance.
Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.
Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.