“I’m Filipina, black, native Hawaiian, white and some other pieces I probably don’t know of, and my hubby is African American. I haven’t had the closest relationship with his mother, but it’s been civil, and any distance I chalked up to the idea that no woman will ever be good enough for his son. I’ve always done my best to be as respectful as possible and have a warm connection with her, but it has not always worked.
“Lately it’s come to my attention through comments from relatives that she feels that my rejection of the food she prepares (for myself and for our toddler son) is a rejection of Southern cooking, being ‘stuck up,’ not fitting in, trying to change her son, etc. And a rejection of black culture.
“The truth is, I’ve experimented with the paleo diet, I do a lot of juicing and eat very little gluten for health reasons, and I don’t give my child high-fructose corn syrup or lots of preservatives or empty calories. As a result, I’m not eating a lot of the food my mother-in-law prepares, and I bring watered-down apple juice instead of sugary drinks for my son, etc.
“I don’t want this to come between us, but I do want good health for my family (and I’m sure she does, too). Am I supposed to modify our diet when we’re with her (several days a month, plus holidays and birthdays, and then there are times she watches our son) to save the relationship?” —Fretting About Food and Family
I have a hard time believing that the tension between you and your mother-in-law is really all about what happens around the dinner table. I mean, seriously—has anyone ever truly been that offended by the eating habits of someone they otherwise like? For her to read as much into your food choices as she is (if the relatives’ stories are accurate) suggests to me that something else is going on.
That’s not to say that food can’t be an important cultural identifier as well as a central part of many family traditions. It can. Erika Nicole Kendall, the founder of the blog A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, knows plenty about this. (One of her posts, titled “Food Is Not Just Food in the Black Community,” tackled the predicament of a woman who fretted, “If one of the few ties that bind I have is food … how can I bear to loosen yet another line to those I love?” as she considered adjusting to healthier eating habits.) But Kendall is adamant that the characterization of healthy-eating choices as an inherent rejection of any culture doesn’t add up.
“Most—if not all—cultures’ recipes originally call for fresh produce and lean cuts of meat. The original old recipes of any culture are not the culprit when it comes to unhealthy food that could lead to anything akin to high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and the like,” Kendall told me. “What’s usually the main problem is large quantities of sugar, unhealthy oils and inordinate amounts of salty, fatty junk foods. Provided that Mom-in-law isn’t doing ridiculous things like slipping a cup of sugar in the collard greens, or using Jiffy instead of making the cornbread from scratch, the beef likely isn’t with cultural-staple foods. It’s much more likely to be with the stuff she cooks every day: processed food,” she said.
You know, when you think about it that way, the idea that the consumption of specific, blood pressure-raising foods is the price of admission to blackness or a requirement for those who want to show respect makes about as much sense as the inevitable “Let’s celebrate Black History Month by eating fried chicken” lunch menus. And everyone agrees that those are silly.
Plus, it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of visible images of—and plenty of information about—black people making the same food choices as everyone else who wants to have a long, healthy life. I don’t recall Michelle Obama being mocked by anyone but Republicans for her organic garden, or fans accusing Beyoncé of not fitting in after she Instagrammed vegan cupcakes.
So, yes, you should absolutely feel comfortable declining what doesn’t work for you and eating what does without worrying that what’s on your plate reflects a value judgment about your mother-in-law’s life.
Take it from me: I once ate a bite of pigs’ feet in an attempt to be a good guest and had to spit into a kitchen trash can, causing a little bit of a scene. Lesson: “No, thank you” is powerful expression. When it comes to significant others’ families, be as kind and as gracious as possible, but you’re under no obligation to gain weight or give yourself digestive issues—or even just consume something you don’t enjoy—in a futile attempt to get on anyone’s good side.
With your son, though, maybe there’s room to find some way to appease your mother-in-law—because he probably likes macaroni and cheese and red velvet cake (a lot), because it’s nice not to put any extra requirements on someone who’s watching your kid for you and because doling out food that children wouldn’t get at home is kind of what grandmas are known for.
Plus, Kendall pointed out, “you cannot control everything your child will be exposed to in the end. Your primary responsibility, as a parent, is to make sure he has a solid foundation that he can use to come back to as a reminder of how to eat healthily even when he’s out someplace where Mommy and Daddy won’t have a say. As he grows, he’ll understand that ‘my parents don’t keep this stuff around because it isn’t healthy, so maybe I should limit how much of it I eat,’ or—even better—‘maybe I shouldn’t eat that at all.’”
My best guess is that your mother-in-law feels disconnected from you in some totally non-food-related ways, and there are strategies you could use to get closer without compromising your principles or ruining your health. Can you go with her to church, ask to look at her scrapbooks, get in on non-food-related traditions, ask her about her childhood or text her more baby pictures? Let her know that you appreciate her for how she raised her son and cares for her grandson? (In my case, that one uncle who gave me the gag reflex-inducing pigs’ feet ended up liking me because I talked to him—and listened to him talk—about politics.) It may take a little extra effort to repair this relationship, but I’m certain that what comes out of your mouth will mean more to the effort than what you put in it.
The Root’s senior staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “6 Tips for Interracial Couples Who Get Stares and Weird Comments”