• Desirée Strother

Updated: Jan 5

Racist: A person who is supporting racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea. A racist idea is any idea that suggests that one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group, and that those inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain the racial inequities in society. Antiracist: A person who is supporting antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equal in all their apparent differences. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities. – Dr. Ibram X. Kendi | How to Be an Antiracist

First, let's set expectations.

This is going to be a long read. I invite you to read and explore everything here, and I invite you to intentionally set the time and space in your life to do that in the way that best suits you.

This work is uncomfortable. If you are never uncomfortable, you are not doing it right. Befriend the discomfort, it's telling you where to grow.

Next, I'll introduce myself and state my intentions.

My name is Desirée, and I'm trained as a licensed professional counselor and yoga teacher. I call myself a Soul Worker because I specialize in integrating all aspects of our experience and being into becoming who we truly are. My intersectional social identity is an adult, Anglo-American, racialized White, able-bodied, cisgendered woman, who is heterosexually married, highly educated, economically middle classed. Those are all the major signals of my identity to the other people in our society. They all intersect to form an idea for others about the kind of person I am and thereby also to form the kind of experience I am likely to have in our society. It affords certain privileges and access that I might not have otherwise as well as limitations on privilege and access that I might have otherwise. This is the place from which I am speaking. I am speaking primarily to other folx who experience white privilege in our culture and who are interested in learning more about how antiracism is a non-negotiable part of their soul work.

Primary Sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it.

Secondary Sources are one step removed from primary sources, though they often quote or otherwise use primary sources. They can cover the same topic, but add a layer of interpretation and analysis. (https://umb.libguides.com/PrimarySources/secondary)

I am a secondary source. I urge you to fill your social media feeds, book shelves, podcast feeds, news feeds, etc. with primary sources. I will be recommending many to you in this article.

Here are some terms that will be helpful to know as you read through this and seek out other resources.

  • Whiteness or White Culture: When people talking about whiteness or white culture, they are not talking about having white skin. Whiteness is specifically about centering the idea or belief that "white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to BIPOC and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions." – The Conscious Kid This does not have to be a belief that you actively hold, but is often one held passively in the idea that whiteness is the norm against which all else is measured. For example, take a look at the books, movies, TV shows, billboards, etc. you see and watch. Non-white people are often on the periphery if they are there at all. Naming and calling out whiteness are an integral part of antiracism work. If you feel the warm wash of shame when you read about whiteness being called out, then that's a good place for you to seek out how you identify with what's being confronted. You do not need to feel shame for having white skin, but feeling guilt for engaging in passively or actively racist thoughts, beliefs, and actions (yes, even if you didn't realize it was racist) will lead you to growth.

  • BIPOC: This stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color

  • NBPOC: This stands for Non-Black People of Color

  • ABAR: This stands for Anti-Bias Antiracism and refers to a specific area of social justice work and activism

  • Centering Whiteness: This is taking a conversation about the experience of BIPOC and making it about the discomfort or experience of a white person in that situation or in response to what that person is sharing. It is putting yourself, as a white person, as the "main character" of a conversation rather than remaining on the periphery.

  • White Fragility: This is the discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice (dictionary.com)

  • Intellectualizing Racism: In its most neutral meaning, intellectualizing racism is simply thinking about racism. By nature, this is the default for those of us with white privilege. Thinking about racism as a philosophical, political, or mental exercise is usually the first and primary way we engage with racism. Often, it's the only way we engage with racism. When weaponized, however, intellectualizing racism is used to argue with a person's experience of racism by picking over semantics and engaging in rhetorical debate. See Teach and Transform for more on this.

  • Tone Policing: This is the classic, "You could've said this a different way", often said by a white person in response to not feeling coddled by someone's means of expression, and almost always done in response to frank or blunt communication (which is different from rude, aggressive, or shaming communication). Again, uncomfortable does not equal bad.

  • Emotional Labor: Originally, this term was meant to describe the emotional components of a person's job, like a desk clerk needing to be friendly, hospitable, and engaging, despite whatever may actually be going on. In common parlance nowadays, it's used to mean the emotional effort, work, and energy that is required of a person when engaged in an interaction, conversation, or endeavor. Just like when you sit down to do math, it requires intellectual labor, having a conversation about race, equity, and justice requires emotional labor.

  • Privilege: Privilege is unearned power and access (Brené Brown). The simplest and quickest way to test for privilege is to ask yourself about any situation or topic, "Do I HAVE to care (respond, react) about this?" If the answer is no, then that means you have privilege. In that situation, you have the privilege of not thinking about it. If you don't have to think about how racial discrimination will impact you today or this week, then you have racial privilege (which in the United States, is white privilege).

  • White Saviorism: This is the idea that BIPOC need white people to save them, to solve their problems for them. For a very deep and uncomfortable confrontation with this, I recommend following No White Saviors. This is often the thought that, "I need to fix YOUR problem FOR YOU." That is not giving care, that is not within your response-ability, and that is not practicing healthy boundaries. That usually quickly results in white-centering ("Look at me and what an awesome person I am, helping all these unfortunate people out," which is itself dehumanizing others and placing yourself in a position of superiority). It is a misplaced acceptance of responsibility. Instead of acknowledging how we need to change OUR actions, we end up further taking power away from people by stepping in and telling them what they need to do in order to "be better."

Now, let's talk boundaries.

  • You have gotten things wrong and you will get things wrong (yes, even when you're trying to get it right. This is why it's called an antiracism practice). You will miss the mark, misunderstand sometimes. You will get called out on it directly or indirectly. It will be uncomfortable. You might cry. You might feel really awful. When this happens, this is usually a signal for you to sit, listen, and then go churn it over. You do not need to respond immediately, and many times you don't need to respond at all. You certainly do not need to defend yourself. If you feel the need to write out a whole thing about, "Well actually," or, "What about," or, "That's not a fair comment," then that is a big red flag telling you that you've got some work to do. So go write that whole response down in a journal somewhere and then keep journaling until you can get underneath the defensiveness, shame, anger, feelings of unfairness, etc. until you can recognize where you need to grow and do that thing from a place of self-love and love for others.

  • Don't comment if not invited. Many times, BIPOC activists will host conversations on their social media platforms specifically for other Black people, BIPOC people, or NBPOC, and they will request explicitly that white people not comment. They will sometimes say, "You may like and share, but do not comment." Here's what that means: If you are racially white, do not comment. It doesn't mean, "No white people except you." It doesn't mean, "No white people, except the good ones" (we'll get to that in a minute). It doesn't mean, "No comments, but emojis of affirmation are okay" (again, thinking that I need to expressly affirm or agree with someone is white centering). Your emoji does not further legitimize what someone else is saying. No, when someone says "do not comment," it means what it means. If someone is clearly stating a boundary, honor it. NOT honoring that boundary is an example of centering whiteness and an abuse of privilege. Often times, even if the comments are left open to all, it's best not to comment. You have more to learn than you have to say, so simply read and listen and learn. A lot of times, we feel the need to comment to prove ourselves in some way, or to offer a confession and express our earnestness, which is again, about us. Unless you truly have something to add to the conversation, unless you are truly using your voice and privilege for good, then you probably don't need to say anything. You probably just need to keep digging into your own work.

  • "One of the good ones". When doing this work, it can be tempting to try and become "one of the good ones," to try and prove ourselves as "one of the good ones." But again, that is centering whiteness. It's saying, "Yeah, yeah. I hear your experience. That's rough that those other white people have been so terrible. But I'm not that way. I'm not that bad." It's dismissing, it's defensive and making the conversation about yourself, and it's entirely, completely, 100% missing the mark of doing your own soul work in this area. Trying to be "one of the good ones" is a non-goal. It's a red herring. It's a symptom of our culture's dichotomous, "either good or bad" thinking. We will never be done doing this work in our lifetime, so get the idea of being done or being "one of the good ones" out of your mind. Instead, ask yourself, "how can I go deeper into this work?"

  • Your emotions are your responsibility. Many times I see white people who are new anti-racism work say things like, "Go easy on us, we're doing our best!" or who will express feelings of victimization at having their intentions misunderstood. Say it with me: this work is uncomfortable. You're going to get it wrong, and you're going to get called out. It doesn't feel good. Here is what you do. Say, "Thank you for that feedback. I'm so sorry I got it wrong. I value your labor in holding me accountable, and I'm going to honor that by doing some work around this." And then you go and take care of your own self. Your emotions, your feelings of embarrassment, humiliation, shame, guilt, or whatever you are feeling, are not the responsibility of anyone else, most certainly a BIPOC activist who is already actively, daily doing their work under a system of oppression. Do not contribute your emotions to that oppression. You go journal about your feelings AND do the anti-racism work that you got feedback about. See this post from Rachel Cargle for an example.

  • Sharing violent images on social media. As you talk and share on social media about injustice, inequity, and the murder of Black people who have died at the hands of modern day lynching, ask yourself the question, “Do I need to see it or hear it in order to believe it?” This question comes from Britt Hawthorne, an Anti-Bias Antiracism educator. This is an important question to ask, because media fetishizes violence, especially the violence committed against black bodies. Do you need to see the photo of George Floyd being suffocated, do you need to hear the video of him saying he can’t breathe in order to believe it happened? This speaks to two issues:

  • Believing people’s experiences as they tell them to you. This is basic empathy and compassion. We do not need to examine proof to determine whether or not someone’s suffering is deserving of our empathy, compassion, care, or support. We simply need to listen.

  • Trauma. What happens to Black people on a daily basis here in the United States is traumatic, and it is re-traumatizing to see these images and videos over and over. Don’t become desensitized to seeing violence against black bodies; it’s not something we should be used to. Do not use violence against black bodies for your message or your agenda. Respect the Black people who have died by respecting their bodies in death.

Now, let's talk about showing up.

This is an excerpt from The Soul Work Course Community section:

Showing up and participating is how we influence community and intentionally work together for change. This can look lots of different ways for lots of different people and that's good. You don't need to participate in everything; the world doesn't need you to. We need you to show up and participate in the ways and with the gifts that are authentic to you.

This includes our participation in collective learning.

DO: Search out the people and public figures who have chosen their work to be educating, informing, and empowering others to have the knowledge necessary to make impactful and informed changes.

  • Follow them on Instagram and Twitter

  • Buy their books

  • Join their Patreon

  • Attend their webinars

  • Listen to their podcasts

  • Amplify their work and recommend them to others

  • Pay them and financially support their work

  • Cite them when you quote them or share something of theirs

DO NOT: Simply strike up a conversation with someone who is different from you by some observable trait by saying something like, "Hey, can you tell me what it's like to be an immigrant in this country? Or transgender? Or disabled?" I know that this can come from a well-intentioned place of wanting to learn more. I see the "learning" motive happen a lot on social media and other settings where there's been no container building or invitation for a discussion of differences. When we approach people who we aren't in close relationship with, with these kinds of questions, we are asking them to educate us for free. We are assuming that they want to teach us about their experience simply because we perceive them to be a member of a certain group. We are asking them for more free labor.

Let's unpack this a little.

Who is asking whom for what in this kind of scenario? Typically it's a person with some privilege in some area asking a person who has experienced some kind of oppression or abuse to explain, teach, or prove to them the reality of their experience. This happens when the person being asked to explain has not invited this conversation, and this happens in spite of the fact that there is a wealth of information about this in the world already from people who do this work professionally and vocationally. This is, again, another display of privilege and centering whiteness. It says, "I'm asking, and that should be enough. I'm asking, therefore I am entitled to hear this from you. Nevermind the fact that I haven't been listening to the years and years and years of history around this social justice issue, I want you to spoon feed me this information right now." It is asking someone to give of their time, emotional labor, intellect, and vulnerability, often despite having been dismissed or invalidated many times before, without any payment or guarantee of action. It is solely for the "edification" of the person asking. It is asking for free labor for your own personal growth. (And the concept of doing antiracism work for your own personal growth, is again a sign of privilege).

This includes DMing an ABAR (or any) activist to ask them for special treatment and individual attention. Unless you go through the appropriate channels to hire them for an individual coaching session or a team training, they do not owe you a response. They are working, and you are asking them to work for free.

Before we go any further, I want to talk about moral development.

Lawrence Kohlberg theorized that humans have an arc of moral development, similar to how we have cognitive and emotional development. I bring this up because I think it's a valuable exercise to do some self-examination about where you might be in your own moral development and how that has influenced your own reactions and responses to racial injustice, civil unrest, and the idea of changing our policies and systems toward a more equitable society. Remember, just because something is what you've always known or what you're comfortable with, it doesn't mean that's what's right, good, or true. According to this theory, our moral development goes as follows:

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)

  • Obedience and punishment orientation: The primary concern at this stage is avoiding punishment.

  • Self-interest orientation: The primary interest in this stage is behaving in a way that will result in a reward or benefit to the self.

Level 2 (Conventional)

  • Interpersonal accord and conformity: In this stage we begin to conform to social norms and expectations. The goal is to be a "good girl" or "good boy" so that we will be well thought of, respected, and remain included within the safety of our social group.

  • Authority and social-order maintaining orientation: In this stage, we move beyond the need for individual approval and maintaining safety within a group to prioritizing social convention for the purpose of maintaining a well-functioning and cohesive society.

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)

  • Social contract orientation: In this stage, we come to believe that laws and social edicts should exist to serve the greater social contract, or the idea that they should promote the welfare and "the greatest good for the greatest number of people" possible and that the laws should be changed when they don't perform that function.

  • Universal ethical principles: In this stage, moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles. We view laws to be valid only if they are grounded in justice. In this stage, a person's commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws or social edicts.

Now let's go over some topics that are important to understand.

Black Lives Matter

  • "Black Lives Matter is a movement to rehumanize black citizens. All lives matter, but not all lives need to be pulled back into moral inclusion. Not all people were subjected to the psychological process of demonizing and being made less than human.” – Brené Brown

  • If you find yourself (or hear someone else) wanting to respond with "all lives matter," know that that comes from a place of feeling that your power is being threatened, which comes from a place of believing that there is a finite amount of power that we all must fight over. Instead, grow yourself into viewing power as an infinite resource that can be shared and held together with people. If you truly, deeply believe that all lives matter, then you are outraged that Black lives have not mattered in our country and want to use your power to bring Black lives into a place of humanity, equity, reparations, healing, and care.

Black LIFE Matters As in Black health, Black wealth, Black success, Black joy, Black breath, Black love, Black anger, Black laughter, Black creativity, Black abundance, Black peace, Black ease, Black well-being, Black self-expression, Black community, Black culture, Black safety, Black protection, Black leadership, Black history, Black self-determination, Black individuality, Black truth-telling, Black humanity, Black existence. – Layla F. Saad
  • These are aspects of life that have all been oppressed for Black people through policy from the foundation of this country. Through indentured servitude, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, eugenics, White vigilantism, lynching, mass incarceration, police brutality, Internet algorithms, capitalism, and a lot more. The golden thread keeping that oppression alive and well is White supremacy. Even if you are not a tiki-torch carrying, MAGA hat wearing White supremacist, you have benefitted from and engaged in White supremacy. When scrolling through social media and seeing posts about Black anger, have you dismissed it? Have you thought things like, "that's their problem," or "I just don't get what they're so upset about"? White supremacy. Have you thought about speaking up, but been afraid of what a friend or family member might say or think of you? White supremacy. Have you thought about taking a public stand in some way, but been afraid of what other White people might do to you so chose to stay quiet? White supremacy.

  • So, expressing that Black Lives Matter recognizes that some of the people who make up "all" of us are having their humanity, their life denied and oppressed.

Understanding Police Brutality


Understanding and Responding to Narrative

  • There are a lot of typical responses to the revolutionary work of antiracism. These responses come from places of not knowing, willful ignorance, fear of losing power or security, active hatred. No matter where the response comes from, it is framed in our collective cultural dichotomous thinking. That means that as a whole, the Westernized world holds a philosophy that stuff is either one thing or another thing.

Criticism comes from people who are intent on forcing false either/or dichotomies and shaming us for not hating the right people. The only true option is to refuse to accept the terms of the argument by challenging the framing of the debate. Because the argument is set up to silence dissent, discussion, and questions. It comes from fear, acute emotion, and lack of knowledge. Silence comes at a cost: individually, our integrity; collectively, divisiveness and our ability to problem solve. – Brené Brown | Braving the Wilderness
  • Here are some ways to learn more about the bigger picture of the problems around racism and oppression, get out of that false dichotomy, and respond to others when you're speaking up.

  • What to say when people deny the reality of what's happening right now:

  • Part I – Covers the following:

  • "The police were wrong, but this is an overreaction."

  • "Looting/destruction of property are never acceptable."

  • "Not all cops are bad."

  • "I'm tired of looking on social media right now. I wish things would go back to normal."

  • "My participation won't help anything."

  • Part II – Covers the following:

  • "But I'm not racist."

  • "All lives matter."

  • "So, what? No more cops?"

  • "MLK would not have supported violent protests."

  • "My children are too young to learn about racism."

  • SURJ Toolkit: Calling People in Around Violence – Covers the following:

  • “I’m outraged too, but I don’t agree with property destruction/riots/the way they are going about it.”

  • “If they want real change, they should vote.” “I just hope all of these people vote in November!”

  • “Why are they still out there? The officer was charged.” “They should let the legal system do its job.” “These bad cops need to be held accountable, but I don’t agree with defunding or getting rid of the police.”

  • “The people I really feel bad for are the business owners who’ve lost everything.”

  • “The police -- the good ones -- support Black Lives Matter, as long as the protestors don’t get violent. Haven’t you seen them taking a knee with the protestors?”

  • “Well the military is only keeping the peace.” “If the protestors weren’t violent then the government wouldn’t need to call in the military!”

  • Black on Black Crime - Michael Harriot

  • "Not All Cops" - Jeffrey S. Mueller

Activists doing ABAR social justice work

Andréa Ranae : Liberatory Leadership

Britt Hawthorne: ABAR activist and education consultant

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi : One of America’s foremost historians and leading antiracist voices

Layla F. Saad: Author, speaker and teacher on the topics of race, identity, leadership, personal transformation and social change

Liz Kleinrock : ABAR Educator, diversity, equity, and inclusion education for youth and adults

Rachel Cargle : provides teaching, storytelling, and critical discourse

Sonya Renee Taylor : Author, unapologetically committed to radical self-love as a path to liberation, speaking up about racial, social, and body justice

Ta-Nehisi Coates : Writer covering race, culture, politics, and social issues

Organizations doing ABAR social justice work

Antiracism Center : The Antiracist Research and Policy Center directed by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

Black Lives Matter

Color of Change : Helps you do something real about injustice

The Conscious Kid : Parenting and Education through a Critical Race lens

CTZNWELL : Waging wellbeing for all through action guides and media

Handwritten Revolution: Political letter-writing subscription service for racial and social justice

The Movement for Black Lives

The Nap Ministry : Preaching the liberating power of naps and rest as a form of resistance and reparations

National CARES Mentoring Movement : Alleviating intergenerational poverty among African Americans

No White Saviors : Doing justice work in Africa, creating Change through Advocacy & Education

Point Made Learning : Educational Consultant talking about race, inequality, diversity, and inclusion

Racial Equity Institute: Creating racially equitable organizations and systems

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) : A national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. Look for your local group

Reading to support your antiracism

Audio to support your antiracism

Video to support your antiracism

For parents

For educators

Take action

There is a lot in this article. I hope it serves as a valuable resource to you to revisit as you immerse yourself deeper and deeper into antiracism and divest yourself from White supremacy. I've given many places to donate, books and articles to read, activists to learn from, organizations to support, and education to integrate. Here is a call to action from No White Saviors that will help direct your antiracism work:

  1. Decolonize your education and your understanding of history. Fight for this decolonization in your schools, religious communities, work places, and homes.

  2. Practice media literacy.

  3. Buy from and frequent Black-owned businesses and establishments.

  4. Practice radical integrity – tell the truth no matter the cost.

  5. Commit to your own accountability, even when it is uncomfortable, even when (especially when) it shakes you to the core of your identity.

  6. Register to vote, educate yourself, and fight for policies that will bring about a radical change in our country's structure.

  7. Invest in Black-led organizations and activists. While we're waiting for the United States to invest in reparations owed to Native Americans and Black Americans, we can begin doing our part individually and within our organizations.

  8. In all your spheres of influence and with your unique gifts, be revolutionary.

Our study should be fueling our resistance, and our resistance should be fueling our study. – Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

If you have any corrections or additions, please email me at hello@thesoulwork.co.

Some of the links in this page are affiliate links. That means if you click the link and purchase the item, I make a commission on the sales that come from this post. I only recommend products or companies that I use personally, align with my values, and that I believe can add value to others.

  • Desirée Strother

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

My family changed our last name because we have done and are doing the work of breaking inter-generational patterns of trauma; because we are living into our authenticity and integrity; because we are honoring a family legacy of joy, welcoming hearts, and unconditional love.

Without really knowing it, family became one of the most important facets of my life.

Strother is pronounced with a short 'o' sound, as in "bother" or "top" (not the short 'u' sound as in "up")


Growing up, I spent many days and nights running around my grandparents' land in Shepherd, TX. They had 40 acres and a couple horses. My Memaw had a green thumb like no other—she'd toss seeds out her back door and turn up with produce. When I was little they had chickens and a couple dogs, Truffle and Bluebell, the latter named after the Texas ice cream she kept in her deep freezer for her grandkids.

My Pepaw, he had a sense of humor like none other. He was always cutting up, playing pranks, and telling jokes. Despite having pretty severe arthritis and the typical health problems that plague old age, he always kept us laughing, he kept singing "Jeremiah was a Bullfrog," he kept feeding the horses. He rarely had a short temper, even when he started forgetting more and more. I remember sitting across the table from him when I was 13 or 14. The rest of the family had gone outside. I remember thinking I didn't care how many times he asked me the same question over and over, I just wanted to sit there loving him for as much time as he had left.

When I was 15, he was hospitalized again. I had my driving permit and told him I'd take him racing in my red Ford pickup when he got out. Instead, I drove that pickup the familiar route to Shepherd to help my Memaw pack up their house after he passed away that December.

He's been gone 15 years now, but I think I miss him more rather than less each year. Thanks to my Memaw's post-Great-Depression mind, I've got all those water color pictures and the letters we wrote saved in old cereal boxes. We'd sat endless times at that table with the watercolor paint set, painting pictures of wooden fences and fields and horses and us and our family. I miss all the walks we'd take to the barn, the smell of horse feed, riding in his old truck with the beaded seat covers. I miss how he'd laugh at every little thing. I miss the things that were never possible—him meeting my husband, seeing his joy over all his great-grand-babies.

Playful loving joy. My Memaw possessed these qualities as well, with a mixture of vigilant worry and hilarious candor. She loved taking care of horses, gardening, dancing to country music with my Pepaw, and spending time outside. In her later years, she continued to spend as much time as she could outside if she wasn’t with her family. She was known for many things: constantly wiping down her counters and milk cartons, endearing and sometimes perplexing frugality. More than anything, though, my Memaw was known for how much she loved her family.


My father was an alcoholic. Abusive with his words, terrorizing with his anger, and conditional with his approval. My diaries and journals from my 8-11 year old self read things like, "I wish my parents would get divorced," and "dad makes me wish I'd never been born," and "I don't understand why I'm not good enough for him." Because of his financial success and my mother's relationship with him, he was what they call in the therapy world a "high functioning alcoholic," meaning no one really knew; he could get away with it. People he worked with knew he could be hard to get along with, and they'd buy him Scotch for Christmas, but that was it. I was given strict orders from a very young age not to tell my friends or teachers when there'd been a fight at home.

I tried telling my mom once that I was scared of my dad. She replied that one time, her dad (my Pepaw) had scared her too. She told me a story of how once when she was scared at night, she called for her mom, but her dad came instead and she didn't recognize his voice at first. At the time, I didn't know how to articulate the difference and the feeling of not being understood, but now I do. There's a difference between being startled by someone we love and trust and living in fear of someone who we are supposed to love and trust, but can't.

I wanted to love my dad. I wanted to be loved by him. We shared some good things—he told me stories from his childhood, took us camping, and gave me a love for Neil Diamond. Other than that, most of what my dad modeled for me was what not to do. I've spent years in therapy because of him, and became a therapist because I liked therapy so much. It's hard for me, in a bittersweet way, when I've worked with people who are recovered alcoholics. "Thank God," I think, "it is possible to recover. It is possible to make amends. It is possible to be whole." Because my dad never did, he never was. He died blaming everyone but himself. Thank God I was in therapy when he passed away, because it took me years to grieve such a complicated relationship.

I can say this from a place of peace, love, and forgiveness in my relationship with my dad: I deeply feel that him leaving me was the most merciful thing he could have done for me. Being in a relationship with someone like that is exhausting. Everyday, someone who was supposed to be a source of secure attachment and love demeaned me, bullied me, belittled me, dismissed me, told me not to cry and made fun of me for wanting to call my mom, then became explosively angry when I said, "You don't even love me." It was hard to find the truth under all that waste, scrape it off every day, forgive him, and know I'd be walking right back into it.

And that was just the way it was with his side of the family. A lot of the stories he told me from his childhood involved lies, betrayal, and deceit. The kind of "war stories" Brené Brown cautions against regaling with a sense of sentimental nostalgia. I had to do a genogram in grad school, and he summarized the whole Grimes side by saying, "We were all always drunk." Oh, and there was a murder, too. Last I heard, one of my uncles proudly had the gun in his possession before he passed away.


I can't say all this, though, without saying, thank God for my sister—Cyndy. She's my half-sister from my dad's first marriage to Helen. Cyndy is 23 years older than me, and growing up she was like some mixture of a mom-sister-cool-aunt kind of person to me. As I got older, she was always there to pep-talk me through the tumult with my dad. Because he was her dad, too, she got it. She had her own stories, but a lot of times she'd just tell me with a tone in her voice that I understood in my bones, "Desirée, he used to be so much worse."

"I was lucky," she told me once, "my parents got divorced." In a way, that divorce exemplified how our family functioned as a family. From everything everyone ever told me, and from experiencing it myself, Helen and my mom always got along. At family get togethers, Helen was there, she was like another aunt to me. I went with my sister often to visit her Grandma Maggie. I was only 8 when Helen passed away suddenly, but I remember feeling wildly defensive and protective of my sister—as in, don't mess with her, she just lost her mom, and I lost my Helen. The words "my sister's mom" don't really convey the felt sense of her in my life; they don't make words for these kinds of special people who are in your family in an un-traditional way.

I know, from my mother's perspective, she has similar feelings towards Cyndy. "I can never replace your mom," she tells her in hard times, "but I'm here for whatever you need me to be."


My Memaw and Pepaw's legacy is one they lived joyfully while they were here and left to us healthy and thriving. My Memaw, Betty, met my Pepaw, Don Strother in Mexia when she was fourteen. The first time she remembered seeing him, he was helping deliver a cabinet to their house, and, she recalled, “He winked at me!” He gave her an engagement ring shortly thereafter.

When she was fifteen, her mother let her quit school and move to Houston where she worked as a waitress at Inter-Urban Pharmacy. Later, she moved to Dallas and worked at La Mode Ladies Ready to Wear Shop until she was seventeen. Betty and Don were married on December 1, 1945 in Mexia, TX. In 1948, they moved to Pasadena, TX, and in 1952 celebrated the birth of their son Wayne followed by the birth of their daughter Barbara (my mom) in 1955.

Both my mom and Uncle Wayne have tons of stories from growing up "at the house on Mulberry." How my memaw never worried about the yard, because she wanted the kids to be able to play baseball out front. How my Pepaw would come home from the corner store with candy in his shirt pocket for my mom to find when he'd scoop her up. The horse riding, the family trips, going to the farm at grandma's (my Pepaw's mom). Both my mom and uncle are still friends with their childhood best friends.

My Uncle Wayne has three kids from his first marriage, and they're all now married with their own growing families, and he's been married to my aunt Mickye since I was 6. I can't speak for them, but what I've witnessed and what I've heard them say is more of the same—no matter how you get here, in our family, there's just family. There's their mother and her parents, my aunt Mickye and her mother—all family. We check on each other and on each other's people. As many of us that can, we've piled into my sister's house for the holidays every year with her, her husband and his family, and my niece.

In 2017, my Memaw had moved in with my mom. She had breast cancer and was about 87 years old. She was still lively in spirit and sharp as a tack. One of my cousin's husband is in the Navy and between deployments she and her family were able to come see us in Texas. Before they sold my Memaw's house, we gathered in there. It was empty of furniture so we sat up folding tables and camping chairs. We had a potluck of vegetarian chili, mac and cheese, cheeseburgers from What-A-Burger, cupcakes. I was 12 weeks pregnant and got to tell my whole family there when we were all together. My cousin's kids were running around and playing loud, just like they should. I remember standing in the kitchen there, it felt like slow motion. It was like watching a home movie while it's being made. The noise and the food and the showing up. It was like heaven; it was all love.


Before I got married, I considered not letting my dad walk me down the aisle. I knew for certain that my mother would. She is the one who raised me, the one who loved me. She deserved to be the one to walk that journey with me—that journey of joining in family. The journey of covenanting, the journey of saying to that whole big mess of love, "Look, I've brought in some more love."

When I was younger, I was very protective of my mother against my father. I couldn't understand why she ever married him in the first place, much less why she stayed, why she put up with it, why she didn't stand up to him for herself or for me. None of that changed the fact that she and I loved each other, not only with an unconditional mother's love, or the special bond between a mother and her daughter, but also with the love of a trauma bond. That last part got me debilitatingly homesick while I was in college. That's when I realized I had to do the work of un-enmeshing myself with her. If I really wanted to love my mother, I had to stop being responsible for her emotions, I had to stop lecturing my dad every time he was awful to her, I had to accept that her choices were her choices. I had to see her and myself for who we truly were and not who we were together surviving my father.

One day before I got married, my dad asked me why I didn't talk to him much. I, maybe for the first time, was calmly able to tell him all the things he'd done to hurt me and that he'd never apologized or even acknowledged what he'd done. "I don't think I have anything to apologize for," he said. I nodded and said, "I know you don't. And this is our relationship." At that moment is when I decided that just as it was symbolic for me for my mother to walk me down the aisle, it would be symbolic, but in a different way, for my dad to walk the aisle as well. It was a symbolic releasing myself from him and forcing him to let me go. I danced our father daughter dance, to forgive him. When he danced with my sister at her wedding, he told her, "I'll never get to do this with Desirée." Why he chose my sister's wedding to express that existential concern to her always infuriated me and tells you exactly who he was. He wanted to show up, but he never knew how and he left hurt in his wake. I danced with him to John Meyer's Daughters. I cried the whole time, and he said, "It's okay," because I think he knew. He passed away three months after my wedding. When I heard the song playing in the hospital gift shop, I knew he wasn't going to live.

I danced with my mother, too. We danced to The Best Day by Taylor Swift. My dad was smart, my mom is the prettiest lady in the whole wide world, and that paint set in the kitchen—well, that was my Pepaw's. And my mom comes from that legacy, that Strother legacy of love and joy and playfulness and wholeness, the legacy of family, the whole family, all of them, even if there's not a word for them. Even with all the heartache that can come from growth, and even when she hasn't understood it, my mom has always stood by me growing. Quietly, steadily, unconditionally, lovingly.

So it made sense, that when the time came for us to grow—to change our name to the right name, the family name, and the name that means family—we asked her blessing.


When it came to getting married, I knew absolutely that I did not want to keep my given last name, Grimes. I wanted to appreciate the history that came from my father's side of the family, and move on. And I deeply wanted to say to him and to myself at that time in my life, "I am separated from you."

The name Richardson was special to me only because it was Andrew's, and that's where it stopped. I want to be careful here, because there are many stories that are not mine to tell. When you get married, though, their stories intertwine with your stories and new stories are made.

Andrew came from a family where abuse was present, in many ways and from all sides. Because of that, he'd never really liked having his father's last name. He'd thought about taking his mother's maiden name from time to time, but also found that ill-fitting due to the circumstances of their relationship and family history.

As for me, both my mom and dad always talked about what a great relationship they both had with their respective in-laws. Because of that, because of growing up in a family where there weren't really step-relationships or in-law relationships, a family where even though we’re a bit all over the place, we're all just family—I had always hoped of having a close, loving, fun, and uniquely-ours relationship with my in-laws and envisioned huge family get-togethers with both mine and my husband’s families present, now an even bigger family. But over the years, it became apparent to Andrew and me that that just wasn’t going to happen.

After our daughter was born, the existential thing that happens for all of us, happened for us—when you have a child, your life cycles back before you. You see your patterns bubble up, you see your psyche reflected back to you, and you relive trauma when your child reaches the age you were when your trauma happened. If you're not open and aware, the patterns just keep going across the generations. If you've got your eyes open wide, your heart open and ready for the experience, it's an amazing way to grow into something better, to break an old cycle, to heal old hurts, to renew or release a relationship. Even if you've got your eyes open wide, your heart open and ready for the experience, it will blindside you.

The cycle of abuse and manipulation began again, and in that postpartum rawness, like a mother wolf pacing back and forth outside her den, I said no. I said I would not let it in my home, and I would not let it in my daughter's life. When you've got that history, there's a lot that goes unsaid out of fear for safety, out of desire for love and acceptance, out of the exhausted belief it wouldn't make a difference anyway. As a therapist who could see the forest, as a wife fighting for what my husband couldn't see, as a new mother holding the shape of my daughter's life in my hands, as a woman fiercely rejected by a person I'd done no harm other than entering her son's life, and as a Strother-Grimes family member who wasn't letting jealous, scorn-filled words about that family pass the threshold of this wild love—I said enough. I said deal with this. I said all the things that had gone unsaid, and I helped Andrew say his, too. From a place of complete peace, we released that relationship.


Identity formation is one of the major life tasks we undertake. We usually start in adolescence, and a healthy identity is one that is cohesive and flexible to new growth. Before our daughter was born, I wrote to her and about her often. I wrote for her:

I think of all the work I've done and the work Andrew and I have done together and the way this starting place can't be perfect, but we ask God to bless it anyway and offer it humbly and proudly. A foundation we know all the pieces of. We built it, explored it, threw things out, burned up parts, and put our hands in the mess to make this beauty.

And that is true. That's the life we've built together, the intention we have for ourselves, and the integrity we hold ourselves to. We've put our hands into some God-awful mess to break patterns, to choose love, to go a brighter way, and come out more whole than we knew we could be.

True to their name, my family has always loved and welcomed Andrew wholly, enthusiastically, joyfully, playfully, from the beginning. Just like a snake can't grow without shedding old skin, it doesn't make sense anymore for us to have the name Richardson. And where else would we go but home? Home to the family that has always been the sweetest love—Strother.