Taking a Break – Comments Continue!

Hello readers,

I have decided to take an official break (as opposed to just a long gap!) from new posts on the blog, so I can finish the Good Little White Girl book by July. The last 3-4 chapters have been sitting in the back of my mind for too long!

Meanwhile, I hope new readers continue to check out what’s here and sign up to follow. Participants in the UNtraining and others have shared personal and powerful reflections here. Thank you! Please continue to add your stories and I will continue to reply.  The following posts have particularly rich comments:

Speaking of Whiteness

The Family of Man

Two Little Kids in the Land of the Free

We’re “Good White People” — Aren’t We?

Thank you all for your support!

Janet

 

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The Unitarian Angel

angel

“Tonight I had angel pageant practice and Jeff Lewis of all people is one of the shepherds! I wear a real keen outfit except that tonight it was ten times too long. If I stand up straight I have more of a figure. The dress is real low.”
—Janet’s journal entry, December 11, 1962

It was an honor to be the Angel in the Christmas pageant. In 1962 when I was 14, I was the chosen one. There were not many rituals in the Unitarian Church when I was growing up, but the annual pageant was one of them. And I loved it — the church winter-dark, hushed but full of people, the pulpit removed to make room for the simple scene — the manger below and the star shining at the top of the arch high above. All waiting for the magical story to unfold. Despite my teenage preoccupation with boys and my fairly non-existent “figure,” being the Angel would touch me unexpectedly.

When my family moved to Burlington, Vermont, we finally found a church community that suited my parents’ liberal religious views. In Sunday school, according to my diary of 1959, we talked about “What is a good friend?” and “paying compliments, thinking, listening and hearing.” I remember one day Mrs. Lohman, the Sunday school teacher, asked us to raise our hands if we loved ourselves. Disconcerted, I looked around. Was it good to love yourself? Wasn’t that selfish? I did kind of like myself, I realized, somewhat guiltily. After all, what other “me” was there? Almost no one raised their hands. I can’t remember if I got mine all the way up before Mrs. Lohman said that loving ourselves was important. It was okay!

Rita Shimmin, co-founder of the UNtraining and one of my most profound mentors, challenges each of us to “love yourself so much that this love changes the world.” The basis for anti-oppression work is our basic goodness as human beings. Not a moral good/bad, but the natural goodness of being alive, having heart, being able to feel our world, whether in suffering or joy.

I call this blog (and my book) “Good Little White Girl.” Why? Partly it’s a play on the idea of “Good White Person” — an identity many of us white liberal and progressive people hold about ourselves. (Another version is “Good Anti-racist Ally.”)  There is a difference between this and the openness and unconditioned quality of our basic human goodness. We have something at stake. We want people of color to realize that we are not like those Bad Racist people. We act super-friendly when we are introduced to them. We find ourselves smiling until our faces hurt. We laugh, even when things aren’t particularly humorous. Or perhaps we get withdrawn and stiff to make sure we don’t say anything harmful or ignorant. Or we say something that lets them know we Get It about white privilege, institutionalized racism, and the history of oppression. We might feel just a tiny bit smug about how cool we are to have friends of color.

I’ve done all these things, and I’ve come to realize they don’t fool anybody, really. They arise out of a clash, a cognitive dissonance between conscious, heartfelt intentions and beliefs and the unconscious social conditioning of growing up in a white-dominated world. Like my teenage self wrestling with internalized images about who I had to be for boys to like me, all of us inherit race-based images of who we and others are supposed to be. Unitarians have their own  flavor of being Good White People. But then there is the other kind of “goodness,” the kind that touches us, surprises us, moves us when we least expect it.  So, returning to the Angel story:

The church is full of people. I stand in the back, the white filmy costume adjusted now to fit me. I’m not wearing my glasses, so everything feels a bit fuzzy around the edges. Ahead of me the star casts its light on the empty tableau, like another world. I slowly walk toward it, a bit self-conscious at first, but then carried along by the haunting a cappella melody of “From Heaven High, O Angels, Come” (“Susani, susani, susani”). Climbing the steps to the platform above the manger, I take the Angel’s place under the star. From the shadows, Mary and Joseph emerge with the baby. I raise my arms in welcome as they take their places. Looking up and out, I suddenly feel the huge darkness beyond the circle of light, the mystery.

The shepherds come forward. They are no longer just people I know, but, yes, Shepherds who watched over their flocks by night, who saw a star and followed it. As I reach out to welcome them, my heart seems to expand, the gesture infused with gentleness and power. My body feels strangely empty and full at the same time. The Three Wise Men, one by one in stately splendor step into the light, offering their gifts. The Angel’s blessing flows out of me as if of its own accord into the big space. The tableau is complete.

Young candle-lighters come up the aisles, tipping long brass tapers to small white candles each person in the congregation holds. Light spreads through the room. Then the organ sounds deep opening chords. That’s the signal. Everyone raises their candles and “Joy to the World!” bursts forth.  The Angel opens her arms up and out like wings, silent and still, radiating peace.

The experience of the pageant disappeared from my conscious mind. My journal entries in the days following were filled with reports of which boys said hi to me and how lonely I felt at my grandparents’ house at Christmas.  Many years later, a friend of my mother’s who was in the choir with her, said, “I remember when you were the Angel in the Christmas Pageant. You looked so  beautiful, serene, I don’t know….like the Mona Lisa.” It came back to me then. That moment of grace, of simplicity. Of goodness beyond the story of Me.  Perhaps a taste of love that changes the world.

May you all be touched by that deep place where light and darkness meet and dance in the mystery of solstice.

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How I Didn’t Go to the 1963 March on Washington

March on Washington, 1963

March on Washington, 1963 (National Archives)

“More than 200,000 Americans, most of them black, but many of them white, demonstrated here today for a full and speedy program of civil rights and equal job opportunities. It was the greatest assembly for a redress of grievances that the capitol has ever seen.”
—Front page story, New York Times, Thursday August 29, 1963

I could have been there. I could have stood in the crowd of thousands facing the Lincoln Memorial on a bright day in August 1963, hearing the unforgettable voice of Reverend Martin Luther King, rising and falling— “I have a dream…..”

Fifty years later, I look back on the moment that opportunity came and went – and the forever mystery of how nonverbal signals and unspoken feelings communicate powerful messages contrary to spoken beliefs. And how, as Ruth Frankenberg says, “The working of memory is complex, political, and idiosyncratic.”

I had just turned 15 in the summer of 1963. Growing up in Vermont with liberal parents, I knew what was going on in the bigger world—the lunch counter sit-ins, the marches and boycotts that were in the news. I had read Black Like Me earlier that spring and written a report for school on the movie of A Raisin in the Sun when I was 13. And I was for civil rights, believed that people should be treated fairly and everyone should have a chance.

About a week before the march, my mother came into the bedroom on the third floor where I had created my own little world, away from the noisy downstairs, my five younger brothers and sisters, the pounding feet. It was late at night. I was sitting on my bed, writing in my journal. Standing in the doorway, half in and half out of the room, Mom told me some friends of hers and Dad’s were going to the March on Washington and asked if I wanted to go with them.

Here’s how I came to remember what happened next:

I took in her words—an invitation to go away—not with the family or to summer camp, but to do something very different, with strangers. What would it be like? My imagination flew into the unknown. A long bus ride—in the dark—to a place where a lot of people would be—more than I could imagine all gathered in one place—because of what they believed in, which I also believed in. (I wonder now, was some part of me aware that a lot of them would be “Negroes”? Did that affect my feelings? In memory, it is more a generalized “unknown.”)

My mother’s question stopped my mind, there in my safe room with my record player and my favorite books. She waited silently for my answer.  Did she think I should go? Why weren’t she and Dad going? Would I be going for them? Should I really want to go? Did I want to? And, the most important question, is it okay to be afraid? But I didn’t ask her any of that. Instead, I searched in myself for the answer. What would it take to make the leap? An image jumped into my mind – a woman shouting, leaping, storming the barricades in the French Revolution, willing to risk her life for what she believed. Was that me?

“No, I don’t think so….” I said finally, feeling somehow defeated. “I don’t think I’m passionate enough.” She asked no questions. Made no comments. “Okay,” she said, and left.

But here is what I wrote in my journal immediately after this conversation:

Janet, circa 1963

Janet, circa 1963

“Oh Life—I had a chance to go on the peace march for integration on Washington but I don’t feel dedicated enough. It would be so exciting but Mom says if that’s the only reason I’d go I shouldn’t. It is not the only reason, but one of them. It would feel good to express my feelings about unequal rights – civil rights—but I can’t put this feeling into words.”
(August 20, 1963)

Ok. So what happened? Clearly, I had expressed a desire to go. But my mother did not encourage me in any way, or invite further conversation. Instead she faulted the reason I expressed – excitement. What was wrong with excitement? What if she had invited conversation by asking, “What is it that excites you?” or said, “Yes, it is exciting. This is one of the most important issues of our time. People of conviction stand up for what they believe and this is a chance to do that, to express how you feel.”

What was going on for my mother who was usually warm and curious about what I was thinking and feeling?  Did it seem too risky to let her daughter go into such an unknown experience? After all, at that point peaceful protesters had been beaten, sprayed with firehoses, taken to jail. Did she ask because she thought it was the right thing, but didn’t really know how she felt about it? Was it Dad’s idea rather than hers? If he had asked me, would it have been different? He and I talked more about politics and what was going on in the world. These questions cannot be answered. My parents are not alive to explore them with me.

As an adult, I did ask my mother what she remembered of the conversation. Her version was simple. She asked if I wanted to go and I said “I don’t feel passionate enough.” And, contrary to what we had experienced, that had become the truth for both of us.

Although I didn’t go — maybe even because I didn’t go — the power of the March on Washington ran deep in my mind. My journal entry for August 28, 1963, borrowing language from the media:

The Race Equality Demonstration is over and leaves a lasting impression on the world. ‘A coalition of consciences’ people who came not to fight for the Negro but ‘to stand with the Negro in his fight for equality of all races—all human beings.’ Some of the narrowminded senators in congress. One said, “the Negroes have more freedom here than anywhere. Why they have more cars and refrigerators, etc. etc.” Oh! The judgment of freedom!!! I wish the whole damn problem would be solved.

A year later, I would write about civil rights, “I wish I could do something. If they had another March, I would go.” I still have the Life Magazine coverage, saved at the time so I could read it over, look at the pictures, and imagine what it would have been like to be there. “They come marching up conscience road” says the headline. “Negroes stir up nation in mighty Washington march.” There were photos of the huge crowds, the speakers at the podium, the celebrities—Jackie Robinson, Mahalia Jackson, James Baldwin and Marlon Brando. But the image I came back to again and again was one of the marchers, black and white, men and women, sitting along the edge of the fountain, cooling their feet in the water.

The conversation with my mother is an example of how white liberal conditioning is transmitted through ambivalence and what is not said. We white people rarely know how to talk about race without self-consciousness, discomfort, or free-floating guilt. We often resort to platitudes or rhetoric for lack of connection to our own feelings.  But mostly we are silent. As a “good white person,” my mother made the offer. But because we had no way to explore the underlying feelings and fears—either hers or mine—the young girl who was excited by an opportunity to “do something” for civil rights, ended up feeling ashamed for not caring enough.

I was filled with longing as I pored over the pictures of the march, but I had no recourse other than to “wish the whole damn problem would be solved.” Magically. By someone else, somehow, someday.

Martin Luther King, March on Washington, 1963 (photo

Martin Luther King delivering “I Have a Dream” speech (National Archives)

I chose not to go to the March on Washington. But I realize now that not going changed my life, too. Like a depth charge, it took years for me to discover my own way to get beyond that buried sense of shame and “do something” about racism. Reminders of the March continued to affect me.  At a speech-writing seminar at my corporate job, I was suddenly moved to tears, my diligent note-taking interrupted by the voice of Martin Luther King filling the room, and a piercing sensation that I was only now hearing him for the first time.  One night on the way to visit a friend, I happened to turn on NPR. Moments later, I sat weeping in the front seat of the car listening to a replay of New York radio commentator Jean Shepherd describing the joy and excitement of people on the streets as they welcomed the buses rolling into Washington, DC for the March. I still have the Life Magazine article with pictures of the March. There is Martin Luther King smiling, his hand reaching out over the crowd. There are the people sitting on the edge of the reflecting pool, cooling their feet in the water. It is still my favorite.

Ironically, I didn’t have to go on a long trip somewhere else to find my way. I started with myself. The journey of coming to see my own conditioning as a white person and how that has shaped my life, has led to writing this today. I invite conversations about race and racism on this blog and in my life. I teach workshops for white people, so they can make the kind of difference they want to make in the world. I continue to find my own ways of making a difference, by arriving here in this moment, and being ready to take the next step.

More to think about:
Ten Things To Know about the March on Washington and Teaching the Movement Beyond Four Famous Words
TIME Special Issue: One Dream
Where we are today: From Rinku Sen in Colorlines Commentary “Building a New Racial Justice Movement

“We cannot solve a problem that no one is willing to name, and the biggest obstacle facing Americans today is that, in the main, we don’t want to talk about race, much less about racism. Our societal silence makes room for inventive new forms of discrimination, while it blocks our efforts to change rules that disadvantage people of color. Unless we say what we mean, we cannot redefine how racism works or drive the debate toward equity.”

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Has anything about the March on Washington affected your life personally? If so, how?
Did you learn about it in school? What were you taught?
How did your family respond to social justice issues when you were growing up? Do you remember any events in particular and how you were encouraged or not encouraged to take action?

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Who “Belongs” in America?

Billboard, c 1919 (Library of Congress)

Billboard, circa 1919 (Library of Congress)

U.S. Naturalization Act of 1790
“All free white persons who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof… that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to the rights of citizenship.”

As a little girl, it never occurred to me that being born white had meaning in and of itself. I would have felt insulted at the idea that I had advantages simply because I was white. The idea of white privilege went against everything I had learned about who I was. After all, my father worked very hard. I wore hand-me-downs to school and ice cream was a rare treat. I firmly believed that anybody who tried hard enough could succeed in life, and that in America everyone had the same chances. White was just something I happened to be. Nonetheless, white privilege had shaped my life long before I was born.

As an adult, I  learned that ancestors on both sides of my family arrived in North America in the 1600s. Puritans and Quakers from England, they landed in the colonies of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania more than one hundred years before the United States was formed. My genealogy reflects the story of America, from one point of view – that of early white colonists, pioneers, and homesteaders. Digging deeper, I realized my ancestors were in the early wave of immigrants who drove out or killed the Wampanoags, the Pequots, the Abenaki, and other indigenous people living in the Northeast. They were among the white people who saw the abandoned native villages and fields of the “new world” not as a tragic result of European diseases that had decimated 90% of the population, but as a “wonderfull Plague” sent by God as a sign that they were meant to take over this land. I didn’t know any of this as a child, but that doesn’t matter.  I inherited the privilege that came with my ancestry and its bloody history, along with my red hair and freckles.

What I did know was that my ancestors were English, French, Scotch-Irish and “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which it turns out means German. And I had no doubt that I was an American, that I belonged. My whiteness was an invisible factor in that identity. The 1790 Naturalization Act was a long time ago. Because my ancestors were predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants,  I was not aware that an evolving definition of who “gets to be white” had affected immigrants’ social status and their rights to citizenship.  In particular, Catholics from Ireland and the Mediterranean, Jewish people, and others from Eastern Europe.

Some years ago, a young white friend was talking about how hard it was for her to get any information about her heritage from her Portuguese and Czechoslovakian grandparents, who had emigrated in the early 20th century. They would tell her nothing of their life or customs before becoming “American.” Feeling the sadness in her voice, I suddenly realized with a chill, that my WASP ancestors were among those who had the power to define who was accepted as white and, therefore, American.  The conditions of belonging: sacrifice Statue of Libertyyour past, your family lore, language, costumes, and celebrations. In other words, become like “us.”

So, my image of immigrants when I was growing up did not include my own ancestors. No. Immigrants were those “poor, tired” people coming here from Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, welcomed by the Statue of Liberty with open arms – or raised torch.  Part of me identified more with the Statue of Liberty than the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I also knew that Chinese workers had come to the West to help build the railroads and that Mexican “migrants” worked in orchards and farms in California. But living in Vermont in the 1950s and early 1960s, I didn’t have contact with many people newly arrived in the U.S. or whose ancestry was very different from mine.  When I learned about citizenship in school, the emphasis was on rights, responsibilities, and being a “good citizen,” with nothing about historical or current issues of who gets to be a U.S. citizen and who has the power to decide that.

In the powerful diversity film, The Color of Fear, the men of color discuss whether or not they identify as Americans. Not one of them has an unambiguous relationship with the phrase “I am an American.” Because, they all agree, the image of “American” is “white.” There are good reasons for this. Despite the fact that people of African descent were legally given the rights of citizenship in 1870, efforts to keep them from voting have persisted right up to the present day. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese workers from  entering the country and denied citizenship to those already here. The Immigration Act of 1924 targeted Japanese and other people as not eligible for citizenship because they were not “Caucasian.” This did not change until the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished national-origins quotas and finally eliminated race as a legal barrier to citizenship. Again, more information that I didn’t learn until I sought it out as an adult.

What unconscious messages do children growing up in the U.S. today get about what it means to be an American, and what immigrants look like? After Vietnam, it was “boat people.” More recently, dehumanizing terminology like “illegal aliens” or simply “illegals” has been used to describe undocumented workers from Mexico, many of whom have been living here for years.  U.S. citizens originally from Muslim countries are subject to extra scrutiny at airports and seen as “terrorists.” There is fear of engineers from Asian countries taking “our” high tech jobs. Being a melting pot was okay as long as most of the people looked like us white folks.

In the current discussion of immigration reform, I frequently hear white people say “all of our ancestors were immigrants” as a way to counter the idea that immigrants are Other. Sometimes the caveat is added, “with the exception of Native Americans.” (However, people brought here as slaves were not really immigrants either.) I’ve said those words myself a few times, but they feel too simplistic. That idea may shift the conversation a little bit, but it can also become another way to ignore the complex history that got us here, including our own privilege.  And to avoid feeling the painful fact that there are people who have been in the U.S. for decades, and even centuries, who still are not treated as the “real Americans” they are or deserve to be.

Learn more:
Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson
Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans by Ronald Takaki
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What was your experience as a child of your family’s roots?
Do you know when and how your ancestors came to the U.S.? Anything about their struggles and successes?
What images did you have of immigrants? Who were they? How were they described?
How have you learned about “the immigrant experience” and how did it impact you?

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Color Me White

crayons_arc_6338_72dpi

“White people are neither literally nor symbolically white. We are not the colour of snow or bleached linen, nor are we uniquely virtuous and pure. Yet images of white people are recognizable by virtue of colour.”
Richard Dyer, White, 1997

As a child, I loved colors—from my first set of Crayolas, eight fat sticks of red-orange-yellow-green-blue-purple-brown-black—to the delicious array of 48 shades and hues in the big boxed set, with names like Burnt Sienna and Midnight Blue. These colors included “Flesh,” a pinkish cream very convenient for coloring faces. It didn’t occur to me until I was working in the art room of an elementary school in the late 1960s, that there might be some children for whom the color “Flesh” did not work. (In fact, Binney-Clark, the maker of Crayolas, changed the “Flesh” crayon to “Peach” in 1962.) It was also fascinating to learn about color in science class—the spectrum of the rainbow, the luminosity of a prism. How black and white were not in the rainbow because black was “no color”—the absence of color—and white was “all colors”—but strangely appeared to be no color.

I also learned the colors of the four races of people: red, yellow, white, and black. Each group was from a different part of the world originally—red from America, yellow from Asia, white from Europe and black from Africa—and together they made up the whole of the human race. I pictured these colors in my mind as a circle divided into four, each quadrant an equal part of the whole. It was a very satisfying image.

I was quite young when I first saw a black person in real life (a “Negro” as they were called then). I was surprised that he wasn’t really black, but dark brown. American Indians, I discovered, weren’t red, they also were brown. “Oriental” people, who were supposed to be yellow, were not at all. Some of my friends were very tan. Pointing to my densely freckled, sunburned arm, I joked that I wasn’t white, I was pink with brown spots. The whole idea of races being colors was only symbolic, I realized. Still, I believed the categories were real and meant something.

But what did they mean? In the 1950s, growing up in Vermont in a white liberal family, the concept was pretty abstract and not associated with people I knew. Race seemed to be some combination of biological and geographic factors. People were born as a particular race and most people in certain parts of the world were of a particular race. I knew I was White or that weird word—“Caucasian.”

There were also other associations with color, particularly black and white. The white knight was the good knight, the black knight was the bad one. The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry wore white hats while the bad guys they bested wore black hats. White was pure and good, black was evil, although the devil was red. There was black magic practiced by wicked witches who wore black robes and pointed hats, and white magic practiced by good witches like Glinda in the Wizard of Oz, who really looked more like a fairy princess. The good witches didn’t seem all that interesting to me, but I always tried to be good in real life. I certainly wasn’t going to be the “black sheep” in the family, although I always felt sympathy for those characters in books.

I don’t remember what I read in school specifically about racial categories. But there is a lineage of what had been taught to my parents and my parents’ parents—the public school curriculum. A nineteenth century schoolbook, discovered in my family archives, lays out a grade school curriculum for teachers.

From Elementary Course in Geography, by William Swinton, 1875

In Section IV, “Man on the Earth,” the number of “races of men” is given as five. The teacher explains “that these various races do not all live in the same manner, and are not equally intelligent or powerful. When races differ in regard to their way of living and their intelligence, we say that they differ in civilization.” There follows an almost catechism-like series of questions and answers, with illustrations of each race:

Races_white “What can you say of the White Race?”
The White Race, also called the Caucasian, is the most powerful, and includes the greatest number of people. NOTE: The United States and Europe are peopled chiefly by this race. They are the most highly civilized race. Most of the nations belonging to this race believe in the Christian religion.
Races_yellow
What can you say of the Yellow Race?
The Yellow or Mongolian Race ranks in numbers next to the White Race. NOTE: The home of this race is principally in Asia. The Chinese and Japanese belong to it. The people belonging to this race are semi-civilized nations. They have written languages and have manufactures and commerce, but are not as well educated or so improved as the White Race. They are not Christians
Races_black
What can you say of the Black Race?
The Black or Negro Race is found chiefly in Africa. NOTE: Most of the tribes belonging to this race are savages, thought some of them are much more advanced than others. They are generally superstitious, and worship idols; hence they are called savages. In the United States are many Colored People who are Christians and are civilized.
Races_brown
What can you say of the Brown Race?
The Brown People or Malays, have their homes principally on the islands of the Pacific Ocean. NOTE: The Malays are few in number, compared with the White, Yellow, or Black races. They are not much civilized. Some are savages, but other have been converted to Christianity by missionaries from our country and England.
Races_red
What can you say of the Red Race?
The Indians, or Red People, live in some parts of North America and of South America. NOTE: The Indians of North America are the descendents of the aborigines who were found there on its discovery. As white people settled the colonies and States, the Indians were little by little driven westward, till now they are almost entirely confined to the region of the Far West. They are few in number and are mostly savages and pagans. The Indians of South America number several millions, and many of them are partly civilized.

While this overtly racist text would never be taught in schools today, I can see and feel how the attitudes are still alive under the surface, in our collective conditioning, in myself. Today, we know that the concept of race is not based in genetics, but is a social construct. The character attributes of different races were assigned. By whom? By white people, “scientists” who viewed the world from within their own social context. Who viewed themselves as “the most highly civilized race” and therefore qualified to define other races.  The repercussions of this pervade our institutions, our relationships with each other, and our unconscious minds. Historically, white people have decided who gets to be white, and that has changed over time. The “attributes” also change—for example, the stereotype of Muslims (or anyone wearing a turban) as terrorists since 9/11.

There is so much to say about this 1875 text! How being Christian is a mark of being “civilized.” Which peoples are included here and which ones are not.  How the historical context in which it was written (Civil War Reconstruction, “manifest destiny” in settling the American West, publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, etc.) shaped its views.

But to bring it into the present, how do we teach children about race, ethnicity and what color means today? We know children notice differences at age three or four, and skin color is one marker they perceive.  In a way, it’s easier to talk about skin color—see The Colors of Us, recommended by friends raising two white children—than about the much more complex subject of race and what it means. Even more challenging is talking about white as an identity. Because white on the spectrum is considered a neutral color, when applied to race, whiteness easily signifies a social group that sees itself as “normal” or simply “human.” Visible to others, invisible to ourselves. As long as whiteness remains invisible, we will not be aware that we are looking through a lens that colors everything we see.
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What do you remember learning about the “races of man” and where you fit into the picture?
How do you talk about race and ethnicity with children in your life, either as a parent, a teacher or friend?

Where in mainstream culture do you see imagery of the “white = good, black = bad” dichotomy and how it is applied to people?
What resources do you know about that can help others talk about this topic?

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The Land Where Thanksgiving Was Invented

Thanksgiving card illustration, 2012

“Today is a time of celebrating for you…but it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with heavy heart that I look upon what happened to my People…The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat, and beans…Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers…little knowing that…before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them.
—Frank James, Thanksgiving speech censored by Massachusetts Department of Commerce on 350th anniversary of the Mayflower landing, 1970

It’s Thanksgiving today and once again I’m stymied about what to write about what was once my favorite holiday. Growing up in New England where the first Thanksgiving happened, literally traveling “over the river and through the woods” of Vermont to get to Grandma’s house, partaking of a wondrous traditional feast surrounded by my family — what could be better?

But since those grade school days when I first heard the story of the “Pilgrim fathers” landing on a wild and rocky shore in a “howling wilderness,” braving their first terrible winter with the help of “friendly Indians,” I’ve learned a few things that make it hard to take this holiday as a simple celebration of gratitude based in a happy historical tradition.

So where to start?

Is it with the mythic quality of the story itself, which James Lowen points out in Lies My Teacher Taught Me, is touted as the “origin myth” of the U.S., ignoring much of the real history? For example, rather than a total wilderness, the Pilgrims landed near Pawtuxet, an empty village with cleared land for crops, the Wampanoag inhabitants having been wiped out by plague (probably smallpox) brought by previous Europeans. As a child I had imagined the Indians silently showing the Pilgrims how to plant corn, because they had no common language. As an adult I discovered the Pilgrims had help from Squanto, a Native man who spoke English! And how he came to speak English is an adventure tale in itself, involving kidnapping by the English, being enslaved in Spain, his escape and finally, his return home to find everyone in his village had died.

Scholastic News booklet, 2007

My sister Judy, a grade school teacher, sent me a copy of Scholastic News (Nov/Dec 2007) for second graders which features a section on “Squanto and the Pilgrims.” In its favor is the depiction of Squanto as a person in his own right, who “saw that [the Pilgrims] needed his help” and “became a generous teacher.”  As a child, I would have liked knowing the names and stories of the people who helped the Pilgrims. But I would still have been learning about Squanto and the sachem Massasoit as singular “good Indians” who helped “us” survive—an echo of the words of Plymouth Colony’s governor William Bradford who wrote that Squanto was “a special instrument sent of God” to further “our” larger purpose.

Then there’s the belief in an unbroken tradition from the First Thanksgiving in 1621 to the present day. In actuality, the national holiday in late November was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the Civil War. And the proclamation makes no mention whatsoever of Pilgrims. It talks about “the gracious gifts of the most high God” in the midst of a “civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity” and calls on all citizens at home and abroad to “set apart and observe a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” The Plymouth story was added later.

In 1869, after the ratification of the 15th Amendment granting the right to vote regardless of race, political cartoonist Thomas Nast published “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner“–depicting Americans of many ethnicities and national origins seated together. The hopefulness depicted here was soon dashed with Jim Crow and other laws that made it hard for many to exercise that right.

In actuality, that first feast at Plimoth Plantation celebrating the harvest was a European tradition that coincided with the local native tradition of harvest celebrations. There are lots of resources online for those curious to know more. And it is good to know more. We can take it upon ourselves to be myth-busters, to not pass on a simplistic story of togetherness that makes white Americans feel good, when the legacy of what came afterwards is still felt in the continued injustices of today .

In 1961, I wrote in my diary about Thanksgivings at Grandpa and Grandma’s house:

“Every year I wait for that one special grace simply because I love the feeling it gives me. To be around with people I love. To have good food. To be happy.”

Yes, last night I made a pumpkin pie. Today, I’m cooking a turkey. And my heart is full of gratitude for all the wonderful people in my life and for the good fortune I have. But it’s not enough for me.

In recent years, I’ve added another tradition. On Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, the Ohlone and other indigenous people here in the San Francisco Bay Area gather with friends and allies at the memorial Shellmound in Emeryville. They are protesting the building of the Bay Street Mall on the graves of thousands of their ancestors and the desecration of other sacred sites.  They urge shoppers to “Buy Nothing.” Tomorrow, I will join them.


What did you learn about the first Thanksgiving when you were in school?
If you are a teacher, what do you teach your students today?
If you are a parent, do you talk to your children about Thanksgiving? If so, what do you tell them?
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We’re “Good White People” — Aren’t We?

My parents, Jim and Evie, Denver 1947

“Our philosophy of life is that a man must teach his child to increase the goodness in the world more than his father before him… [My wife] is an English teacher. I hope some day to become a teacher of social studies and a high school counselor and advisor. We believe we can, through our teaching, help to eliminate racial and religious prejudice.”
-
My dad, Jim Carter, autobiographical essay, 1947

My parents were idealists. One of my mother’s favorite sayings was, “What have you done today to make the world a better place in which to live?” And although she said it with a humorous lilt, I knew she meant it.

As a white liberal child growing up in Burlington, Vermont (an almost exclusively white place in the 1950s/early ’60s), I became aware of racism for the most part in the abstract. I thought racists were very bad, mean people who mostly lived in the South. An unconscious aspect of this belief was that if you were smart enough to know that racism is a bad thing, then you were already better than those other white people who were racists.

Fast forward to the 1980s. I had graduated from Antioch College, lived and worked in much more diverse environments than Vermont, and ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although I had more awareness of institutionalized racism, and the subtleties and complexities of racial issues, I still clung to the belief that I and my family were the “good white people” and the bad racist people were somewhere and someone else (albeit a lot closer than “the South”).

Then, one afternoon in the 1980s at a Carter family reunion in Hampton, Iowa, where my father grew up, he dropped a quiet bomb.  He was driving my sisters and me around Hampton, showing us houses he’d lived in, the field where he picked strawberries with his brothers and sisters, and downtown where he used to “monkey around” with his friends. We were on a two-lane highway outside of town when he said in his matter-of-fact way, “Your Aunt Mary told me that our father once burned a cross on that hill over there.”

What?! NO! Our grandfather in the K.K.K.? Dad didn’t know any more than that. My grandfather, James Ellis Carter, had died in 1934 when Dad was eleven; Aunt Mary was gone, too, so we couldn’t ask her. Would we have asked her? Would we have wanted to know?

Maybe it was just once, I thought, scrambling to excuse it, deny its significance. Maybe my grandfather just went along because, because — there was no getting around it –- because he held racist beliefs, anti-Semitic beliefs. How long had Dad known this about his father? Had he forgotten it until that moment, left it buried in the emotional landscape of his hometown until recalled on this tour of the sites of his youth?

I had to know more.

My grandfather, Jim Carter, age 21

My father described his father as a man who worked very hard, first as a sharecropper and later at Farris’s Nursery. He had a terrible temper, but had lots of friends and loved dancing — in fact, he allowed his children to play music and dance on Sundays, which scandalized their neighbors. He was head usher at the fundamentalist Church of Christ, and one year was elected Grand Master of the local Oddfellows.

Researching further, I discovered that in the mid-1920s, a Ku Klux Klan revival was in full swing, inspired by D. W. Griffith’s popular 1915 epic film Birth of a Nation.  The Klan had chapters in almost every state, including Iowa. Their agenda was essentially Anglo-Saxon protestant, white supremacist, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, under the banner of “100% Americanism.” In Franklin County, Klan activity targeted Catholics and people involved in bootlegging, gambling, “lewdness,” and other scandalous behavior. Often, the Klan’s introductory tactic was to march into a church service, robed and masked, quote the Bible, and present a cash donation to the local minister. As a result, church members formed the mainstay of the K.K.K. in Iowa.  As in other states, the Klan became a force in politics, backing candidates for governor, the U.S. Senate, and local school boards.

But was the Klan active in Hampton itself? When I called the Franklin County Historical Society to find out, I was nervous, feeling strangely exposed, as though even asking about the Klan were dangerous somehow. Some visceral fear that the Klan would find out and target me? That the historian would think I was a Klan sympathizer? Or, more realistically, that I might learn something more I didn’t want to know?

A thick manila envelope arrived with the contents of their K.K.K. file. Heart beating a little fast, I carefully slit open the envelope. A large ad in the Hampton Chronicle invited the townspeople (“Americans”) to a “Ku Klux Klan Klonkave” at the fairgrounds on Labor Day, 1926. The public festivities included music, sports, a parade, national speakers, and fireworks in the evening. Admission 25 cents. There it was. Indisputable evidence. My grandfather could easily have attended this event, been drawn to the excitement. Then a more dreaded thought came: Was he one of the marchers in the parade wearing a white hooded robe? Oh, no. How much easier it was to imagine him as merely a curious spectator!

Ad in Hampton Chronicle, 1926
Courtesy of Franklin County Historical Society

My dad was three years old in 1926 when the Klan came to town. Was he carried on his father’s shoulders to see the big parade? I notice I’m relieved to find out that the Klan in Hampton apparently did not lynch anyone or destroy homes or businesses. They “only” practiced intimidation, part of me wants to say, as though cross-burning on a family’s front lawn or tar and feathering could not also traumatize and damage people’s lives.

In Iowa, the American Legion, local farm bureaus, feisty newspaper editors, and others organized to eventually defeat Klan-backed candidates and rid their communities of K.K.K. influence. I wish my grandfather had been one of them. The bottom line is that, in the name of moral righteousness and patriotism – which he probably saw as “goodness”—my grandfather was part of a terrorist organization. And if the Klan had not been stopped by others, how far would he have gone along with them?  I’d like to think not far, but I have no way of knowing.

As a child, my father was exposed to overt racism, and yet by the time he met my mother in 1946, he felt strongly the need to help “eliminate racial and religious prejudice.” Other experiences in his life had led him to a different view from his father’s. In his generation, racism was still a matter of conscious belief. The ideal was to be colorblind. Nowadays,  “unconscious bias” and “white privilege” are becoming part of the mainstream discourse about race. College classes and corporate diversity trainings shed light on this formerly invisible aspect of social conditioning. That means racism isn’t out there, but in all of us, beyond our conscious beliefs and intentions.

As “good white people,” we really want to believe things have changed, and of course, many things have. It’s what hasn’t changed, the conscious and unconscious racism still so entrenched in our culture, that scares and angers me.  How would I have related to my Grandpa Carter if he were alive and I discovered this about him? And what can I learn from it now?

One thing I see from looking at the roots of my own unconscious racism, seeing the pre-programmed fears and reactions, is that many white people who espouse racist views, who fear strangers from across the border, across the sea, or across the tracks, are not so different from me.  They feel they are protecting something precious. They love their children. They like to dance. However wrongly, they assume they will lose if others gain.  They could be family. In fact, they are family. In fact, they are me.

References
David M. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism, The History of the Ku Klux Klan
“Cross of Fire….in Franklin County” article in Hampton Chronicle, Feb. 1, 1990, courtesy of Franklin County Historical Society, Hampton, Iowa

What has been your experience of racism in your family, either past or present, and how have you dealt with it?
How do we begin to talk about racism with our families or our friends, instead of remaining silent or becoming self-righteous, writing each other off?
How might awareness of the fact we are all socially conditioned around race help us find  the common ground of our basic goodness as people?

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Two Little Kids in the Land of the Free

“White folks’ first experience with race is at least as far back as the moment of our births, at which time we enter the world as members of the dominant group; the group that has always made the rules, and for whose benefit the rules were made…”
—Tim Wise, White Like Me

“I came into the world on Monday, July 10, 1948… I weighed seven pounds, ten and one-half ounces and was twenty-one and one-half inches long. When I was born, I was bald or almost bald. As soon as I got hair it was bright red and it still is.”
—from essay “Me!” by Janet Carter, grade 7, 1960

I was born a little white baby. I sit staring at that sentence. What does it mean? It means something now, but it didn’t mean anything then. To me. But it did mean something, like Tim Wise says. I was marked for life. Invisibly marked with a stamp of approval, good for entrance into most circles, the ones I thought I had to work my way into, I had to earn. Which I did. Both are true.

So, how did I see myself as a young girl? In a series of essays written in seventh grade—“My Home and Its Surroundings,” “My Family Team,” and “Me!”— I come across as a self-reflective child with a sense of humor, belonging to a chaotic but happy, loving family. The oldest of six children, I felt a responsibility to help take care of the others and to do well in school, to make my parents proud.

Growing up in Vermont, I certainly never thought of myself as white. That I was an American was taken for granted. I liked saluting the flag, putting my hand over my heart, and pledging allegiance, especially proud of the “liberty and justice for all” that made the pledge meaningful.  “America the Beautiful” was one of my favorite songs, with its spacious skies, purple mountains’ majesty, and best of all the way the words “crown thy good with brotherhood” rolled across my tongue, ending with the breath-taking image, “from sea to shining sea.”

Raised in a state that was – and still is – almost exclusively European-American, I had few opportunities to meet people of other races in my classroom or community. What I learned about race and racism I learned indirectly, through family, school, church, Girl Scouts, television, books, movies, and games. And in some ways, what I didn’t learn had an equally large effect on me.

My Story: “It’s not fair!”

Me, age 9

Besides learning to read and write, school gave me another kind of training. We sat in desks in straight rows facing the front, where the teacher usually stood. Seated alphabetically, “Jan Carter” was always behind “Rodney Carr.” I learned to sit still, raise my hand, and resist talking to my neighbors. If I made a report to the class, I would stand stiffly, look straight ahead, and try to speak clearly. Body movement was only encouraged on the playground or in physical education.

My fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Patterson, a tall, handsome, soft-spoken woman, whom I loved and admired. One day while working at our desks, kids kept getting up, interrupting each other, clamoring for the teacher’s attention.  Finally, the usually unflappable Mrs. Patterson said, “The NEXT person who gets out of their seat will go to the principal’s office.” The class settled down for a few minutes. I kept working diligently, and then suddenly I just had to show her my paper. I jumped up. “Mrs. Patterson!”

She turned to look at me, slightly dismayed. Then my favorite teacher said firmly, “Go to the office, Jan.”

Stunned, I walked between the rows of seats and out into the echo-y hallway. Step by step down the stairs, carefully holding onto the wooden rail because my legs felt funny. My face was making strange motions of its own accord. What was happening to me? Oh… I was about to cry. The principal’s office! How could Mrs. Patterson do this to me! It wasn’t fair! I hadn’t meant to jump up. I just couldn’t help it. And now I was being punished.

But because I was an exemplary student, a “good girl,” I received no punishment, certainly not one I remember. In my diary that night I reported matter-of-factly, “Today in school the teacher said whoever got out of their seat had to go to the office. I got up to show her a paper so I went down. Marcia and Hershy and Ruth Ann went down too.” My humiliation was short-lived.

How different my experience of “unfairness” was from that of another child, also ten years old at that time, also an exemplary student, who would one day be my friend and brother-in-law, but whose story I would not hear for another 40 years.

Bob’s Story: “I will not give in!”

Bob, age 9

Bob McIntosh was also the oldest child in his family, the son of a black man and a white woman. His parents sheltered him in his earliest years from the harassment they experienced as one of the first interracial married couples in Seattle. The family lived in mixed neighborhoods where he had both black and white friends. Like me, Bob was a responsible student, high achieving, and he knew his parents expected him to be the best.  He did not feel that his skin color made him inferior to anyone.

When Bob was ten, they moved to one of the “projects” in South Seattle. His new teacher, Mr. Skelton was his first man teacher—white, as were all of Bob’s public school teachers.  One day, early in the school year, Mr. Skelton stepped out of the classroom for a minute. Two of the white boys started getting rowdy, throwing paper and talking. Bob, who had always been a model student, never in any trouble, got caught up in the moment and joined in. When the teacher came back, the three boys were taken out in the hall. Mr. Skelton said a few words to the two white kids and sent them back in. Then he turned to Bob and told him directly and unabashedly that because he was a Negro, he should show more respect and keep his mouth shut in class. Bob was stunned.

In relaying this story, Bob said, “There were so many layers of message in that one sentence. Here was an authority figure I looked up to telling me, essentially, that black kids didn’t really have an inherent right to be at that school, so they had to earn the right by not making trouble… being seen but not heard.  I actually don’t think he believed that black kids would ever be ‘on par’ with white students, but he would tolerate their presence as long as they behaved. If they didn’t, black kids would be dealt with more severely than white kids, and would have to work extra hard, would have to be excellent, just to be seen on par with average white students.”

But even that loaded reprimand wasn’t the most painful lesson. When Bob came back into the classroom, he looked around with new eyes. All the other black kids were staring down at their desks. He knew that they knew what Mr. Skelton had said to him. And they had known about this double standard for a long time. That was why his black friends, who were so lively and rambunctious on the playground, were so subdued in school, always keeping their eyes averted, never speaking up in class.  And that was why they were such terrible students.

Bob’s response was unequivocal. “I will not give in. I’ll show them black kids can excel,” he told himself. He says if he had not had ten years in which he had already done well, it would have been much harder to be defiant. “Most of the kids had gotten that message since they were five or six,” he said. “I was lucky.”

Eventually Bob went to Renton High School, the largest in Washington state, with a student body that was historically 15% to 20% African-American. As far as he knew, he was the first black student ever to make the honor roll.

Meanwhile I, as a little white girl, did not receive any overt messages about my race, but continued to believe that if you were smart and spoke up, you would be recognized and rewarded. If I had been in Bob’s class, instead of one where racial differences were invisible or did not exist, how would I have perceived what happened to him? Would I have noticed what he noticed about the other black kids? Would I have taken for granted that they were quiet because they weren’t very smart, and seen the recognition of my own achievements as the result of personal effort rather than any advantage of being white?

And, if Bob had been my friend back then, what would this blatant unfairness have done to my faith in America as the land of “liberty and justice for all”?

Perhaps it’s not surprising that when Bob grew up, he became an educator and a strong voice for equity in our schools.

For two current day perspectives, see “White Teachers at the Crossroads” in Teaching Tolerance magazine, Fall 2000.

What about you?
Looking back on your early school days, what do you remember or see now about racism that was overt or under the surface, or even invisible to you at the time?

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The Family of Man

The Family of Man was my first holy book.  It was big and heavy, as one expects holy books to be, but with very few words. Instead it was filled with photographs from an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.  Nestled into the corner of the couch in the living room, I would lift it onto my lap and then carefully open it, always starting at the beginning.

The first picture to capture my attention was a girl resting face down on a lush forest floor, her nude body white against the dark pattern of leaves and ferns. How would it feel to lie naked on the earth like that? And was it okay for me to just look at her? Next came a couple entwined in each others arms under the words of someone named James Joyce, which began with “…and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes…” Intriguing, vaguely unsettling, and definitely too mysterious for an eight year old to understand! I moved on.

There followed page after page of photographs of people from all over the world – images of birth, death, love, anger, hunger, hopelessness, prayer, play, work, family, celebration… the common experiences of being human. As I took in each image, and the next, and the next, wonder, fear, curiosity, disgust, and delight moved through me in a rich compelling mix.  I was being invited to feel a part of something so big and so beyond my experience, it left me trembling.

Ground-breaking photographic exhibit for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955

I can still see many of those images in my mind fifty years later. The Depression-era photo of a  skinny, craggy-faced woman, dark eyes staring into space as though there is nothing for her in this world.  In  one from Bechuanaland – now Botswanna – the village elder’s eyes are alight, hands raised like the claws of a great beast he may be invoking for the delighted circle of men, woman and children around him, the power of word and gesture holding the them all in imagination and place.  Each time I opened The Family of Man,  I knew I would be affected by a mystery I could feel in my body.

Several years ago, I picked up a copy of the book and, looking through it again, felt how strongly the images were still imprinted in me. But with my new-found awareness of such things, I also noticed that the number of photos representing the human family were not at all in proportion to the peoples of the races and countries of the world. Sixty-seven percent of the photos are of white people, 33% people of other races, and 1% racially mixed groups. Representing the continents, 48% are from North America, 26% from Europe, 16.5% from Asia (including the Middle East), 5% from Africa, 2% from South America, and o.5% from Australia. (Thanks to my niece and historical researcher Celerah Hewes-Rutledge for these calculations.)

I mention this not to diminish the power of the Family of Man, but to note that for many reasons, some having to do with colonization and white supremacy, including poverty and lack of access to technology, images of white people dominate this view of the human family. And I am guessing a large proportion of the photographers were also white, although Edward Steichen says in his introduction: “Over two million photographs from every corner of the earth have come to us – from individuals, collections and files. We screened them until we had ten thousand. Then came the almost unbearable task of reducing these to 503 photographs from 68 countries. The photographers who took them – 273 men and women – are amateurs and professionals, famed and unknown.”

Looking back, I can’t find a defining moment when I realized I was “white” and other people were another “race.” I grew up in Burlington, Vermont, a very white city in a very white state.  In my liberal, intellectual, middle-class household, there were no racial slurs or jokes.  We were brought up to believe that everyone was “created equal” even if some were poor and some were rich or lived in different countries or believed in different religions. The Family of Man definitely expressed my parents’ values, echoed by Edward Steichen – “a passionate spirit of devoted love and faith in man.”

What was invisible in the midst of this deeply humanistic sentiment was the predominantly white frame through which the pictures were taken, chosen, and viewed. As an eight-year-old white child looking at this book, I’m sure some part of me was noting people who “looked like me” and people who looked different, although that wasn’t my conscious experience. Indeed, the most important thing was the deep and heartfelt connection with people that the book fostered in me. But at the same time, on another level that also had consequences, I was learning to be white.

What about you?
What images do you have from childhood about the make-up of the human family?
What filter or lens was there on your view of “humanity” and your place in it?

For a current attempt to depict “the family of man,” check out 100 People: A World Portrait. Based on statistics “If the world were 100 people…” this global educational project engages children around the world in creating a new portrait of the 7 billion people on planet earth.

For an in-depth study of the original exhibit and its influence worldwide, check out Picturing an Exhibition: The Family of Man and 1950s America by Eric J. Sandeen.

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Speaking of Whiteness

“To speak of whiteness is to assign everyone a place in the relations of racism. It is to emphasize that dealing with racism is not merely an option for white people—that, rather, racism shapes white people’s lives and identities in a way that is inseparable from other facets of daily life.”
—Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters, 1996

Janet, 1966

It all started with a question:
How did I come to have so much unconscious racist conditioning despite being raised in a thoughtful, sincere, “good” white liberal family?

Finding the answer has become an ongoing  journey of discovery—sometimes amazing, sometimes awful. And now I’m inviting you along.

The premise here is that, growing up in the United States, white children (indeed, all children) are subject to deep cultural conditioning around race. Whether we are aware of it or not, we learn early on our position in the social, political, and economic hierarchies we live in. When it comes to race, if we are white, we belong. Most of my life I haven’t had to think about my racial identity—being white felt “normal.” This invisible training underlies much of white America’s inability to see why the issue of race won’t go away. Its influence goes far beyond the personal level, however, since most of the leaders who make policy decisions in the U.S. public and private sectors are white—and white people have held this power for a long time. This is true even though Barack Obama is president.

So, how did I learn to be white? In my case, growing up in a very white state (Vermont), I imbibed both the conscious liberal views of my parents—that we are all equal and everyone deserves opportunities to learn and succeed—and the cultural stereotypes of the fifties and early sixties. In television and movies black people were chauffeurs, cooks and “mammies,” always making funny remarks; there were “wild Indians,” Mexican bandits, “Oriental” houseboys. People of color rarely appeared in the news media as individuals until the Civil Rights movement. The history I learned in school left out, distorted, or white-washed much of what white people did to people of color (slavery, genocide, exploitation) and ignored the contributions people of color have been making to our society since pre-colonial times.

Reading my childhood diaries and school papers, I can see how these unconscious cultural messages resulted in a subtle racism that was pitted against my conscious belief in “justice for all” and that contradicted my basic goodness as a human being.

Illustration from one of my Raggedy Ann books: they're all "equal" sitting on the bench, so what's off in this picture?

As I absorbed all this unconscious instruction, along with seeing myself as “more fortunate” (although I thought of it the other way around—the Others are “less fortunate”) came a subtle feeling of power or superiority that created distance and fear, also buried under the surface. I might have been aware of discomfort around people of color, and sometimes a vague sense of guilt, but one thing was for sure: I NEVER wanted to see myself as racist in any way. And beyond how I felt about myself, there is the fact that being born white has given me advantages I didn’t even know I had. This cloak of privilege is also a veil—it protects me, but it also obscures the truth. It shelters me, but at a price.

So how did all this complexity—the unconscious privilege, the invisible fear and the taboo of speaking my experience around race—get transferred? Through the subtle osmosis of being in a family, a culture, of needing to belong and so learning the ways of “my people” in order to survive, to be loved and included. I learned what it is to be white, but at the same time I was trained to not see what I know.

If I really want to find out how I learned to be white, I have to fearlessly and honestly examine the context of my parents’ values, my church, my education, and the America of the fifties and sixties I grew up in. I have to risk the image I have of myself as a “good white person.”

My hope is that a reverse osmosis is possible when highly concentrated awareness seeps through the membrane of culture and transforms the solution of ignorance.

What about you?
How did you learn about race growing up?

What are some of the images you remember?
What did your racial identity mean to you?

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