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?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Speaking of Whiteness

  1. Stephanie says:

    I didn’t have any personal contact with black people growing up. The only thing I knew about black people was the stereotypes I saw in the media and the messages I learned from my family.

    My mom taught me that it is bad to be racist and use racist names for people. At the same time, she complained about a black student in her class that she thought acted entitled and lazy. She was afraid of being called a racist by this student. She was outraged becauae she felt the student was taking advantage of his marginalized status to cheat the system and get out of doing his fair share. Even though I felt uncomfortable with my mom’s view, I knew she was a “good Christian” and therefore could not believe that she could ever do anything racist.

    As I got older I realized how homogeneric my community was and became interested in black culture. However the stereotypes I held about black people combined with my fear of being a racist made me very uncomfortable around the occasional black person I would meet.

    In college, I took an African American studies course. I felt proud that I had “studied” about black culture, felt better than the average ignorant white person, and believed that I was on the “right side” of the race war. For sure I would never be called a racist…

    And yet to this day, my discomfort around blacks stemming from my lack of exposure and stereotypes continues. It has lessened significantly through getting to work with some black colleagues. My gut reaction is to feel shame that this still exists within me, but I know this is part of the training and am taking a powerful step by acknowledging this part of me. I am a good person and I have lots of work to do to pull back the veil of my white conditioning.

    • JanetC says:

      Thanks, Stephanie. It is powerful and dismaying to discover how deep the white conditioning goes, so far beyond our conscious intention and awareness! Shame and self-consciousness become debilitating, until we realize there is actually a way to work with ourselves to undo it.

  2. Becca says:

    Growing up all of my family friends were white. As a child I never thought about this fact or wondered if it could be different– it was my normal. The only black person I can remember knowing in my elementary school years was a black girl that played on my soccer team. She was the adopted daughter to two white parents, which gave her another layer of “otherness” on top of her race. I remember lots of adults commenting about how athletic she was, how fast. I can see now that these adults were just perpetuating stereotypes they had about black people and passing this training on to me.
    The only other contact I had with people of color was through my parents’ work– they were both in helping professions– and through a friendship my brother developed with a Latino boy. I remember always getting the impression that my family was helping these people of color. Looking back what that implied to me was that we were both good people and that we were in the position of power.
    Being a second grade teacher, I am aware of how much racial conditioning my students receive through media, TV, and movies, which assures me that those things influenced my childhood as well. Disney movies in particular contributed to my training (of racism and of sexism)– always showing the beautiful white princess as the focal point (rescued by the white prince). Any time people of color were portrayed they were caricatures, reinforcing racial stereotypes and power differentials.

  3. Cathy Connor says:

    I grew up in multiple small White enclaves (2010 census approx. 10,000 people) primarily in middle to upper middle class Bergen County in New Jersey, just outside of NYC. Pre-elementary school we lived in a trailer park and my brother and I were subsequently removed from the home and put in foster care for 1.5 yrs. Throughout my school years we lived in the only apt and/or 2 family dwelling in the multiple towns we lived. I grew up thinking that we were poor, however I later came to understand we were working class; though alcoholism, gambling and divorce often threatened out economic stability. Until recently I believed that my identity as working class “underdog” somehow exempted me from even considering the very idea of coming from privilege. I believed that most people, if they made good choices, could overcome the odds of their upbringing to succeed. WOW! That is a powerful statement loaded with White privilege.

    I internalized the strong work ethic passed down to me by my waitress mother and truck driver father. This work ethic afforded me the illusion/belief that if you worked hard you would get beyond your barriers. Since I grew up with only White people around me, I was never challenged to consider what people of other races had to struggle with to overcome.

    I went to a public state college in NJ and until recently I thought of this as one of the great turning points in my life. I believed that it was a freak accident that I even landed in college. Neither parent had graduated from HS and didn’t show much interest in me attending college. Recently I can see this differently as White privilege. A Black or Brown person with my family background would have had many more barriers to getting to college and completing with a degree. This is the first place my mind was opened to at least consider the plight of others with far more barriers than me.

    I remember a line I heard growing up: “to each their own.” I don’t remember thinking much about it until my 3rd yr. in college. I had one experience verging on a romantic interest with a Black male, initiated by him. I remember not moving forward and actually saying something to the effect that we would never be accepted by our families and friends as an interracial couple. Even though I had great difficulty with my family, as well as, feeling immediate shame; this likely lack of approval still mattered to me. I believe this reaction came from the “to each their own” water I drank throughout my childhood.

    • I was born in 1954 the year of the Brown vs Board of Education decision, but don’t remember reading or hearing anything about this until maybe college.

    • On 11/22/1963 on my 9th BD President Kennedy was killed. My father’s family was Irish Catholic from Boston. He took us to the polls to vote for Kennedy. I remember hearing the news while at school and we were all sent home early. Everyone around me was in shock and tears and there was endless talk, outrage and TV news coverage. At 9 I absorbed everyone’s grief. YET, that same year, 2 months earlier on 9/15/63 the Birmingham Church bombing occurred killing 4 young girls. I don’t recall hearing or learning anything about this event at home or at school.

    • On 6/6/1968 Robert Kennedy was killed. Again everyone around me was in shock and there was endless TV coverage of this event. I was now 13 and by then I remember responding with my own grief. YET, that same year, 2 mos earlier on 4/4/68, MLK was killed. I do not remember much in the way of news or response to this event at the time at home or in school.

    • However, in retrospect I do remember being exposed to negative talk and news coverage of the Newark riots. I would not even know the timing of this without looking it up. It occurred during 6 days in July of 1967 leaving 26 dead and hundreds injured. I’m sure I was exposed to lots of news and negative opinions about Blacks during this time at least at home.

    After moving to Berkeley and Oakland in 1978 a year after college, it was the first time I was exposed to many more people of diverse backgrounds. Somewhere along the line I was able to shed layers of the more SPOKEN toxic isolationist racism that poisoned the air and water I grew up with. Though I viewed myself as a liberal Bay area transplant, as I look back to becoming a parent and raising my own son in the 80’s, I can see how the inability to talk about race more comfortably only continued the racist training into the next generation. Fortunately, my son has done his own anti-racist work much sooner than I have come to it and he has been a great inspiration to me on this journey.

    • JanetC says:

      Cathy, thank you for sharing so much of your story and the important understanding that white privilege is still there, regardless of class. Also really interesting tracking of the difference in your family and community’s responses to the Kennedy assassinations and the Birmingham church bombing and MLK’s assassination –what is brought to our awareness as children and what is invisible to us. The things that have emotional impact. And the power of phrases like “each to their own” to echo in our behavior so many years later.

  4. Ellery says:

    Growing up in predominately White conservative Midwestern suburbia, race was barely visible because people of color were few and far between. I remember when my best friend and her family moved into our neighborhood from India. We were 6 years old. I had a mother that traveled around the world for work and would come home fascinating me with beautiful stories of other cultures and the people she’d met. I think through this appreciation of other cultures it was easy for me to appreciate the otherness of my friend’s culture, the smell of Indian spices as I walked into her home, the effort to get to know her parents and have them know me even though we were awkward to understand each other sometimes. But she and I both remember our friend shamming her for the “nasty and weird” smells of her food or how weird it was her grandpa was always wearing a turban and not speaking english. I remember my mom treating her differently, trying to socialize her, as my mom thought every mom should, to be more polite, reserved, or tame even though she was a fun loving, vivacious and talkative young girl. My mom tried to make her conform to White cultural norms despite my mom’s gloated appreciation for other cultures.

    I do remember later in high school how I was trying to conform to the “coolness” of my badass friends and would get embarrassed when she would come over to talk with me with her uncool clothes that looked like she shopped at Sears. I remember being embarrassed that she didn’t just fit it. She didn’t seem to care about fitting in then, but later she did all throughout college, trying to gain approval from the coolest and most elite, white-cultured students.

    Anyway, this long friend ship has taught me a lot about my white culture and programming. She and I together still learn more everyday.

    • JanetC says:

      Thank you, Ellery, for this vivid story, so honestly told. You are really tracking the white conditioning, the multi-layered and multidimensional aspects of it. I’m so glad you two are still friends – so many interracial friendships don’t survive the social pressures of growing up in our white-dominated society.

  5. Noah says:

    Unconsciously, I think I learned about whiteness from my education. I grew up in predominately white neighborhood of Sacramento, in the early 80s. Starting in the second grade I was moved into a magnet program called GATE (Gifted and Talented Education). While the larger student body of the school more or less reflected the diversity of the greater Sacramento area, my elementary school class was probably 90% white, and we definitely saw ourselves as above or better than our same-grade peers. The few black students in our class were often socially isolated and/or singled out by our teachers for behavior issues, and while I saw their difference in being black, I don’t remember ever considering my own whiteness. As this trend continued through middle school and high school, I became more and more aware of a feeling of separation from and discomfort around black people, in large part because I did not personally know any. My only contact was cursory: negative images, ideas, and imaginings on television, in movies, on the news, and in the “non-GATE” classes. I had no counter narrative, no personal experience, and extremely limited knowledge of any black people as individuals. My whiteness was the norm, the unquestioned, unexamined, common-place, natural experience of all (or most) of the people in my life: family, friends, neighbors, classmates, teachers, and just about anyone I had a passing familiarity with. I covertly became conditioned though consumption of a national narrative through the media, subtle (to me) messages and norms observed and absorbed in my daily life, and an absence of direct dialogue about race. It wasn’t until some time in my Junior year of high school, while learning in depth about the clearly racist and somewhat more recent U.S. history of Japanese internment during WWII and the Civil Rights Movement that I began to consider my own whiteness with a slightly more critical lens.

    • JanetC says:

      Thanks for your reflections, Noah! Isn’t it amazing with all the changes in laws and society, that the white norm is still so strong. Your story offers details of how that conditioning can still separate us. You say, “But I had no counter narrative, no personal experience, and extremely limited knowledge of any black people as individuals.” Sharing stories like yours is one way to create a counter narrative.

      • Just finished a novel you’ll want to read and recommend: by Jodi Piccoult, “Small Great things” — incredible, I won’t even try to tell you — just read it asap! I just returned it to Berkeley Library — got it after 50 holds, thanks to NYorker review — you may have see it already — a burning brand in the story of whiteness!
        love,
        catharine

      • JanetC says:

        Thank you, Catharine. I’ll look for it!

  6. Zoë says:

    I started reading this post a few weeks ago, and had a lot of trouble coming up with a reply. I think my inability to remember how I learned about race is totally indicative of my whiteness. I went to a private school that celebrated cultural heritage of all kinds, and I have distinct memories of celebrating many different traditions on many different holidays. And I also remember not really identifying with any of them — and not really being able to identify what my cultural traditions were. I never asked questions about why that was.

    I grew up in a loosely Catholic family, where most of the Catholicism that we practiced was rooted in service. We would often serve meals in homeless shelters and soup kitchens as a way to practice our faith and be thankful for what we had. This early exposure to poverty in San Francisco — where people of color were in the majority at soup kitchens and shelters, while those serving at these same places where majority white — helped inform my whiteness. In these instances I was the “good white Catholic” that was “helping” to serve those “less fortunate than me.” How could I not be affected by these experiences and the difference in the color of our skin? Did anyone else have this experience growing up? How do you think it affected you?

    • Rees says:

      I grew up in a small rural town in Massachusetts. I just looked up the census data from 2010 and it is 95% white; it was probably even more so when I was a child. Racism was definitely something that was supposed to happen elsewhere—I suppose in places that had more non-white people to be racist to: big cities and the South.

      So, I had the same blinders that Janet was describing. Because I was not confronted on a daily basis with many people of color, I could presume me and my community to be non-racist, or barely racist. Of course, when I was young I had no idea of the historical causes and conditions that had led to there being so few people of color in my community.

      Interestingly, when I went south to North Carolina for college, I was struck by how much more racially aware, sensitive, and integrated my white friends down there were. It was a big shock to realize that my white liberal “Yankee” (as my new friends liked to call me) background had actually proved something of a barrier to me in relating to race in an honest and straightforward way.

  7. Loved Susan’s recent posting — especially the last paragraph about being among the ‘bad guys’ and having “no culture” — everyone else was so much more interesting! thanks for sharing!

  8. Susan says:

    Growing up in a military family, my earliest awareness of privilege was that to be an American was privileged. When we were stationed overseas (three years in Morocco, three in France, then three more in Morocco), we always had a maid (something that would have been financially impossible and totally inappropriate class-wise when we lived in the States). My mother explained that every family hired local people because it was our way of repaying the country for letting us live there. Particularly in Morocco, I was aware that we had much better living standards…money, luxuries, education, health care, etc…than the Moroccan people. I didn’t think we were better, just luckier. I thought it had to do with where you were born, and it didn’t occur to me it had anything to do with race. The American families of color seemed just as privileged as my family was.
    I was aware that my North Carolina grandfather was overtly racist. I remember once when we were visiting him and we stopped at his favorite barbecue place. I was astounded and horrified that the sign on the window said, “We cater to white trade only.” My mother would have refused to eat in a place with such a sign, but she wasn’t there, and as a preteen I didn’t have the courage to protest.
    When I was twelve, my dad went to Vietnam and my mother and my siblings spent a year in my parents’ hometown in Burlington, NC. It was 1964, which happened to be the year the schools were integrated. There a huge hubub before it happened. I protested loudly that they were worried about nothing, that people were people, and there was nothing to be afraid of. I was attacked and ridiculed for that opinion. I remember thinking the basketball coach was hypocritical and stupid when he declared, “Well, if we have to integrate, let’s integrate all the boys over 6 foot 3 first.”
    That year, I read in the paper that Coretta Scott King was coming to speak at a Black college in Greensboro. I wanted very much to be there, but wasn’t sure a white girl would be welcome. I did not want to presume I had the right to be there if I would be seen as an intruder. With my mother’s encouragement, I wrote to the president of the college to ask if it was OK if my mother and I came to the event, since “I wasn’t sure if it was accepted for Caucasians attend.” I received a nice reply saying we would indeed be welcome. I’m pretty sure my mother and I were the only white people in the huge crowd. I was embarrassed that we weren’t dressed as well as everyone else…we didn’t even have hats…but I was thrilled to be there, and didn’t have any angst about being the only two white people. Dr. King was a hero of mine, a great man, and to be in the same room with his wife and to hear her speak was a very important day for me.
    Your third question is, “What did your racial identity mean to you?” It meant I was a member of the “bad guys,” even though I didn’t feel like one of them. It meant my culture was the culture of No Culture, and everyone else was more interesting. It meant I didn’t get the color and mystery of the Moroccan people, and I certainly didn’t have what I saw as the elegance and class of the African American Americans in North Carolina (just look how they dress up for church, and how much better their choirs are). I was sort of aware I was lucky to be white, but not as aware as I am now. I had no idea I was absorbing racist ideas; I’m only just now becoming aware of that, in fact. That’s why I’m in the class; to find out what I don’t know.

  9. Lisa Carey says:

    Hi Janet. This is such a great thing to do, have a blog where people can converse about racism and all that goes with it. I like what I’ve read so far, very thoughtful, and glad to see all the links, I will be checking them out ongoing. I was uncomfortable with what I heard in my church yesterday that sounded like acknowledgement of institutionalized racism, but wasn’t talked about in a clear way and could have been taken as it going both ways, when we know that institutionalized racism “benefits” only white-americans, no one else in this country. I put benefits in quotes because we white people lose out on being fully conscious of our privilege, our words, our actions. We lose with the separation that happens. I looked at a number of youtube videos this morning of Louis CK, a comedian who talks about race and while I think he is ackowledging his privilege, he doesn’t talk about it in a clear way and I fear that he’s actually dangerous in that white people can definitely take what he’s saying in a racist way. Sometimes, the racism shows up so clearly to me, and sometimes it is fuzzy. I think one of my main goals in this work in your class, is to recognize what is truly racism, when it is coming from a place of basic goodness (which I think the fuzzy stuff is) and when it is dangerous (because it can actually perpetuate the privilege; he was saying that it’s much better to be white in this country, because black people have it so much worse, and he would choose whiteness again for that reason he likes being white- and having the privilege-he didn’t say this last part) and needs to be explained to people. I think the deepest desire is that I want to feel comfortable with all people of color, not separate, and stay conscious of what I’m saying with everyone of all races. Then I think about my unconsciousness when I make a mistake and say something that is fuzzy, can be taken the wrong way, and that it is coming from an unclear place of what is racist, not thoughtful of what someone else will feel. I made this mistake about something else in our class and am still communicating about it with my buddy.
    Thank you for all that you have researched, learned, delved into yourself to bring to the world in this way.

  10. Elena says:

    I am having so much trouble coming up with moments of my racist training growing up, which I know says a lot about how that training is really sneaky and definitely worth exploring more. I wish I had kept journals as a kid so I could look through them to look for my training. When I visit my family for thanksgiving I definitely want to look at my children’s books to see what I learned. I grew up in a town that is something like 85-90% white. It seems like my training has everything to do this. I always thought of myself as “normal”, cultureless, raceless, and to some extent I tried to be genderless. I have blonde hair and blue eyes, a body weight and size that is “average” for women in general. I remember my two best friends and I would always joke growing up that my bed was the size of Darcy’s bedroom (she lived in a trailer) and my bedroom was the size of Jordan’s bed (she lived in a mansion), so I always felt like I was the average and in the middle of everything. In this way, I somehow developed this belief that is kind of like I don’t even exist because there is nothing unique about me. I never thought of this as a privilege, but now I’m realizing it is. I never had to face existing in the world because I could always match up to peoples’ stereotypes of what a nice white girl is. Now I feel like this (which is a race-based privilege) is also a developmental disadvantage because it’s one of the main issues I’m coming up against in becoming an adult. I have felt universal, as if I don’t have a context, but I’m realizing that I’m in a very specific context and that it isn’t necessarily “normal” to be a white average-sized woman in the United States in 2012.

  11. Giles Charle says:

    Growing up my parents had a close friend who had been in a relationship with a Puerto Rican man who left her about the same time their child was born. I was born at the same time and her son Adam and I were close friends. As a child I wondered both about Adam’s color and why he didn’t have a father. My parents tried to explain the situation to me as best they could and I remember even as a child filling in what my parents told me about him with stereotypes I was already starting to absorb as a child.

    In another memory that contrasts the one above: My fathers youngest brother was black and adopted. I remember hearing stories when I was a child about him being an addict, and getting evicted from his home. In this situation I was able to take what I heard and rather then fill in the story with stereotypes I used what I actually new about my uncle, and I was confused. Why was he having such a hard time? Why was he being treated so unjustly. When I was older I thought about the significance of being black and growing up in white family. I realized that despite my uncles upbringing he was still subject to the same impact of a white supremacist culture.

    I don’t remember thinking much about being white until I got to college. At Antioch college in Ohio I began spending time with people of color who were politically and socially aware and radical. Antioch was the first time that I got called out for my ignorance of white supremacy, it was also the first time I felt shame for my race.

  12. Tara I. says:

    Janet,

    I was also raised to not see color and to understand racism as a personal issue in the sense that if each individual would accept differences, racism would not be a problem. As if by not seeing color, we were immune to the effects of racism. My parents taught and behaved in a lot of ways I’m proud of. At this point though, I’m able to see the limitations of this way of relating to race and how it even unintentionally perpetuates the problem. They were working with the understanding available to them at the time.

    The escalator metaphor has been very helpful to me these last couple of weeks. I can see that I have a default belief (from my family and probably other sources) that “confronting racism” means to fiercely address it head-on and to “make” the person get off the escalator or even to stop the escalator entirely. Of course, that is not possible. The escalator image helps me to see the falsity and unhelpfulness of this type of “confronting” stance, and it also helps me de-personalize it and put the responsibility for racism where it belongs, within the system of culture that created the escalator. Certainly we each individually contribute to this system, but individuals themselves are not responsible for its existence. This helps bring me back to ‘basic goodness’ kind of place from which I can tell real change is much more possible.

    ~ Tara

    • JanetC says:

      Thank you for your reflections, Tara! The question becomes how does change happen from the “basic goodness” place? Because racism still needs to be fiercely addressed. For me, one way is to be able to see both conditioning and basic goodness in myself, so I don’t just attack others for their conditioning. A much more interesting dialogue can happen if there’s a mutual exploration. There are times we just have to say, “Ouch, that hurts” or challenge policies in our workplace, or whatever we can do. That can be done from the place of feeling our common humanity, even though it’s simpler to just see it as “I’m right and you’re wrong.” I still get frozen, pissed off, and blaming, but have more options now to get past those initial responses.

  13. Thank you Janet, for taking the time to put your voice and perspective out there. We need more folks here in Vermont who have similar experiences like yourself to come forward and talk about the issues that many are afraid to see much less address: white privilege, and the barrier to seeing race, colorblindness. Thank you so much. I am a Vermonter of color. I have just resurrected my blog, Greenmountaincolortalk right here on WordPress. Hope you take a look and tell me what you think, as well.

  14. susanolofson says:

    Such courage and honesty, to speak what is true for you, and for so many of us desiring to be truly, genuinely at peace with the similarities and differences of our world’s cultures and people. I’ve learned so much in my own journey, feeling at ease living as a white woman amongst the Maasai of Kenya, yet more unsure of my “whiteness” in our US culture. I have always been moved by your writing and insights, now more than ever in reading this piece of your writing. I want to read more…the whole book….all you have to say! Blessings and love as you find your way to sharing it with us all. We need it.

  15. Catharine Lucas says:

    Love that you’ve started posting your book! This is the first blog of anybody’s that I ever tried to open, much less comment on — you’re dragging me into this century! The picture from Raggedy Andy brought back memories — Aunt Jemima on the pancake box, of course, and the mammy in the Shirley Temple movie, The Little Colonel —

    Growing up in the South (both Carolinas), I was also conditioned to believe good people were careful not to be racist, by our then definition — This meant primarily not using the [“n-word”] on pain of death, and not being rude (talking back) to our “help” Letitia or our yardman, Mose (who was also the Reverend in his own community), but also not challenging the status quo in any way that would “upset our colored citizens,” such as my wanting to cross the barrier in the segregated bus station to sit with Letitia while we waited for my sister to arrive home from camp on the Greyhound, or my wanting to bring home my newfound friend from the dirt road where she lived around the corner, a child whose family took me in, shared their comics and their Toosie pops, but who was shamed and sent away — not by my mother but by Letitia! — when I invited her home for lunch. Many other such episodes wakened in me a sense of outrage — first on my own behalf for being denied what I wanted, but soon on behalf of those I was being kept apart from. I was a second child whose big sister sported a large KEEP OUT sign on her door. I knew what it felt like to be unwanted, shut out. I think this was part of what made me imagine how awful it could feel to be a “Negro” (this word was acceptable in my family) though I also clung to the evidence of genuine (if not equal) friendships and warm affection between my mother and Letitia, for instance. So when I first met Yankees who thought all African Americans really hated white people in the South (and only pretended to be loving and kind), I knew they were wrong. And when they told me about killings and other atrocities, I tried for a long time not to believe them.

    These episodes are at the heart of my own novel, Summers, a work in progress (which you know about!) So, I’m especially eager to follow your story as it unfolds! Thanks for doing this!
    Catharine L

    • JanetC says:

      Wow, Catherine. Thanks for that window into growing up in the Carolinas! So different from me growing up in Vermont, where so much was learned by osmosis. You make it clear how painful it was trying to navigate the complex layers of messages around race and relating daily to people of color in your life. Look forward to seeing your book on my bookshelf.

  16. Billbb says:

    Janet, it’s great to see your work beginning to get out to the world, and great to read about the depth of your exploration on this slippery, too-easily-ignored subject! We have a much greater self-identity than our narrow boxes allow us to inhabit. Your words offer a way to explore those possibilities.

    Congratulations! I look forward to more!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s