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

  1. Serene says:

    I had known that on my mother’s side, my ancestors had lived in this country since the late 1700s on her father’s side, and even earlier on her mother’s side. I didn’t know much about those ancestors, except that my 4 times great grandmother had become pregnant by an unknown man, and there were rumors that “it was a wild Indian”. I was comforted by the fact that my Grandmother used a tone that indicated that she didn’t like the term “wild Indian”. Some of the family members had gone to great lengths to infer who the father was, and finally came up with a local doctor of English descent, a person they would feel comfortable having as an ancestor. In fact, they wrote a whole book about it. It was that important to them to prove that their European blood was “pure”. DNA testing, however, indicates that they were probably wrong. In any case, this was one memory I have that stuck with me about my mom’s side of the family. On my Grandfather’s side, I recently learned by looking at a family tree and accompanying information, that my many times great grandfather who came over from Scotland, owned quite a bit of land in the South during the early 1800s. Although nothing was explicitly told to me, in fact, this has never been spoken about in my family at all, I am sure that this man did not work that land by himself. He must have had slaves. When I formulated this thought in my mind, I thought immediately of my children. How could I tell them this? My children, who are African American, Native American and European have in their ancestry the oppressor and the oppressed. They have family members who were forced to walk The Trail of Tears, and who survived the horrors of slavery…And the slave master. My immediate family of origin pose as “good white people”, verbally claiming disgust with modern day overly supremist white politicians and public figures. But the lack of discussion about the roots of racism in our family sits silently as something taboo, something that died with those ancestors. But did it? Is the lack of discussion not also part of complicity? In my wish to not further traumatize my own children, I hesitate to bring it up. But there may be more healing in openly talking about it and allowing for the pain to surface. The culture of denial and sweeping “things” we don’t like under the rug has produced an environment that is unsafe for all of us. I would welcome your feedback. Thank you so much for this valuable blog.

  2. Susan C says:

    What this post brings to mind is the stories I heard my mother tell about her father, a white man born in Tallahassee, FL who later moved to Georgia, and then to Massachusetts. Much of his family history we don’t know, but he did give my mother a book when she was a child, a book that was about the South during the time of slavery, and he wrote in it something to the effect of: “can you believe that a child your age used to have their very own slaves?” He meant it as a good thing, something to marvel at. For years I felt rage at my grandfather for writing and thinking such a thing (even though I never knew him) and I can see more clearly now that this is a way of me trying to show that I am better than him – trying to be the “good white person” again. My grandfather was working class, never went beyond college in education. I remember my grandmother (his wife) telling me that “colored” women in the south used to drink turpentine to try to abort a fetus – apparently my grandfather and his relatives used to mark trees that were meant to be used for turpentine. I feel physically ill remembering her telling me that story (which he had told her, apparently), and especially the way in which she told it – which felt so dehumanizing and objectifying. I can see more clearly now that my grandparents were conditioned into the U.S. sickness (as am I) of feeling better about themselves if they could see themselves as above rank in relation to some other group, and in the process dehumanized them. It helps to hold me accountable to realize that I am not any “better” than them, and am just as complicit in this same national illness…

  3. Sil says:

    Growing up as a first-gen individual from the Azores, whose family history involves a proud lineage of seafaring people who traveled and colonized the world in the name of religion and imperialism, I have held mixed feelings about the topic of race in my family. On one hand, I have heard family members deny the atrocities committed against people of color in their home countries with the arrival of Portuguese colonizers and, on the other hand, have heard family members discuss the distinct, painful challenges of immigrating to the US and, as immigrants, the xenophobic mistreatment they faced. My sense is that for many of my family members, there is no relationship between these two elements of their experience – that the pain of their immigration experience might tell them something about the pain of those historically colonized by Portuguese explorers. I have always found this confusing, as the two seem intimately related and that one should sensitize us to the other.

    I recall a specific instance during which my uncle shared his belief that individuals in South America and Asia whose countries were colonized by Portuguese settlers were actually glad that Portuguese people did this – that they sought the kind of order and infrastructure that the Portuguese brought with them. Even writing it, I find this so embarrassing! And yet, at the same time, as a psychologist, I can hold empathy for this position. In myself I have found it incredibly painful to acknowledge the devastating impact that my people have had on others around the world. I can see, in this example with my uncle, the deeply entrenched pattern of defense intended to keep him (and others in my family and the larger Azorean/Portuguese community) unconscious of the damage our people have inflicted and the appropriate guilt that follows. I recall on this specific incident attempting to argue with my uncle about this; however, at that time (in my last adolescence) I lacked the words and knowledge to persuade him to see it differently.

    And this has been the case for me in my family when discussing race much of my life: a series of paradoxes and difficult contradictions that each of us holds, defends against, and rarely, if ever, speaks about — that is, until now. My niece, who has a number of friends of color, will sometimes make overtly racist comments, often goaded on by her father who finds it funny. Older now, and steeped much more in anti-racist thought, I find this type of behavior much easier to confront. Of course, I must admit, that at times this confrontation serves to prove to some part of me that I am not a bad racist; on the other hand, it is a genuine attempt to stop this kind of speech, especially coming from my niece who I love dearly.

    These are my meandering thoughts on this topic. I imagine more will come as I further reflect – also, quite likely after spending some time with my family this afternoon for Easter!

    • barbbreslaucomcastnet says:

      I have a very different background than the author of “Good White People”. I did not grow up with parents embedded in any part of US culture. My ancestors were Jews in Hungary. They were persecuted by the Nazis much like the blacks in America were persecuted by the KKK. Therefore I believe I have a basic empathy for POC based on a kind of shared history.

      That said, I also feel I have a similar present experience as the author. My parents came to America for a better life. They had relatives who helped them. I lived in nice houses; went to good schools. In short, I have probably been “conditioned around race” to the extent that there were very few POC in my life, mostly maids. So I grew up with little or no understanding of the black experience and was suspicious when black people appeared in my mostly white world.

      My work at the Community Law Center in Baltimore opened my eyes and my heart to the plight of POC in poor inner city neighborhoods. I was awakened and inspired by Martin Luther King. And now, living in the Bay Area, I have friends who have married people of color and had bi-racial children. I am beginning to understand the challenges of POC close to my socio-economic. I am open to uncovering my unconscious racist attitudes based on the socialization I received growing up in the 60s and 70s as a privileged white woman.

      As I look at the schools and colleges I attended, I am happy to see that they have changed. Madeira, the high school I attended in Virginia, now encourages diversity, welcoming students from other countries and people of color to the campus and unTeaching some of the old social conditioning around race that I absorbed from them. Smith College, where I earned my BA, is now respected for the way it integrates anti-racist work into its PhD in social work. The program is known for its strong social justice orientation and emphasis on anti-racism.

      I feel encouraged by the changes I have observed in the environments in which I grew up. I have had more exposure to POCs as an adult than I had growing up and I am committed to doing what I can to welcome diversity into the world. I feel passionately upset by what Trump is doing in supporting white nationalists and welcoming white people from Scandinavian countries while deporting Muslims, Mexicans and other people of color from America. I truly believe that diversity makes us all better.

  4. Steph Sieveke says:

    I felt a huge divide open up in my relationship with my mom (who is also my best friend) during college around the topic of race and immigration. At the time, I was learning about “white privilege”, immigration reform efforts and organizing alongside recent immigrants that were being taken advantage of by predatory payday lenders.

    I feel so compelled to make amends for the injustice done by white people that I find myself on the extreme end of wanting to accept all immigrants at any cost. (This is where my desire to be a good white person comes in).

    My mom has a very strong fear of losing what she believes she is entitled to (as a white person) and is convinced that immigration is a real threat to our livelihood as a family.

    If I were to ask her, she’d say the topics of race and immigration are unrelated. After all, she doesn’t believe herself to be racist. But if we were to dig a little deeper, I believe that we’d find those negative stereotypes about POC and under-resourced communities that we have learned as part of our conditioning are influencing her opinions about immigration. How do I know? Because I have those same stereotypes.

    In these heated conversations with my mom, my core issues of inadequacy come up and I feel like a failure for not being able to effectively defend my position. I get frustrated and angry towards my mom. The judgemental tape in my head starts to replay “She’s racist, she’s a bad person” and I withdraw from the relationship and so we try to avoid these conversations.

    I’m trying to find common ground with my mom and figure out how to create spaces where we can share our opinions and learn together. First I’ll need to get of my pedestal and share my own racist beliefs with my mom and what I’ve been learning about undoing the white conditioning.

    We both are compassionate and empathetic and believe in justice and equality. Neither of us want to be racist. We want to be good people.

    The reason for our different opinions on immigration comes back to privilege. I think this particular piece of the fear-based conditioning didn’t get as strong of a foothold within me because I grew up feeling safe and not worrying about how my needs would be met. This was much in part because of the opportunities we had as white folks that let my mom’s hard work pay off to give me a sense of security. I’m grateful for her sacrifices that allowed me to feel provided for. I’m also aware that my whiteness allowed me to accumulate more privileges.

  5. Louise Chegwidden says:

    Born into apartheid South Africa, I moved with my family two months later to Australia, where I lived until I was 27 years old, before settling in the Bay Area. I thought I had escaped the oppressive system of South Africa, but now realize it came with us via its conditioning of my mother.

    Growing up, I heard that we immigrated after two black men fought over my family’s ‘girl’ and the loser was found dead in the garden, that the government bought my grandfather’s macadamia nut farm for far less than it was worth (to return the land to the local tribe), and that my mother’s first attempt at cooking included serving guests a peach crumble with shards of glass. While there was no direct discussion of race, the messages I received were clear. Black men are inherently, tribally violent and are to be feared, run away, a government unjustly takes from a hard-working white man to give to less deserving black people, the central focus of a story is the white person (don’t think about why she, as a wife and mother of two didn’t know how to cook – because someone had always been there to do it for the family), and there is to be no discussion. My mother was the authority.

    The first time I questioned the assumption of white supremacy as an adult, responding to my stepfather’s criticism of French tennis player Yannick Noah for his long dreadlocks, the message was also clear, delivered swiftly and sharply. It was forbidden to ‘side’ with a black person against a white person.

    Subsequent conversations have felt like a dangerous, delicate dance. When showing my mother an album featuring photos of my then partner, a Cantonese-American man, I watched her struggle to articulate a question that finally came as, ‘Is he cultured, Lou?’ From somewhere, basic goodness it now occurs to me, my response came, ‘What, you mean like a pearl, Mum?’

    As I write this, sadness floods my thinking. Growing up and even now, questioning is taboo, and my refusal to play by unwritten, unspoken family rules has come at a great cost. It is not as simple as getting along by just not talking about white supremacy and racism. In this moment, I choose the broken heart quality of compassion, and I’m grateful for the insights that have allowed me to begin to see my mother in light of apartheid, authoritarian conditioning. And me too.

  6. Noah Shapiro says:

    I do not recall (was not aware of) much blatant racism from my family growing up (not to say that it wasn’t there), but I do remember it from some of my friends/teammates. I distinctly recall one soccer practice where my team (95% white) huddled up after practice and started making dead baby and black jokes. I was quite uncomfortable, but in that group setting I did not know how to speak up about it, and remained silent. More recently I have been very outspoken and self-righteous with my wife when she uses foreign sounding accents to mimic and mock people of color she has had challenging or unpleasant interactions with, which has felt equally ineffective in creating a dialogue and recognizing our racial conditioning and shared basic goodness.
    I think I struggle to hold our shared racial conditioning and basic goodness of a friend or family member who espouses racist actions, words, and beliefs because I am ashamed and angry at the part of myself that hold/shares those same thoughts/beliefs. By judging, chastising, and criticizing my family member or friend’s words/actions, I could deny and denounce that part of myself, which identifies with those same thoughts/beliefs. As I work to increase my awareness of conditioned white supremacy narratives through tracking and basic goodness through meditation, I hope to bring more patience, understanding, compassion, and constructive dialogue to my interactions with family members and friends who espouse racist words, actions, and beliefs.

  7. tim english says:

    What has been your experience of racism in your family, either past or present, and how have you dealt with it?

    In my immediate family, we were not allowed to use the term ‘n*****’, though at our most frequently visited relatives (dad’s 3 sisters), the word was used somewhat freely, including by the two aunts who loved and doted so much on us seven kids. I could hear the hatred in their speech about African Americans, and was wise enough to see their fear, but I did not perceive that ignorance was a large piece of the mix. These two aunts often went out of their way to give us kids a good time; in some ways they helped to save me from a childhood that was pretty challenging. So of course that set up a conflict in me: I wanted to hold that they were wrong for their harsh views of African Americans, but since these two women were one of the best things that happened to me in childhood, I could not reject them. So I think that my love and need for them only helped support my own growing, if silent, racism.
    My dad would often demonstrably (and eventually, awkwardly) attempt to show how accepting he was of African Americans, almost always using the way he interacted with a guy named Charlie, from work, as his example. I never met this Charlie, but my understanding was that he had some type of custodian or cleaner position within the public utility that employed my dad, who himself had moved up from serviceman to middle management. I think from the start I knew that dad was trying to make a case for his fairness and evolution, but in a way that felt disingenuous. There were enough other examples of what we were taught about “others” to discount these “personal” stories of my father.
    When I was adolescent I remember my dad entering the house after having banded with other neighborhood dads to tell (ask?- I doubt it) a neighbor to stop showing his house, on the market, to prospective African American buyers. I was aware of what they were doing, and I remember my dad somewhat uncomfortably and apologetically explaining to me that it would not have been a good thing for a such a family to move into this 100% white neighborhood. I knew there was some truth in my dad’s words- how difficult and alienating it would have been for a black family to live on Perham Street, of all places, I imagined. But I know that this band of men was not seeking to protect a family of color from harassment- like the article here states, what was being protected was us, our way of life, a status quo that promoted so many things about which I am trying to become aware, with which I am trying to come to terms. Although this was not the more provocative sterotyped uglier racism that we perhaps all like to compare our own to, it was racism that damaged everyone. Today I wonder if the family looking at the house had been trying to escape the danger and blight of Mattapan, or Dorchester, or Roxbury, and courageous enough to consider moving to a neighborhood where they had to know they would not be welcomed. But my tribe, my people, my family helped to close the door on that.
    And today I feel glad that I did not have to grow up in a mixed neighborhood because I have very deep beliefs that I would have been less safe, less comfortable, less happy. Whether or not any of that is true, I am embarrassed to admit that forty-plus years later, and knowing the bit I now know about my own racial status and the things that go along with it, I am continuing to choose a white-washed childhood, and still living with deeply held racist beliefs, and wanting to preserve my privilege, even retroactively.
    So this last paragraph above is the kicker- it was pretty easy to talk about the sins of the family, but then to come in to my own personal exposure, I felt a brief draw to censor or withhold my words. And I’m glad that the draw did not win out. But herein is a common challenge for me, one which we have referred to in the UNtraining work: exposure of my own shortcomings, here around race, tends to wake up the sleeping giant of self-rejection (core issues including the belief that I am bad, and an aversion to being seen as less than good, or OK), which can goad me into attempts to show myself in the most hideous light. And I know enough to understand that such a portrayal is not only not helpful but is actually a barrier to potential growth or benefit. So I’ll make room here for the truth of my words in that paragraph but also to acknowledge that I am choosing to continue this sometimes very challenging work of exploration.

    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?

    I can speak and have spoken about these issues with the 2 of 6 siblings in whom I have always been able to speak of uncomfortable family stuff. When I referenced the incident about the neighborhood home sale with my siblings in an email two years ago, admittedly in a partly unskillful way, a bit of an email firestorm raged for a few days, and I was criticized by a couple of siblings for whom I think it is too hard to consider that our parents had any shortcomings. I am not averse to all of the siblings knowing that I am doing this work, but it feels foolish to open myself up to criticism/attacks from the couple of siblings who are on such a different wavelength from mine. So I guess that my tendency is to “remain silent and write off”. I’m working through this one.

    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?

    For me, it has been super helpful to see the roots of my beliefs and thinking and tendencies (including inactions); thus I have to believe that it would help all of us to be in touch with this history and impact of conditioning. When I really started to digest, in my work in another spiritual/social community, how conditioning is so tied in to, even responsible for, many of the ways I think and act, I became much more able to go deeper in my work. Prior to that (not that there has been complete eradication) I would at some point get bogged down in self-rejection and give up.

  8. Victoria Nicholsen says:

    Thank you Janet for sharing. I am really seeing how the keys are vulnerability and compassion. If we can be vulnerable and compassionate with ourselves, and others, then we can begin to dialogue, feel and heal the pain that is there around race for all of us, and move forward with more awareness and gentleness.

  9. Michaela McCormick says:

    I’ve spent my adult life, almost fifty years, trying not to be like my racist parents. As far as I know, they were not blatantly racist, but during the 1960’s civil rights movement when the abuse of black activists/protesters was regularly shown on TV, my parents never talked with me about it. The scenes of water hoses and dogs turned on nonviolent demonstrators affected me deeply, though I couldn’t express myself about it. Even though I went to a high school where half the students were black, my immediate, in-person white culture did not acknowledge the struggle. My all-white church, which sat on the edge of a black ghetto, never once offered sermons or discussions on racism as a contradiction to the church’s message of universal love. It was like I didn’t have permission to speak of the issue. In my college years, I began to speak up about racism, and ever since, my concern about it has greatly influenced my vocational choices and moved me to repeatedly address the issue. But even in the white liberal organizations I’ve been part of, including one whose primary work was promoting public dialogues on racism, my attempts to get my white colleagues to confront their racism have met with denial. Through those experiences, I have come to view myself as more evolved, less racist than my white colleagues. My arrogance has often alienated other whites and made it even more difficult to get them to do the necessary work. In recent years, as I have recognized still lingering racist attitudes in myself, I have had to consider how to come down off my pedestal and engage with my fellow white racists in a way that acknowledges our shared cultural pattern as well as the basic human decency which I used to think I had a special hold on.

    • JanetC says:

      Beautiful reflection on your path, Micaela! Yes, as long as we are putting ourselves on a pedestal for having more awareness, we can’t really connect with others in a way that invites them to explore our conditioning. Realizing how often my conditioned responses still arise keeps me humble. I have a different relationship with them now. I don’t have to trash myself for having them, but realize, yep, that’s the conditioning, still there. The awareness, coupled with not getting hooked about being a bad person, lets me choose not to act out of that prescribed space. There is more kindness to both myself and others.

  10. Susan says:

    My family roots are in North Carolina, so there was never a doubt racism is a part of my family “heritage.” My father was a career military man, so I didn’t grow up in the racist incubator that was mid-century North Carolina. My mother was actually sort of anti-racist, I think when I look back on it. She had several friends who were POC. I don’t know what their conversations about race were like, but I am sure they occurred. Her best friend when I was in high school was a powerful African American woman named Cass Burnett who, for some reason, took me under her wing. She was a leader in the Black Power movement in Hawaii in the late ’60s, so conversations about race were a frequent part of my late teenage years. Cass took me to several meetings and events, at which I was usually the only white person. I remember sitting next to her while she, smoking a cigarette wrapped in brown paper, like a small cigar, had a conversation with Ralph Bunche through the window of her car. I was dazzled by her confidence and her powerful personality, and always wondered why I was lucky enough to have been invited along with her to her many political events.
    My dad, on the other hand, did not approve my mother’s choice of POC as friends (maybe that’s why she did it, actually), and I did hear him make racist comments on many occasions. Once my parents had a big fight where he demanded she stop playing her Harry Belafonte album, saying he wasn’t going to have n….. music in his house. She responded by turning up the volume.
    As a senior in high school, I was invited on a date by Charlie, an African American man from our church. My mom thought it was great; my brother told my dad about it at dinner one night. My dad got up from the table and went to his bedroom. The next morning we talked before the rest of the family was awake. Dad said, “Susie, I know your mother has raised you to not be prejudiced. I’m glad she did, and to tell the truth I’m proud of her for doing that. But I can’t help the way I was raised. I’ve tried to get over it, but I am who I am. You can go on that date if you want to. I’m not telling you not to do it. But I have to tell you, that if you do, I will never be able to feel the same about you. It will change the way I feel about you forever.” Well, very little in the world mattered more to me than my father’s opinion. I have struggled to win his love my whole life. I did not go out with Charlie.
    To his credit, my dad evolved over the next twenty years. I left home the year after the Charlie incident, and never again lived near my family of origin. But I did hear Dad express regret for the attitudes he’d been raised with, and heard him say it turns out people are all the same inside no matter what color they are on the outside. My dad was an honorable man, who always did his best in the world. If anybody ever possessed basic goodness it was Albert Haney. Growing up in racist smog does not stamp out Basic Goodness, and does not make growth and enlightenment impossible.

    • JanetC says:

      Wow. Very powerful story, Susan. Both the sadness of the choice you had to make between your father and your friend, and the heartening story of how he was able to change over the years. Whatever her motivation, your mother’s more open attitude made a difference in your life — showing you that you can take a stand for what you believe even with people closest to you. Thank you.

  11. Katharine says:

    Great post about how we have to face our own past and family before we can move forward. Like in meditation, you can’t make “negative” feelings go away by trying to repress or ignore them, you have to face them before there is any space or room to work with them.
    Thank you for the inspiration!

  12. Lisa Carey says:

    These are all very provocative writings here. I have had so many experiences where I have ventured to offer either contradictions to what someone is saying that I hear as racist, or offering something I have learned from people of color of their experience, and me being White-American, usually this is talking to white people but not always. Sometimes I want to support people of color to understand institutional racism that is different from personal prejudice. Sometimes I can speak in a gentle way to begin with, but then when I am responded to in a negative, defensive negating way, (usually with white people) I can get feeling unheard, disconnected, hurt and because of my core issues of not being seen or valued for who I am, my anger kicks in and I argue. My goal in this class is not to silence myself for fear of being estranged or hurting someone else, nor of getting angry, but to learn how to speak in a way that remembers the basic goodness we are practicing, remembering how much I have learned and haven’t always known all this and have been “corrected” or talked to by others. And I still have much to learn and don’t want others to disconnect from me while I learn ever more!
    When my African-American husband died (I was 34 and not very healed from the above issues) I told my younger brother who I adore that I probably wouldn’t have him be the one I would leave my children to if something happened to me because he hadn’t gone through any anti-racist (or unlearning oppression) training, and it would be important for whoever took them to know how to raise children of color. He was so upset, and hurt, and to this day believes that he is not as loved by me or my children because in his mind, we see him as racist. He has felt hurt that social justice is so important to me, that it has taken me away from being with our family in his mind. Luckily, my son has been able to see him for who he is, made a point to reach out to him, and they have a good relationship. My daughter had a big argument with him and has not repaired that relationship yet. I think it would be nice for my brother to reach out to her since he is the older adult, but he has not healed from his childhood issues in that way yet. My brother and I talk fairly regularly and pretty much stay away from difficult conversations (he is republican and I vote democratic but much more liberal than that politically) We mainly want to keep our love alive for each other.
    Since I am taking this class, I am committed to bringing this all up with him (he lives in New England where we grew up, and I am here in California) and seeing how I can effectively and lovingly talk to him about racism and see if I can tell him what I have learned. I have tried but would like to do this in a more complete way.

  13. Tara says:

    Such a compelling post and comments to read. The question I’m living with most right now is… “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?”

    It is painful to see how much I keep silent. There are personal aspects to my tendency to keep silent (related to core issues of mine and relationship/family dynamic roles I’ve taken on), however focusing only on the personal level would likely be a diversion from really seeing my white conditioning. In a comment below, Denise asks a potent question… “who has the power to silence the “race” conversation?” I realize I’m silenced before I even begin it. My imagination readily fueling images of the ‘push-back’ of white conditioning. Images of being dismissed, argued with, negated, rejected. Where did these images come from and how is it they are living in me and so readily jump to the surface to silence me when I even when I am alone andimagine speaking, let alone in the company of others actually taking a breath to speak of racism. I am silenced by these power dynamics playing out inside myself, and it is shocking to see what kind of residence they have taken up inside me without me realizing they are there. They write me off before anyone else has a chance to. As I bring awareness and basic goodness to these places, I am untangling myself from them and will grow into speaking rather than keeping silent.

  14. j.yang says:

    There isn’t really a good or bad, all people are racist to some degree. The whole “anti-racism”, “white privilege” thing is frequently used as a safe ideological cover for minorities to exercise their own racism. Hell, sometimes I do it myself. Still… the Western world doesn’t seem to realize that all racial issues can be solved by simply not allowing immigration on a significant scale, and will probably slide further into racial discord as time goes on.

    • j. yang, I think what Janet has articulated in her title as well as throughout her writing is the use of “good” as the metaphor that goes with the notion of how white people view themselves in reference to Americas racial history and narrative. Perhaps seeing themselves as good, helps to distance oneself from being part of all that “bad” racial stuff as happening in our past. That particular mindset, blinds some white folks to the pervasiveness of institutionalized racism and all other “isms” as well. “I am colorblind, I do not see race” are all ideological covers for white folks not to see much less address the benefits they derive from living in a nation that gained its wealth off of the backs of the working class and peoples of color. Slavery was a peculiar institution in which African descended people worked in perpetual captivity, for free. Post Civil war, Blacks, through racist policy and practice, such as vagrancy laws, were arrested, put on chain gangs, to rebuild the south and norths infrastructures decimated by war, for free. The defining difference for whites in poverty or working class, is that their skin color has unwittingly given them advantages not afforded to people of color. As Janet stated in her response, just what those benefits are. Racism is a system that institutionalizes inequity, rendering inequity invisible to the benefactors. It can’t be seen, understood, if we are unconsciously unaware, and non-critical in our analysis. If you do not understand racism as a system of white supremacy, and prejudice as an individual attitude and behavior, anything you try to understand about race and racism, will only confuse and confound you further. We must also understand that America is a nation of immigrants, unless of course you hold a tribal affiliation to a first nation.

  15. JanetC says:

    I’ve been sitting with Denise’s painful comment below about being a person of color trying to talk with white family members about race/racism and the responses of rejection and denial she has gotten. It coincided with reading “Let’s Get Real: what people of color can’t say and white people won’t ask about racism” (Stirfry, 2011). In this book, Lee Mun Wah asks a series of provocative questions about why and how it is so hard for white people and people of color to talk about race and racism, and “diversity.” The replies, submitted by many different people, bring home dynamics that happen over and over. White people’s resistance and refusal to listen to the realities of poc, and their fear of being accused of racism by poc and other whites if they bring it up themselves, show how much work we have to do to change the culture.

    Here is one example in response to the question, “What would you say to whites if you could tell them the truth about racism?” Carolyn Bernard says:

    “I would tell them that sometimes being around them is painful in ways that have no words. I would tell them there are layers of meaning in the world around them that they do not see or experience because they are white. I would tell them that the world caters to them in ways they don’t see, that there are hurtful nuances that they do not hear. I would tell them that their skin color is a sort of armour that the rest of us do not have.”

    And “In what ways do whites keep people of color from telling the truth about race/racism?” From Sonya Littledeer-Evans:

    “By not hearing the stories of people of color. I often choose not to go deep and tell the truth about racism with whites because…it’s always hard for whites to see how their white experiences are directly related to my non-white experiences. Often when this happens, the mentality from whites is that if they can’t understand it (my experience) then it must not be true…Just as I am willing to share about how racism has disadvantaged me, I would like whites to share about how racism has given them an advantage, to be honest about this, to own it.”

    I am one of the white contributors to Let’s Get Real. In response to “What will it take for white people to unlearn racism?”, I talk about what my white conditioning has cost me:

    “So, while I benefited from many aspects of white privilege, the price of belonging was to live behind a veil of ignorance, disconnected from parts of myself, unable to really stand up for my beliefs for fear of not belonging. Something has to pierce that veil for white people to be motivated to really unlearn racism. It could be a personal encounter, a challenge, a cognitive dissonance that becomes imperative.”

    When a person of color offers their experience of racism, we have to listen, we have to believe it. Believe it, feel it. When we get that painful truth — and know we ourselves can’t live with it, then we will really start to change.

    So thank you, Denise, for being willing to share your experience.

    P.S. If anyone is interested in a copy of Let’s Get Real, you can buy it from http://www.stirfryseminars.com/store. They have a 25% off sale until Aug 1. Use the code SALE25 when you order.

    • j.yang says:

      In other words, you need to bend over backwards completely for an outsider to be seen as a “good white person”. There isn’t a way to unlearn racism, especially not when you assume only one group of people can be racist. Any attempt at discussing this issue should be predicated by the admission that all people are racist, regardless of circumstance. It is natural and healthy to assert one’s own ethnic and racial identity, leveraging them to advantages while countering the interests of others. It’s simple competition. If multiculturalism means abandoning the foundations of ethnic pride, then it is multiculturalism that needs to be abandoned, or at least, confined within Western countries.

      • JanetC says:

        I’m replying to both your comments, J. Yang. Thanks for contributing! I find it useful to distinguish between prejudice, which I agree all people have to some degree, and racism, which is beyond a personal opinion or belief. Racism is built into institutions and power structures to favor some people over others. For example, in the U.S. white people benefit in many ways they aren’t aware of — in education, housing, jobs, bank loans, credibility, etc. And we are largely unconscious of that, so we think we live in a meritocracy where anyone can achieve if they just try hard enough. One early example of institutionalized racism is in the U.S. Naturalization Act of 1790. It reads: “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.” So only white people were granted the rights of citizenship. Btw, I disagree that controlling immigration will “solve all racial issues”. In the 1800s, the U.S. welcomed the Chinese people who came to work on the railroads — they were hard workers, and had skills with explosives needed to blast through mountains, etc. But once the railroads were built, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and suddenly Chinese workers were shut out. This is enacting racism, not solving it.

        To me multiculturalism is respecting the value of different racial and ethnic groups, including my own. I think everyone wants to feel pride in who they are, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate, know, and love people who are different. Yes, competition is part of our human nature, but so is cooperation. We are already living together, so how can we learn to appreciate and understand each other rather than seeing others only as competitors or enemies?

        In any case, what interests me on this blog is how we were taught, consciously and unconsciously, to have the attitudes and beliefs we have? To reflect on what we learned about race and our place in the world when we were little — and how that shapes us now. Would you care to reply to that?

  16. Carol Carter Atherton Phelan says:

    Thanks for the history lesson. I remember the shock when you first mentioned Grandpa Carter and the KKK in an interview. I appreciate your research around that issue.
    My daughter, Laura and I just got back from 2 weeks in Iowa and MN. We had a great time with the cousins. Hampton has a big Hispanic population now, so there are ongoing issues around that. I think peoples’ response to those of a different origin may evolve some, but never totally changes.

  17. Janet, thank you for this timely post.
    You are spot on here. I’m lingering here with your thought provoking questions. I’m trying to respond from a different standpoint.
    I have a question with a nuanced twist,related to something well-intended white people don’t often talk about as well.
    How do we talk to white family members about racism and race in interracial affinal relationships?
    As a woman of color living in Vermont in an interracial marriage, it’s been really frustrating, talking to folks who came with the marriage, about race and racism. Trying to deal with it has meant silence, self-righteousness and repression. If anything, it’s created distance, distrust, hard feelings, rebuke and marginality. Not talking about racism by silencing people of color, who are in interracial families, exposes the amount of white-privilege evident in the dynamic.
    Furthermore, I always ask myself in these situations: who has the power to silence the “race” conversation, even in relations across race? I feel, unless well-intended white people let go of their sincere fictions around not seeing race (colorblindness), yet silence people of color who bring the subject up, we will continue to go round and round, arriving nowhere in mending the racial divide.
    We must not forget, Vermont in the 1920’s was not immune to the national racialized climate of the time, and had a KKK presence (Neill, 1989) as well. The KKK marketed the organization as a social club. The nineteen-twenties was a horrible time for Blacks and other non-Whites, because lynching and other forms of racial intimidation were commonplace across the south making its way north. There are three things I consider when dealing with the denial of racism here in Vermont, by well-intended white folks, who grew up here. The KKK had a presence, the Eugenics program at UVM and the Kake Walk.
    I believe many Vermonters got serious subliminal race lessons, from those venues. Blinding them to the realities of race and racism. Thus, inhibiting fruitful discourse around such a tough topic.

    • JanetC says:

      Denise, I wish we could sit down over a cup of tea — there’s so much here to respond to! You’re describing a painful situation that I know is very common. I can feel how you, as a woman of color trying to discuss race and racism with white relatives, get a double whammy — not just their denial, defensiveness and refusal to listen to the issues per se, but also they are denying the reality of your lived experience and understanding. The fog of “white conditioning” – the subliminal messages you talk about – is so thick it is really hard to penetrate. We white people have so much at stake in protecting our image of ourselves, we don’t want to see or hear anything that challenges it. I hope you can find some allies in the family — who get where you are coming from. I knew my African-American brother-in-law (see Two Little Kids in the Land of the Free) for ten whole years before we really talked about his experiences as a black man – and at the time, I was shocked and dismayed. But I believed him because of our relationship and my own readiness, I guess. We had bonded around other things, so there was a basis for trust.
      I wasn’t aware of the KKK in Vermont, so thanks for that. In the course of researching VT history for the book, I have learned about the Eugenics program (horrific!). I was living in Burlington during Kakewalk years. I do write about those in the book and also the way we learned that “the Indians never really lived in Vermont” which covered up the way the Allen family took over so much land from the Abenakis. All this invisible history and the way it is accepted as okay does contribute to white denial and makes it difficult to penetrate the privilege that defines the conversation about race/racism. I’m hoping the work I’m doing here will help break through some of it.

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