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.

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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