Waking Up White: Chapter 5

The Reading: Within the Walls

“For much of my life, the word ‘exclusive’ brought warm, fuzzy feelings.”

Hunh. To me, it always meant “too good for you” – places I would not be allowed into.

“I never considered that the space I was taking, or the resources I was using, might be being withheld from another to make it all possible.”

Until you need something that you can’t get – and you see other people take it for granted or piss it away, there’s no reason to be aware of that, is there? I was always aware that “there was only so much to go around” and other people had bigger – and some, smaller – shares than we did.

“The rest [of the guidelines] were implicit – learned by feedback. If I stuck to conversation within my culture’s conversational norms, I’d get a laugh or a follow-up question. If I said something outside the norms, the tension, silence, or swift change of topic would tell me I’d made a misstep.”

Some days, it was OK to talk. Mostly it was safer just to sit in a corner and read and try not to be in the way or make anyone mad. The follow-up to your talking would depend more on who was present and how long they had been drinking, than what you said. After a certain amount of time, it was best just to bring people new cans of beer and scurry away.

“Don’t discuss religion, politics, money, negative emotions, fears, resentments, vulnerabilities, or bodily functions. Do Discuss weather, hopes and dreams, …travels, who you know, who’s doing what where, commuting routes and times, consumer products you’ve tried, where you go to school, sports, and music.”

Nope. never really learned this. When mom took me to the bar where she was singing, I discussed religion with “Saint Clyde”, the man in the toga who sat with me to ‘babysit’ for her. When she sent me away to her mom for two months (the summer my sister left, so I was the only kid still weighing her down), my great-uncle didn’t hesitate to stay up late and talk with me about everything form the Bible to celestial mechanics. Sailors discussed bodily functions. A lot. When I moved to live with my Dad at 16, I would ask him questions about the nightly news (I still remember him explaining the invasion of Grenada to me: that the Russians wanted missiles there but it was too close to us and we didn’t want them there. He showed me the tiny island on a map – without so much as a raised eyebrow at the idea that two big countries would devastate this tiny island to further their own disputes. Years later, I’d read Thucididydes, but I already understood his words: “the strong do what they will, while the weak suffer what they must”). The only subject that I learned was “off limits” was money. People didn’t need to know how much we owed, or how much we didn’t have.

“For most of my life the idea of unearned privileges remained unheard of, an unfamiliar concept from an unknown American reality.”

I won’t actually share my initial reaction to this – it was extremely unkind to the author. Fair to say – I can’t even imagine how someone gets to that place. It had never occurred to me that the people who had everything from the day they were born didn’t have a concept of “unearned privilege.”  I guess, when Americans rejected the idea of nobility and royalty, they also blew off the concept of noblesse oblige or something…

The Study Question

How connected to or disconnected from the larger world was your family, your school, your town?

Which school?  Which town?  The first time I remember being in the same school for a whole school year was the 6th grade. We lived in Mission Valley that year.  I remember three of the places we lived in Poway, and I think I could find two of them even today. But I was older then.  I don’t remember “home” in National City – just that Sweetwater Roller Rink was nearby. I remember the names of three of my elementary schools,  and two of the middle schools/junior highs. I tried to get a copy of my full school record once, thinking it would help me figure out the places we had lived – but I changed states when I went to live with Dad. All my high school could provide was a transcript. The only things I was “connected” to were my brother (when he was there) and my sister (until she was emancipated and left when I was 11).

How much did you understand about conflict and struggle in your world or beyond?

Poverty, domestic violence, lack of stability, neglect (personal and systemic), occasional homelessness. Does experiencing these things mean you “understand” them?

How did you make sense of people who had material wealth and people who didn’t?

There wasn’t any “sense” to it.  It was just “the way things were.”  Some people were born with stuff, and would always have it. Some were born with nothing and never would have anything else. And a lucky or unlucky few might move from one group to the other. (Moving down was your own fault. Moving up required hard work but was ultimately pure luck.  Staying wherever you started was just ‘the way things are’.)

What was your family’s attitude about the people in power?

Mostly a vague sense that they were crooked or corrupt, but that they were the ones in charge – and, no matter how bad it was, it was still better than most other places. (That feeling was reinforced when I joined the military. I focused on the Soviets, and got glimpses into the Eastern Bloc countries.  Whatever might suck – it was worse elsewhere, even in the “other biggest and most powerful country in the world.”)

I remember being very excited when I registered to vote my senior year of high school. I came home from school and showed my dad my shiny new voter’s registration card. He told me that in all his life, he had never voted for anyone – just against the other guy.

Even when you could have a voice in who was in charge – it was choosing the lesser of the evils.

The Blog Challenge: Waking Up White

Stephen’s Chapter 5 post

Dawn’s Chapter 5 & 6 Post

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7 thoughts on “Waking Up White: Chapter 5

  1. Geez…

    What I hear from this is the will to survive and then the intelligence to find a place where it is safe to live so that you can become whole.

    What a hard, hard journey. Now I’m curious to find out your thoughts on whether you can relate well with Ms. Irving, or relate at all to her story. What she tells of is, to me, upper class to upper middle class. Her story is one of privilege, and like you say, unexamined because she was unaware.

    1. Intelligence….? Thank you for the compliment – though I suspect it may be more about your kind opinion of me than the text itself. Is a rabbit “intelligent” to flee to a hedgerow when it smells a beast with teeth and claws? I just learned to flee to a book – after all, nobody ever got mad at a kid for reading too much or doing to well in school, right? (Well, OK, except my dad – who thought I “read too much.” I moved to live with him at 16. He insisted I “go outside and play” – but when I got a hard-earned B in geometry (which felt like an achievement, for someone who doesn’t see/perceive 3D!), he made me quit the track team (it was clearly affecting my grades.) lol But other than that, nobody ever yelled at a kid for reading too much…

      My journey wasn’t all that hard. We sometimes went hungry but never starved. We sometimes spent a night or two in a car or even a motel but we never experienced extended homelessness. Mom was neglectful, manipulative, and emotionally abusive but she didn’t beat us. We may not have had “roots” in a specific community – but we had an unbreakable web connecting us, even when we weren’t together. We didn’t have as much adult guidance as might have been good for us – and that certainly makes things harder today than they would otherwise have been – but what child or teenager longs for more adults telling them what to do and think?

      You know – I entered this Blog Challenge not to “challenge my views on racism” – obviously, I am not one of those who had to be convinced it exists – but to answer a different question. In my workplace, we talk, actively, about white privilege, and I am often challenged to explore how the fact of being white made my life easier. While I am easily able to identify the ways in which my life now, as an adult professional with a stable home and income, grants me a universe of options I never dreamed of as a child – I have never made the connection to how being white has innately made life better, easier, or ‘whatever’ innately, from the start. Which means, ultimately, that I understand how class has affected my experience – and how “respectable” class combined with whiteness makes my adulthood easier. But if the privilege is about skin color – that was present from the start. The distinction between the privilege of my adulthood and the privilege of my childhood would be, therefore, the difference between “the privilege conferred by class/wealth in my adulthood” and “the privilege conferred by whiteness, which would have been present even in my childhood.”

      By exploring other peoples’ road to awareness, I hope to be able to answer that challenge – to identify and know the privilege that has shielded me since birth. I’ve looked at Peggy McIntosh’s list – and it only serves to confuse me. White people don’t get followed by store security every time they walk in a store? Not my experience. You can turn on television and see people like you? That’s a variable for me – as the wording of the question changes here and there,and with it my answer. Do I see people “of my race” in entertainment? Yes. Do I see people “like me”? Nope. TV families live a life I can’t pretend to understand. Even the ones with “unusual” lives – remember One Day At A Time? Single mom with her two daughters! But when I watched it, what I saw there didn’t look at all like “life.” After-school special about a kid whose single mom was a drunk? But the kid had everything else they needed, including friends they’d known for years (I don’t actually know anyone that goes back farther than my last two years of high school – though I also spent a year of middle school with some of them). Instead of being a touchstone for me, such things were a constant reminder that we weren’t like “normal people.”

      Which I guess is a long-winded way of saying that this whole exercise/exploration, for me, isn’t about what things may have been “hard” compared to someone else, but what things may have been “easier.”

      1. It’s an interesting journey for me, this direct and open exploration. There are things where I say “of course–i knew that.” And now there are things where I blink and say “I’m gobsmacked at my ignorance and innocence.”

        I’m not reading ahead. I take each chapter for what it is and try to process it in real time. So I’m honestly surprised when I see something.

        Definitely need to have you both over some day.

  2. But… Thats the whole point of the exploration, isnt it? So when you already knew it – your efforts have been fruitful. And when you are gobsmacked – obviously you are working on a right next-lesson.:)

    1. It’s a key frustration for me, not to have processed this information before I know it.

      I know how that sounds.

      But I am the kind of person who hates to learn new things that point up my raw & confident ignorance.

      A lot of what I’m learning now about whiteness is not purely new. There’s some I’ve learned on my own, some I’ve deduced from reading or listening.

      It’s the moments when I am cut and I feel pain–that’s when I’m angry at my own hardness and opinion that is so wrong. How could I not have seen this? How could this have just stayed ignored when it’s right in front of me?

      That’s the hard stuff.

      My emotional bent is that I do not want to be cruel or selfish. When it turns out that I have been so, and have been confident in doing so, then I am really, really crushed. I hate it when I’m called to account for doing something that I thought was the right thing.

      So yeah, I try to always be ahead of the game, not because I’m trying to win something, but so I don’t make a fool of myself by doing something or saying something that’s just trash, and hurtful trash.

      Maybe it is just a little bit of the competitive side of me, though…

      1. “So yeah, I try to always be ahead of the game, not because I’m trying to win something, but so I don’t make a fool of myself by doing something or saying something that’s just trash, and hurtful trash.”

        Well, if you were better, more deserving, you would not have erred, right? Isn’t that the essence of the meritocracy – you’re there because you don’t make mistakes or do foolish things, not because you’re a human like everyone else who just got lucky. Every error is a chink in the “I’m here as a result of my own efforts and innate superiority” wall. So we are conditioned to shame, to hide them so that nobody may suspect we are frauds who are here by luck as much as skill. Not because you’re trying to win, but to avoid raising questions about the fact that you’ve already won.. 🙂

  3. we form quite a spectrum here! stephen, i read your post and still can’t figure out how to comment on it so i’m going to lump you both in here! hahaha

    i think we form an interesting spectrum. i think my experience falls in between you both. i find a hard time connecting with the author’s experience because she’s writing about her own intersection of whiteness and wealth, which is so different from where i’ve come from. plus, she’s one generation removed from me, and that makes a difference. east coast vs. west coast may too, who knows?

    at any rate, i do love reading your takeaways. i love you both and am glad to be following (MANY chapters behind) you on this journey!

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