Waking Up White: Chapter 10

The Reading: The Melting Pot

“Assimilation – the idea of adopting the dominant culture’s norms – became a norm unto itself, one utterly unattainable unless one is white.”

My first reaction to this was to argue that this is only true if you’re already in the in-group. Then I turned the page and saw that the author had eventually realized that on her own.

“I now understand that acting like a white American wasn’t just a When in Rome…cultural sensibility, but a matter of survival.”

“…the United States has enforced a model of dominance and assimilation that elevates those who can fit the prescribed mold while excluding and destabilizing those who can’t.”

Well, not just the U.S. – one has only to look around to find the same thing happening all over the world. It appears to be human nature. Perhaps it’s just easier to do now that we are a planet of mega-nations rather than one of isolated tribes with minimal contact.

But the point remains. If you want to thrive, you have to figure out how to appear to belong with the folks who own the systems. If you’re born in that group, you’re acculturated from the start. If you’re not, you can try hard to learn how to be different, how to walk the required walk and use the required phrasing and pass for a native. Except…

“What I didn’t know was that while millions of white immigrants, including my own Irish ancestors, did in fact overcome initial desperate circumstances and ethnic discrimination, the very same rights and resources that allowed their socioeconomic mobility were denied to darker-skinned immigrants – and, of course, to…indigenous people…and …African Americans brought here against their will…”

As I’ve said before, my workplace is focused on antiracism, and I am often challenged to recognize how being white has been an innate advantage, from Day One – and I have a really tough time with that.  I still haven’t been able to see how that is/was so.  If it’s innate, it should be there from the start – and I just don’t find it in my start. But the difference is very clear to me when I look at where I am today.

As much of a challenge as it may have been, and as much luck as was required to get there as well – it’s easier for me to fake my way into that room with white skin.

I am an increasingly-rare example of successful class mobility. While the path I took might be possible today, it would be a lot tougher. Yes, it would tougher for a poor white person, too – but that skips past the fact that the majority of folks who live the way I lived as a kid, aren’t white. (According to 2017 statistical data, less than 9% of white families live in poverty – less than half the percentage of black or Hispanic families. The overall poverty rate in the US was 12.5 %)

Remember my earlier comment about “people who have the stuff” trying to keep other people out, and using race as a quick way to mass-filter whole groups of people to exclude? When I think of that, I don’t find the increasing wage/income/asset gap to be all that accidental either.  It just seems like a strengthening of the structures that “keep people out.”  The broader the gap, the farther you have to leap.  And that jump is getting harder and harder to make.  It takes more luck, more work, more skill, and more ability to “assimilate.”  So, while I don’t know how to statistically demonstrate it, it does only make sense to me to believe that “harder” is even more difficult for those  who also “look different” in ways that we have tried to push to the bottom of the pyramid.

On Colonialism

“The mid-nineteenth-century quest called ‘Manifest Destiny’ sought to spread American democracy, capitalism, and Christianity westward to the coast..and eventually throughout the world…In the minds of early Anglo Americans, belief in their mission to civilize the world felt justifiable if not noble. After all, isn’t this a close cousin of what I was doing in my work to ‘help’ and ‘fix’ children of color? The last thing I felt I was doing was imposing my culture on students.”

Colonial expansion is always rooted in the assumption that what you are/are doing is somehow better than what is already happening, making it OK – or even generous of you – to go take what belongs to someone else in order to make it – and them – “better” along with you.

“The Carlisle school eventually inspired 150 similar Indian boarding school around the country, all intended to civilize Indian children so they could participate in the new, dominant American culture, albeit as servants or laborers.”

I’m unclear as to how that differs from the effect of public schools today.  The methods may be different, but broadly our schools teach and test assimilation.  Our attempts to “educate” still focus on teaching kids how to work within the system of power, without teaching them that most of them will never have access to it. We teach a world in which opportunity is open to all, not how to “succeed” in the world we have. Success is solely defined as a college degree and a white-collar job – both of which may be unattainable to many. We teach success – and, therefore, self-value – as being somewhere in the top parts of the pyramid – and leave people to figure out for themselves how to find their self-respect when they are fenced into its foundations instead. How many of our students are destined, due to the larger forces of our culture, to end up like the Carlisle Indian School kids?

“unlike the millions of white ethnics who were able to ‘melt’ into the pot, indigenous children could not shed the physical attributes that marked them as different and inferior. No longer Indian, unable to be white, these young adults ended up belonging nowhere.”

In this world, this America, is it possible for them to end up any other way?  I don’t mean a few exceptions – I mean everyone who starts from outside the power group.

The Great American Melting Pot

In the 70s, amongst the kids cartoons, ABC used to run a series of educational cartoons called Schoolhouse Rock. Those of us who grew up in those years can still sing many of the songs. One of them was about the “Great American Melting Pot.”

The opening lines infer the tale of the singer’s immigrant grandparents from Italy and Russia.

They’d heard about a country
Where life might let them win,
They paid the fare to America
And there they melted in.
Lovely Lady Liberty
With her book of recipes
And the finest one she’s got
Is the great American melting pot.

America was founded by the English,
But also by the Germans, Dutch, and French.
The principle still sticks;
Our heritage is mixed.
So any kid could be the president.
You simply melt right in,
It doesn’t matter what your skin.
It doesn’t matter where you’re from,
Or your religion, you jump right in
To the great American melting pot.**

Do you notice anything about  those immigrants? Somewhere along the line Debby Irving did.

“The melting pot never included people of color…without an understanding of this crucial fact, my head was filled with racial stereotypes, not an understanding of the skin-color-coded policies that had created them.”

It doesn’t matter what your skin – as long as you come from a light-skinned country? Norway, maybe…

Waves of immigrants, driven by world events, came to the US over time. And with each wave we found ways to deny them citizenship, and even whiteness. Ultimately, we came to see most of them as white, and therefore as “acceptable,” and in that sense it “doesn’t matter what your skin” – if your Mediterranean skin is swarthy, we’ll still count you as white.  Or at least, that’s what we ultimately decided for those groups.  The melting pot doesn’t really seem to address the people who came against their will.

“For many people struggling to earn acceptance…the ultimate test often has to do not with their efforts to assimilate, but with the dominant group’s regard for their racial group.”

From a dominant viewpoint, assimilation, “learning to be like the successful people” is seen as a goal unto itself. For those who don’t belong to the in-group – and especially when the exclusion is based on race, it’s more like code-switching, and it’s a survival skill in more ways/directions than just one.  You have to learn how to “walk the walk and talk the talk” of the group you are trying to move into – but not at the expense of still being able to connect with your family and friends in the group you came from.

If you do this successfully, you can keep your family and friends while also succeeding in a new space, without belonging wholly to either.  But if you fail either one, you will be excluded from that group.  Fail to adapt – and you won’t be allowed “up” and into the power group.  Succeed there, but fail to “remember where you’re from” – and the people you grew up with will write you off as “uppity” and “forgetting who you are” (even as they reject you). And, of course, no matter how well you integrate, assimilate, or code-switch, a random event can topple it all for you. One moment you may be a very “Americanized” successful Japanese businessmen, and the next find yourself herded into a concentration camp because we have got into a fight with people on another continent who share some physical features and distant heritage with you.

The people we discard

Of all the things in this chapter, the one that struck me most was – well, not a point I think the author meant to make. As she discussed the bias that existed against white/Irish Catholics, she mused,

“I have to wonder if my grandmother’s falling-out with her Irish Catholic family, or my father’s lack of interest in mending it, had to do with an impulse to distance themselves from their ‘inferior’ Irish heritage and play up the WASP connection.”

She moved on to discuss the kinds of things I wrote about above – but I was stopped cold when i read this. I saw the words, but heard something else entirely in my mind.

“I wonder if my family threw away an entire branch of their family tree out of snobbery and ambition.”

What message did that convey about how to treat people that she sees as not having value, or that she perceives as being an obstacle in achieving or sustaining supremacy? About other people that are invisible and not-discussed?

Later in the book, the author describes some of her early work in trying to help “inner city youth,” and the lessons she learned, essentially about giving people gifts you would like vs. gifts that they would like. When she realizes her error and arrogance, she is appalled.  But if she has been taught that “people we don’t value aren’t worth our time,” and she has been taught that the life she is living is the desirable and acceptable life – then why wouldn’t she assume that kindly “noticing” people would be perceived as an upgrading of their value, and that offering them things that matter to her would be joyfully viewed as making them or their lives somehow “better”?

Yeah, I’m not only gonna say it again – I am gonna copy and paste it from above:

Colonial expansion is always rooted in the assumption that what you are/are doing is somehow better than what is already happening, making it OK – or even generous of you – to go take what belongs to someone else in order to make it – and them – “better” along with you.

The Study Question

Think about your ethnic heritage. If you are white, and know little about it, why do you think that is? Do some ethnicities in your mix get played up and some down? What family stories have held fast through the generations? How have they shaped your understanding of America as a meritocracy – a society in which everyone succeeds or fails on their own merits?

Prior to my generation, I only know one “family story” and it’s not true.

I’ve worked in my current job for almost five years.  You could randomly pick any person from my workgroup and count up the time I have spent with them – and it would be more than the amount of time I have spent, over my entire lifetime, with any relative who is not a member of my immediate, nuclear family.

When my dad got older, he asked each of us kids if there was anything we wanted of his when he died. I told him I wanted his stories.  He wrote a few memories from his early life down (he stopped at the point he joined the Navy at 17 because the people in those stories were still alive).  That and some family pictures more or less everything I know about him and his family.

When he was 17, he and a cousin were “driving hay” – they would load a truck near Bakersfield, drive it down to San Diego for sale, drive back, reload – they swapped off driving/sleeping, so that truck moved 24/7.  Dad wrote: ‘I knew if I didn’t get me a trade, I was going to be doing just like this all my life.” So that was when he joined the Navy.

When he was 11, his own mom ran off with her religious folks to wait for the end of the world, and he had been sent to live with his older sister. He didn’t care for that much, so he got himself a job as a fry cook after school (child labor laws didn’t really exist yet). He kept going to school for another year, but once he was 12, he was managing the restaurant and living on his own, and never did go back to school after the 8th grade. After he died, I found the certificate for the GED he got after he joined the Navy.

He believed in hard work, didn’t believe in kids “sitting around” (summer vacation with him was an 8 or 10 hour work day doing anything from repair/construction to picking blackberries to make juice, jelly, and jam). He realized that the changes in the world since he was a kid meant we wouldn’t “make ourselves” the way he did.  He valued trades and work he considered “useful” far above the “educated idiots” with big degrees and no common sense or “useful” skills.

Even so, when it became clear to him that I was “book smart” (and, according to his system, not good for much else), he encouraged me to pursue college. Neither of my siblings loved school all that much, so I was, as far as I know, the only one of us kids that he pushed in that direction.  He was very proud when, in my 30s, I became the first person in his family line to get a college degree, and the original copy of my college diploma hung on his wall til the day he died.

So honestly – even today I am not sure what he truly believed or valued. Hard work, sure. But did he think that would get you anywhere?  Clearly he didn’t want to spend his life doing the kind of hard manual work that he had done since childhood. He saw the military as a way out. He derided the “educated idiots” but encouraged me to pursue college. Did he send me that way because I wasn’t good for much else, by his standards?  Or did he deride the “professor types” because they made him feel like he was out of their league, and he believed them – and thought I might be able to get accepted there?

Challenging to sort out what you learned, when the lesson itself is that unclear…

I don’t know what I believed about that when I joined the military. But I knew it was “three hots and a cot,” a paycheck, and maybe a chance to afford college someday. I assumed I’d stay in until retirement, and didn’t really picture myself doing anything else. But there were certainly worse futures than “a steady paycheck, a roof over your head and a guarantee of three meals a day.” Plus, I could travel – go places far away from the people and places I had experienced thus far.

That sounded just fine to me.

The Blog Challenge: Waking Up White

Stephen’s Chapter 10 post


**[Schoolhouse Rock and its copyrights are now owned by ABC’s parent company, Disney]

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11 thoughts on “Waking Up White: Chapter 10

  1. I really like (if we can use “like” for this) the statement of “I’m white & I have gifts to give you poors with all your problems.”

    That *is* me in so many ways. “Here, I am giving you these disconnected things to help you feel like I notice you, but really, I don’t notice *you*. I notice in my grand way that you have privations that are only due to being lazy or unmotivated or even negative to people like me, so I’ll give you some beads if you give up your autonomy and individuality and even your identity in your group.”

    Yeah, I think a lot of what I *personally* approve of has come from the sense of largess, that I’m rich enough to let you all have gifts to help you love me more as the generous person that I am. But you do point out something that is so endemic it is just accepted as inevitable and normal: certain groups of people are simply blocked from the same paths as us. Giving them nice parting gifts doesn’t really help them.

    One of the issues in international aid in my groups (religious and non-religious Western white charities) is the sense that “we are going to help you with this ‘thing’ and it will make you grateful.” I am working to understand the necessity of clean, reliable water in Third World nations/economies/structures, for example, and yes, it’s *critical* to have clean, reliable water, for reasons as basic as kids don’t die of preventable water-borne diseases. Easy peasy. But then many of the solutions are clever and economically sound from the initial setup, but fail in long-term field tests. Who is going to service a solar-powered pump? Where do you find spare parts? How do you ensure that the fragility of such technology can survive ignorant treatment? Not at all saying that 3W peoples are stupid here, but if you simply don’t *know* what your curiosity does to the finely balanced machinery, you’ll break something without intending to, even if you *know* that your health and happiness depend upon its functionality. We *know* that we shouldn’t drop our expensive hand-held life connectors, for example–replacing a phone with a cracked screen is one of the most common experiences we have with fragile technology that we just accept. Imagine having something more delicate than that and requiring *maintenance* that a simple mistake in a setting screw can cause irreversible damage that cannot be fixed without expert knowledge 12000 miles away? Outside of the technology–how do you set up a working “field water source” where the social dynamics can turn it into a power center. The earliest nation states were control systems for water, and those who controlled access to water for crops and daily life controlled the people. A water source set up in an area where there are loose social dynamics and loose power systems can turn a good idea into a source of physical conflict.

    But hey, we gave them clean water. It’s not our fault if our imposed system, which is *carefully thought out in bright offices* doesn’t actually end up working. We did our best! We “helped” them. I don’t disparage the intent or even some of the achievements, of course. I think good intentions *can* be good reasons. But it doesn’t mean that there will be good outcomes and good impacts. I don’t want to see kids and mothers drinking from mud puddles. But if the water source we set up is used as a way to coerce the mother and the kids into behaviors and beliefs that are alien, they will go back to their mud puddles rather than give up those things. We didn’t really “know” them when we came up with a solution.

    It’s all a muddle at times and it’s hard to figure out the right thing to do.

  2. It’s not so hard to figure out the right thing to do. It’s hard to *do* it. 🙂 So people pick easier things – smaller things hat are easier to wrap their mind around or that give them some return and make them *feel like they are doing something.

    Worried about folks in deprived ares who don’t have water? Look at what is causing their deprivation and cure that. The water will handle itself. “Yes, but in the meantime people are dying of water-born diseases!” Yes and they’re dying of all the other effects of their deprivation too. When someone’s house is flooding, do you start bailing? or do you first go turn off the darn water flow? That’s harder, and requires figuring out where the main is and wading through the muck. But the bucket makes us feel like we’re “helping.” And that’s always the biggest clue right there. Are you doing the complex, thankless work of solving the problem? Or doing something that makes you feel like you’re helping? If we want someone’s water to be better -advocate for laws that prevent our corporations from stripping their land of the resources they need to thrive. For an international system that takes action against toxic dictators based not on individual politics but humanitarian and comic impacts.

    Worth noting: those folks with the crappy water are the cousins of the folks in Flint Michigan. Some were kidnapped and sent into a racist system. Some had the system come to them. They both start in the same year, the same place – expansionist colonialism. Maybe trying to treat/solve it as a separate problem is part of the issue…?

  3. That’s really a great point–about the systems in place that provide despoiled water no matter the continent, as long as it’s the disfavored class that’s put in danger.

    I posted on my FB wall one of my favorite aphorisms: O God thy sea is so vast and my boat is so small.

    But I post it not because I am not on the journey. I post because I am on the journey, and the waves and the currents sometimes seem more powerful than my will and my commitment.

  4. hey di! i have lots of thoughts about some of the things irving wrote about here, and that you and stephen have pulled out. regarding one comment you made: “Our attempts to “educate” still focus on teaching kids how to work within the system of power, without teaching them that most of them will never have access to it” — i have been struggling with the whole idea of when helping hurts (the title of a thought-provoking book, btw). of course the “dog show” lady mentality you mentioned before is to be rooted out whenever i see it in myself. no questions there.

    like you all, i want so badly to get this “right”, or as right as i can, but i don’t want to swing the pendulum too far over, into something which negates what i see as the true focus: relationship, community, reconciliation, redress, lifting each other up. i do believe it’s possible to help others without being patronizing or self-promoting. i want to learn how to do that well.

    and of course, i think the church has made some colossal mistakes, mistakes that cannot be minimized, but i still believe jesus himself showed us the way and is in fact himself the way.

    at any rate, your posts always make me think and i appreciate that!

    1. Dawn, your comment on your belief in Jesus sound almost like you think you need to apologize. There are several churches which have done great harm – and it’s unlikely they would have done so if they had been following the teachings of your prophet. One can absolutely respect the Messenger while decrying the apostate activities of corporate entities that claim to act in his name.

      My first day of International Relations class in college, the professor handed us a sheet of paper with 28 one-line quotes on it. They were all variants of the same phrase, the one commonly known as the Golden Rule. They came from 28 different books, representing 28 different religions/philosophies.

      I believe that in every culture, someone comes along who recognizes the need to remind people of the most basic rule for living together: Do no unnecessary harm, and do additional good where you can. We then dress it up in cultural clothes to help it make sense and make it memorable. Then we lay out rituals which are presented as “methods of worship” or “a god’s command about how he should be respected” but which are, in reality, steps designed to be repeated regularly (such as gathering one day a week to talk about this belief), in order to offer people the constant reminder of what they are trying to be, and a constant refresh of focus to ensure it stays within their line of sight.

      While I have a poor opinion of quite a few corporate-entity-churches, religion does serve a positive purpose. The problems usually arise when one of the former co-opts one of the latter to do something other than “focus on how we live together better.” So, while I might question, or even be willing to debate a little, someone’s choice of corporate loyalty, I have great respect for someone’s attempt to gather structures to constantly remind them of who they are trying to be. :):

      1. Thanks Di. I’d never want to apologize for Jesus! But I do often want to apologize for what some churches/people have done in/despite his name

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