Waking Up White: Chapter 4

The Reading: Optimism

Irving describes growing up in a culture of achievement, security, and optimism

“Optimism was a given, and achievement and security were available to all who bucked up and kept their nose to  the grindstone.”

“The world was jovial, problems were surmountable, and people got along. Life was comfortable. Normal was a house or two, a car or two, a pet or two, a TV or two.”

“Everywhere I looked I saw a world I wouldn’t have described as white. I would have told you it was just the world. These were the guys who ran things”

I didn’t find the world as optimistic a place. In my freshman year of high school, I remember overhearing two of my teachers talking about me.  How bright I was. What a shame it was that was going to waste, since I was most likely going to end up a welfare mom.

The world is less jovial when you spend your time listening to your mom fight with the latest boyfriend/step-father. (A scowled “go to your room!” often meant an hour spent guessing at the sounds from the other side of the door. I learned to distinguish a punch from a slap from something being thrown, but I had to have the sound of “being thrown up the stairs” explained to me later.) I preferred it when she wasn’t “with” someone. We didn’t eat as well, but I could go for several days without running into mom. It was peaceful; I could do homework or read a book without interruption.

I saw the world as white – but it was the realm of rich white people. Not-white and poor people didn’t belong. The nice people of the author’s childhood were, to me, the same men who controlled Tammany Hall.

“Trying to protect children by providing a worry-free childhood is a privilege of the dominant class – a white privilege. Many parents of color teach their children to keep their hands in plain sight if a police officer is near and to avoid white neighborhoods in order to avoid being questioned simply for being there. In the same way I was trained to make myself visible and seek opportunity, may children of color are trained to stay under the radar.”

I beg to differ. It’s a privilege of the rich and white. I, too, was taught to keep my hands in plain sight for police. To be invisible lest I be beaten up by other children, noticed by a step-father, or troublesome to my mom (anything from “being noticed by Detective Nakamura” to “making noise when she was trying to sleep”).

“It felt unbearable to me to have to taint a young heart and mind with such injustice.”

I can’t even picture this. Of course young people are exposed to injustice.  Real, horrible injustice. The realization that the world is not a safe place. That who you are, who you know, what you have, and the color of your skin make all the difference. Sometimes it seems to me that the author and I grew up on different planets.

“In my case, my protected childhood only made for years of stress and confusion about real-world issues…I might also have understood earlier in life how to connect to the world beyond mine.”

I have a tough time, in general, relating to the author’s experiences. I find her “voice” relatable, and it seems like she’d be interesting to talk to over a cup of tea – but I can’t even picture the world she just assumes is true for “white people” as a group. This one, though – this one I really felt for.  Debby, if I am any example, it wouldn’t have helped. I don’t know how to connect to your world either.  I am a social/professional misfit in your world.  I have managed to rise to a “leadership” role in my career without ever developing any sense of connection to the people around me, who seem to mostly have grown up with you.

I think, if you had known these things, you’d only have traded one set of stress and confusion for another.  Yours is around how to connect to people whose frame of reference is so different from your own – and so is mine.  You have this wonderful fairy tale place where you belonged and everyone was happy.  I have never belonged to anything, other than one brief period at the start of my military career.  We both kicked a hole in the wall in front of us, and worry about how to talk to the people who live on the other side, and know that our lives to this point haven’t equipped us to do it.

So we try the best we can, screw it up, learn something, and move forward.  I hope the people who see your screwups are more forgiving than the ones who seem to be constantly judging mine.  We are our own worst critics, to be sure – but some days, it feels like I have an awful lot of “assistance” in that effort.  How about you? 🙂

The Study Question

What were some of the major economic, political, demographic, and pop culture trends from ten years before your birth until age twenty? 

When I review the years immediately surrounding my birth, it seems as though they are a combination of great aspirations and miserable failures. I suppose every period of history must seem this way.

I was born in 1967.  In the years surrounding my birth:

The U-2 was captured, Berlin Wall was built, the Cuban Missile Crisis came and went, the Gulf of Tonkin incident gave a white house an excuse to escalate in Viet Nam (even though, as later release of LBJs tapes showed, we knew we hadn’t been fired on), and the infamous airlift from the embassy in Saigon took place. Israel murdered the sailors of USS Liberty and the Pueblo was taken to North Korea, where she remains today. (These events would later be greatly significant to me as an Intelligence Analyst specializing in Soviet Eastern Europe).

Nixon debated JFK and went to China – then orchestrated Watergate and the Saturday Night Massacre. His resignation is my earliest “TV News” memory.

The space race was on!  We orbited the earth, walked in space, touched the moon, and launched the first reusable space shuttle (in 1977). Apollo 1 and Soyuz 1 went horribly wrong, killing their astronauts, and Jim Lovell – having been first to orbit the moon – nearly became one of the first to die there.

We reached for the stars in more ways than one: Dr. King had a dream, tv starred Bill Cosby (I Spy), Bruce lee (Green Hornet) and Eartha Kitt (Batman), and Captain Kirk led a multicultural crew that treated one another with respect. Thurgood Marshall joined the Supreme Court, which authorized busing for desegregation (ironically, I was occasionally one of those bused out of my neighborhood to school), and Sacheen Littlefeather declined Brando’s Oscar. Even in entertainment, we flocked to West Side Story and read Styron’s Pulitzer-winning Confessions of Nat Turner. At the same time, JFK, Dr. King, and Malcom X were assassinated, Mandela was imprisoned, Israeli athletes were murdered and iconic images from Kent State seared our eyes as Mississippi “burned”. Gone With the Wind aired on network TV for the first time the same year that Alex Haley published Roots.

The Feminine Mystique was published and Ms. Magazine told women we could be whoever we wanted to be, so Patti Hearst became a terrorist and Marilyn Monroe a suicide. We signed a nuclear non-proliferation pact and developed the neutron bomb. We declared “family hour” during prime time and recorded Saturday Night Live on VCRs.

Technology held up a shining future: artificial hearts, ARPANet, Cat Scans, personal computers, even Pong promised to create a shiny Disney future as Queen Elizabeth sent her first e-mail and Star Wars changed movie making. Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, and the HAL 9000 warned us that the sword had two edges.

The Beatles came, and went. Woodstock and Hair Imagine-d a beautiful future, while the Khmer Rouge reminded us that power was for those willing to kill to get it, and Chappaquiddick highlighted that once seized, power was not only a sword but a shield.

How did they show up in your life? 

The era in which I was born was one of lofty beliefs both raised and shattered.  Idealists became cynics and as a nation we lost our innocence to the shuddering tectonics of Watergate and the Civil Rights movement. As I said, my first “TV News” memory is Nixon’s resignation (I was 4, and MLK was already dead). I was never very good at being a child, and I spent too much time listening, unregarded, as the grown-ups talked.  I knew that government was corrupt, wars were conducted for profit, and the repeal of Jim Crow and advent of integrated schools was as far as civil rights was ever going to get. But I also knew that people hadn’t quite given up on the chance of equality for women and people of color (and it was always said that way – in that time, it was as though they were one group).

I was allowed to stay up late when TV showed the Wizard of Oz or Gone With The Wind. I had to sneak to watch Roots – at 9, I was “too young.” It took magic for Dorothy to escape her black and white dust bowl and get to Oz – but Scarlett O’Hara was a different story. She was prettier than I was, and started out rich, but that was just the beginning. I loved Scarlett. Maybe nobody else liked her much, but what I saw was that no matter how poor she got, with determination she was able to keep her promise – not she, nor any of those she was responsible for went hungry, and she held tight to the one thing that really mattered to her, Tara. I even had a sister who was very “Melly” – calm, sweet, and with a spine of steel (she’s the one who raised me, mostly, til she was emancipated when I was 11.  Um, the legally-independent-minor kind of emancipated, not the GWTW kind.) I was, I knew, more like Rhett – practical and a bit cynical – but maybe with enough determination I could grow up to be a Scarlett one day, too. I liked her even better when I was able to get hold of the book and see her inner thoughts. I read its 1,024 pages in a weekend, and it was the first book I ever read over and over – a couple of times a year til my teens.

I was horrified by Roots; at 9, I never connected Kunta “Toby” Kinte to GWTW. But I knew slavery was horrible and was glad it was over; i was also not yet old enough to connect that concept to the people or neighborhoods around me. Without any strong and regular adult influences, I suppose it isn’t surprising to me that nobody ever tried to connect the two for me. Because I knew there were nice people and awful people in the world, It didn’t strike me as “off” that Mammy and Big Sam thought of Tara as “home” while Kunta thought of it as prison. I had already learned about those basic priorities: you leave the house where they beat you, and stay with the folks who don’t. Understanding the nature of Mammy and Sam’s “choices” would have to wait nearly a decade, til high school brought me WEB DuBois, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Ralph Ellison.

How do you think they influenced your beliefs?

Certainly that quality of tarnished idealism, the hope that we can be better, combined with the clear visibility of our lesser selves is a core part of my personality. I enlisted partly from a sense that I had it lucky – however bad things might be, at least I wasn’t born in a country where being a girl would have denied me literacy and education – and partly from the recognition that it was my best chance at not ending up a welfare mom.

I knew that the world was full of contradictions, ideals were for chasing but not for everyday life, and that women could be poplar or successful but not both unless they were actresses or models. Having never been pretty or popular, I was determined to be successful. My definition of success:

  • Live in a house.
  • Have a car that ran and wasn’t rusted
  • Eat whatever and whenever I wanted
  • Buy all my clothes first-hand
  • Work in an office of some kind with my very own desk (as opposed to a store, bar, restaurant, or farmer’s field)

The Blog Challenge: Waking Up White

Stephen’s Chapter 4 post

Dawn’s Chapter 4 post

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9 thoughts on “Waking Up White: Chapter 4

  1. My goodness. I want to hear more from you to understand more about you and your genesis. My own family was a struggle, but it was economically advantaged by having a steady job for my dad in aerospace for 30 years (plus a pension). We’ll have to do coffee sometime because I want a chance to just let you talk.

    1. rofl Getting me to talk is rarely a challenge. Obviously there’s stuff I wouldn’t post here because – family members, y’know. It’s my siblings’ story too, after all. But one of those ‘sibling things’ that we share – is that I probably understand better than anyone why my sister was so adamant that her son would always have the popular clothes, play the sports and games he wanted, and would grow up in one place – he went to *one elementary, *one junior high, *one high school – and my sister still lives in that house. She often stretched hard and denied herself to make sure he would never be the new kid, the kid in the shabby clothes, etc. She was *fierce* about it, and wasn’t afraid to explain it to her friends. But it was a sibling thing – I never had to ask. I could see exactly what she was – or wasn’t – doing.

      (p.s. I am immensely proud of my big sister. I know most of the dumb stuff she has done in her life, and I still think she’s perfect. And I couldn’t be more proud of the life she created for her family, or her choice to work in the field of public housing, making sure other people have homes.)

  2. Your reflection near the end of this post, “Having never been pretty or popular, I was determined to be successful,” resonated so much with me. It reminded me of myself during my high school days. I was not considered to be pretty and was far from popular (whatever that meant). I was one of the Asians who focused on their studies – success to me was getting the highest GPA possible because that would set me up for a good education and ultimately a “better” future. Sports was one way I could connect with individuals that were considered pretty and popular at the time but in the end that still didn’t make me popular. Popular was wearing the brand names (which I can still barely afford now as an adult), bubbly and talkative, dance team, daring at times and being much better looking than “cute.” Now that I have had the time to reflect – being pretty and popular was seen as being successful in high school (to most). So many interpretations of “success.” Success in my mind, made me a failure of high school.

    1. This surprised me, Krissy. I have always considered you such a lovely woman, I can’t imagine you not being seen as pretty and charming.

      While I certainly have my spaces to grow and to keep moving forward, I *did meet my original definition of success. Do you feel successful, in your good and responsible job where people rely on you, and see you as a pleasant influence? Or do you fret over every misstep and imperfection as I do? Seems we are much harder on ourselves than is needed – I have heard that described as a dominant-culture thing, obsession with perfection.

      Maybe everyone needs a workplace partner to remind them that they are amazing – and “good enough.” 🙂

  3. Di the things you aren’t able to relate to in the book are the same for me (though my house was very, very controlled, with no emotions allowed). It was still interesting to see how society influenced you, Steven, and myself. I actually didn’t think it had until I sat down to write my post and knew I needed to fill it with SOMETHING! 🙂

    1. That’s one of Irving’s messages – and opportunities: to better understand how your ambient environment influences who you are. If I tell you I came from a warm climate, you think nothing of the fact that I get cold easily. Likewise, if I tell you I am from Alaska, you don’t think twice about the fact that I think it’s “too warm” once the heat hits the 70s. But when someone says “the fact that you grew up in white America influenced your ‘nature’ ” we want to resist that. It’s part of the individualism thing. Sociologists can tell you – over and over – that while each person is an individual – they are still members of a culture..

      I think the thing I struggle with here is the idea that there is one monolithic “white culture” in the USA. We’re an awfully big place, and it feels like there are, at the very least, significant subcultures, which share some cultural elements…

      1. “I think the thing I struggle with here is the idea that there is one monolithic “white culture” in the USA. We’re an awfully big place, and it feels like there are, at the very least, significant subcultures, which share some cultural elements…”

        Yeah, this is a hard thing. Just in reading our stories I see that we’re not at all sharing the same lives. Growing up in the comfortable middle class is distinctly different than growing up in the struggling class.

        And yet there is a divide that separate us from others who have lived lives and who are people of color.

        Like poetry and prose, there is sometimes a confusion or a muddling, but put a book of poetry and a book of prose in the hands of a librarian, and they’d know where to shelve them with great assurance.

        A person of color, especially a black person, is always going to know they’re black in almost every social interaction. I’m never aware of this unless the social interaction includes a percentage of people of color. In fact, as I think about it, I think I instantly put on the filter if there is even one person of color in attendance in the interactions. It’s that strong, the difference or the disambiguation.

        To my mind, anyway.

        1. yep. There is a divide between “white culture” and “everyone else.” And There is – sometimes, it seems to me, almost as wide – a divide between what you call the ‘struggling class” white culture and “the rest.”

          We are accustomed to the difference between “rich people/celebrities” and “everyone else” regardless of color – but we don’t seem to translate it to any other economic class. The differences are vast in every direction….

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