Waking Up White: Chapter 6

The Reading: From Confusion to Shock

“Racism is, and always has been, the way America has sorted and ranked its people in a bitterly divisive, humanity-robbing system.”

Yep.  And they have constantly changed the definitions as they went along, based on what was convenient at the time.  Even some white-skinned immigrants were not “among the white” when they first arrived. Until it became more convenient (or maybe “less INconvenient”?) for them to be so.

The Study Question

The late historian Ronald Takakai referred to the history taught in American schools as The Master Narrative, the version of history told by Americans of Anglo descent. Think about what you did not study.  Did you learn about Lincoln’s views on enslaved black people?

Yes. And it was very clear to me that the Emancipation Proclamation was not an act of integrity or morality but a political maneuver designed to bolster flagging support for “Mr. Lincoln’s War.” Lincoln fought to preserve the union as a pragmatic measure. He freed slaves from the same pragmatic place. And though abolitionists were gaining ground, it was clear that slavery wasn’t seen as a universal evil – going all the way back to the slaves in the Bible.

Slaves weren’t always black.  Before the African slave trade, they were whatever “other” was convenient. Conquered nations, rival tribes, other religions. And even in this country, “black” didn’t always mean “African.” Early censuses only listed black and white – Native Americans were not-white and therefore “black.” And some of them, too, were slaves. Dad theorized that this might be among the reasons for the Cherokees’ broad acceptance of freedmen (it would be many years before I heard the other side of that story, in which the Cherokee Nation worked to exclude freedmen).

Anti-immigration laws of the nineteenth century?

Some of them. The Chinese exclusion act, for example, was contrasted with the welcomed influx of “coolie” laborers for the railroads, though it was never out-and-out labeled as hypocrisy, just “contradictions” in how they were treated.

America’s laws regarding who could and could not gain citizenship?

I didn’t hear a lot about this, other than views on the federal government’s heavy-handed control over who tribes could recognize.

The Native Americans who had once lived on your town’s or school’s land?

I was never in one place long enough for that, but did hear some things about the natives – Cherokee and Osage, mostly – where my father’s father grew up.

The Blog Challenge: Waking Up White

Stephen’s Chapter 6 post

Dawn’s Chapter 5 & 6 Post

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7 thoughts on “Waking Up White: Chapter 6

  1. I find it fascinating for my own education how much of “history” was just a literal whitewashing of that history. We lived along El Camino Real–the King’s Highway–which connected the missions of the California coast. The marker used to indicate the way was a crozier with a large bell at the end, representing, I imagine, the bells in the campaniles of the mission churches.

    Yet I don’t recall in my California history classes learning that the invasion of the Western Europeans supplanted the indigenous people and governments and religions with the values of Spain and then Mexico. It was just all normal. And of course the chutzpah of the gold pioneers and other Anglos who decided they needed half the west coast for their own, fomented a rebellion, and created a “republic” for easy pickins by the United States. I don’t recall any part of the conquest as giving political power, much less even visibility, to the indigenous. We’d visit San Juan Capistrano and admire the beautiful grounds and historic church. Never thought about who built it all or even whose land was appropriated for that mission.

    1. At the time you grew up, most of that info was limited to very academic sources that would not have been available to you. I envy today’s kids the internet – I would love to have been able to ask my questions to google.

      You may have read Susannah Carlson’s story in a recent NYCM, about native kids being dragged off to the mission schools. Were you aware that in the 20 years after Sutter’s Mill, 80% of the natives in the region were obliterated? (https://www.history.com/news/californias-little-known-genocide)

      Do you remember KCET (CHannel 28)? They have some interesting programming on the topic, and I thought they did a pretty good job of summarizing what was taught in CA schools. Sound familiar?:

      “California was originally populated by people who did not farm but made very nice baskets. The Spanish padrés arrived, and California Indians moved to the Missions to learn farm labor. Some of them died there, mainly because their immune systems weren’t sophisticated enough to handle modern diseases. By the time Americans arrived Native Californians had mainly vanished somehow. The Gold Rush happened and California became a modern society with factories and lending institutions. Finally, in 1911, Ishi, the last wild California Indian, wandered out of the mountains so he could live a comfortable life in a museum basement.” (https://www.kcet.org/shows/tending-the-wild/untold-history-the-survival-of-californias-indians)

      I was an annoying 4th grader who asked questions like “why would Indians move into churches (missions) to live?” It made no darn sense to me, and I had already been old enough to hear from my dad how the Cherokee were rounded up and moved to OK (“land so bad the white people didn’t want to live there”), so was probably a bit more suspicious – but it does strike me that there may have been a reason that they taught this stuff in elementary school and not high school. Can you imagine the greater amount of inquiry and defiance of the narrative that would have been possible if they had put that story in front of older kids? (I now find myself wondering whether that decision was a conscious one….)

      1. That is…fascinating, in the way a train wreck is fascinating.

        It makes for a compelling and satisfying story. But maybe we shouldn’t be trying to make history compelling or satisfying.

        One thing I do remember about my childhood growing up in exceedingly white and conservative Orange County, California, in a town that was responsible for the Supreme Court case of Mendoza v. Westminster School District, is that my elementary school had a teach-in during the early to mid-60s about the Viet-Nam war. It took me a decade to realize how extraordinary that event was, and it was literally the first time in my young life that I had the awareness that ideas are not facts.

        The teachers somehow got the entire set of upper graders (4th, 5th, 6th) into the common room, and led discussions about the Viet-Nam war, its origins and purposes, and then opened it up to us to talk about whether it was right and good to fight the war in Southeast Asia, and right and good to send American boys to fight and die. I still remember the way the teachers did not answer any questions, but simply turned the questions back to the kids to figure out for themselves.

        I’m thinking I was 10 years old when that happened, and it was both extraordinary and unique, and it never happened again. By the time I got to high school I was inundated with materials from my teachers and my school excoriating the Communists in government and fervently declaring that the United States was the best ever country in the world, and that we had to be the shock troops of freedom to fight against godless liberals. One of my teachers had an entire wall in his room covered with materials from the John Birch Society, and would use his time for teaching mathematics to tell us of the evils of the damned Communists.

        1. Wow. What a change. And how totally bold of your elementary teachers. Awesome.

          A couple of years after I graduated high school, I was home on leave. I stopped by the school to say hello to a couple of favorite teachers. One was my old Social Studies teacher, Mr. Dowell. When he caught up on what I was doing, his immediate responses was “oh! Do you have some time you could give me while you are in town?” 20 minutes later I was sitting on the front of his desk – he had handed his senior-year Current Events class over to me. He adjusted his lesson plan so his students could spend that hour talking with an “expert” about the things that were happening in the Soviet Union (this was the Gorbachev era), the cold war overall, and how the events they were witnessing might influence the world. After the first couple of minutes (introductions) he sat down and didn’t say another word – just let his students talk to me. (That was here in Western WA in the 80s)

          Sounds like we had very different high school experiences! But then – some of the less urban areas of California were VERY conservative in those days.

    1. I was very proud of the work I was doing – and young enough to still feel more like a student than a teacher. It was one of those weird moments when you realize the grown-ups no longer see you as a kid. 😉

  2. All this is so different from what my kiddos are studying in class. My son just did a project on Police Brutality for 7th grade. And last year my daughter got to go see “Hamilton” for a special student-only production where they got to hear the cast talk about being part of such a ground-breaking piece of history.

    In many ways, in many places, many people are working on getting things right. It’s not everyone, everywhere, or everyone, and it’s not yet enough to counteract those who are getting it really, REALLY wrong, but there is reason to hope.

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