Waking Up White: Chapter 1

The Reading: What Wasn’t Said

Reading this chapter made me wonder what this book is going to have to offer me. The author’s experiences are so different from my own, I couldn’t find a common point to start from. (I’m going to keep reading, of course – it’s only one chapter – and as she gets further in and away from her own childhood, we’ll likely find more common ground).

“Whatever happened to all the Indians?” she asked her mother as a child. She goes on to describe their invisibility in her childhood world – Indians as a mythical creature from the past. When I was a kid, I knew where the Indians where – they were in Oklahoma.  That’s where my dad’s father was from – he had been born in the Indian Territories.

My dad had been taught that his Irish ancestor – a potato-famine refugee – had married an Eastern Cherokee, and ended up in Oklahoma with her family. I learned about death marches, concentration camps, and breaking treaties because “we didn’t realize those resources were there and now we want them.” These things weren’t presented in racialized ways, nor did they involve assigning malice.  It was very matter-of-fact: Humans are greedy and self-serving. The strong do what they will, the weak endure what they must. Europeans arrived in the Americas with superior technology; the locals lost the war.  History is written by the victors.

The Europeans weren’t even presented as “White Europeans” – Columbus was an Italian financed by a Spaniard. My swarthy friends weren’t considered “white” exactly – they were “EYE-talians” and “Greeks” and other things that indicated the country of not-white that they or their families came from. I didn’t know any Spaniards, but all of the Spanish-speakers I knew were brown-skinned Mexicans, so I figured that must be what Spaniards looked like too. So, sure, the English and French colonists were white, but that was only some of the people who had conquered the Americas. Even as I read stories of Squanto and Pocahontas, I understood that these were conquered people figuring out a way to get along with the new Powers.

Ultimately, it wasn’t much different than the gangs, after all, right?  Some people are part of the ongoing battle.  The rest just try to find ways to live that keep them from getting caught up in it.  Figure out how to be at peace with whomever is running things this week, without ticking off the opposite group, who may be in charge next week.

Uncle He-Who
Uncle He-Who, Dad said, was something of an Indian activist. He refused to use his white name, and his Indian name meant ‘he who hunts squirrels.’ So they called him Uncle He-Who.

The author talks about viewing Indians as peaceful and pastoral people with their teepees and canoes and nature-loving life, then hearing from her mother that they were “savage” and “dangerous” (complete with the obligatory “crazy drunk Indian” story). Well, yeah – they were “savage,” in that they were lacking in technology and industrialization (“uncivilized”) compared to the conquerors. And that “savage”-ness is indeed what killed them – because when the bullies came for their neighborhood, they found themselves out-gunned. It was the newcomers who were “dangerous.” Just as Genghis Khan was dangerous to those who had never experienced advanced, coordinated assault tactics, and the Romans were dangerous to those who had never faced a massive, disciplined army. Even the “crazy indian” stories I heard were different than the author’s; they centered on things like Uncle He-Who.

“Whatever happened to all the Indians?”

I was taught the answer to that early, on weekends when I would visit my dad. They got invaded, and they lost. And some of them were taken as slaves, but nobody talks about that. People read “Uncle Remus” and talk about the stories of the black slaves, and nobody even knows that Bre’er rabbit and the Tar Baby is a Cherokee story. (“…and rabbit was the greatest trickster of them all…”)

They lost the war and some became slaves and some got herded onto reservations like cattle, where they were supposed to be sovereign kingdoms, but the US Government still told them what to do. And they were supposed to be able to just keep living like they lived, except they couldn’t do that herded up in one small area – and an area that wasn’t anything like their home, anyway. So you had to choose between “honoring the old ways” (which meant staying on the rez and probably becoming an “old drunk Indian”) or figuring out who had won, recognizing that it was their way or the highway, and going out into the world and learning how to play by their rules.

The Cherokee were the first Indians to develop a written language and a newspaper. A wise gentleman named Sequoyah saw that the ability to pass knowledge down in detail made the invaders strong, so he invented one. But the Sumerians invented writing, too – and they have been gone for centuries. Mesopotamia, Carthage – great places that no longer existed. People, nations, and cultures come and go in the history of the world. The Indians were just one more. The options, he explained, were clear: become Roman or become one of the conquered.

(If you’ve read some of my other stuff, you’ll know that much of what dad believed about his family history wasn’t actually true. I’m still unclear on who the very-clearly-natives in almost every one of his family photos may be. Knowing that his family wasn’t who and what he thought they were affects my perspective on how and why he was taught these things – but this exercise is focused on childhood learnings and how they impact our assumptions about people – and these are, indeed, the things I was taught on this subject as a child.)

The Study Question

What stereotypes about people of another race do you remember hearing and believing as a child? Were you ever encouraged to question stereotypes?

We moved so often (about every 9-11 months – the amount of time it took for a California landlord to evict mom for non-payment of rent), we didn’t really stay anywhere long enough to absorb a local “culture” – ours was a mish-mash of individual things we had learned and internalized in this place or that.

When I was – I don’t know, maybe five or six? – we lived for a while in National City.  It’s down near the Navy base in San Diego. I looked it up on a web site – these days the poverty level in National City is 60% higher than the national average, and unemployment is 15% higher. They graded it “D+” for housing and crime, and “F” for education. I couldn’t find stats for the 1970s but that seems about right. Another web site informed me that it is 2/3 Hispanic, 20% Asian, 5% black and 10% white.

Even today, almost all the Hispanics in National City are from Mexico, and the Asians from the Philippines. The Mexican and black families were a toss-up – sometimes, “a neighbor is a neighbor,” and their mothers would see us kids, mostly left on our own with my big sister playing “mom,” and would feel sorry for us. Those families welcomed us. We played in their living rooms and ate diner with them and lined up with them to get pinto beans and big blocks of Velveeta from the government. The other families – the daughters would gang up on my sister and threaten to beat her. I was too young, mostly. I can only remember one time I was afraid to walk home from school because kids told me this was they day that so-and-so was going to beat up the white kid. The Filipino families were mostly welcoming. A few were standoffish – but were also that way with the Mexicans, so we didn’t take it personally.

Sometimes the neighborhoods were very white. People kept to themselves in those neighborhoods. From them, I mostly learned that “poor white trash” like me wasn’t good enough to mingle with them.

Almost everyone mom married was a sailor, and when we lived in “Navy” neighborhoods – even in Navy housing once or twice – it was very different.  Entire neighborhoods took care of each other. The men were white, black, and Puerto Rican. The women were, too, but they were also Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino. There were neighborhood barbecues when the ship was in; when it was out, we worked in groups to cook, repair, babysit. The only “distinction” was the difference between enlisted and officer families – and that was mostly limited to the way the moms interacted, with the exception of the occasional bratty kid who thought they were “in charge” because their dad outranked yours.

I learned from the sailors that darker-skinned women were more attractive, and I spent endless hours in the California sun trying to encourage my sunburn-prone skin to tan. It wasn’t really a conversation (it would be decades before I encountered this as the fetishization and exoticization of dark-skinned women), it was just obvious who was considered “pretty” among the wives. They looked nothing like me with my pale skin and boring-brown hair that was neither brunette nor blond. I envied the silky-black and dyed-blonde hair around me and learned to hate looking in the mirror at my own ugly face.

Most of the stereotypes I can identify from my upbringing were about status – how “connections” and money changed your place in the world. How the people who were in charge all knew each other, and all had more money and “things” (houses, college degrees…) than we ever would. How the officers were always better and more important than the enlisted.

The racial stereotype I encountered most often was the recognition that sometimes the black kids or the Mexicans would hate me on sight, because I was white – a sentiment that made no sense to me. I could at least understand the white people who hated me on sight. They had things and I didn’t. I was quite obviously not one of them. I understood the hatred for people who were “less than,” like me. For me, that hatred was learned as “disdain for poor white trash who wished they were like you, but would never be anything but trash.” I did learn that some people held ridiculous ideas about others based on their skin color. I always considered it a really stupid idea, that only idiotic, unthinking people could possibly take seriously.

Mostly, I thought it was a dumb reason to beat me up when they didn’t even know my name.

Blog Challenge: Waking Up White

Dawn’s Chapter 1 post
Stephen’s Chapter 1 post

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12 thoughts on “Waking Up White: Chapter 1

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  1. What a fascinating journey! Your experiences are much more overtly class-based than mine (although I suspect mine were hidden because we were a much more homogeneous neighborhood with much more stable residency and employment–we were in the 50s of Southern California prosperity in manufacturing: toys, cars, aerospace. A neighbor was a designer/manager at Mattel, and we got fantastic toys at Christmas. A neighbor was a car dealer, and he had the newest cars every year. A neighbor worked in aerospace, and the job paid well and ended up being a 30-year career with a full pension.

    I think it’s interesting that you had a much more well-rounded experience than I did.

    1. “Well-rounded.” I don’t think I have ever heard it described that way before! lol

      That difference is a huge part of why I have had such difficulty in “finding my hook” into the Peggy McIntosh conversation. The examples and leads that are offered are generally so far from my own experience that I can’t find how they relate to me. I’m looking forward to digging deeper into the conversation with you.

      Thanks for taking the brave step of having this conversation out where everyone can see our errors and our foolishness along the way. I’m “out in public” because I know I am going to need more perspectives than the ones I have found so far in person. But I know you have been having the conversation “in plain view” for a while, just out of a commitment to Doing Right and living your spiritual beliefs. I admire the courage that takes. 🙂

  2. What a life you have lived. Interesting how the family stories were not accurate. You’ve definitely had an experience growing up on the “poor white trash” spectrum. Thank you for sharing that upbringing. You were awakened to that inequality at a young age. It took until my 20s until I’d wake up.

    So here’s my long-winded story. I grew up with a self-employed Dad (by the time I was born), a mom who did not drive because there was no money to spare, and she gave up her better-than-dad paying job because there were 3 kids to raise. I don’t remember the ethnically diverse downtown Cleveland street I was born on, since we moved when I was 5, out to a distant suburb so he could rent his own shop, have a “safer” neighborhood, and put his kids in a strong school system. We had maybe three African-American students in my high school; none in my neighborhood. We were a mix of mostly European neighbors, not that I appreciated that back then. The friends we made were our next-door neighbors, one of whom still had her strong German accent, and German is part of our heritage but my folks were both born here. The next neighbors next to them, with kids we played with, I never knew until recently, Greek roots; and the neighbor who so kindly drove my mom to the grocery store for 20+ years, moved from a mountain top in Italy and had a strong accent as well.

    Disabilities, why would anyone mock someone with a disability? The man who clicked best with my dad (because he was into home computers and their programming ability the same as my dad) had a speech impediment that made him talk slow, thick with letters distorted; and I had a cousin with traumatic brain injury, so he talked slowly, with a stutter, but had a passion for ham radio and he WOULD talk to you gladly about that. And then there was me, with the lisp that required speech therapy for two years at school. To this day, I’m still self-conscious about my “s” sounds–is that too much sibilance slipping back in?

    Perhaps this is why I have an ear for accents. When college kids made fun of TAs with thick accents from India and Asia, I stayed silent. BAD me. I understood the TAs, and did not realize that under that current was, likely, racial hate. Likewise, when I audited a graduate-level Educational Studies Childrens Lit course, and the students made fun of that TA for her accent, I still stayed silent. I understood her, though it did take me a few days to sink into her accent. Again, I still did not understand racial hate. I was 20. I did not think to stand up to the students, but in that case did say something like, if you close your eyes and listen, it might help you learn her accent.

    It was a year or so later that I learned some of the terms I’d heard growing up, Deigo being the one I remember now, were slurs. My watershed moment of how white-washed my education came because of a graduate-level course I was taking in rhetoric and composition, trying to prove that I was PhD material despite my non-traditional masters in writing and publishing.

    That course, the one that best fit around my lunch hour (I worked for the university) was “Literacy and Social Movements” by Jackie Royster. This rhetoric course dug into greats like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. She made me understand the language of oppression, and how history is written by that victor, and often a male victor at that.

    I still have plenty to learn about experiences others had growing up. I was sheltered and oblivious, to say the least.

    1. The great thing, Shari, is that you *were* sheltered and oblivious. Past tense. My adult-self says that it’s a higher hurdle to come from that space – the awareness itself is a step forward. My child-self says it sounds like a pretty nice childhood 🙂 But it didn’t equip you for this work as well as it might have. It’s a bold step, to move away from such a beginning and see the wider world.

  3. Di, my first experiences teaching were in National City, where I would be the only white person in the classroom all day. Growing up in Montana and then 1990s Seattle, I had no knowledge of Spanish (I’d studied Japanese), and couldn’t pronounce the names. Students pointed at me and laughed: Teacher! You some sort of long-haired hippie or something?

    I grew up white trash, and I’m interested to see how that plays out later in the reading.

    Thanks for sharing your story!!! I’m glad we’re doing this together!

    1. I’ll be so curious to compare how growing up “white trash” in Montana differs from growing up white in places like National City., and how that molds similarities/differences in our experiences and outlooks.

      1. Yes, me too!!! One thing I remembered in or near National City: one school that had a higher percentage of white kids. This school: had a new building. Had year-round school. Had amazing tech. It made me so frustrated.

        1. When was that? I’m so curious! I read somewhere that Chula Vista got a fancy School for the Performing Arts – but that’s way out of my league. I don’t remember exactly when National City was, but it has to have been Kindergarten or first grade-ish, so I wasn’t really aware of ‘other schools’ at the time. (This was the very early 70s)

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