The Melting Pot: Thinking for the first time about who could and could not melt into the pot

Chapter 10 of Waking Up White: and finding myself in the story of RACE by Debbie Irving

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?

Goodness! I have to absolutely own my racial privilege when I look at this.

My father’s grandfather immigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1850s and settled in central Illinois. There he met his wife who had come to the United States from England in 1839. He became a  merchant, and she was the town librarian. They were both educated and some of the first families in the area. Papa’s mother came from England in 1883 after her father, a Methodist minister, had established a church in southern Michigan (think Little House in the Big Woods). This family was also well-educated, and respected in town. She was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Michigan with a degree in Dentistry.

My mother’s father’s family can trace their roots back to England before the Revolutionary War, and her mother’s family arrived here from Northern Ireland shortly after the War of 1812. Both branches settled in the south. One side came through Georgia and moved west through Mississippi and Louisiana ending up in Arkansas, while the other settled originally in Kentucky, then to Tennessee, and finally into Arkansas by the 1870s. They were shopkeepers, lawyers, bankers and landowners and they never did manual labor as far as I can tell. Amazingly, I can identify all of my third-great-grandparents and many of my fourth- and fifth-greats on my mother’s side. (Remember this is and was the south where one of the first things anyone asks is “Who are your people?”)

We understood from childhood that we came from a line of educated people, and we needed to keep up our school work so we could get into a good college. On the flip side, we also understood that we would be attending a mostly all-white college whether it was a state school, or whether it was a private university. I went to live with my grandparents and attended a junior college and then a university in Texas with DIRT cheap tuition. My scholarship at the junior college came after my mother and I visited the Dean, who was a friend of my grandfather who was Vice-President of the bank. One sister attended the University of Michigan. Her grades were superior, but having a grandmother who had graduated from there helped immensely. A second sister stayed in New Jersey and attended a state university there, but because of where we lived and the superior education offered by our high school, she got a scholarship that probably would not have been available to peers of color from Newark or Trenton. My brother got a scholarship to MIT after becoming a National Merit Scholar from Arkansas. I can see how time and time again the field was tilted in our favor.

If you would like to join me as I blog about my experiences with race, please read the book. It was life changing for me.

White Superiority: How white people decided white people were the best people of all

Chapter 9 of Waking Up White: and finding myself in the story of RACE by Debbie Irving

Prior to reading this chapter, what did you know about the history of naming the races? How do you now feel about the term “Caucasian”?

I admit that I knew nothing about where the names for the races came from. Knowing the history, though, is not very enlightening to me. I did know that “race” has been more about social status than characteristics of a particular group of people. I did know the Irish were referred to as the “Black Irish” in some areas. And I also know that, to the English, blacks were any indigenous people – thus the people from India were always called “black” no matter the color of their skin. Little Black Sambo, the children’s book, was about a little boy who lived in the jungle in India. I know it’s been banned now because of the title, but there was nothing negatively racial about the story or the illustrations.

Ms Irving began to talk about the way the Europeans and particularly the English felt a moral obligation to “bring civilization to the world,” but she never seemed to offer any conclusions about why they thought their civilization was the best. Part of it, I feel sure, was their absolute conviction that Christianity was the only true religion, and they felt a call to bring the “good news” to the whole world. Of course, the possibilities for making money and benefitting from the riches in natural resources played a large part as well. Greed and religion – religion and greed.

I was interested in the way the “white” people assumed that because they were white, they were superior. I remembered Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series of novels about some of the original humans. In the first book, Ayla, a human toddler, is orphaned, and found by a tribe of Neanderthals who care for her and raise her. They think that her rounded forehead, blond hair, and chin are deformities. Because their vocal chords aren’t well formed, they communicate with gestures and grunts. As she becomes more familiar to them, she tries to talk, remembering some of the sounds her parents made, but she doesn’t even recognize the hand gestures as an attempt at communication. They assume she is retarded because she makes those funny sounds, and because she doesn’t even notice the subtle hand signals they are using to try to communicate. Eventually, they decided she is from an inferior species and is banished from the group.

This was so much like our experiences with our own native populations. Native Americans had a rich culture, history, and religion, but because we didn’t understand it, and, because we assumed they had no written language, we were convinced they were inferior and needed to be civilized. Horrors!

If you would like to join me as I blog about my experiences with race, please read the book. It was life changing for me.

Racial Categories: The day I learned race is more of a social construct than a biological certainty

Chapter 8 of Waking Up White: and finding myself in the story of RACE by Debbie Irving

How have you understood racial difference? In terms of biology? Culture? Have you given it much thought? Why or why not?

One of the most startling things I learned in this chapter was “that, genetically speaking, humans have the least intraspecies genetic variation, and the greatest variation occurs within ethnic groups.” I had always thought that things like Negroes being good at sports, and Asians being good at math were enhanced by nurture, but were basically the result of nature. But “no science supports the idea that genetic makeup follows the neat racial lines white people have created. No science links race to intrinsic traits such as intelligence or musical or physical abilities.”

Debbie’s discussion about imagining people being ranked by hair color, reminded me of the old diversity study where the teacher separated the class by eye color, and told the kids that the brown-eyed kids were smarter, more helpful, etc., than the blue-eyed kids. She also treated the brown-eyed kids more kindly, and praised them lavishly, while denigrating the blue-eyed kids. Within a couple of days, the brown-eyed kids were reading better, getting better grades on tests and behaving beautifully, while the blue-eyed kids were causing trouble, and falling behind on their studies. Apparently, intelligence and success in school has less to do with genetics than with societal treatment.

How much intellectual superiority that we see in Japanese children is because of parental pressure and expectations? How are teachers’ attitudes towards kids influenced by early standardized tests? Does an IQ test in kindergarten or first grade either adversely or positively affect the entire rest of that child’s academic career? And how much are the results of that IQ test influenced by whether the parents were at home regularly after school, reading to, and playing with the child.

Imagine a young black man in “the hood”, who understood from everyone around him that his only way out was through sports, or in a coffin. That kid, encouraged by his parents and community, probably won’t even try to excel academically. My guess is that he will spend his afternoons and weekends practicing basketball, even though he might really prefer reading a book.

Or what about the kid who is still “baby-fat” pudgy when entering kindergarten? Suppose she is also not very coordinated yet (it doesn’t matter what race she is). Will she have opportunities in sports? We were always told that African-American women didn’t have “the body shape” to succeed in sports like swimming or gymnastics. But the most recent Olympics have certainly proven us wrong.

If you would like to join me as I blog about my experiences with race, please read the book. It was life changing for me.

The GI Bill: Discovering the meaning of unearned privilege

Chapter 7 of Waking Up White: and finding myself in the story of RACE by Debbie Irving

Have you ever uncovered a family secret or piece of information about a person or place that countered your previous perception? Once you learned the new information, were you able to look back and see clues that had been there all along but that you didn’t recognize as evidence of a narrative you didn’t yet know about?

I was incredibly naïve as a child and as a young adult. I’ll never forget the surprise and shock I felt the first time I learned that women could be in love with other women, or men in love with other men. The idea of kissing (romantically) another woman was so foreign to me that I didn’t even feel revulsion or fear. It had legitimately never occurred to me until I ran into some lesbian-themed paperback books at a friend’s house. We lived just 19 miles from New York City when I was a teenager. My father’s cousin lived in Greenwich Village, and when we would go into New York to see a play or for dinner, I might see two women holding hands as they walked down the street. I thought of it with a shrug.

Likewise, in New York, we could see black and white couples. I’m not sure what I thought then. I’ll never forget my shock when a friend of mine, a person of color, gave me a ride home from high school, and I saw that her mother was white.

In my college history class, the outlook was economic – the Civil War was not fought about Slavery – rather it was an economic war between the industrial North and the agrarian South. I have no idea where I thought the mulattos that I saw every day came from, but it never occurred to me that most of their heritage came from rape by the slave owner. The blinders were ripped off when Alex Haley published Roots.

I KNEW people like Daisy Burton, Grant at the bank, John and Pearl at the church. I knew they loved me, and I had no idea they were kept in economic slavery. Their grandparents were slaves, and my great-grandparents were slave owners, but I felt no guilt about that. I figured they didn’t have to work for $ .25 an hour. I thought they could have gotten another job if they wanted it. I thought they did it out of love for me and for my family.

Daisy was born in Garland, Arkansas, sometime in the 1870s. That means her mother (and possibly her father) would have known Maya Angelou’s mother. When I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I was appalled, and the FACTS of slavery, reconstruction, and Jim Crow began to become personal to me.

The first people of color that I remember in political life were Shirley Chisholm, and Barbara Jordan. (Of course, I remember Martin Luther King, but my grandfather and parents were so fixed on anti-integration that I didn’t even pay any attention to what he was saying.) Barbara Jordan was possibly the first articulate, educated black woman I had ever heard.

Like Debbie Irving, I had no idea that access to education and housing loans was denied to people of color for far too long.

If you would like to join me as I blog about my experiences with race, please read the book. It was life changing for me.

From Confusion to Shock: The course that changed the course of my life

Chapter 5 of Waking Up White: and finding myself in the story of RACE by Debbie Irving

The late historian Ronald Takaki referred to the history taught in American schools as “The Master Narrative,” the version on 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? Anti-immigration laws of the nineteenth century? America’s laws regarding who could and could not gain citizenship? The Native Americans who had once lived on your town’s or school’s land?

This question brought me up short. I realized that for the first 25 years of my life, my knowledge of the history of African-Americans was limited to the romanticized version seen in Gone with the Wind. I began to understand a little bit more after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, but those two books informed my attitude. I admit quite frankly that, while I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in high school, it didn’t really occur to me that the story wasn’t about a couple of kids growing up in the South in the ’30s. The story of Boo Radley, and Scout, and Jem was what I focused on. Mentally I knew bad stuff happened to a black man, but that was peripheral to my enjoyment of the book.

In the center of the town I grew up in in New Jersey there was a park. It was called Mindowaskin, obviously a Native American name, but since the town was settled in 1720 “as part of the Elizabethtown Tract. Westfield was originally formed as a township on January 27, 1794, from portions of Elizabeth Township, while the area was still part of Essex County, and was incorporated as a one of New Jersey’s first 104 townships by an Act of the New Jersey Legislature on February 21, 1798.” There was no record that I knew of about the Native Americans who had first settled there, and I can’t find anything today.

I vaguely understood that people of color had a much more difficult time with immigration. There were quotas that significantly impacted nations other than from Northern Europe. I knew this, but I didn’t connect the dots that would have led me to understand why there were relatively few Italians or Mexicans in town.

If you would like to join me as I blog about my experiences with race, please read the book. It was life changing for me.

Within the Walls: The exclusive world of thriving people raising thriving children

Chapter 5 of Waking Up White: and finding myself in the story of RACE by Debbie Irving

How connected to or disconnected from the larger world was your family, your school, your town? How much did you understand about conflict and struggle in your world or beyond? How did you make sense of people who had material wealth and people who didn’t? What was your family’s attitude about the people in power?

As I’ve already said, I remember “the News” on the radio or on TV was a fixture in our house. I listened to Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley and the other newscasters regularly, whether I understood what they were saying or not. I rarely questioned whether what they were saying was “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

I learned early on (like when Eisenhower was running for President) that we were independent voters, but it usually meant we voted for Republicans unlike my grandparents who voted for Democrats because the Democrats were the only party in the 1950s South. I never questioned either the news reports or the establishment until I met my husband and found out that not everything we were told by politicians was the truth. I always learned and said “The President is the commander-in-chief of the country, and even if he’s wrong, we should support him.”

The late ’50s and early ’60s were the time of bomb shelters and air raid drills. Large boxes appeared in school hallways containing emergency rations for use in case of nuclear attack. As I have said, I was a prolific reader, without many restrictions, and I terrified myself reading On the Beach by Nevil Shute, something I don’t remember the name of about an atomic attack on the United States, and other early post-apocalyptic fiction when I was in high school.

When Kennedy was shot I was shaken to my core. I’ve said before that much of my idealist young hope died with him. I never subscribed to the conspiracy theories, but I never again felt really safe. If someone could kill the president, what chance did I have.

Then came the Civil Rights Movement, and the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. I was in college in the early ’60s, so I started to learn that not everything the government told me was right. We married in 1964, and my husband joined the Air Force after he graduated from university. We were stationed in Germany in 1966, and so much of the upheaval in the States was not really real to me. We lived in the isolated bubble of foreigners in a strange land, and our friends were all other Air Force officers with startlingly similar political views. My husband, who adopted the outlook of a flaming liberal mostly as a rebellion against his parents, was more politically savvy than I, but he was reluctant to voice his thoughts because we lived with, and socialized with other officers. (Criticism of the government, the war, or the President was tantamount to treason in the eyes of many of our friends.)

When Nixon was impeached a great chasm opened in my soul. I was forced to confront my own blind acceptance of “the way the world was.” Until that time, I really believed that politicians were basically good with the good of the country at heart. I believed in the idea that the country would elect someone who was the best for the country and for our place in the world. My blinders were ripped off with the impeachment, and I turned into a disheartened pragmatist. I sympathized with the civil rights movement, but I was never able to really trust the leaders any more. There was a disagreement at our church where one of the ministers gathered friends together to fire another of the ministers. We ran afoul of the rank structure in the Air Force, and lost touch with a couple of friends. I saw people who purported to have the best interests of the group at heart, who were really out for their own gain. I still struggle with trusting people at face value.

During this time I followed the accepted point of view that people who were poor, were poor because they didn’t work hard enough. I began to suspect that sometimes it mattered more who your friends were than who you were. I saw my husband being passed over for promotion for no fault of his own – he just happened to have worked for the “wrong” colonel at one time. It was a time of total disillusionment for me.

If you would like to join me as I blog about my experiences with race, please read the book. It was life changing for me.

Optimism: The downside of perpetually looking on the bright side

Chapter 4 of Waking Up White.

What were some of the major economic, political, demographic, and pop culture trends from ten years before your birth until age twenty? How did they show up in your life? How do you think they influenced your beliefs?

The thirty years between 1934 and 1964 were some of the most turbulent, and, taken in a block, disjointed in American history. The time began as Hitler was rising to power in Europe. The United States was crawling out of the Great Depression. People who, until 5 years earlier, had been well-to-do found themselves facing debt and struggling to keep food on the table, much less their affluent life-style. My grandfather was a banker, and spent most of his emotional energy keeping up payments on the house that he bought in the first of October, 1929. The family never wanted for food, but they developed frugal habits that I carry to this day. My grandmother and even my mother saved, kept, washed, and reused things I throw away without thinking – like plastic storage bags. I’m not quite that bad, but I still have clothes that I wear many years after they have gone out of style. Mama was a teenager who had attended a private school until the fall of 1932. It must have been quite a shock for her to be thrust into public school at the age of 12.

Five years before I was born the world shifted – World War II began – at first only in Europe and Asia, but then in 1941 the United States was thrust into the conflict. The spending of the government for the war machine brought money back into circulation. Rationing was imposed, but the attitude of most people was that the shortages of things like butter and gasoline and nylons was fine – it was helping the country win the war. New people moved to town. My father was stationed at the ordinance depot near Texarkana. As an officer, he was welcomed into “society” and Mama met him when she returned to town after graduating from the University of Denver. They married in 1943, and, as I have said before, he was shipped to Europe in time for the Battle of the Bulge. I was born while he was there. I think of myself as the upper limit of the baby boom, and my outlook straddles the values of the Builder generation, and those of the Boomers.

With the return of the servicemen, the economy picked up even more. As rationing was cut back, new cars were produced, gas became available and inexpensive, many new housing tracts were built quickly to house the returning GIs. Radios played dramas, comedies, music, and other entertainment in homes. I remember listening to Amos and Andy, the Lone Ranger, and the Breakfast Club with Don McNeill. Newscasts on the radio brought current events into living rooms. Then – BAM – in the early ’50s, television burst onto the scene. We got our first TV when I was about 10 years old (the year the cable came to Houston). Now we could see the black Amos and Andy. Betty McDonald published The Egg and I in 1947, and Ma and Pa Kettle were introduced to the world. I read all three of her books when I was in high school and thought they were interesting, and funny. I recently reread them and I was appalled at her treatment of immigrants, and Native Americans, but obviously I didn’t think anything of it when I first read them.

In the second half of the ’40s and all of the ’50s, the country was mobile. Road trips were a thing. Families piled into station wagons and visited National Parks, the seashore, and distant relatives. I lived in eight different houses in four states between birth and age 20. Through my junior high and high school years our lives followed the Cleavers, Ozzie and Harriet, and Happy Days. Prosperity had returned to the country, and we could go to the movies, or a concert if we wanted. Elvis Presley appeared and Rock and Roll became king. Governor Faubus of Arkansas tried to keep people of color from integrating the schools in Little Rock. George Wallace called out the Georgia National Guard to prevent integration there.

When I graduated from high school I returned to the south to attend college after living 6 years in New Jersey. The Civil Rights Movement was just getting underway. The Birmingham Bus Boycott had happened as I entered junior high, but it never ruffled the surface of my life. BUT in 1962 the Birmingham Campaign began and RACE took a whole different place in my head. I met my future husband who, while three years older, was very interested in the marches and the struggle. These were the days of the beginning of Head Start, and black voter registration drives, and all the idealistic things that attracted me and the rest of the early Boomers.

Then, finally, to cap off this amazing, turbulent slice of history, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. All of us flaming liberals who had seen in him the possibility of power for our generation lost most of our hope. President Lyndon B Johnson kept up a lot of his ideas and ideals, but his connection with the old power politics depressed us, even though he pushed through the Civil Rights Act, as a legacy for President Kennedy.

If you would like to join me as I blog about my experiences with race, please read the book. It was life changing for me.