Family Values: The making of a belief system

Chapter 2 of Waking Up White.

What values and admonitions did you learn in your family? Think about education, work, lifestyle, money, expression of emotions, and so forth. Try making a list of ten principles, values, and unspoken beliefs. Siblings and cousins can be good resources for thinking about this. Now consider what conclusions you drew about people who did not appear to follow your family’s belief system.

As I read this chapter, it felt like I could have written the same thing, except instead of being a white, well-to-do  Mayflower descendent I am the product of a gentile, white Southerner who can trace her ancestors back to the War of 1812.

My father and mother met during WWII when he was stationed near her hometown, Texarkana, Arkansas. I was born while he was overseas, and never met him until I was 18 months old. My mother and I lived with her parents during that time, and I was spoiled by doting grandparents, aunts, great-aunts, and black servants. My “other grandmother”, Papa’s mother, who had been a widow for over 10 years, lived in Palo Alto, California, and came to see us after I was born. She was entertained, and shown around town, and then she left, and, neither she nor my aunts, uncles, and cousins from Papa’s side were never much of an influence on me.

After Papa came home from the war, he returned to work for Shell Chemical, Co., and we were transferred almost as often as we would have been if he had stayed in the Army. Shortly after he got back we moved to California where he was an engineer on a project in the East Bay Area of San Francisco. We were there for about 18 months, when we moved to Houston, Texas, while he was a project engineer building the big Shell Chemical plant in LaPorte, on the Galveston ship channel. During that six years we lived in four different places, two in Houston proper and two in Pasadena. At the end of third grade, we moved to Concord, California for him to work in a plant in Martinez. We were there for three years.

During all these moves two things stayed constant – we were always active the local Presbyterian Church wherever we were, and Texarkana and my grandparents stayed in the same place. I used to tell people that I stayed with my parents wherever they were but my real home was in Texarkana. When we lived in Houston we used to go to Texarkana every time there was a long weekend or if I had a week off from school and all summer long. This was Texas in the ’50s, so summers were impossibly hot and humid, and the little tract houses we lived in were beastly. My grandparents lived in a large house with lots of windows, an attic fan to cool us at night, and a cook so Mama didn’t have to stand over a hot stove in the evening. Even after we moved to California, we spent the whole summer in Texarkana.

When I was 5 years old, my parents had my IQ tested (I was very verbal – probably marginally Aspergian) and it test out at 143 points (technically a genius – blush). From that time on I was told I was very smart, and that I should definitely go to college. I loved to have books read to me, and chafed at the idea of Dick and Jane. Once I actually tried to learn to read, I was off – reading everything I could get my hands on whether it was age-appropriate or not. Although by the time we left California I had two younger sisters and a younger brother, it was always understood that we would all go to college.

When I was in 7th grade we moved to New Jersey. Racially it was a real shock to me, because even in California the only people of color I knew were servants (Concord, California, had Mexicans, but none, nada, zero black families. Whether my parents decided to live there because of that or whether that was incidental to their choice of a place to live, I don’t know. They are both dead now, so I can’t ask them.)

I know I had no idea that the “N” word was a pejorative term. I knew that “nice white people” didn’t say “nigger”, instead they said “nigra”. I assumed they were trying to say “Negro” and their southern accent got in the way. I’ll never forget being called to task in 7th grade Social Studies when we were studying current events about the integration of the schools throughout the South. I was a new kid, and already very unsure of myself (7th is a particular kind of hell when you’re new and you talk funny.) It was years before I was able to verbalize ANY term for a person of color, for fear of being politically incorrect.

I actually had a good friend at school in 9th and 10th grade who was African-American, but I was afraid to even broach the subject at home because “we just don’t associate with those people who think they are as good as we are.” That’s not to say my parents were overtly racist at all, in fact I was told in no uncertain terms that I had to be kind to everyone, especially black people, because “they couldn’t help the way they looked, smelled, etc.”

Between my freshman and sophomore year in college I was a counsellor at the Girl Scout Camp, and one of the other counsellors was a person of color. That was the first time I had had any extended contact other than in a servant/master role with any black person. She was funny, and interesting, and great to be around. I remember how shocked I was when she joined the rest of us during our afternoon breaks lying in the sun. I had no idea she would be able to get a tan line!

I was very active in Girl Scouts, and my troop in High School earned money to go to Europe for 8 weeks between my Junior and Senior year. While we were there I saw how the Europeans were (comparatively) color-blind, and I loved the way other cultures expanded my knowledge and experience.

So back to values, etc. – Presbyterian church, extended family, Southern heritage, higher education, travel, welcome new experiences, kindness, honesty, paternalism, and fear of confrontation.

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.

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