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.