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.

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