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.

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