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.

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