Reflections on “Waking Up White”: Chapters Two and Three

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Chapter 2: “Childhood In White”

In this chapter, Irving shares how her family valued the importance of being accomplished, staying busy, having a good attitude, being complaint free and restraining emotions (displays of anger, pride, sadness, anger, jealousy and fear) which conditioned her to become “deeply uncomfortable around people who exhibited any of the disapproved emotions, especially anger.” The emotional numbness, she writes, had “huge implications for racism” which she learned much later in life and will explore in an upcoming chapter.  She closes Chapter 2 with the question:

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. … Now consider what conclusions you drew about people who did not appear to follow your family’s belief system

  1. God is love and God wants us to love one another and be helpful, courteous, kind and merciful.
  2. Lying, cheating and stealing is wrong
  3. Save your money, don’t waste it like other people do
  4. It’s not like the good ole days where you can walk on downtown streets safely without getting robbed or shot
  5. Get a good education and job, follow the rules/behave and work hard to avoid laziness, poverty, digging ditches, drugs, crime, jail, being sent off to war
  6. Guns keep us safe and it’s our right to shoot someone in self defense if they break into our home or threatens us with violence
  7. The homeless aren’t interested in jobs because they refuse to do menial tasks like sweeping streets
  8. Democratic party and leaders on local, state and national level are crooked and not to be trusted
  9. There’s a difference between black people and the “n-word” (i.e. blacks who were poor and lazy, criminals, crooked politicians, political activists like the Black Panthers and foul-mouthed trouble makers like rappers and some comedians.)
  10. Gay is not normal and goes against God’s teachings in scripture

I didn’t draw any conclusions about people who didn’t appear to follow my family’s belief system because everyone around us held the same beliefs and values–relatives, neighbors, church members, and school teachers (all of whom were white). Spoken and unspoken.  I did, however, become quite paranoid and suspicious of anyone who was “other” unless they met the approval of the authority figures in my life. I also believed for a long while that certain places were more dangerous and violent because of the poor and people of color.

I never felt comfortable despising and hating people who were different than me and I always questioned the validity of several of the values and admonitions that were spoken, although I never dared to express them out loud.

Mostly, I was just scared and doubtful about the world and other people and surroundings that were foreign to me, and I sort of resigned to the notion that if I simply behaved and did what I was told, I would live a good and successful life and not have to experience any of the scary stuff of the world.

Chapter 3: “Race Versus Class”

Irving posits that both race and class are real issues that matter,and shouldn’t be pitted against another:

Trying to determine which one is the ‘real’ issue does a disservice to both. Concluding class is the real issue would give me permission to avoid thinking about race. Similarly, assuming race is the most significant issue overlooks the complications faced by white people caught in a vicious cycle of poverty. Both can trap people in a kind of second-class citizenship. If you can’t get the education you need to get a job to pay for healthy food, medical care, transportation, and a home in a neighborhood with good schools, then you can’t educate your children in a school that will prepare them for a job that will…and so on. Any cycle that traps someone in a state of perpetual disadvantage is the real issue for the people experiencing it. And yet race and class are inextricably linked….

Until I understood the impact skin color can have on one’s life, I wasn’t able to consider racism in combination with other factors that influence one’s culture. The culture that shapes people are breathtakingly complex when you consider all that goes into them. Era, geographical location, language, level of education, ethnic heritage, race, gender, sexual orientation, income, wealth, religion, health, family personalities and professions, birth order, hobbies and sports provide multiple variables that mix and match to create a unique culture in each and every family and each and every person. ..When it comes to culture, the only thing we all have in common is that we have one, and it shapes us….

Yet race stands apart from the variables listed above. Not only is race visible and permanent; it’s come to act as a social proxy for one’s value in American’ society. White has long stood for normal and better, while black and brown have been considered different and inferior. Social value isn’t just a matter of feeling as if one belongs or doesn’t; it affects one’s access to housing, education, and jobs, the building blocks necessary to access the great American promise–class mobility.

At the end of the chapter, Irving asks:

Class is determined by income, wealth (assets), education, and profession. Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director at Class Action, suggest these categories as a way of thinking about class: Poverty, Working Class, Lower-Middle Class, Professional Middle Class, Upper-Middle Class, Owning Class. How would you characterize your parents’ class? Your grandparents’ class? Your class as a child? Your class now? What messages did you get about race in each?

I would characterize my family as being Professional Middle Class–Like my parents, I grew up with a roof over my head in a suburban neighborhood (that was completely white), nice clothes, plenty of food, summer vacations to the beach, presents for birthdays, Christmas, Easter and even Valentine’s Day in addition to the occasional purchase of a toy or book during the year. We had access to public schools and could afford luxuries like dinner at a restaurant, a TV and cable (as well as the latest tech gadget), more than two cars, a swing set in our backyard, a yard and trees to play in, etc.

My paternal/maternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents, having grown up during the Depression as Working Class, felt the desire to be more generous to their offspring as they moved into the Professional to Upper-Middle Class as adults. Both sets of grandparents regularly took us to the movies. Both grandfathers took us to UAB basketball games. My maternal grandparents took us to Atlanta Braves games and Six Flags less than a handful of times. They also owned a modest vacation house at The Still Waters Resort in Dadeville, Alabama where we would go for the weekend, usually for an Auburn Tigers football game 20 minutes away in Auburn. My paternal grandparents were in the Upper-Middle Class due to their business success in waste management services (and later other ventures) and thus were able to afford a condominium in Florida along with two charter fishing boats. We spent many summers on the beach and going deep sea fishing.

Granted, my younger brother and I never got everything we asked from our parents and grandparents. If we got a hole in our jeans, they got patched up. My brother got a lot of my clothes that I outgrew instead of new ones. We had to do chores and earn an allowance and save our money. Their was a strong belief in making purchases last until they went kaput, i.e. cars, appliances, furniture and so on.

Often we had to share our toys. Restaurant outings were special occasions, not a weekly or monthly splurge. (Although, we did have steak and potatoes almost every Saturday night growing up.) The only place we traveled to outside of Alabama was Florida with the exception of two trips my maternal grandparents planned:  A visit to Alberta, Canada for the Calgary Stampede and Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park when I was 11 and the California coast when I was 15 or 16.

We never lacked anything and we were taught to be appreciative of what we had and to not be greedy for more stuff. And yet, the message that members of my family relayed, directly and indirectly, was that people of color often couldn’t succeed because they weren’t willing to work hard, didn’t follow the rules, were greedy and unappreciative.  That notion always bugged me, even though I admit to believing it at times when I was a teen and young adult. I realized in college and beyond that this was a giant misconception.

Today, our family of me, my wife and our two children, 8-year-old daughter and nearly 3-year-old son, is Professional Middle Class. We have everything we need. We don’t have a second vacation home but we can afford to take trips every summer to the beach, go to the movies on occasion, have iPhones, iPads, laptop computers and maintain three cars. We’re privileged to have my mother-in-law live with us to help take care of our children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum and one who has some development delays. She helps cover costs for special needs therapy and provides for the family in other ways through retirement savings. Education and basic necessities are met every day and then some. We have a nice home in a suburban neighborhood that is tad more diverse than mine growing up.

I’ve realized from all of this that while a lot of hard work is responsible for our status and comfortable living, we have been privileged as whites to have the access to be in the Professional Middle Class. My family now and then has opportunities many people of color don’t have. I’m much more aware of that reality and that one’s lack of status or designation in a respectable class doesn’t mean people aren’t working hard or being good citizens or living good values.  And I don’t feel more deserving of what I have earned and been given than someone else who struggles to gain opportunities and needs they deserve and should be given.  

I hope I’m teaching my own children how to be aware of their privilege and also not judge others who are denied opportunities because of their race and class. And as they grow older, I also hope that I’m able to show them how to knock down racial and class barriers and work toward equity for the poor, the oppressed and cultures that have been denied many benefits from a majority white system.

 

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