I’m reading a book called Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. There are questions at the end of each chapter. I decided to write my answers in an effort to dig a little deeper. Writing helps me clarify my thinking. I’m writing for better understanding for myself, but decided to share as blog posts in case someone else might find my wandering thoughts interesting or useful.
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 played 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?
I am white and I know little about my heritage. More than once during my elementary education, we had to make a family tree and/or write reports on where we came from. When I asked my parents about our ancestors, I got vague answers. Our lineage was not of much interest to them. I remember quite clearly an episode when I told my mother that kids were bragging about their family landing on Plymouth Rock.
She said, “Well, tell them your family was here to greet them.”
This was so intriguing and romantic to the young me (eight, nine, ten years old), that I immediately began to pester her incessantly. “How far back do my native roots go? What tribe? Was it a grandmother?”
I think at that point she was sorry she ever said anything, because she had few answers for me. Later, I realized she might have made the whole thing up just to have something to tell me to write about, because our Native American ancestors faded away and were never brought up again.
Our ethnicities were not important to my parents and in my family, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we just thought of ourselves as American, and of course, by default that means white. History wasn’t important to my family. Maybe because my ancestors’ focus was on assimilating. How we got here didn’t matter. We were here and we needed to work hard and be positive and everything else would fall into place. History and researching genealogies appeared to be for people who had more interesting ancestors than I did.
It was never explicitly stated that everyone had the same opportunities in the great US of A, and if people didn’t get ahead, they just didn’t work hard, but that was certainly my understanding of how the world worked. Not just from my parents, but in school, what I read, television all reinforced the myth of meritocracy as well as the myths of patriarchal romance and gender norms. Cinderella and Prince Charming, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Andrew Carnegie, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington. Everyone was white and thin and good-looking and everyone deserved success because they worked hard and got ahead without any outside help.
I remember the riots across the country in the 1960s, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark, and other big cities. I recall my parents being appalled that people were burning their cities, looting stores, destroying their own homes. They seemed to see it as a personal failing of the people rioting. The people hadn’t worked hard enough to get ahead. They expected things to be given to them. They were lazy. What did they have to be angry about? Attitudes such as these perpetuate the myth of meritocracy and help keep people in their place. Without a clear understanding of the system that keeps people poor and oppressed, it’s easy to blame the victim and cast systemic oppression as individual failure.