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 myself, but decided to share as blog posts in case someone else might find my wandering thoughts interesting or useful or might want to have a discussion.
How would you characterize your class as a child? Your class now? Your parents, grandparents class? What did you learn about race?
My parents were raised working class. They lived through the Great Depression, and that had a profound impact on their worldview. My father was older than my mother and it seems that the Depression had more of an impact on him, as he was more careful with money and more conservative. My mother was more willing to take a risk. When I was a child, my father hated his job, but stayed, because it was a job. My mother encouraged him to leave, to find something he liked better; he did and was much happier. I don’t think he would have taken the risk without my mother’s encouragement.
My mother’s parents opened a boarding house to make a living during the Depression. People rented a room in their house, and my grandmother cooked three meals a day for ten people. My grandmother also cooked for restaurants for $30 a month. When I was eight or ten, we sat at her kitchen table and she taught me to roll out a piecrust. She told me stories about men coming to the back door every day for years during those times and she would fix them something to eat. She never mentioned race. I didn’t think about it; I just assumed everyone was white, and they probably were in the small Wisconsin town. Looking back, I realize that white was the default. Other races were rarely mentioned.
My father’s father was a butcher and my grandmother raised their four kids. I don’t remember my grandfather. He died before I was born. When I was two years old, my grandmother moved in with us so my mother could go back to work.
My parents were able to move into the lower middle class. My father was a laborer, working for the sewer department. I was ashamed of his job when I was young and tried to avoid talking about what he did. I called him a machine operator, because it sounded a little less lower class. But it was a good job, a union job, and my parents were able to move up. My mother was a secretary at an insurance company and worked her way up to office manager.
My father was a World War II veteran and had access to a VA home loan. My parents bought a house in a middle-class neighborhood, where I grew up. It was an older home, with gorgeous wood floors, leaded glass windows, and beamed ceilings, which I appreciate now, but then I thought it was just old. I was a bit ashamed of the house; I wanted to live in something newer and more modern. Now, of course, I understand the beauty and value of that house, but as a child, I saw it as a symbol of being lower class and I was embarrassed.
As an adult, I also understand that my father had access to the VA loan to help them buy a house because he was white. Over a million black veterans were not able to utilize the benefits in the same way white veterans were because institutional racism affected the way the law was structured as well as the way the benefits were accessed. Black veterans were not able to use the home loans because of segregation. They weren’t allowed to buy homes in areas where the loans were used.
I was taught to work hard and get ahead and that anything was possible. My parents grew up poor during the Great Depression and worked themselves into the lower middle class. They had high school educations and they saw their children graduate from college. They believed in the myth of meritocracy without any understanding of how the current system deliberately disadvantages and marginalizes whole groups of people, keeping them from just “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”
My parents believed that the system was fair and everyone had the same chance to get ahead, so those people who weren’t getting ahead just weren’t working hard enough. They didn’t have any understanding that our economy is structured to create poverty. The top one percent has more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, and the construction of class and race, combined with discrimination, have created a system to keep members of the lower class in their place. An article in The Atlantic by Peter Temin, an MIT economist makes the argument that economic inequality results in two distinct classes, and of course, only one of the classes has any real power. “The choices made in the United States include keeping the low-wage sector quiet by mass incarceration, housing segregation and disenfranchisement,” Temin writes. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/04/economic-inequality/524610/
I learned so much from my parents, and I will always be grateful to them for all they did for me and all the values they shared with me. I don’t know if my parents would have been interested in exploring the concepts of racial and class inequalities. By the time I started studying and talking and learning more about these ideas, my mother and father were both dead, so we never discussed poverty, race, and class. I sometimes have conversations with them in my head, and because they were both smart, kind, and caring people, I believe they might have been open to learning more about social justice. At least, I hope so.