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.
How connected to or disconnected from the larger world was your family, your school, your town? How much did you understand about conflict and struggle in your world or beyond? How did you make sense of people who had material wealth and people who didn’t? What was your family’s attitude about the people in power?
We never talked about politics or money in my family. My father wouldn’t even talk about who he voted for. He said, “That’s why they have the curtain around the booth.” But he and my mother always voted. They wouldn’t say who they voted for, but I think they did believe it was their civic duty to vote.
I actually don’t remember our discussions at the dinner table. I can picture the table. Everyone drank milk except my mother. We almost always had meat, potatoes, and a vegetable. In my mind, I can see the pork chops and milk gravy. When we had salad, we put the bottles of dressing on the table, which some people have pointed out to me is very tacky. Even so, I still do it. The chandelier in the dining room over the table was over 100 years old, but I didn’t appreciate its value. I’m sitting here now, trying to remember, pushing my mind back, seeing my mother, father, brother, and grandmother sitting around the table. I can’t remember a word we said, and I wonder what that means. I remember my mother washing dishes after dinner and my grandmother dried. Sometimes I had to help, but not often.
Was our conversation so inane, so meaningless that it’s completely wiped out of my memory? Was I so self-centered that I paid no attention? Or did we talk very little? That seems like a possibility. My father was a quiet, introverted man who worked at a physically hard job. My brother was independent. He was six years older than I was, so we weren’t close. My mother was much more social than my father. I can see her making conversation with her family, but I can’t hear the words. My grandmother was quiet and kept everything in. We were not a family that showed our feelings. I would love to remember a family actively discussing current events and sharing ideas, but that was not the childhood that I had.
I did not feel connected to the larger world, except through school, social studies, history, English. I read a lot, and learned about history and culture through novels, mostly. As I think back on my favorite books, I don’t remember any that were written by people of color. My perspectives were entirely shaped by white writers until I got to college.
My parents both worked hard and were often tired. My father had a heart attack when I was twelve. I remember my fear for him. We watched television together every night. Our TV programs were very white. I’ve Got A Secret, To Tell the Truth, Ed Sullivan. Bill Cosby from I Spy was the only black TV star I remember. When I was older, The Smothers Brothers were very daring and, I think, had some black performers, but I don’t remember for sure.
I’m not sure of my parents’ attitude about people in power. They rarely talked about it. Looking back, I think my parents were caught up in the day-to-day details of everyday living and didn’t have much time to focus on the outside world.
I do remember that my mother was an early anti-vaxer. She believed the human body had the capacity to handle most illnesses and that it was better not to put chemicals into our bodies. We did get immunized against polio, and later she told me that was because my father insisted. But that was the only vaccination I ever had until I was an adult. My brother had to get a smallpox vaccination when he went to college. My mother rarely went to a doctor and didn’t take us very much, although she would take us if our illness seemed serious enough. I remember her attitude toward sickness was, “Go to bed and rest. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
I believed people who had more money were better than I was. I associated wealth with increased intelligence, beauty, and intrinsic value. I’m not sure exactly where my beliefs stemmed from, outside of the ubiquitous societal view that rich people are more valuable than poor people. I didn’t know many rich people; my friends all came from families of relatively modest means. Wealthier kids at school hung out with other kids who came from money.
When I was in high school, my mother became more active in our church, serving on committees and volunteering as director of Christian education. The church was also attended by many local doctors and lawyers, and my mother shared with me that she often felt intimidated by them because they had so much more money and education than she had. Even when she knew what she was doing, even when her work was exemplary, she would defer to someone who was less skilled in the area, but had more money. Those are the attitudes I learned at home.
I don’t think I’m alone in having to learn that great wealth does not equal great person. I’ve heard people reiterate that concept in casual conversation about individuals in the news – “he must be smart, he’s rich,” without any understanding of class and privilege. It seems to be an unspoken rule in our society that wealth is always earned through hard work and virtue, making those wealthy people better than others in so many ways. A recent study indicated that a “higher social class leads to overconfidence and the appearance, if not the existence, of competence.” https://www.marketwatch.com/story/incompetent-people-from-wealthy-backgrounds-are-more-likely-to-act-like-theyre-smart-and-people-believe-them-2019-05-21
I’m grateful that I’ve learned that money doesn’t equal value (or happiness, for that matter) and that I have a clearer understanding of poverty and privilege. It’s an area I’m focused on learning more about.