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. But it’s really for myself that I’m doing it.
Waking Up White
What stereotypes about people from another race do you remember hearing as a child? Were you ever taught to question stereotypes?
I loved the book Gone With the Wind. I read it for the first time when I was about twelve and read it again at least once a year for the next four or five years. I was madly in love with Rhett Butler, such a handsome and romantic hero. Scarlett O’Hara was my beloved heroine; only she was good enough for Rhett. Looking back, the stereotypes in that book are appalling. Slavery is presented as neutral or, worse, as positive and life-affirming for the enslaved people. But one of the worst things that story conveyed, something that truly sticks out in my mind, was that the white Southerners were clearly justified in starting the KKK, because they had to protect themselves from the Carpetbaggers and the recently freed slaves who didn’t know how to behave appropriately in a civilized society. The southerners were portrayed as having no choice.
The book never calls their group the KKK, of course. And it’s possible I’m not being historically correct or recalling the book absolutely accurately, but I remember Rhett and other good southerners attacking freed slaves because they were disrespectful to Scarlett or something very close to that. Rhett Butler as Klansman – I didn’t understand until years later how horrifying that really was.
That version of history stayed with me for a long time, at least subconsciously. I don’t remember classes in school doing anything to dislodge it. Ideally, history classes would have taught me about the domestic terrorism after the Civil War that became the Jim Crow laws. Granted, I don’t remember everything from high school, and I was more than a little focused on boys and drugs, but I loved history, so I paid attention, and I think I would have remembered learning about the horrific oppression. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I read The Warmth of Other Suns that I realized I had no good understanding of those years after the Civil War and the Jim Crow years. Did I ignore it in school or was it not taught? If I had to bet, I’d go with not being taught.
Later in life, I have come to realize that Gone With the Wind is a racist book that perpetuates damaging stereotypes and white supremacy. At this point, I don’t think I could stand to re-read it.
I don’t remember ever being taught to question stereotypes. Not by my parents and not in school, until I got to college. Even in college, for the most part, I memorized facts and repeated them on exams for grades. One class stands out in my memory. When I was a senior, I needed three more credits to graduate and Intro to Women’s Studies looked interesting and easy. It turned out to be easy, only because it was compelling to me, and I was fascinated with everything I learned. We talked about feminism, of course, and looking back, it wasn’t a completely intersectional feminism, but we did learn about racism and homophobia as well as sexism. It was the first class that made me think about the world through perspectives other than my own.
I started reading more books by women of color and learned about stereotypes and how they are used to oppress people. I learned to think more critically and question the status quo. I had a long way to go (and still do), but Intro to Women’s Studies started me on a path to learn more about oppression, marginalized people, and white supremacy which continues to this day. It’s a never-ending process, to struggle with my ingrained racism. I’m grateful for all the books, articles, and information available to support me in my efforts.