05 Nov 2020

What I learned growing up white.

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I have loved working with breastfeeding and human lactation for 45 years, and look forward to many more. As part of my work at a health department, I have given many educational sessions about cultural humility to healthcare professionals. As part of preparing for these sessions, I gathered information about breastfeeding practices from around the world.  I remember wondering, “what are the white cultural practices?” I never identified any. The question, “what is white culture” occasionally drifted through my mind over the years; eventually I concluded that we didn’t have one, because I couldn’t think of anything unique that white people did.

How white it is to draw such a conclusion.

Ward Goodenough, Culture, Language, and Society, 1981: “A society’s culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a. manner acceptable to its members…. Culture is not a material phenomenon; it does not consist of things, people, behavior, or emotions.”

After reading Debby Irving’s book, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race , I started reflecting about what I had learned in my family about being white.

I am making a list, and adding to it as I reflect back on my acculturation; how I was taught to be white.

  1. I was often told that we, our family, were superior to everyone else. At age 4, I noticed that our family ate dinner at 7 pm, after my  father returned home from work. All the other families ate at 5:30, when their fathers returned home from work. This meant that I was out of synch with my peers, with no one to play with in the late afternoon. I asked my mother about this, and was told that “only peasants eat early.” That is but one example of how I was taught to be arrogant.
  2. My mother called disabled people “crips”; my father was outraged when Federal legislation mandated the construction of wheelchair ramps at every city intersection.
  3. I was taught that Catholics were terrible.
  4. Republicans were the best party.
  5. The killing of 4 students at Kent State was justifiable because the National Guard got scared.
  6. I had all white teachers in all white schools filled with all white students. Social studies were taught from a White, Eurocentric perspective. White people were portrayed as helpful and sharing; anyone else was portrayed as either inferior (living in mud huts and teepees) or violent (killing settlers).
  7. People were not to be trusted.
  8. I never saw a Black person in the same room with me until 6th grade.
  9. Curiosity was beaten out of me. Never ask questions. Never stare, no matter what was going on around me. Never react.
  10. From my maternal grandparents, I learned that white roots were valuable. I remember listening to them counting all the clans that were in their respective family trees. My grandmother bragged of 9. My grandfather quietly trumped her, “There’s 11 in mine.” I was often told that I could be a member of the Daughters of the Revolution and the Daughters of the Confederacy, thanks to my precious forebears. I was a lucky little girl.
  11. There was nothing better than being a ‘fine lady”; I loved my Southern grandmother, who never left the house without wearing a hat and gloves, no matter the weather. (After her death, she left me 72 pairs of gloves, in all colors, fabrics and lengths.)  Fine ladies were generous and long-suffering, and noble. And nice.
  12. The War Between The States was a glamorous and romantic time, as portrayed in the movie Gone With the Wind. My Southern grandparents’ living room, dining room, and stairwell were adorned with large prints of the Generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Confederate flags were prominently displayed. One of my grandmother’s proudest memories was of her, at age 5, being trotted out by her grandmother to sing “Bonnie Blue Flag” to General Robert E.Lee’s sister.
  13. Words were at least as important, if not more, than deeds. I was often told by parents and grandparents, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
  14. Culture meant dressing up and going to the ballet or the opera. We had season tickets and went often. Culture meant “good taste” in decor and dress. My mother told me to put on the jewelry I wanted to wear that day, look in the mirror, and take away one piece. Culture also meant wine with dinner, using the correct wine class. The only ‘other’ I experienced growing up was in restaurants: French, Spanish, and Chinese.
  15. Black and Brown people were either the butt of jokes or praised for serving. My grandmother was outspoken about “my nice colored man” who selected fruit for her at the grocery store. My grandfather made a comment about “brunettes” moving in to the row house next door.
  16. When Black and Brown people were quoted in the jokes told about them, it was always in an Uncle Remus-style (“real Negro talk”)  dialect.
  17. The best I could be was colorblind. (I accepted the impossibility of that without question.) It was rude to notice a person’s race.
  18. Every TV show I watched featured white people, except for Harry Belafonte singing on the Ed Sullivan show. Tales of Wells Fargo and Wagon Train and Paladin were favorite Westerns. (The Indians were scary savages.)  The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  was a favorite in junior high school, featuring a lead character who was white, and had an accent.
  19. Everything our family did was the normal, best way of doing things.
  20. One had to be polite out in the world. That meant “children were seen and not heard.” “Never talk to anyone about religion or politics.”

Every day, this list grows longer.




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