Growing up white
I don’t really want to take up an “all hookers, all the time” format, though it seems to do wonders for traffic. Yesterday, I more-than-doubled my highest daily traffic ever. Natalie linked to me approvingly, but she’s done so before. I do still have more things to say about the whole kerfuffle and am considering doing a series on sex-work anecdotes, which may be funny or sad or sometimes both. Today though, I’m writing about the racial attitudes I grew up in.
My parents are both from extremely white towns. My mom is from Sioux City, Iowa and my dad is from Granite City, Illinois. Both are about 2% black, with negligible Asian and Native American population and would have had very few Latinos in the 1960s when my parents were kids. My mom recounted having one Latino boy in her high school class. His parents owned the local Mexican restaurant. His name was Paco, but everyone called him “Taco.” In her case, she lived in Northwestern Iowa. There are very few non-while for a couple hundred miles. In my dad’s case, Granite City is white largely because of its history as a company town for a company with discriminatory hiring practices. It’s near Alton, Illinois, which has a significant black minority and East St. Louis, which is even blacker than Granite City is white, so while my mom grew up in an environment where basically everyone was white, my dad grew up where all his friends, neighbors and classmates were white, but there were plenty of black strangers in the next town over. As adults, I think they both sort of get white privilege, but not entirely. I think the only way to explain this and how I came to my own understanding is a series of anecdotes.
When my dad was about eight, he saw a black person for the first time (I believe in a trip to St. Louis), which he describes as being scary. I think this is understandable. He was a kid and it’s not like he’d had the opportunity to see many on TV in 1965 or so unless he was watching the news, which kids that age find boring. He went to college at Evangel which is in the only marginally blacker Springfield, Missouri. This is also where he met my mom.
My dad joined the army after a couple years of college, which, as you’ve probably heard, is the most integrated institution in the US. He worked in computer repair and eventually ended up stationed in Germany. There are a couple stories he likes to tell about black co-workers. In one case, a woman in his office had a loud conversation with her husband at her desk about what she’d like to do when she got home. My dad never repeats anything she said when he tells this story, which I think would make it a lot more interesting. He says there was nothing wrong with what she wanted to do, but it was an inappropriate office conversation.
The other story is about a guy who was taking the promotion exam. He got out of the testing center and my dad asked him how he did. “I smoked ‘em!” he said. My dad was up for testing next, so asked him about the procedure. “For every question, I just said ‘I don’t know!’ Just like that. “I don’t know!” I wish I were doing this in an auditory medium so I could do an impression of his impression of jive talk. To be fair, he had very little good to say about anyone he worked with in the army, from hot-headed Puerto Ricans, to slow-witted Southerners, to dumbass burnouts to asshole colonels who ordered subordinates to drive a in a blizzard when there was no emergency, then made them pay for the damage to the truck when it ended up in a ditch. This is a story he brings up a lot when he wants to argue there’s something wrong with black culture, though.
He later switched to Air Force ROTC. Some of my earliest clear memories are living in married student housing at Iowa State and going to Bible study with my parents. IIRC, my parents made up two out of the five white people in the group. The other dozen or so were all black, but not African-American. They were Kenyan and Nigerian nationals on student visas and my dad would often tell me about how they shared his low opinion of black American culture and were offended by the association.
When i was in high school, he had no trouble complaining about alleged culture of victimhood and grievance-seeking by black culture as exemplified by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton in front of a black friend of mine. My mom yelled at him afterward for not watching the company he was in. He didn’t see anything wrong with what he said.
One year at church camp, the theme was racial reconciliation. Foursquare is a fairly white denomination in the US, but most of its members are in Southeast Asia and South America. We also had a few fairly black churches in our district, like the one in Chicago Heights. Our regional youth director was half black. It was actually a fairly good presentation, even if it was wrapped in reasoning that Jesus doesn’t like racism and patronizing people is a barrier to proselytizing them. The main message was we should try to see things from other people’s perspective then just standing on our own privileged experience and wondering why people didn’t act like we thought they should. There were three black members in my youth group, though all of them had white parents. There were no black adults in my church when I was a teen except for a period of a few months when the pastor took in a refugee from Zimbabwe. At any rate, after the big service at camp, we split to have discussion with our youth group, as was usual. Every one of my black friends complained about getting stupid questions and getting appointed as the black ambassador to whiteyville when they were in a mostly white group and being asked to explain what black people thought about an issue and such. This made me wonder if I had done that. I had to conclude I probably had. We also discussed patronizing behavior, which is likely why they were no black adults in the church. I remembered a time I had greeted a visitor by calling him brother. We were all supposed to be brothers in Christ, but I couldn’t recall ever addressing a white person like that. TV had just led me to believe that’s how you are supposed to address black people. I had probably been guided by some misplaced notion of embracing what I assumed was his culture. This is perhaps the only church event that purposely taught me something useful beyond the basic sharing and stuff you get when you’re about four.
When I got older, I worked for a telemarketing firm. For whatever reason, my coworkers were far blacker than the city as a whole. I remember one incident where we were supposed to pick a team name. A black woman I worked with suggested a name that included the word ghetto. I liked this suggestion and further suggested a team gang sign we could flash each other when we arrived to work or saw each other in the hall. She told me the ghetto wasn’t about crime, it was about poor people looking out for each other’s interests. It was actually an apt metaphor for a shit job like that. I realized that had been a really racist thing to say. I think I was more careful after that.
When I got older, we moved into the closest thing Cedar Rapids has to a black neighborhood. It’s probably less than 25% black, but way blacker than the rest of town. You can get a largish house for a decent price there. This meant my younger siblings went to school with a lot of black people, instead of three or four, like I did. My dad would come back from parent-teacher conferences complain that black parents don’t care about their children’s education, as evidenced by their absence from these events.
He complains a lot about immigrants. He understands we’re all descended from immigrants. His great-grandfather was a German immigrant and his great-grandmother was Cherokee. Even they are immigrants if you go back far enough. His problem is that modern immigrants don’t want to learn English. I remember one news story he talked about for quite a while about a guy who had lived in the US thirty years before being caught on an immigration violation. His kids spoke English fine, but he barely spoke any. He worked in a factory where everyone spoke Spanish and had never needed to learn. My dad would have been for letting him stay, but if he hadn’t learned English, he apparently had no real interest in being an American. I’m a US history major with a focus on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and tried to explain that this has always been the norm. Lots of immigrants never really integrated into the culture, whatever that means, or learned to speak English well, and there was lots of scaremongering about how they were going to take over the country and destroy our uniquely American virtues. In every case, their kids learned English fine, no one took over anything and we’re mostly one culture now. He thinks some of these fears were reasonable. For instance, Abraham Lincoln said it was a mistake to let Catholics into the country. I’ve explained on several occasions that while there was a strong nativist contingent in the Republican Party at the time which was mostly animated by anti-papist sentiment, Lincoln wasn’t a part of it and didn’t even like those people. He seems to always forget this within a few hours.
He may be getting over his distrust of non-Protestants now that it looks like the only major protestant to vote for in this year’s presidential election will be Obama. Obama isn’t a real Christian and if not a Muslim, has worrying ties to Muslims. My dad has repeatedly endorsed building a wall around the whole Middle East to protect the rest of the world while they all kill each other off, nuking the whole place, or both. He thinks birtherism is ridiculous, but not racist and often talks about how Obama is from Chicago machine politics. He must be corrupt because he never would have gotten elected if he weren’t. He also says that basically all elections in Chicago and Detroit are fixed by legions of dead voters and politicians there defend it when caught by saying it’s just their culture and we shouldn’t try to impose our value system on them.
I’m not trying to paint him as a raging racist, here. I suspect he’s a lot better than most white people in this regard. He thinks Andrew Jackson was the worst president ever and I remember several occasions when he went into a rage when talking about the trail of tears and started slamming his fists into the table and shouting. He’s gotten into similar fits when talking about how the Indians are stuck on reservations with meager compensation when we should be paying huge dividends for the use of basically the whole country, if not giving the land back outright and trying to renegotiate at fair market prices. (Reparations for slavery are unreasonable, though. He also was very upset about the sequence in Peter Pan with the song about the red man, which he found ludicrously racially stereotyped. (He doesn’t get the fuss about Song of the South.) He used to read books to us nightly when we were kids. Once he was reading a biography of Christopher Columbus. When he got to a claim that Columbus was mainly motivated by a missionary’s heart and a desire to minister to the Indians, he stopped reading and angrily threw the book across the room.
He also is a strong opponent of torturing “terrorists,” and finds it very plausible that most of the people we arrested in Iraq didn’t do anything and just got turned in by people who didn’t like them and is understanding of why Middle Eastern terrorists are pissed off at the US. He is not at all happy about the lack of civilian trials for people at Gitmo and does understand this is more the fault of congressional Republicans than Obama. He used to think that “driving while black” was just a victim mentality from black people who were bad drivers, but then my brother’s friend was complaining that he gets pulled over every couple of weeks because he lives in a rich, white neighborhood. My dad finds him credible and now believes it. He also can see just from reading the new that black people are way more likely to get railroaded or shot by the cops for no good reason than whites. He likes Leonard Pitt’s columns and read his article about the book The New Jim Crow about how the drug war is a new way of disenfranchising black voters and found it convincing. He still complains about a victim mentality though, even as he concedes most examples when they are explained.
He says there’s nothing wrong with black people, just black culture, at least in the US. Black people who are raised by whites are fine, but in black culture, anyone who is successful or works hard in school is accused of acting white. I asked him if anyone would accuse Maya Angelou of acting white and about the existence of HBCs. He says they’re an example of how black people are racist and don’t want to be around whites, while the reverse isn’t true, though didn’t have a way to fit this into his narrative of black culture being anti-education.
When I got older and was looking for a house, my dad and I were walking around his neighborhood looking for anything suitable for sale. My mom called. She was concerned it was getting dark and it wasn’t a safe neighborhood to walk in, especially for white people. He understood this was a silly concern. Black people would be in way more danger.
I bring this up because last night he came over to watch Thor and I told him about John Derbyshire’s recent firing. Sikivu Hutchinson has good coverage here. From previous conversations, he understand that black teenage boys have to be taught to keep their hands visible, make eye contact, answer all questions, etc when confronted by white men so they don’t end up like Trayvon Martin. I told him about how Derbyshire advised that white tell their kids about how 5% of black people hate white for no reason, abotu half go along with this out of racial solidarity. You should avoid areas with too many black people. A few are well socialized and educated and you should try to befriend them. He says he understands why you shouldn’t write things like that, but there’s some truth to it. He also understands why black people would be terribly honored to be good enough to be Derbyshire’s friend.
My point is that lots of white people are like this. They know that racism is bad. It even really pisses them off, but they can’t understand how it works in society. They image in their heads is all fire hoses and ropes and they have a great deal understanding unconscious factors and microagressions. Since they don’t see racism, yet black people frequently complain about it, the only reasonable explanation is that they are a bunch of whiners who exaggerate racism as an excuse for laziness and other personal failures. Meanwhile, when white people are dumbasses, they’re just dumbasses. When black people are dumbasses, they’re an example of the problems with black culture. Even people who understand this on an intellectual level largely only understand that other people do it.