A Racial Autobiography

November 6, 2014 at 12:34 am 3 comments

I’m currently reading Learning to Be White, by Thandeka, a Unitarian Universalist minister & theologian. I’d read some of her essays before online about race and class issues, and thought she was just the kind of medicine that UU social justice discourse & theology could use! This book came out of her realization that she, as an African-American had by necessity been hyper-aware of race since a very young child, whereas her white colleagues saw race as being something that “other people” had. What is the hidden process she wondered of becoming white? Inspired by this I decided to write a racial autobiography of sorts, and I recommend doing the same to other white folks who are trying to better understand racial issues.

My first memory of race is when I was around 7 years old and lived in Topeka, Kansas. I had a playmate named Renarda, her skin was darker than mine, she wore her hair in braids. To me, she was simply another child to play with. However, another playmate, Sara called Renarda an unfamiliar word that I could tell was bad, and said her father wouldn’t let her play with Renarda. I recall that Sara said her father even threatened violence against herself or Renarda if she disobeyed him.  Though I didn’t understand what was going on,  I did not want to play with Sara again after that.  I must’ve run home crying to my mother about, but strangely I don’t recall the conversation with either of my parents. Which is odd, considering you’d think if I was going to suppress a memory, it would be one about one friend threatening another!

Anyway- I realize that I had an unusual upbringing, as far as Midwestern white kids are concerned. My parents were actively involved throughout my childhood in the NAACP and in discussions of race relations in the United Methodist Church. Like most Protestant denominations in the United States, the Methodists split over the issue of race in the 1800’s, Northern and Southern churches broke apart over slavery, and the Northern church split over segregation- Black people were expected to sit on the second floor in the choir loft. They left to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I didn’t really understand *why* people were racist, other than “because they were mean”. I didn’t hear about the concept of white privilege until I was in high school, before that racism was vaguely “Bad Stuff” that happened to Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American people, and occasionally to Good White People who befriended and tried to help defend them against Bad White People. I suspect this the general idea of racism that most white kids in the U.S. grow up with, unless their parents listen to more right-wing talk radio and TV in which case they might get the impression that brown people “brought it on themselves”.  Poverty was also a mysterious thing that Just Happened, but Good Christians were supposed to help needy people, who were victims of Bad Stuff Happening and possibly other Mysterious Mean People. Like Ronald Reagan, I supposed. Still I was more politically savvy that most 10 year olds!

We moved to Dubuque, Iowa where we lived from 3rd grade thru 8th grade, the “diversity” of the town at the time was Irish Catholics and German Catholics. My parents continued in their activism, though my understanding of racial issues did not really become much more sophisticated due to lack of discussion outside of my family & their liberal friends and relative lack of diversity.

Then we moved to St. Paul and I attended a school that was about 70% African American, the other 30% were Asian-American, Latino and a few Native Americans and Caucasians thrown in. So that was kind of a culture shock. I think being on autism spectrum has given me a unique perspective on interacting with different cultures, because I am already a bit of a cultural outsider even within my own culture of middle-class college-educated white liberals. So I learned to adapt to a mostly Black school after coming from a town in Iowa, and studying Spanish and travelling to Mexico. Later in college when I took another trip to Mexico, I recall my classmates commenting that they had an easier time speaking Spanish after they’d been drinking. It loosened them up, and so they didn’t feel so awkward speaking an unfamiliar language. I don’t need alcohol to loosen my inhibitions, I do have them, but they are not so firmly “in place”!

Anyway, in a high school discussion about immigration, assimilation and related issues, one of the teachers recommended the book “How the Irish Became White” by Noel Ignatiev. Just as the title implies, it’s about how Irish immigrants were not originally considered white when they came to America, and the process by which they gained this status. This had a huge effect on my thinking about race and my Irish-American identity. It was also my introduction to the area of whiteness studies, a branch of Critical Race Theory, which I further studied on my own.  Here and there in college, I attended speeches and workshops about racism and white privilege. However, I had trouble figuring out how I as an individual could “fight racism” or “deconstruct whiteness”. Most of my activism in college was focused on GLBT issues in our campus GSA which was very white!

In spite of all my attempts to educate myself, I still often come into anti-racist discussion groups online and feel like I do not know all the social justice lingo- and there seems to be a lot of hostility towards people who aren’t familiar with it all. I find the best approach is to keep listening to and reading books, blogs and other media by people of color from a variety of viewpoints and backgrounds, not just American, to learn about what issues they are concerned about in their communities and support them on those issues. In Minnesota there are many racial gaps in housing, education and employment, and a major component of this is the criminal in-justice system, and the school to prison pipeline. So I’ve come to be involved in the Second Chance Coalition, which TakeAction is a part of.

I also have been hearing a lot of frustration from people of color about white folks’ lack of racial understanding, and that they are tired of educating us. So I have been trying to work on educating white people (when I can get them to listen!) particularly in mostly white subcultures that I participate in. To aid in this effort, I’ve been trying to read blogs and other media by people of color within predominantly white subcultures- Black/Latin@, Asian, indigenous GLBTQ people, geeks, goths, atheists/skeptics, UUs, Pagans, Heathens, New Agers et al. If anyone reading this has such a blog, book, or other resource, please feel free to share. I respect the need for minority space, so if you prefer white folks, or cis/hetero men, or people of whatever group not comment on your blog, that’s cool, I understand.


Entry filed under: Race/Ethnicity. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. How/What Did You Learn About Race? | The Lefthander's Path  |  December 12, 2014 at 2:59 am

    […] while back I wrote a “racial autobiography” about my experiences growing up and how l learned about racial and ethnic identity issues. I […]

  • […] As I’ve discussed before, I grew up with my parents being involved in racial justice in the NAACP and in the United Methodist Church in particular- in both Topeka, Kansas and Dubuque, Iowa in the 1990’s.  This may have been where I started to get the idea of the Civil Rights movement as the Holy Grail to which all social movements cannot be compared. […]

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