I think I have figured out the question now, and it is: How/when did I become part of Them (vs. Us)?
I am smarting. That is the word that comes to mind for how I have been feeling since I started taking the MGM class. My self-concept has come into question, and the confusion and actual pain I feel . . . smarts.
At the beginning of the quarter, in my Communication class, we were asked to list aspects of our self-concept. At the top of my list I put "Woman." I put words like "mother," "student," "intelligent," "gym junkie," and various descriptive terms after that. At no place on my list did I put "white." And I sure didn't put the word "racist" on my list.
But the fact that it never occurred to me to list "white" as an aspect of my self-concept shows that as a white American, I assume that that part of myself just "goes without saying" . . . which assumes that all those who are not white would be the ones who would have to add their color when making such a list. It is also telling that I did not add "American" or "citizen of the United States."
I thing that is part of the point of this whole class: that as part of the dominant culture in this society, I don't even have to think about being white. So I have been thinking about being white. Not just white, but white, middle-class, and "American."
I come from a time when the struggle was about class and economics. I have been poor before. That is, I have lived below the poverty line in my life. I have carried water uphill from a spring for 2 1/2 years, and used an outhouse when it never got to zero for over a week. I have eaten only the food that I grew, plus staples like flour and sugar. I have known what it means to have to preserve that food without running water and without a freezer. I have done manual labor, built my own home, and lived in a chicken coop prior to that home being built. I have heated with wood and cooked with wood.
But I did all those things by choice.
I have never been black and living in the inner city and gone without heat or medical care because I literally couldn't afford it. I have never known what it is like to starve or to see my child really hungry (when she thinks she is "hungry," it usually means she is not happy with the food I have in the house). I have never known what it is like to fear for my life simply because of where I live. I have never known what it is like to have to choose between paying the light bill or the heat bill or buying shoes for my child. I have never known what it is like to be homeless.
I have known prejudice and discrimination. I have been discriminated against because I am a woman, because I am blond, because I am short, because of the life-style choices I have made, because I dated black men, because I married a Jew, because I was a shiksa within the context of that marriage, because I am divorced, because I am a single mom, because I had an abortion once, and for many other reasons . . . but not because I am a certain color . . . until now. Now I am feeling what it is to know that some people will never like me, never give me a chance, never get to know me . . . just because I am white.
On some level I knew that before, but I never felt it before this class. And that is part of the feeling of smarting.
I have been socialized to want to be liked. In my family of origin, I was socialized to feel responsible for how that family functioned, to feel responsible for everyone getting along, and responsible for making everyone around me feel good. I have spent a lifetime trying to overcome that feeling of responsibility . . . and trying to overcome the need for that feeling.
But today . . . I find myself feeling responsible . . . for being . . . white. I am neither happy about nor proud of the fact that my ancestors invaded the Americas and committed mass genocide and pushed the indigenous peoples who survived onto reservations. I am neither happy about nor proud of the fact that my ancestors brought blacks from Africa and made them their slaves. I am neither happy about nor proud of the fact that my ancestors brought Asians here to do slave labor. I am neither happy about nor proud of the fact that my ancestors induced people here with the promise of a "good life" . . . and then systematically exploited and punished them for coming here . . . and that "my people" still do this today.
When I was seventeen (and for many years thereafter), I naively thought that all people who felt the struggle could unite against the small minority of the elite who own most of the wealth in this country. I felt a part of . . . Us. And we were fighting against Them.
Now I find that those who belong to the Us don't want me in their struggle. I don't belong anymore. Somewhere along the way, I have become part of the problem. Somewhere along the way, I have become . . . one of Them.
So, I am confused. I am . . . smarting. I still want to be part of Us, but I don't know how. And . . . I am not sure what I am willing to give up in order to do so.
I feel like I struggle everyday, but that is relative. It is relative to the "easy life" I had just five years ago. And I know that in five more years, when I am totally "on my own" (when my daughter has graduated from high school, and my standard of living changes once again), I will feel like I am struggling even more.
But "struggling" is a very relative term. And somewhere in these next few years I have to figure out how much I am willing to "sacrifice" to become a part of it again . . . if I am willing to do that . . . in order to live out the rest of my life with . . . dignity . . . in order to resolve the question of . . .Us and Them.
There will not be a time in this nation when all the white people leave, all the blacks go back to Africa or elsewhere, and the land is left to its natives to re-establish their life as it used to be long ago. That just . . . ain't going to happen. The powers that be will not make it happen, will not let it happen, and most people who live in the United States don't want it to happen.
But somehow the struggle for equity will go on, and I want to find my place in that struggle. It is going to require me to ask myself many more hard questions and to face the answers. And facing the fact that "white racist" has become part of who I have become is part of that process, because like it or not, I have over time become one of Them.
Perhaps I am still naive in thinking that I will ever again be one of Us, but I need to find a way to become part of the solution instead of only part of the problem. And I will start that process with the children. It's the only place I know to start right now.
Last update: 1 July 1998
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