Home > reflections on race > Cyndi’s First Racial Experiences

Cyndi’s First Racial Experiences

Part 3 of 3

I am reading this book, voraciously… and the way this chapter is laid out I didn’t really pause to fully answer what my first experience with race was, before I was too far into the page to really answer it without the light Tim Wise shed on the subject.

For background, I don’t have any conscious memory of the first time I saw a black person, or hispanic, asian, pacific islander, etc.  My mother was in the military, as was her second husband, who adopted me, and we often lived in military housing, or in communities near the base.  I remember either my immediate neighborhood or the school I attended as always being racially and ethnically diverse; but then I wondered if it wasn’t all that diverse, if it just seemed diverse compared to Herington, where there was (briefly, I’d say only one grade level) one black student in my class from 5th thru 11th grades.  I went digging through some old photo albums to see if my early childhood was really as diverse as I thought it was.  Of course I found some baby pictures of me with my Italian-Mexican-American cousins, but I was looking for some evidence of diversity in my community… this is the oldest/first picture of me with a playmate.  No smart ass comments about me having been born a blonde, please.

This is the only class picture I came across in the albums, but it’s a good snapshot of what I remember school being like for me, prior to my move to Herington, KS.  See the little boy in the front row holding the sign with the big, beautiful curls?  His name is Willie… and he was my first crush.  The only other child in this picture whose name I can remember is the little girl in the blue shirt standing by the teacher… her name was Michelle and her family was German.  Can’t recall now how she happened to be attending school on the military base, but I used to ride my bike over to her house and we would shell (& eat) fresh peas from her mother’s garden.

Anyway, back to my answer.

So in the seconds it took me to read the question and get halfway down the page, I had an image flash in my mind of my mother making a comment about what happens to white and black kids on the playground, which I overheard as I was approaching her, having come from the said playground, where I was probably playing with said black playmates, and there’s a decent chance their mamas were sitting with my mama. It’s my first conscious memory of any kind of racial comment, and it was something to the effect that the white kids turn black, and the black kids turn white, from the sand.  Speaking of, here’s a picture from that very playground, and covered in sand… no smartass comments about the combination of the cowboy hat, terry cloth shorts, and clogs, please…

Now I’m not sure what exactly I would have said in response to that question if I’d been asked it in the setting it’s usually asked, if I hadn’t been reading this book, hadn’t been thinking about this topic almost incessantly for a month.  I’m not sure if I would have relayed this, or the ‘shock and awe’ of moving from the diversity I had experienced throughout early childhood to Smalltown, Heartland, where there were perhaps five black families, three or four of which lived on 5th Street… which was commonly and unashamedly referred to as “Nigger Ally.”  Or if it would have been the initial reaction of my grandfather to the news that the reason I hadn’t brought home that ‘wonderfully polite young man’ who kept calling on the phone… or when it first dawned on my WHY people frequently asked me whether Halle was mine… something I don’t ever recall being asked of Tyler, or if it would have been the fact that I wake up every day and I don’t have to worry about how I will be treated based on the color of my skin, texture of my hair, or shape of my eyes.

But in any case, most of those answers would have been, as Tim Wise points out, my experience with someone else’s race… and that had never occurred to me.  I like to think I’m pretty enlightened when it comes to white priviledge… but I realized in reading this book is that I have barely begun learning.  Even though I am aware of white priviledge, and know that it shapes my life, I had really only thought of how it shapes my life in the PRESENT.  As in, how people perceive me NOW.  And even though I have frequently made the arguement about how 400+ years of oppression leave scars on families and communities that go on generation after generation after generation… I have never given any thought to what impact generation after generation of white privilege may have had on me, and how it shaped who I am today, and was shaping who I am today, before I was born.

I don’t know a lot of my geneology… My biological father gave up all legal rights when I was five, when I was adopted by my mom’s second husband, who I call dad.  I have no idea how long his family was in the US or what they did while here.  On my mother’s side, I know that my great, great grandparents (maternal) emigrated here from England, but little else.  My mother’s birth father essentially abandoned my grandmother and mother… my grandmother remarried and her third husband raised my mother.

So I can’t really trace back and know for certainty how my ancestors benefited directly from slavery or segregation, or what they thought of it all.  The times being what they were, my mother and grandmother worked primarily inside the home during my youth, so I turned to the men they had married who had great influence on my life… my grandfather, and my daddy.

My grandfather was born and raised in Chicago to a multi-ethnic home; my great grandfather was American enough that I have no idea what his ‘roots’ are… but he was white.  His wife was an emigrant from Italy.  I can probably assume that my white great grandfather were afforded opportunities in everything from employment to housing that were not available to people of color whose families had been in the country longer and have invested more blood, sweat, and tears into it’s land than they ever would.  My grandfather went to school, graduated, joined the air force, and worked for a period of time before my grandmother inherited a small sum of money from a very distant Canadian relative she didn’t know existed, which they used to buy the first of the two small business they would own, which essentially placed them in semi-retirement by the time I was born.  Although the money came from my grandmother’s side of the family, my grandfather handled the businesses pretty much on his own.  It was his ability to run the businesses with relative success that enabled my grandmother to spend extended vacations with my family wherever we were… PA, Germany, KS… you name it, she spent one to two months with us every year, no matter where we lived, and it was her presence in my life that enabled me to live through varying degrees of physical, mental, and sexual abuse (for clarification… NOT at the hands of my daddy).  After my parents divorced and my mother went on welfare & food stamps, my grandparents financed every birthday and holiday, every emergency that came up that required money.  They paid for school clothes, school supplies, gym shoes, summer wardrobes, and prom dresses.  As soon as my mother gave in to years of me pleading to finish high school in AZ, they moved me to Scottsdale where I graduated with a diploma from what is considered a very good school, and were paying for my college education.  I didn’t finish that degree, but I have gotten a hell of a lot further in life than I would have without them.

I’ve said it many times… I would be living in a trailer park in Kansas, barefoot and pregnant with my fifth kid if it wasn’t for my Nana.  But I started thinking… if my grandparents had been anything other than white… would they have been in the position they were to have made that difference in my life?  If my grandfather had been black, hispanic, or native american…

Where in Chicago would he have lived, and what kind of education would he have gotten there?  Would he have found success and self confidence in his military experience?  Would he have been able to enjoy a couple somewhat prestigious committee positions that were listed in his eulogy?  Would he have had the ability to have purchased a home in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s, had the ability to sell that home for profit and move from California to Arizona… would he have in the early 80’s and before there were any real consequences to fair housing violations, later qualified for a pricey home in that Scottsdale school district where I graduated?

And then my daddy… born in the 50’s and raised in Shakopee, MN, a suburb of Minneapolis, by loving parents of modest means.  He was in the military for 18 years, and although I know he loved his country, I also know he joined the military because he needed a job, and that if he could have had what he wanted, he’d have been a farmer.  No shit.  He wound up settling for a home in a rural midwest town, and since retiring from the military, has worked as a cross country trucker.  That’s not an easy job, and I wouldn’t have ever thought of my dad as particularly privileged, as a white man, before I read what I posted above… but when I really started thinking about what influence my dad has been in my life, and how him not being white might have changed his life, I realized he was privileged, indeed, by the color of his skin.

See, my father was raised by loving parents of modest means, but he wasn’t born to them.  He and his sister were born to parents who were both alcoholics and abusive… I’m not sure what they did to my dad, but I remember overhearing that my aunt, who has considerable problems, would sometimes burn herself with cigarrettes, because they had done that to her as a child.  My father and aunt came to the “Doe” family, originally of the Doe’s of Doe Farm, located on Doe Road in Smalltown, Wisconsin, through the foster care system.

If my daddy had not been white, there’s a good chance that he would have spent his entire life in the foster care system, instead of a home located in a lovely suburb.  It’s unlikely theDoe’s would have considered adopting children of another race, and probably even less likely the foster care system would have allowed it.

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