Growing up “really” white.

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My childhood was not idyllic but it was safe, mostly fun and secure. Mom was more realistic than the ones on TV, she did a lot of cooking and baking, the knowledge of which she shared equally with all her children. My brothers and I could all sew on a button, take care of a garden, do laundry and clean the house. Dad had been raised by a mother who taught him he deserved to be taken care of by a “good woman”. His mother never actually liked my mother. One morning when I was about 15 and my mother was ill I witnessed his first attempt at making breakfast, at least he didn’t need  to call the fire department.

Growing up, mom often had to work to help pay the bills, so my brothers and I had regular chores; clearing the table, washing and drying the dishes and “making milk”. My grandmother used to get these boxes of food from the government because she was poor, she hated the “government surplus” so my mom bought her what she wanted and we got the surplus. That meant large bags of “powdered mild” which needed to be reconstituted and well chilled to be drinkable, if I shirked on this chore, it meant a lot of angry brothers having to put warm, lumpy, ‘milk’ on their cereal.

Discrimination was brought to my attention in High School when I learned that there were no sports teams for girls. Growing up with five brothers I was all about climbing trees, running fast, crashing bikes, baiting my own hook and anything else they tried. Deer hunting was I admit not my cup of tea. Title IX would come too late for me, but it has opened up a lot of possibilities for younger women.

Being the only other female in a family of eight, I shared many pots of tea with my mother, but not nearly enough. She was a wonderful woman who was very smart, could not be beaten at scrabble and loved to read. I did have that one brother who was always in trouble, but the rest of us were quite ordinary. We attended church every Sunday, whether we wanted to or not, we went on a lot of camping trips all over Wisconsin and mingled with the fun loving group from the ‘Old Car Club’, and of course my mothers’ side of the family, the fun side. No one could call us rich, but we sure led a rich existence.

Our parents loved each other and proved that opposites attract. Dad was racist and opinionated about it, pretty much all races, in that he did not discriminate. He did have other qualities, as none of us is all good or all bad. Mom was much more open minded and believed that looking at people as a group made no sense, every person was the sum total of their experiences and she tried to teach us in every thing she did.

It was 1971 when I became a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in Stevens Point. Up to this point I had only seen black people on TV, and we all know how messed up that was. The first students I met were advocates and part of the Black Student Coalition, minorities, of any kind made up less than 5% of the student body. In four years I never saw a person with a white cane or using a wheelchair. The more people I met the more I could see for myself how wrong my father had been. If he were alive today I am sure he would be a Trump supporter, and my mother would be there to cancel out his vote as she often did.

Years later in this story my new husband and I would become Foster Parents, for mostly selfish reasons, and embark on another incredible journey. Many of the kids we helped had similar stories, the color of their skin was not the defining issue, poverty was. Children raised in poverty, hunger, homelessness do not have any boot straps to pull themselves up with. Many of them have the clothes on their backs, they do not have family like I did. We were not rich but we always knew there would be food on the table and clothes and shoes and most importantly that we had a home. Imagine if that were all taken away, would your life be the same if you worried every minute of every day whether you would have any food or a warm place to sleep. How dare we expect children who have nothing, to grow up undamaged. Children deserve to be nurtured and secure.

Fostering kids taught us a lot, racism is destroying the lives of so many children. They go to church and hear that we are all children of god, created equal and then they leave and go into the real world where they are bullied, looked down on and discriminated against. One birth mother of a foster child asked if we would adopt her daughter. When we said yes she was relieved, she had feared that no one would want her daughter because she was biracial. That did not mean she would have an easy childhood, schools do not do enough to protect children from the ones who’s parents taught them to be racists. Racism is learned but it can be unlearned.

Perhaps the one thing I would change would be to Home School all of them. Imagine how much more they could have learned had they not been tortured daily, for being adopted, for having learning differences or for the color of their skin. They survived pretty well, but as a mother myself I still wonder how much better it could have been for them. What could I have done to ease their burden?

Students with disabilities are bullied and marginalized more than most minority populations, so if you happen to be a person of color with a disability and you live in poverty, as most do, you have everything stacked against you. Your only hope is to go to a school that sees your potential and nurtures it. The dream of every child in school.

Whiteness shaped me, but it was nurtured by a mother who was color blind. She understood cultural differences and that there is no such thing as race. Her faith was strong and she believed that we are all members of the human race. Being white in our case was a European thing, Americanized Polish/German cooking and lots of tea with milk and sugar, by the pot like the Brits, with wonderful things we all learned to bake.

Mom could not prepare me for the hair thing. Although my daughter is 3/4 white, her hair is all black and I wish someone had explained what I was supposed to do with that. Twenty plus years later there are tutorials for everything and curly girls websites, but there was nothing when she was little. Okay so that’s two things I would change. Thankfully she met a wonderful friend freshman year in high school who would teach her many things and welcome all of us into her family.

There are so many things that can influence a human being on the journey from cradle to grave, culture is one of them, but don’t forget respect, and a little of it goes a long way. My mother  lived a life of perseverance,  she carried on in the face of great challenges and adversity, neither losing her faith nor her sense of humor.I hope that the same can be said of me some day, it makes me happy to be compared to her.

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I’m the baby in the picture with my parents and three older brothers. June would have turned 88 this month, she died 16 years ago but the dementia took away 7 more, okay three things, at least, but who’s counting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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