I’m currently reading a book called Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving.
I have written about race a little bit on this blog, but I find I tend to skirt the tough topics. Race is an integral part of the South, and since I write Southern Literature, I thought I would do a series on race on this blog. In her book, Debby Irving poses questions at the end of each chapter. I’m going to use these questions to guide my discussion. I hope you all will leave comments and answer the questions too. I plan to do about two of these a week, but I will skip the week of December 6th-December 12th.
The first question posed in Irving’s book is “What stereotypes about people of another race do you remember hearing and believing as a child? Were you ever encouraged to question stereotypes?”
I had problems with this question. I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. I went to a public elementary school. I never thought, as a child, that black people were different from me. I knew my neighborhood was vastly white. We lived in a two story house. I walked to school. My school was diverse.
Probably the biggest stereotypes I could think of that were imparted to me, not so much by my parents as my peers, were thinking black people were great dancers and athletes. Then as I got older, I thought the majority of gang members in Montgomery were black. I attributed this to their circumstances. When I grew up in Montgomery, public schools still did well (vastly different from today). But there were a lot of private schools. My parents transferred me to one in the 5th grade. The private school I went to, The Montgomery Academy, was founded in the 1960s in part to keep the white children segregated from the black children – a clear “fuck you” to the Civil Rights Movement.
At my private school, I stereotyped the black kids, assuming they were all there on scholarships. I think this was because I’d been raised to think that African Americans had less than white people did. They lived in West Montgomery. I’d heard rumors they might move into McGehee Estates and that would lower our property value. Later on, there was white flight from West Montgomery to East Montgomery. The city kept trying to move away from “the race problem.”
I’m not sure my parents raised me to question stereotypes. My dad is intellectually minded, and both my parents certainly raised me to question the status quo, but there were certain expectations too, which kept race aligned with little mingling.
I clearly remember at age thirteen attending a Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah—can’t remember which friend it was for), and dancing with a friend of mine who happened to be black. I thought nothing of it. He was my friend, and I liked him. When I came home that night, my mom sat me down and told me several parents had called concerned I had danced with a black boy. I was astounded by this, because I couldn’t believe these parents had the audacity to mingle in my life.
I remember saying something like, “Why does it matter?”
“Because they’re a different culture than us,” my mom said something like this.
In my childhood, it was noted that white people date and marry white people, and black people date and marry black people, and that mixing the races was frowned upon. I know this was a holdover from my mom’s childhood and the way she was raised. My mom has changed so much since then.
And suffice it to say, it damaged my friendship with him. I pulled away, and I stayed pulled away, even after his father died. I did not know how to let myself get close to him, based on other people’s perception of our relationship/friendship. I didn’t want to be the talk of the town. But I also couldn’t understand why who I liked depended on the color of their skin. I had a questioning mind, and I questioned these types of assumptions and racial problems even back then.
What stereotypes do you have about people of another race?
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