I recently started reading Waking Up White And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. This book was recommended during an incredible VCFA WCYA lecture by Tom Birdseye called “Fish Talks Water,” which discussed white privilege and the importance of understanding the water you swim in, including its systemic racism. I highly recommend the lecture and the book, both of which bravely share personal stories and pose challenging questions.
Here’s an example of one question from Waking Up White, which resonated with me:
What values and admonitions did you learn in your family? Think about education, work, lifestyle, money, expression of emotions and so forth. Try making a list of ten principles, values, and unspoken beliefs . . . Now consider what conclusions you drew about people who did not appear to follow your family’s belief system.
The family slogan that sums up the beliefs I was raised with:
You Snooze, You Lose.
Literally, this slogan meant if you slept in and missed breakfast, no food would be saved for you. It extended to apply to showing up late to any meal or family gathering. No one would wait for you, and if the food ran out, too bad.
From this one slogan, I can list five core values that raised several hard-working generations of German-American Catholics.
- Be responsible for yourself.
- Be on time and considerate of others.
- Hard work will earn you what you need and / or want.
- No one else is going to give you a handout.
- If you’re lazy, you deserve the consequences.
These are all values I hope to instill in my daughter. They helped shape me into the person I am today. Yet, as I look back at my life, I can now see the unspoken caveats to this family slogan as well.
- There is no acknowledgement of the possibility that you could work your very hardest and still fail due to factors outside of your control or a rigged system. And if you do fail, a horrible realization follows: you might be deserving of that failure and its consequences.
This lesson was a tough one to learn as I faced a divorce I couldn’t fix no matter how hard I tried.
- There is no acknowledgement of the fact that one person cannot really see or understand how hard someone else is working or what unique challenges he may face. Judging someone as lazy and deserving of his situation because of a perceived failure is not only unfair, it may in fact be racist.
This lesson is one I still struggle with. Empathy is the answer, and an understanding that not everyone has the same goals, the same challenges, or the same approach to problem solving as I do.
- There is no acknowledgement of the fact that not everyone begins life on a level playing field. A college education, for example, might be an assumed expectation in one family and an impossible dream in another family.
This issue is the one that feels too big for any one person to conquer alone. Systemic racism cannot be erased without a systemic change in beliefs and behavior.
The first half of the challenge is being aware of these negative biases that were silently passed down to me along with the very positive values this slogan was intended to produce. The second, and exponentially larger, challenge is what to do about it. That’s the one I’m still working on.