One of my prime definitions of prejudice is thinking you know everything about someone based on one characteristic. Muslims hate our way of life. Blacks are thugs. People depending on government programs are lazy. It’s easy to fall into this way of thinking because much of society supports it.
Being American born, pale skinned, Protestant, well educated and having hidden disabilities (petit mal epilepsy and blindness in one eye) lulled me into not suspecting I’d be on the wrong side of prejudice. Then I moved to Veazie and became trailer park trash.
The worst part for me was the isolation. Parents from well-off neighborhoods didn’t let their children visit trailer park schoolmates even for birthday parties. As kids got older, parents, fearing drug abuse and teen pregnancy, discouraged friendships and dating across class lines. Each time I entered a child in kindergarten and tried to make friends with the other moms, I was overlooked even though I was a classroom and library volunteer.
I’ve had people remark, “Your children look so much alike you’d almost think they had the same father,” and, “What are you going to do now there are welfare time limits?” They were astounded to learn that my baby daddy is my husband who works and supports his family. Police have questioned me for walking to the river to watch the sun rise. People in search of drugs have assumed I have a dealer on speed dial.
But it really hit the fan when I ran for school committee so low-income kids and families would be represented. People screamed “trailer park trash” in my face. Rather than give up or stoop to that level, I put on my business casual outfits and went door to door, asking people how they felt about the school system and explaining why I was running. People were amazed that I was smart, polite and articulate.
I lost two elections. Then a vacancy opened on the school committee. A woman from a posh neighborhood and I gave candidate speeches to the Town Council. She was so impressed by mine she dropped out. The council chair said the council needed to have another search claiming they had no serious candidate. Only I’d been nominated so they had to vote. The other four members voted for me. I served 11 years.
You’re probably amazed by this small sampling of my experiences. Most people are. That’s because prejudice tends to be hidden to anyone who isn’t on the wrong side of it.
This is incredibly and dangerously true for the prejudices that enable white privilege. For those who benefit from it, it’s as ubiquitous and invisible as water is to fish. As someone who tries hard to bring it to the attention of people who share my skin tone, I was thrilled to discover Debby Irving’s “Waking Up White.”
Irving was born toward the end of the baby boom, the last of five children. She was raised in a wealthy suburb from which her investment lawyer father commuted to Boston. Television shows featured families like hers. Her schools were excellent. She had access to country and ski clubs. Extended family and friends offered connections capable of paving the way to a privileged life.
Irving was not aware of the advantages surrounding her — or the disadvantages they required others to suffer. As a child growing up in New England, she was taught that ability and hard work were the prerequisites for success. Therefore, people who were not doing so well must be deficient in one or both.
A movie shown in a grad school class opened her eyes. Her father had law school paid for and a home subsidized by the GI bill, which had given white World War II veterans a real boost in life. It didn’t, however, do the same for the black veterans who had also risked life and limb. Due to black student quotas, only 4 percent of veterans of color accessed free education, she wrote in “Waking Up White.” Federal Housing Authority policies made promised home ownership impossible for most of them.
Once Irving’s eyes were opened, there was no going back. This epiphany led to a laborious peeling away of the tangled layers of racism in everyday life and the ways they perpetuate privilege for whites and danger and destitution for blacks. “Waking Up White” is the most in-depth description and analysis of the problem I have ever seen.
If you believe the liberty and justice for all alluded to in the Pledge of Allegiance should be more than empty words, you’ll want to read the book.
Jules Hathaway of Veazie is a writer, community activist, proud mother of three and a student at the University of Maine in Orono.
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