Some of my family stories are sad. My grandfather was given up for adoption by his mother after his father committed suicide. The story has become muddled over time. I actually only know my great-grandfather committed suicide because I ordered a copy of his death certificate. The story his children were told is that he was murdered but no one ever did anything about it. I’m not sure why my great-grandmother told that story. There are rumors of my great-grandfather’s violence. I have reason to believe he was a boxer and that he also abused his children physically.
My grandmother’s mother gave birth to her out of wedlock in 1929. They lived in a tiny town called Quicksand in Breathitt County, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia. My great-grandfather was in prison when my grandmother was born. As far as I know, she never knew him. Again, I only know this because I ordered my grandmother’s birth certificate. Her baby brother, born after her mother married her stepfather in the midst of the Great Depression, died of dysentery and malnutrition as an infant. Again, I have seen his death certificate, which is how I know.
As far as I can tell, access to money and education was somewhat scarce in my family. In “How White People Got Made,” Quinn Norton wrote, “To this day poor whites are the most intransigent racists—left by an exploitative and violent system without education, access to food and medical care, or even the basic necessities of life in the developed world.”
I can’t help but see some of my family in this description.
The concept of Whiteness, Norton explains, is an invention. Biology tells us that race is a social construct, and my DNA may be more similar to someone considered to be of a different race than it may be to that of other White people. In the top highlight from the article, Norton writes
The Virginians legislated a new class of people into existence: the whites. They gave the whites certain rights, and took other rights from blacks. White, as a language of race, appears in Virginia around the 1680s, and seems to first appear in Virginia law in 1691. And thus whiteness, and to a degree as well blackness, was born in the mind of America.
I had read some of the background covered in this article elsewhere, but I’m not sure where. It was in this prior reading that I learned about the story of John Punch, who ran away from his indentured servitude in Virginia along with two other indentured servants, both of whom were what we would call White. The two White men were given more time in their indenture as a punishment, but Punch was sentenced to slavery.
if you think about Norton’s argument, it should make you angry. A little bit of power is an awful narcotic. It has numbed generations of people into accepting racism so that they can perceive themselves as better than others rather than directing their anger at the rich and powerful who don’t care about them.
I am, perhaps not terribly coincidentally, reading a YA novel set partly during the French Revolution right now. One of the novel’s messages is the way that history works on people, the way it repeats, the way it is never resolved.
I was really struck by this 1899 cartoon from Harper’s Weekly that is included in the article.
You might have guessed without my saying that I have Irish ancestry. My first honest reaction to the picture is that Irish people don’t look like that! Only second did I think that no one looks like these stereotypes, which is because of racism. I recognize I have work to do on my own racism.
Then, I started digging around and found things like this.
If you see the caption, it reads “The King of A-Shantee.” This is clearly supposed to sound like “Ashanti,” and is therefore meant to denigrate the poor Irish, also known as the “Shanty Irish.” I had never heard this term until today, probably because the Irish eventually became White, so it’s not something I have heard directed at me or my family. However, it’s hard not to read the description of “Shanty Irish” without recognizing it’s describing my family.
I’m not here trying to make some argument about my ancestors being treated poorly therefore White privilege isn’t a thing. I believe quite the opposite. In fact, I’ve been a beneficiary. But I know also that my ancestors probably suffered a great deal from the harm that their racism did to them.
Norton says in her article
White exceptionalism runs to both negatives and positives. Whether whites are seen as intellectually and spiritually superior or morally abhorrent, the argument that whites are intrinsically different from the rest of humanity has all the same flaws as any such argument. There are no intrinsically innocent and wise peoples of the earth, we are all the same wonderful and terrible creatures. Every community produces gentle geniuses and violent monsters. If we accept the normality of white people—and this proposition has in its favor overwhelming evidence: circumstance, (the arbitrariness of whiteness) history, (the universality of both human crimes and genius) and physiology (the genetic difference among “white” is pretty much the same as any group of white and non-whites)—this leaves us looking to social systems and systems of power for the sources of our social problems, which seems pretty sensible, when you think about it.
Just as American exceptionalism has been used to prevent sensible change—“Americans have the best healthcare in the world! We must retain the present system to keep that!” (Hint: America does not, in fact, have the best healthcare in the world)—white exceptionalism has been used to keep whites and non-whites from asking why society doesn’t work in obviously more sensible ways.
It’s hard to see the message recycled yet again. And to see it work yet again. This long-running scam has us all getting in our own way when we could be making some positive changes for the good of all of us. But as long as we are distracted into scapegoating people and buying into the notion that they are inferior, we are going to remain victims of this scam.
This post feels rambly, and I don’t think I’ve really got much coherence to offer other than it did help me figure out why racism is so entrenched in families like mine. It’s hard to resist the allure of feeling superior to someone when you are in the lowest of circumstances. This is no excuse. Just an insight.
This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.