When You’re Raised by Racists: Junia’s Story
Pseudonym note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Junia” is a pseudonym.
I was raised by a mother who was intensely racist.
I didn’t realize it for years, but she was, and is. My father is as well, but less obviously, more in an oblivious sort of way.
As far as education went, I always thought that we received above average education. My mother was committed to good education, erudition was a trait that my parents prized highly, to the point that friends of the family would comment on how intelligent we were and note it as a family thing. I will always be grateful for the education I received from her and from the other teachers, both in co-ops and online, that she arranged. But one area that I completely missed was race.
We’re white, with one distant Native American ancestor. But otherwise we’re Western and Northern European through and through. I never realized until the past year how much this has colored, no pun intended, my life and worldviews.
With history we were raised on the motto, “The South was Right.”
Slavery was justified because of Bible passages about how to treat slaves. If slavery was inherently wrong God would have banned it, wouldn’t He? We listened to speeches from the group The League of the South and read its literature. It’s still hard for me to admit that this group promotes racial inequality by justifying slavery. I was really into the Civil War, or as I called it, the War Between the States, in high school. I spent hours reading about it, but almost nothing from the perspective of anyone in the Union or the perspective of people like Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass. I even had a livejournal account about the War. Mostly copy/paste of historical documents or letters etc. Inspirational stories about specific individuals.
I had only friend growing up who wasn’t white. She was mixed race, her dad was black and her mom was white. She and I used to play together a lot. I’m not sure why my mother was okay with us, why she was friends with the family, but I guess the whiteness of the mom made the family safe as far as my mother was concerned. I know my friend was really sensitive about being mixed race. She didn’t feel like she fit in anywhere, she was too dark for whites and too white for blacks. At one point in high school she saw my livejournal account and asked me to take it down because she was offended.
I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t.
I told her that she shouldn’t be offended, I was just posting historical things. We drifted apart, for a lot of different reasons.
None of this is to say that I believed in white superiority or hated blacks or anything like that. I just obliviously dismissed stories of racism as playing the race card. I was uneducated about the true story of racial inequality and hate and the continuing structural racism that exists today. I was never allowed to read To Kill a Mockingbird as a child because my mother said it was racial propaganda designed to stir up race hate. I thought Nelson Mandela was a terrorist because the only times I heard my parents mention him were in negative contexts. A friend asked me within the last year if I knew who Jackie Robinson was and I had no idea. My boyfriend, now my husband, was the first person to tell me about the LA Race Riots. That they even took place.
Even this year I still clung to the idea that Southerners weren’t racist, they had slaves, but they weren’t really racists. There must be some misunderstanding. There’s just misunderstood regional pride. White people have moved on now anyway, we don’t allow slavery any more. People just play the race card when they don’t want to face that they didn’t get a job because they weren’t as qualified, etc. That minorities use their race as a weapon to get ahead.
I was blind to my privilege because I was born with the skin tone I have.
Then there was the murder of Trayvon Martin. I was angry and sad. I saw it as a crime that was at the very least made more likely because of Martin’s race, and at worst as racially motivated. But my awareness was still embryonic. It was after that that I decided that I should read To Kill a Mockingbird and find out what it was all about. I was shocked. I thought it was an exaggeration for monetary profit on the part of the author. I wish that had been true.
A few months later I read a newspaper article about the conviction of the ringleader in the murders in 1964 of the civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. I was horrified. I read the comments on the article and I didn’t know what one of the commentators was talking about when he referenced Emmett Till, murdered in 1955 at the age of 14. I felt sick to my stomach as I read accounts of what happened to him. A 14 year old boy was beaten and murdered for daring to flirt with a white woman, at worst for being obscene (if you were to believe what local white people said of him).
I now realized that To Kill a Mockingbird really wasn’t exaggerating.
It was all to true to reality. Then I followed more links and saw the records of more deaths, schoolgirls blown up in a church, men and women murdered sometimes just on the side of the road because of their race, men and women both white and black murdered because they were peacefully protesting inequality.
There was a whole world of pain that I was utterly unaware of.
When I was in middle school and high school I vaguely remember that my older sister who had married at 18 and left our home say things about racial inequality. My parents would say that she was just full of white guilt, and that it wasn’t right for us to feel guilty about the crimes that some white people committed against those of other races. I had never investigated for myself, to my shame.
I was perpetuating racism without being aware of it. And I would have been more in tune with reality if I had been taught about racism and black people with any depth. If my knowledge of blacks in American history hadn’t been limited to knowing a lot about George Washington Carver and that Rosa Parks was tired and said no. If I hadn’t been told that Harriet Tubman was making the problems worse by encouraging runaways, which was clearly in violation of things like the book of Philemon.
But I was taught a white centric view of American history and life.
I feel deeply handicapped in dealing with life today because there was so much racism in my family of origin and I am so far behind in what I should know about what minorities, especially blacks, have been facing at the hands of a white dominated society.
I’m grateful in so many ways that I was educated at home. But because of the issue of race, I would never be a homeschooling parent.