WASP Values and Political Work

At a recent funeral of an African American family member, people took turns standing up to eulogize him. But they didn’t stand up alone. There was always one person, sometimes two, at their side, the assumption being that they might not be able to stand there alone. They might need someone to hold them up.

The funeral was for the brother of my sister’s partner, an African American woman who explained to me once that it wasn’t coming out to her family as a lesbian that was challenging, it was bringing a white woman into the family. “All day, we’ve got to deal with white people,” her family told her, “and now you bring one into the living room.”

It took them a long time to forgive her for that.

When my nine-year-old, Sila, and I arrived for the funeral, there were about 20 cars in the driveway. The house and yard were jammed with people — crying, embracing, arguing, laughing, cooking, watching TV, and fixing hair.

A bunch of kids were playing basketball. Sila recognized her cousins and ran off to play. Another family member offered to keep an eye on her. I went off to help my sister with something.

Hours later, I returned. The adult I had left Sila with didn’t know precisely where she was. I found her taking care of his toddler. She had been fed by the self-appointed cooks, catered to and pampered by a houseful of relatives that she barely even knew. And she was doing her part, too, taking care of the little ones.

She had entered into a fold of love and attention, a safety net of people that wouldn’t let you fall down.

Later, one of the little cousins called to me from across the yard, “Hey, Sila’s mom,” he shouted — he didn’t know my name — “is the dog around?” He was scared of it. He wanted me to get hold of it while he ran inside.

“Don’t worry,” I yelled back. “The dog won’t hurt you.”

Sila heard this interaction and sidled up to me. “Mom, that’s not how they do things around here,” she explained. “They say, ‘Sure, honey,’ and they give you what you need.”

“Oh,” I said. This is not the customary attitude where I come from.

Later, when he called to me again — “Hey, Sila’s mom, will you tie my shoes? — I took my daughter’s advice. “Sure, honey,” I said and got down on one knee to give him a hand.

What a relief just to give what was asked for — to not feel that I should be teaching independence and self-sufficiency in every gesture. This was the child, after all, of the young man who had just died. Suddenly, my knee-jerk coaxing, as familiar to me as my own skin — “You can do it. You’ll be fine” — seemed cruel. His father had just died, and there I was yelling across the yard to him, “There’s nothing to be afraid of…”

Who am I to say what it’s fair to be afraid of?

Maybe this is partly why it’s hard to have white folks in the family. We, or some of us at least, who were raised in the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant tradition of redemption through hard work and frugality even when our upward class mobility did not require it so intensely. What a pain in the ass to be around people like this, who act so self-righteous about work, self-sufficiency, and self-sacrifice, even as they enjoy enormous race and class benefits and privileges.

When my other daughter was four or five, she coveted some trinket in the store, and she asked my mother to buy it for her. My mother did buy it, but surreptitiously. She gave it to me to give to her later, explaining that she wanted Zoë to have it, but not as a result of her having asked for it. “I don’t believe in giving children what they ask for,” she said.

Even though I grew up in a white, middle-class family, where there was no question that there would be food on the table, that we would occasionally go on vacation, and that I would go to college, my parents were frugal to the point of absurdity. I learned from my mother how to cut thread behind the sewing machine in such a way that would save an inch or two at a time. I had multiple jobs from age 11 on, and learned to avoid accepting favors. “Never return an empty dish,” my mother taught us. When something is given to you, in other words, it’s not sufficient to simply say thank you. You must repay the debt.

These ideas did not spring fully formed from my mother. She was simply channeling them to me as they were channeled to her — from a long line of white, puritan, farmer types, well-schooled in the work ethic, and bred to believe they were born bad. Not so bad that they couldn’t adjust their image upwards a little in the eyes of God, but probably only incrementally and only through a long life of labor, good works, self-denial, and studious avoidance of drink, dance, and anything more festive than the church social.

Meanwhile, my ancestors, and thus myself as well, benefited greatly from our white Anglo-Saxon roots. Hundreds of years ago, my family was deeded land that no one had any right to be giving away. It was, like all land in North America that ended up in the hands of white people, accrued through robbery, war, and/or genocide. For many generations, even my poor white ancestors stole labor and whatever wealth it generated from slaves and then low-paid black workers.

My great-great grandparents’ graves in North Carolina are marked with tin squares, hand-engraved with “Maw” and “Paw.” The unmarked graves at the same spot probably belonged to slaves, a reminder that even as us white folks have channeled Calvinism, boasted independence, and held up self-sufficiency as perhaps the greatest of all goods, we have rested on the labor and loss of many non-white human lives.

What does this leave to someone like me — beneficiary of, victim of, and ongoing channeler of the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant legacy?

I suppose, for one thing, it leaves me the challenge of taking responsibility for the ideology and principles I was raised with and perhaps frequently reproduce without realizing the implications. I am not only a white person in a bi-racial family, but a white activist in multi-racial, and multi-class movements. Building cross-race and cross-class movements is key to successful social change work. But what is it about whites that makes us less than welcome not only in the living room but also at the political meeting?

In addition to blatant racism, which many white people are guilty of, we also channel, quite unknowingly or at least unthinkingly, the ideology and cultural or moral norms passed on to us by generations of white ancestors. As much as the puritan-inspired work ethic, for example, may have helped individuals and communities “get ahead,” it must ring false to those who labored outside the ethic — the slaves, the Native Americans, the indentured servants, who lost all their energies and in many cases their lives for the enrichment of whites.

How many of the values that I was raised with have this seamy underside? How many of them, when I behave and speak according to these values, make me a less-than-welcome presence in the living room and the political meeting?

Bernice Johnson Reagon said that Black folks don’t do coalition work with white folks because they like it. “The only reason you team up with someone that could possibly kill you, is because that’s the only way you can figure you can stay alive.” But it doesn’t have to be a life or death situation to still cause extreme discomfort.

White communities (and all racial communities) are diverse along all sorts of lines — religious, class, geography, etc. — and clearly the values I have mentioned here in brief anecdotes are not unique to any one racial community. One must be careful about over-generalizing or assigning cultural and social norms to specific groups. Furthermore, one must neither romanticize nor completely trash the values coming out of any one particular community. Both oppressed and oppressor groups probably leave mixed legacies. Still, whites who are committed to building multi-racial movements would do well to look at how we bring our values to the table.

Being the inappropriate channeler of Calvinism, the chronic purveyor of self-improvement tips and tricks, the one who acts like worthiness is not something that is inherently human but is something that must be proven — these are not outrageous acts of racism. But they are rooted in racially charged historical moments that allowed (and still allow) white people to live under the illusion that a significant amount of what they “worked for” and “earned” was rightfully theirs when, in fact, it wasn’t at all. They are values with hypocritical roots.

And they might be one aspect of what makes us sometimes deeply annoying to be around. I am not making the case for whites to turn to a program of self-overhaul as a means of addressing racism, although private reflection is, of course, an important part of everything we do. But it is the systems that perpetuate inequality that should be the main targets of our work, and we should be on the front lines of those struggles whether we have personally annoying tendencies or not. Nor am I saying we should launch ourselves on a complete values-based makeover. (A work ethic that elevates white labor but makes invisible the sacrifice of others, and which is therefore repugnant, does not mean that any discipline around work is bad.)

It is particularly the responsibility of those whose values have roots in oppressor communities and which therefore are more likely to seem “normal” or status quo, to be cautious, critical, and open to the lessons that present themselves. At least we can, as my daughter did, notice “how they do things around here,” and take a moment to consider.

Cynthia Peters teaches in the Worker Education Program at SEIU Local 2020. She can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a comment