Thursday, January 22, 2015


A bit back, a young person and I were discussing racism.  The young person is young, and white, of good will, and I suggested zie read Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack" (linked here, thanks to the University of Michigan).  It seemed like a good reading for someone who was ready to think more about racism.  In order to make getting it easy for hir, I put up a link on my effbee page.

This morning, I got an email from my Mom.  She says she read the essay (because she saw my link) and found it really insightful and thought-provoking, and now she's passing it along to her friends at her retirement center.  (Most of whom are white, all of whom are middle or upper-middle class.)

I think of McIntosh's essay as being something everyone knows about and has read.  I am wrong, of course.  People in English departments have read it, and probably people in lots of other areas of academics.  But people who frequent my Mom's retirement center, not so much.

The thing is, my Mom and (in my experience talking with them when I visit) the other folks at her retirement center are basically decent human beings.  They don't want to be racists, and many of them (including my Mom) have done good work (my Mom tutored children and adults in basic literacy, for example, among other things), but they haven't necessarily thought about systemic racism or privilege.  So this essay is thought-provoking (as indeed, it is) and helpful to them.

It makes me proud of my Mom that she's thinking about racism and passing the essay around to her friends.  She and many other white people of her generation have changed a lot over the years, have tried to become less racist.  I'm sometimes really critical of her (because I'm her daughter, of course), but I think she's had a harder time getting where she is than I ever had, in large part because she raised me to think about race, and started me earlier thinking about race and social justice than I'd have started alone.


  1. Very yes. I really admire what my mother has made of herself: She was raised during and after the War, in a Southern household, with a black maid who lived in a garage apartment that was called both "over the carhouse" and "in the slave's quarter's" (GAH!). She married at 20 and dropped out of school to have me, and she ironed my father's underwear... until both my parents decided that wasn't how they wanted to live. They worked hard to teach me to fight racism, sexism, and any other form of category-based bias, and I am very grateful for that.

    I have become the kind of person that I was raised to be, for the most part, but my parents, and especially my mother, became something completely different. She might drive me mad sometimes, and she might be exceedingly eccentric, but I cannot help but admire how she remade herself through the 60s and 70s. To hell with Tom Brokaw; hers is the greatest generation.

  2. Bardiac, this is a lovely post, and then Meg's comment is as well. Normally we're supposed to feel hopeful in looking at younger generations, but these two stories are about older generations' changing, and that makes me feel hopeful as well.

    At one point, when my mom was being super cantankerous about my being a lesbian (something she wasn't at all at first, but then over the years the support faded and the crankiness expanded), I told her that her problem was that my brother and I had taken her rhetoric about open-mindedness and equality and inclusion seriously. She'd raised us with certain ideas about how the world should work -- ideas that she believed in theory but then had trouble with in practice, like many of us -- but by the time my brother and I realized that she didn't totally mean everything she said, it was too late. So maybe, I suggested, she could look at my brother's interracial marriage and at my same-sex one and see them as tributes to the way we were raised. She rather liked that idea, and the cantankerousness faded a bit.

  3. What a lovely tribute to your mother. It made me wonder what my mother would make of McIntosh. She was raised in an upper middle class household, but became an activist as a single mother of kids in the NYC public schools. She turned herself from a book editor to a community organizer. She lived and worked in DC's black community for almost 20 years. So she's thought a lot about race, and her privilege, but that is more about class. I'm not sure how she thinks about whiteness. Good topic for discussion...

    It's interesting to think of the mothers of the 50s, 60s, and 70s who opened doors and ideas for their daughters of what is conventionally thought of as the second wave generation.

  4. This is a lovely post. My mum (in her 70s, Catholic - leftist, but with a difficult residue that riles me) recently told me about a teenager at her church who is transitioning, and how happy she (my mum) was to see him so happy and that she'd told him how proud she was of him. Then she told me she'd been embarrassed by "things like that" in the past but the Guardian had run a series of articles written by someone transitioning, and that had made her more comfortable with it. I wrote to the journalist to tell her what a great job she'd done.
    I've read your blog for years but never commented - I was thinking you might like a book shortly to come out in the US called H is for Hawk - I thought of your blog as I read it. I know this sounds like spam! it's a wonderful book, on birds and family and reading and other good and hard things.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Kate. And congrats to your Mom! That's really a great step.

    Now I'm way curious about the book, too.