Family of Origin Story

Cracking the Shell of Whiteness

A Curriculum to Build Capacity For White People to be in Solidarity
with People of Color in the Work of Dismantling Racism

Assignment:  Family of Origin Story

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For the second session, we ask you to bring a story on your family of origin, and how it contributed to your understanding of who you are and how whiteness affects you.  The goal is not for you to have a polished piece of literature, but for you to begin reflecting on the beginnings of your own journey.

Whatever you bring will be what we are looking for. We also offer these questions for you to consider responding to:

  • What messages did you receive from your family about people of color?
  • Did your parents teach you about who you were
  • Did you have traditions your family taught you?
  • What benefits did we receive?
  • When did you have opportunity to get to know people of color?
  • Was there any reaction from family and friends?

Here are a couple of sample stories so you see there is no one way to do this.

A Sample from Ann Mahoney

I became aware of my white privilege as I reflected on my life story after reading about the concepts of white privilege as explained in the book “Understanding White Privilege” by Frances Kendall. The author writes about the ability of whites in our society to access service. I was able to identify many times when I utilized services as I was going through my divorce. I was able to hire a capable attorney, who was reasonable and took only one half payment up front and payments over an extended time. He, as well, took some money owed off of my last payment. When a situation at my home necessitated my calling in the police, I felt confident that I would be listened to, and indeed I was. They responded with much support at the time.

As well, my white privilege afforded me a home in a wonderful neighborhood, with great schools within walking distance, safety for my children and a lovely natural environment. Financially, without my privilege, I would have been forced to move after my divorce. My historical privilege was intrinsically wrapped up in this ability to remain in my home. My parents held the loan on my home therefore I didn’t worry about losing it. The home had been purchased by us initially from my grandmother at a reasonable price. My grandfather, a first generation American from Ireland, and my grandmother purchased and kept the home through the Great Depression in the 1930’s. Even with the financial wherewithal, I believe a person of color in the early 20th century would not have been able to buy a home in this neighborhood. My grandfather’s white privilege afforded him a good job, providing his family with the income that enabled the family to retain the home from 1918 until 1991 when I sold it.

The author spoke of white privilege as feeling accepted in our society as the “norm”. As a child, my family traveled to the southwest, east, and south. I never worried about where our family would go; if we found a campsite at either a private or public camp I assumed we would be welcome. I have friends who recount stories of not being accepted at this same time in history, the 1960’s, because they were people of color.

I, as well, believe my white privilege was a piece of the excellent help I received in the 1960,s educationally. The teachers were concerned and connected early on with my parents related to my dyslexia. I was not simply labeled. I was looked at as an individual child, not one of a particular group. I was thus given a chance to continue my education through college and Clinical Pastoral Education.

As I do this mini life review, I in no way discount the hard work of my Irish grandparents, or my own hard work as I gained my education. I do recognize, however, that the system of racism in this country did provide me with privilege. I pray that our society will afford these basic privileges: to live in a neighborhood of ones choosing, to trust our public services, to have access to financial resources, and an adequate education for all.

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A Sample from Doug Bowen-Bailey

I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio while my father was the pastor of Hope Lutheran Church, a diverse congregation with many African-American members. We moved when I was one to Columbus as my dad started teaching. While in Columbus, my parents decided to go teach in Nigeria for 5 years. They applied for a visa and a time of waiting began. The short of it is that I went off to kindergarten while they stayed home and tried to learn Hausa, the language of the part of Nigeria where we would be staying.

After almost a year of no word on the visa, my parents decided that they needed to look for other options, so instead of moving to Nigeria, we ended up in Moorhead in northwest Minnesota. A place that I affectionately like to refer to has Norwegia.

This move had a tremendous impact on my sense of racial identity. I went from a place where I was surrounded by a diverse group of people, to a place that was 98% white. Where diversity was mostly marked by what part of the Scandinavian peninsula your ancestors came from.

I remember my mom saying that within a few years of our moving to Moorhead, she remembers taking a trip with me to the Twin Cities and watching me stare at a black person as if they were alien. I had been so immersed in whiteness that I had really forgotten or submerged all of the interactions I had with black people as a child.

While I was living there, I think Moorhead was probably at least 98% white. I remember only one black student in my whole elementary, middle school and high school career – and she was adopted. There were two basketball players at Concordia College where my dad taught who were African-American during the time that I was there. I distinctly remember both of them: Robert Booker and Ricky Simpson. Interestingly, I can picture in my mind some of the other white players, but I can’t remember their names.

Yet I didn’t really realize I was white until I was 16 and was attending a workshop on racism led by C.T. Vivian. By this point, I was living in Dubuque, Iowa – another pretty homogeneous town of white folks – and one African-American man shared in the group that he woke up every morning and looked in the mirror realizing that he was a Black man living in Dubuque, very aware of what that meant.

This comment really struck me, because I had never, up to that point, thought of myself as being white. Never thought of what privileges came to me as a result of that designation. But I promised to myself that from that day on, I would not forget to think of my whiteness and what that means.

So, my journey continues. It was really only recently that I had the thought that, as an adult consciously seeking to have a more diverse set of friends and acquaintances, I am perhaps really seeking to reclaim some of the diversity that I started out in life experiencing – and then moved away from. Not that those early days were somehow an Eden, but seeking the diversity that I experienced there does seem to somehow be a more complete expression of my humanity.

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