by Barbara Beckwith
As a racial justice workshop co-facilitator, I consider it important to be out front about the whiteness of my life. So I’ll share a frank inventory of my white life.
To start with, the population of the New York and New Jersey suburban towns where I grew up was both white and Protestant, with few Catholics and probably no Jews. My schoolmates were white and Protestant. The only Black people were “live-in help” that even middle-class families like mine could hire to do their cooking, cleaning, childcare and laundry. If “the help” had children (I never wondered if they did), they were clearly not welcome in our public schools.
My white life persisted through college: out of my Wellesley College class of 500 students, just two were African American, both light-skinned and wealthy. While Civil Rights protests were heating up in the South, my Northern academic classes assigned books that portrayed Black people as poor because they’d been raised in dysfunctional families. I had no Black teachers, no white teachers who countered those views. Actually, one white professor did so, but I wasn’t really listening.
I wrote home about campaigning for Adlai Stevenson, but mentioned only in passing that other college students were going South to join the Civil Rights movement, after which I quickly moved on to talk about homework and my boating team.
A few years later, as a young 1960s mother, I sent our children to racially mixed public schools, but knew that our neighborhoods were not racially mixed. When I wondered why no Black families lived on our side of West Cambridge’s Huron Avenue, a real estate agent told me that she didn’t show Black people houses on our side because “they like to be with their own.” I felt sad hearing that but never thought it was my role to object or to do anything about it.
As a parent, I found myself leading my local PTA, then being elected president of the city-wide PTA, while Black parents who worked with me always held lesser positions. I never considered stepping aside to give them room at the top.
Yes, I was part of the Civic Unity Committee that hired the first Black superintendent of schools, and yes, we pushed for more Black teachers. But we didn’t hold the city to its staff hiring goals: it still hasn’t met them.
When the Black Power movement brought militant protests to Boston, I thought there would be a revolution and it would necessarily roll over me. But I didn’t picture myself as playing any role in their revolution, which ignored the fact that we white people, especially men with money, still controlled every aspect of society- government, judicial system, housing, education, -- everything. I remained oblivious to structural racism.
As a teacher in the 1970s in public alternative high schools, I did my best to open white students’ eyes to racism and classism and feminism. As the student newsletter advisor in Cambridge’s Pilot School, I gave Black students determined to “say it out loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” the freedom to say what they wanted to say. But I didn’t see it as my responsibility to back up their demands.
Later, when I switched from teaching to journalism, I joined the National Writers Union, whose membership was largely white, until writers of color demanded that our “national” union represent the full range of freelancers in our country. It was Black members who reminded us that writers of color including Sonia Sanchez and Toni Morrison had been crucial in its creation. That history had disappeared as white people took over leadership.
I became active in the union’s diversity committee, and ignoring pushback from white colleagues who viewed devoting resources to issues of under-represented groups as divisive. When I saw that the union’s focus on contracts at mainstream publications left out writers of color with less access, I compiled a database of agents, editors and publishers with a track record of representing writers of color, and pressed for the union to hire organizers of color. But I didn’t fully use my power as a white ally to challenge the mindset of my white colleagues.
I was 60 when first took my first racial justice workshop and learned that the white suburbs I grew up in had been racially engineered by our federal government. Congress’s post-World War II GI bill gave out low-mortgage homes in new communities outside every major city, but required that Negroes be excluded from these communities. Black families were left as renters in crowded urban apartments whose landlords could raise rents with impunity. White suburban properties appreciated in value; their higher local taxes could fund quality schools. I had to face my own questionable obliviousness: how come I didn’t know that I’d grown up in deliberately segregated towns? What unearned advantages had I been oblivious to? Had I gotten a seat in my college, a job offer, a chance to buy our home, because Black and brown candidates were excluded from the competition?
I wanted to know what I’d been taught and looked back at textbooks from my generation and from my sons.’ They all touted the GI bill and post-war housing boom as creating “bedrooms of the middle class” and couched urban families’ exodus to the suburbs as “the greatest migration in our country’s history.” None acknowledged that this historic migration was for whites only. I checked my grandson’s suburban high school’s textbook, The Americans (Holt MacDougal), only to find: “With the help of the GI Bill many veterans and their families moved in and cultivated a new lifestyle. Americans loved the openness and small-town feel of the planned suburbs.” Again, not a word about the millions of Americans of color who were unable to acquire real estate that could allow them to build equity-based generational wealth. No wonder my perspective has been fuzzy, and my understanding of structural racism shallow.
My perspective now is that white people like me may not have created the racially unequal country we live in: but we were born into it, raised in it, mis-educated about it, and we benefit from it. So we’re responsible for doing something about it. We can press for racial justice in spheres of our everyday lives where we have power: in our families, neighborhoods, jobs, faith communities, local governments. We can create welcoming neighborhoods, share our networks, vote out restrictive zoning laws, and vote in women of color. As with any endeavor, it helps to start with an inventory. Here’s mine.