“Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of (white)* men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.”~ Simone de Beauvoir
*Yes, I added the word white. It’s my blog, I can do what I want.
Growing up (and uh, still) my dad was a tough cookie. I had a healthy fear of disappointing or angering him, which in turn lead me to flourish as a creative storyteller. My dad might refer to my stories as “lies,” but I prefer to call them teenage survival tactics.
Dad had a rough childhood. He worked hard to give us much less rough childhoods, and I can only imagine what he thought when he gazed at his four whiny little snots, some of us whinier and snottier than others (I nailed the latter). Could these kids make it in the world I grew up in? We didn’t have much, but we had approximately 8 million times more than he did at our age.
What even is more? That’s a question I struggle with a lot, and as a parent, I think he struggled with the desire for us to understand what his “more” meant, caught between successfully shielding us from the hardships he experienced himself and wanting to scream, QUIT COMPLAINING YOU UNGRATEFUL CHILDREN, YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW GOOD YOU HAVE IT (okay, that did slip out a time or two). Though that might just be what it is to be a parent, I dunno.
Dad doesn’t really believe in presents, but for Christmas my junior year of high school, he gifted me a poem about his childhood entitled “Hard” with the preface: I know there have been times throughout your childhood in which you may have felt I was little too hard on you. I may have been. And then he illustrated what hard meant from the perspective of his shoes.
It was a lot. The good news, his father stopped hitting his mother when he left her; the bad news, he left her with nine children, at least one of whom never stopped wondering if it was because something he did or could have done differently. There was no money, no Christmas presents, no indoor plumbing. There was no heat during harsh Wisconsin winters, no new clothes, just the same two sizes too big hand me downs, day after day. They ate corn meal, every day, for every meal. The kids turned on each other, my dad being the youngest was an easy target, until he decided not to be. At 13 years old, for one dollar a day, he worked on a neighboring farm from 4 to 7 AM before heading to school where he was routinely ridiculed for being a “Polack” before going back to work from 4 to 8 PM. His weekends were spent working 12 hours on Saturday, eight on Sunday, forking four of his seven weekly dollars over to his mother to help pay for life. He never finished high school. Finding few answers in drugs and less in alcohol, at 17 he joined the army in the middle of the war to escape the war at home.
I don’t think his intention was to make me feel bad or guilty or anything. I saw it as more of an offering to the idea we have different definitions of hard. A simple guidebook to the phrase, “Guurrrrlll, you don’t know what hard is.”
And he wasn’t wrong.
I think about my dad a lot, about how he was able to climb out of poverty and make a life for himself and his family. All of us kids, the first generation of Kowalski’s to go to college, two of us even post collegiate educated, all of us with adult careers (me via kicking and screaming) financially able to support ourselves and the gaggle of children my siblings produced.
While obtaining my masters in education, I completed many practicum hours at a relatively normal, very white high school. The school was nice, the resources flowed. Many students drove nicer cars than I did. They wore fancy clothes and fancy attitudes. One popular high school girl refused make any effort or turn in any assignments on account of she “didn’t need to care about school because I can live in my dad’s basement forever.” Lofty goals, wonder how she’s doing now.
At the time, I wasn’t that much older than they were and our interactions produced a weird pit in my stomach. I hated it. And I didn’t like them. I wanted to yell, tell them how fortunate they were. I couldn’t relate. I felt uncomfortable. I looked at them like my dad probably looked at us. I had this big dream teaching would be all about making a difference, but all I saw were spoiled kids who never heard the word No. So I applied to student teach through the inner-city program 4 hours away.
I ended up being placed in one of the better schools in the Milwaukee area, but the differences were stark. The school was always locked, students passed through metal detectors. The staff parking lot was gated. Call them what you want, safety officers, police, guards, but they were present in the halls. This was 15 years ago, when school shootings were happening, just not on a regular basis. Many students were on the free lunch program. Some kids had their own kids. One student came back to school the same week she gave birth to twins on account of she couldn’t afford to fall behind, she needed to graduate to give her babies a better life than she had.
And yes, I had some jerk students here too, turns out, teenagers are just assholes sometimes. For the first time in my life, I was the minority in a majority black and Latinx school. Similar to the predominately white school, I couldn’t relate. I felt uncomfortable. But for completely different reasons. So many of them had experienced so much “more” of life, it felt ridiculous asking them to care about Shakespeare when I knew two of them were sleeping in their cars.
My students faced different challenges, and as an English teacher, I was fortunate to read about many of them. I once asked my seniors to write about moments in life that stuck with them, moments that caused them to see the world through a different lens. Though not always grammatically well-written, the stories were powerful. One student wrote eloquently about his dad’s death. How he wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral because his dad was a prominent white attorney, and his family didn’t know he had a black son. He was not welcome. He sat outside the church with his mom, visited his grave when the crowd had faded, not understanding the situation, not really. That day he vowed to be somebody. Somebody his dad would have been proud of, somebody nobody could be ashamed of, someone who didn’t have to hide outside a church to mourn his father. Somebody important. Somebody who mattered.
I cried reading the whole thing, clutching my confused cat in the corner of my apartment. The next day I had to tell him I spilled water on it when I returned it to him all crinkly. He was a gifted student, soft-spoken, well-written, a senior on track for a scholarship to UW-Madison. This kid, I thought, he was gonna break the cycle, make the world a better place for his children. I have no idea what happened to him, but maybe it’s better that way. I can go on believing that he got out, that he broke the cycle.
I gotta believe there are plenty of folks out there like my dad. Cycle breakers, folks who had it rough, who defied the odds, had nothing handed to them, who worked their asses off for every morsel to their name. I am forever grateful he took on the brunt of the hard work so I didn’t have to.
But I also think it’s worth noting my dad is a white male. On top of the societal human totem pole. Is it possible that others, maybe those on the lower rungs of this hypothetical but also totally real totem pole, given the exact same circumstances, might have had an even more difficult time? What if, on top of all of the shit he had to shovel out of his way just to break even, he had been black? What if this was the story of a black family? What additional obstacles would he have faced? Would I be where I am today? Would my brother? My sisters?
I want to say, YES! I am a product of my hard work and determination, I got here through my own blood sweat and tears! And sure, maybe I did. But like, it certainly didn’t hurt being white. Would we have all had the same success if we were black? I have no way of knowing, but like, probs not. Like 99.9999%, probs not.
I often hear the argument, and these days, see the argument on social media outlining this very thought. Hey man, I had a really shitty go of it, too. I got out, I broke the cycle. I picked myself up by the bootstraps and created my reality. And if I can do it, why can’t everyone?
To acknowledge that it might be harder for others to achieve what you achieved because of the color of their skin, does not, and should not in any way, diminish the hard work and determination of those who broke the cycle. No one is trying to take your accomplishments from you. Don’t take this personally. Because this is not about you. Assuming everyone can pick themselves up by their bootstraps is also making the assumption everyone has boots to begin with. And they don’t.
What if, on top of all the struggles you’ve overcome, obstacles you’ve conquered, hurdles you’ve soared over, you had also been black? People can hide a lot of things, present themselves as someone “acceptable” for the situation at hand. Skin color isn’t one of those things. I think it’s worth asking yourself if just one factor, one you have zero control over, one you were born into, had been different…would everything have worked out the same? If you believe the ginormous pit of despair you managed to climb out of wouldn’t have shoveled additional dirt challenges at you as a black person, I’ve got news for you.
A few months ago I started reading Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez. Highly recommend, but only if you’re ready to experience a smorgasbord of emotions, which honestly might be too much to handle at the current moment, so maybe hold off. It’s filled with real life data and real situations, tons of (not so) boring actual facts and whatnot, and if you’re a woman, you may uncover some truths that will really get you fired up by the second page, you’ll shoot off some incredulous “holy shit, did you know!??!…” Marco Polos to Corona Connect (a weird-but-it-works group made up your bestie, her husband and their 70+ year old wise neighbor), and you will spend the rest of it questioning everything from snow removal to Sonic the Hedgehog to urinals to seatbelts. It’s a goddamn journey.
Anyway, at one point the author discusses how she campaigned to have a female historical figure on the back of English banknotes and some men got so angry, they felt compelled to threaten her with rape, mutilation and death, one man protesting, “but women are everywhere now!”
As Criado Perez explains it, “These men were experiencing even minor female representation as an iniquity. As far as they were concerned, the playing field was already level, and the entirely male line-up was just an objective reflection of merit.”
She talks about the way some men view the world is universal, while feminism, the world from a female perspective – is niche. Ideological.
“These white men have in common the following options: that identity politics is only identity politics when it’s about race or sex; that race and sex have nothing to do with ‘wider’ issues like ‘the economy’; that it is ‘narrow’ to specifically address the concerns of female voters and voters of colour; that working class means white working-class men.”
“These white men also have in common that they are white men. And I labour this point because it is exactly their whiteness and maleness that caused them to seriously vocalize the logical absurdity that identities exist only for those who happen not to be white or male. When you have been so used, as a white man, to white and male going without saying, it’s understandable that you might forget that white and male is an identity too.”
“Whiteness and maleness are silent precisely because they do not need to be vocalized. Whiteness and maleness are implicit. They are unquestioned. They are the default. And this reality is inescapable for anyone whose identity does not go without saying, for anyone whose needs and perspective are routinely forgotten. For anyone who is used to jarring up against a world that has not been designed around them and their needs.”
I mean like, food for thought, while we’re all eating our feelings these days. No? Just me? Cool, cool.
The other day I saw this floating around all the socials:
I appreciate the message, except for the first line. So what, our generation just gets to wipe our hands clean of any blame, placing it all on our dead ancestors, like we had nothing to do with it? Bullshit. Like our generation *just* came upon this racism thing and now we’re all rolling up our sleeves, like, “Whelp team, let’s get to work!” Slavery ended in 1865. It’s been 155 years. Our ancestors may have started the fire, but we (yes, you, me and our dead ancestors) have been fueling the flames ever since. How else did we get here? Why are we STILL here?
Maybe we didn’t start the fire, maybe it was always burning since the world’s been turning, but GUYS, don’t you think it’s time we actually try to fight it? We can start by acknowledging that WE are part of the problem, our generation, not just our beloved ancestors, because if we’re going there, you can count me out, mine were in Poland dealing with their own bucket of bullshit.
Still here? Cool. I know, I know my thoughts are all over the place, but dooooood, have you been to 2020? It’s one wild ride.
I don’t have all the answers, or even the best answers. I basically have no answers. But like, for once in your white life, put yourself in a position where you are the minority. Be uncomfortable. Listen. Try to gain perspective. Unlearn. Donate to the cause. March to understand. VOTE. Do the work. Do something, anything. Don’t set yourself up to become those lame ancestors in an otherwise solid meme. You’ll ruin it for everyone.