Looking at Our Lives Through the Lens of Race project
Growing Up “White” in America
by Carol Shilakowsky
I grew up in Waltham (MA) in the early 60s to mid 60s: no blacks in school and none that I noticed in town, although there was one man who married an Italian woman and both were dark-skinned, said to be “mulatto,” meaning mixed race.
I came from that Catholic Sicilian ghetto atmosphere, which one would not consider “White Protestant America.” However, we seemed to be fiercely proud that we were “Italian” (although we WERE, in truth, from the mountains of Sicily) and also, proud of being Sicilian — and NOT black or “near-black” as the Northern Italians would say Sicilians were, due to the proximity of Africa to Sicily and to the Moorish history of the island.
I had an Irish father — and did not have the olive complexion and was not associated with the Sicilian surnames of my cousins and friends from Sunday school – and I made it into the “higher echelon of white America.” being placed in a college honor division in the 6th grade, on track for university life with 50 other students, mostly white Protestant, few Italian, none black, but a good number Catholic.
I did not realize any of this at the time. To me — I was living in “white America” and the “poor Negro people” were living in the South, or maybe in New York City where they played jazz, basketball, and smoked dope or were Beatniks. My associations were mainly with Negro movie personalities and musicians, dancers, and vocalists.
I was interested in the Civil Rights movement in the mid 60s, but I was a 25-year-old mother living in rural New Hampshire with 2 young daughters and an older “redneck” husband who had lived in the South. Dirt poor as a child in the 30s, his family had been treated as “white trash” for living among the “nigras” and his was a mixed opinion. He was the only person I knew who had experienced the attitudes of racist America first-hand and seemed friendly to the few Blacks in New Hampshire who had moved to our city and to the Haitian apple pickers who came seasonally.
I was a little nervous around Blacks until I met and befriended a wonderful woman who was a Jehovah’s Witness. Yes, she DID preach – but I listened – and was transformed into a better Christian than my Catholic upbringing had made me. I did not join her fold, but I learned respect for other people in a way I might never have, and learned not to fear people of color. Her religious intolerance was uncompromising, and yet I understood the comfort it was for a “Fresh Air” child of the 50s, from a Black ghetto in New York City, to come to New Hampshire to stay with a family of her faith for the summer, to do God’s work — however they saw it. They were FREE to do so. A lesson to be learned in the villages of Yankee New England.
As time passed, I lived in the South, myself, with my musician second husband. We lived in New Orleans, we lived in Charleston where the black men in 1990 would STILL say “yes’em” and not look directly at me. I learned, then, about the long years of hurt and oppression in the South the race had endured. I listened to the stories of the Gullah people, slaves who had walked from a mutineered African slave ship in broken chains to became “free” to America. I listened to Preservation Jazz. I was there as the wife of a symphony violinist who played for the “class” of cultured America. This husband, the musician, showed me that tux and tails and all – the orchestra was in the PIT and were slaves to the music, to the conductor, and servants to the actors and dancers in musical productions and to the audience — many of whom were affluent and Black.
Class structure, even in the 90s, was still in place in America, and we still seem to use job description and money-making ability across several ethnicities an indicator of status. What you can afford, rather than the color of your skin, still applies as a criterion for discrimination: “poor white trash” — “niggrahs” — “Sicilian” and others can still be seen at the back of the bus, I think, whoever they are. Maybe this year they are Hispanic? Maybe next year they will be those white Protestant Americans who do not have cell phones and DVD players?
My growing up in “white” in America was due to segregation, intolerance, archaic attitudes and inordinate fears, and in some states, legislation concerning race, which fostered the prevailing attitudes. Once many of the legal factors that hindered acceptance disappeared, racial barriers fell. Although probably not perfect, America became visibly more interracial. The American consciousness shifted in the late 1950s to mid 60s: issues concerning African Americans were openly discussed, rights fought for and won, and an entrance into society, once denied, opened. I have a visceral, as well as intellectual, sense of it, being that of a generation where major changes were made in much of the fabric of America.