My story — and a gentle plea for less vanilla.

As I get to know people, I’ve always loved asking them what they know about their ancestry: What’s your ethnic background? What does your name mean? I’ve found that many European Americans don’t know, and some even brush it aside saying they’re a “mutt” or “who cares?” or “just American” or “just plain vanilla.”

Likening skin color to ice cream flavors does make sense. Most flavors are somewhere between white and brown. But to define Northern Europeans as “vanilla” or “white” implies that they are tasteless and colorless, which is yet another way of defining white as the racially and culturally neutral “background” color of our society.

I long for the day when white Americans realize they aren’t just part of a neutral vanilla background. Here’s an example of what I mean: April 15’s episode of World Have Your Say posed this question to minorities: “Do you feel like you have to leave your culture at the door when you go to work…?” Whites would have a hard time answering this query. Our response would be somewhere between “I don’t have a culture” or “My culture is the culture.” Therefore, as white figures on a white background, the cultural baggage that we carry is hard to see or grab ahold of, and impossible to leave at the door…

Everyone has a culture. Let’s start with that. Everyone has an ethnicity. Everyone has a story. Knowing one’s story–really a compilation of stories about one’s family and how one got to be where one is today–is vital. God tells his people in the Shema in Deut 6 (“Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God…”) to retell again and again the story of their people. Knowing one’s story…let me begin again in the first person…knowing our stories helps us know how we were formed, appreciate who we are, laugh at ourselves, and live an examined life. And it’s fun.

It’s fun and profitable to share our stories, too. A dozen of us formed a multiracial group this winter to gather, pray, study the Bible with Dr Metzger, and take turns sharing our stories. It was a moving experience to participate in a group where people could be open about everything, including their sin and their anger. Now we are inviting others to join the group as we begin a class entitled Removing the Blinders of Prejudice in the Church starting April 6.

At times, I refer to myself as a Scottish American and Swiss American; when I do, I’m not necessarily trying to be funny, nor am I trying to “get in touch” with my roots; I’m just trying to be conscious of having a particular identity, in the same way that African or Native Americans are always seen as “particular” when set against that white “background” of the dominant culture in North America.

I only know a little about my ancestors. They came to America fleeing war and famine in Alsace, religious tensions in Graubunden, and who knows what in Scotland. I probably know more about the stereotypes concerning Swiss and Scottish people! Of course we need to be careful with racial/ethnic stereotypes, but they don’t have to be used for ill. It may explain why I’m cheap and why I’m a perfectionist…and why I look good in a kilt! It may also explain how I was raised: don’t be too demonstrative with your emotions; don’t be too showy; don’t ever be late. No matter who you are, I would suggest that it’s important to know how you were raised and what you are like: your communication style, your sense of humor, your cognitive style, your attitudes toward privacy, money, your tastes, what your gifts are–and it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that these qualities were influenced by the culture of your race, ethnicity, religion and family.

As far as I know, my white Protestant ancestors met very few barriers to becoming prosperous once they settled in America. The only barriers I know about were self-inflicted: cases of drunkenness and incest. The Great Depression set their standard of living back for awhile, but my parents say they never knew they lacked anything. As adults they were very successful and moved our family from Portland out to a new suburb in the early 60s. I suppose you could call it “white flight.” There was a 1200 square foot minimum for houses on our street (that was big in 1964) ensured a solidly middle class demographic. Every neighbor was white as I grew up.

My family’s expressed attitudes about race were a mixture of bigotry and benevolence that has slowly evolved with the times. In the 70s I can remember racist jokes. In the 80s those completely stopped, but I remember xenophobic comments and a state of denial about racism: “The schools aren’t what they used to be.” “The worst racism is visited on dark-skinned blacks by light skinned ones.” “The children of mixed race couples have lots of problems (a not-so-subtle hint to marry a white girl)” “First they want to be called negroes, then blacks, and now African-Americans…what next?” Also, special praise was heaped on minorities who’d succeeded, because they demonstrated that the barriers are gone: anyone can prosper in America with a little hard work, just as our family had. I remember probing this world view as I got older, and finding a complete blindness to white privilege.

The houses in that neighborhood where I grew up are nearing their 50th birthdays and the neighborhood is less white– only around 50%. Crime levels have risen dramatically. There have been two attempted murders and one homicide in houses immediately adjacent to my parents’ in the last 3 years. Given experiences like that, it’s typical for whites to conclude that decline and crime are directly associated with color.Today, my parents have become a little bit cognizant of white privilege, and the barriers that obstruct minorities. They are very conscious of race and nervous about it. As they talk, and a character in a story is a minority, it will come out in the telling. We often chuckle about it later, that whenever they mention a black person, the adjectives “neat” and “distinguished” and “articulate” are soon to follow. If any minority makes a favorable impression, they’ll mention how nice the people were. Many of my friends’ parents are the same way. I remember laughing about a friend’s mom who came home from the supermarket saying “there’s a new black checker, and she could sure work that cash register!” Clearly, the generation that lived through the civil rights era feels bad about racism, they’re trying to put things right, and they’re terribly awkward as they go about it.

We are, of course, trying to put things right in our own way. When we bought a house, my wife and I chose the smallest house we could stand. We believe in voluntary simplicity, which includes a desire to live among people that are diverse in terms of race and class. But as parents, we face a decision: where should our son go to school? The neighborhood schools offer fewer academic and extracurricular opportunities than those in more affluent neighborhoods; the culture of the other students is less college-bound as well. Portland Public Schools has a pretty generous transfer policy, so it’s possible to transfer up if we want. Many families do this. Should we? We are challenged by John Perkins’ call for the redistribution of the fruits of white privilege. And we’re encouraged by Sandra Tsing Loh, one mother who decided to buck this trend of abandoning local schools. Her essay appeared in the March Atlantic Monthly. As a result, we have decided to enroll our son in the local high school and have already started talking with the faculty there to see how we can help them offer more opportunities.

Enough about me. Thanks for reading this. This is a space where you are invited to respond with your own story.Will you share your story–and how it was shaped by race?

One Response to “My story — and a gentle plea for less vanilla.”

  1. jeremiah Says:

    Brother,
    I love this perspective that the vanilla of the world is often considered tasteless. I must admit that I often struggle for this feeling and hate the fact that the color of my skin is judged for having a white privilege. My story will follow in the next few hours.
    Jeremiah

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