“Conversation with Theresa and Ed” (Mom & Dad)

“Conversation with Theresa and Ed” (Mom & Dad)

Mom and Dad’s wedding picture (1945)

Background: Theresa and Ed Wynne are my deceased parents. My father died in 1966 at the young age of fifty-six and my mother forty years later in 2006 at eighty-eight years of age.

I recently came up with the idea of having an imagined conversation with them about my memoir as a different way to illuminate the foundational aspects of the growing up years on my life’s journey in “understanding racism”. So, I have developed some questions that I think they might have asked me if they were still alive… or perhaps whispering in my ear now! I have framed the conversation in a way that provides some insight on who I think they were as people of the times they lived in, as well as the significant influencers they were as my parents.

I plan on adding similar blog posts for each chapter and perhaps beyond, so these conversations will be continuing. Let’s begin at the beginning in Chapter 1, ‘The 1940s and 1950s: Whiteness’.

Theresa: “Well, Bill, you sure have been busy the last year or so writing a book, getting it published, and now have speaking engagements as well as book signings”. We are both proud of you but I have to ask, what inspired you to write it the way you did going back to your childhood?”

Me: “Thanks, Mom. Overall it was truly a labor of love in writing the memoir and it really stretched my memory (hopefully accurately!). Since it is a book about my understanding of racism, I felt it was important to start right from the beginning of my life so that readers would get a grounding of the times I grew up in including the incredible ubiquity of “whiteness” surrounding middle-class American life. For the both of you, your parents, other relatives, your children, and virtually of your friends, this is what we lived in … and we were basically oblivious to any concept of “whiteness” since being white was a completely shared, systemic experience inculcated through society including generations of our family … unless of course you were Black.”

Theresa: “Okay, I think we can basically agree with what you are saying, but so what? We never took advantage of anyone who was not white and did not even think anything about the color of our skin at all. Likewise, the term “white privilege” which you reference right in the first chapter. We weren’t privileged in any way, let alone white privileged. We would appreciate it if you would clarify the point you are trying to make.”

Me: “As I state in the preface of the memoir, I too struggled with the term “white privilege” early on in writing the book. I originally thought that was going to be the key storyline of the book so you bring up an interesting point, at least about the “white” part of “privilege” at the time I was growing up. On pg. xvi I say” … white became much to limiting in my attempt to define privilege, and things I thought of as specifically white privilege were not. It was not even a concept or a term used at the time — at least not by whites; white privilege was just one of many other privileges I was born into.”

Ed: “Now wait a minute, when my parents immigrated to the United States from Ireland, they were white and discriminated against for being Irish so they weren’t even close to being privileged. What do you have to say about that?”

Me: “This is where things can get pretty complex very quickly, Dad, since each of us as individuals can usually come up with examples and experiences where we were treated unfairly or thought we were.”

Ed: “Well I can you give you some very clear examples that are not imaginary of the Irish being refused jobs and more!”

Me: “I’m sure you can, Dad, but hear me out. I hope you would agree that when Blacks came to this country, they were considered chattel slaves, meaning they were actually considered the property of an enslaver; therefore, as slaves, they were not immigrants or refugees which is what most of the Irish and other European peoples were considered coming to this country. The common denominator for the European immigrants/refugees was being white or at least not Black. And skin color had its advantages, at least eventually, for anyone who was white; the exact opposite was true if you were (are) Black, brown or yellow skinned. So, the advantage (privilege?) of being white for the most part worked out well initially and especially over time if you were white, even for the Irish. This is the essence of white privilege and on pgs. 156-57 you will see a list of some modern-day versions of it. As just one of the seventeen examples listed: White privilege means no one questions why you got that really great job; it’s assumed you were just highly qualified.”

Theresa: “There’s not much we really could have done differently anyway since where we lived in the Park Avenue area, everyone was white and other than a handful of rich people, people were basically middle class like us. So, where’s the privilege within our experience at that time?”

Me: “As I describe in the book, we lived in a de facto ‘gated community’ where literally everyone was white as you mentioned. The concept known as ‘redlining’ basically prohibited by practice, if not law, Blacks and other minorities from living in our neighborhood. This is essentially segregation and similar freedoms of basically what we would consider simple matters of inclusion were banned for Blacks/others by practice. Therefore, things like the privilege to buy a house on Park Avenue and access to the neighborhood public schools were not possible or at minimum made very difficult until years later. Bottomline, Blacks were not welcome into the neighborhood in the first place and white privilege prevailed. The neighborhood was virtually devoid of color, diversity, and could have been described as exclusive.

Ed: “But we weren’t racist and that was a word that I don’t recall being used much other than perhaps to describe the KKK, someone like Hitler, occasionally as a political dispersion, and in the 70’s Archie Bunker!  And we sure did not teach you kids to hate others and neither did the good nuns at Blessed Sacrament.”

Me: “Those are understandable points given the times, but I suspect that there were learning or conversational opportunities that were possible at home and at school that I do not recollect being discussed like our children do with our grandchildren today. As you know, my growing up years were roiling in racial upheaval especially regarding Civil Rights for Blacks. I do not recall any teaching moments either at home, within my Catholic elementary education, or from the pulpit where a parable like that of the Good Samaritan could have been used to consider the Black “others’ in our midst and their lack of basic civil rights. In contrast when I talk to my Black friends of my age today about their growing up years, racism conversations were a very common occurrence in their families basically since their survival depended on it! As I remember in our family and with the nuns and priests at Blessed Sacrament (and even today within the modern Church), things like racism were never discussed and my feeling is now that it probably was avoided intentionally out of fear or perhaps trying to be protective. In reality, this conversational avoidance was yet another example of white privilege.”

Theresa: “Well, when your father and I were growing up we did not have the “advantage” of visually experiencing things like you kids did with television and now the ever-present modern social media your children and grand children have is unbelievable. We had the telephone system such as it was, the radio, and the movies but those are relatively quaint compared to the communications available today. We were also raising you kids in a post Great Depression/WWII era and then that of the Nuclear/Cold War age so of course we were inclined to be protective because of the horrors we had not only experienced ourselves but then new ones potentially on the horizon. So, things like Civil Rights issues did not really seem like a big deal in comparison.

Me: “Again, great points and technology has advanced where the ever-present information flow can be overwhelming for all of us today especially now when facts can be distorted and outright lies become treated as truths. But there are two other elements in what you just said regarding fear and love that I would like to expand upon. In my book, there is a chapter where I describe courage overcoming fear. We all face moments in our life that fear can grip our core and overwhelm us. And look how you both and your families persevered through two world wars and more as you describe during your 20th century lives. That takes courage and the presence of love which you modeled for me and the rest of the family.”

Ed: “To get back to your book, I still don’t get it that the greatest democracy the world has ever seen comes under so much internal attack for being racist. Your mother and I were no more responsible for slavery than you are and people today, no matter the color of their skin, have abundant opportunities to pull themselves up and succeed. I understand that there are some people who are outright racists but they represent only a small portion of the country. Do you understand what I am trying to say?”

Me: “You bring up some arguments that many white Americans would agree with you on. However, the situation is much more complex since the foundational truths of racism in this country are submerged below the surface (at least for most whites) where they are fundamentally invisible unless searched for as I have outlined in my book.”

“For example, see the following link from a well-known blog titled ‘Note to My White Self’ …

Its closing statement directly responds to your question: “Regardless of the purveyors of this injustice, racial oppression in the United States has always been an invention to justify the unjustifiable – the denigration, mistreatment and abuse of human beings whose only significant difference from that of pale skinned people is their darker skin.”

“Said another way, the forces of our 400-year-old, systemic racism cut so deep that the concept of ‘picking yourself up by your bootstraps’ is overwhelmed for most Blacks by the torrent of ever-present, systemic racial oppression.”

Theresa: “To refresh my memory, can you help me understand what racism might have looked like in the 50’s?”

Me: “Sure, Mom … and to use some of the technology of the day, here’s a good summary I found on the Internet:

Racism in the 1950s:

Racism was a lot more prominent and deemed socially acceptable within society. There was racial segregation meaning that Black people and white people were socially separated. They weren’t allowed to take the same buses, attend the same cinemas or even drink from the same water fountain. To go against this, was illegal. An example of this is Rosa Parks, a middle-aged black woman, who refused to give up her seat on the bus in 1955. She is today seen as a very influential civil right activist.

Times have changed and progressed a lot with better cultural understanding and although there are still racist people in the world, it is generally seen as unacceptable within society to be racist and hold anything against a person because of their race, religion or ethnic background. A key reason people are racist is out of ignorance and over time people have been more educated and have a greater understanding and acceptance of others.

To summarize with a definition from Martin Luther King, Jr.: Racism is a philosophy based on contempt for life. It is the arrogant assertion that one race is the center of value and object of devotion, before which other races must kneel in submission.”

Theresa: “Maybe we should stop here, but one last question: what do your sisters and brothers think about your book?”

Me: “I wish I knew. Other than your youngest son, in the five months since the book was published, I have not heard a peep about it. So, I am left to assume the other four have not read it which to be honest is hard for me to grasp. One of the reasons I wrote it in the first place is that they would become a notch more enlightened about my life regarding racial justice matters. I even wrote about their sustained silence in this blog section of my website in January (see ‘A PERSONAL REFLECTION ABOUT SHUNNING’). To get some idea as to why this might be the case, go to pg. xix in the Preface for some pre-book comments about me from two of them. These won’t be easy for you to read but it’s the continuing silence that is the saddest part and I wish I understood why. I pray that this might change and not just for my benefit but theirs as well.”

Ed: “Speaking for your mother, we hope so too and thanks for sharing your thoughts with us in this way. We look forward to future conversations about your memoir.”

Me: “Trust me, there will be others since I plan to go through the rest of the book with you in upcoming blogs. It’s been great ‘being’ with you once again!  Love … Bill”

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Comments ( 2 )

  • W.E.Wynne

    This is an interesting approach, Bill. I could “hear your Mom” with some of her thoughts and questions. A little more of a stretch for me with your Dad because of never actually knowing him except for the stories that have been shared over the years. It was kind of like sitting around the kitchen table listening to a conversation between you and your parents, as a silent observer. From that perspective it, “sounds like” you may be opening up Pandora’s Box for what could lead to a whole new level of communication and awareness between you. 🙂

  • W.E.Wynne

    Thanks … opening up conversations is most definitely the intent!

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