II: The Sadness & Privilege of White Men

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Senator Obama’s comments about Black fathers got me thinking about my own father, a descendent of the Dutch West Indies traders of the 1600’s whose own father at the turn of the 20th century chose to homestead in Washington state over dreaded work in a New England mill. Entering the job market at the height of the Depression, Dad landed not with the engineering job he felt he deserved but as a pipefitter, a job he was embarrassed by all his life.

So there he sat at the dinner table after work, drink in gnarled hand, a complicated man who would never be nominated for father of the year. Marred by economic circumstance and a -stubborn, shy temperament complete with hidden lisp, he never managed to escape the working class life he hated, nor the kind of bitterness that slipped into rage now and again with a son just a little too loud and much too boisterous for his brooding nature.

But he had his own home and a plot of land that made him proud. Buoyed by the fixed mortgage rates of less than 3% extended to all white working class men of that time, he was able to grab a piece of the American Dream for himself and his family. It never would have dawned on him that he benefited from the structural racism that denied those same loans to black and brown people, or that the union job he despised purposely excluded men of color who simply wanted a chance to work an eight-hour day.

I argued a lot with my father about many things, mostly about times I had to be home, grades on report cards, but sometimes about things like fairness and hard work, too. In hindsight, he was always a pain about using the family car, but he could be pretty good about treating others fairly and that hard work could be its own reward.

That said, sitting across me at the kitchen table, his lunch pail between us (always containing a sandwich or two with “lettuce and anything that goes with it”), he would have looked at me as if I were nuts if I’d told him he benefited from privilege. So unhappy with his life’s turn, deferential to a fault around his economic betters, burdened by a lisp that kept him quieter than most, a wall would have closed around him so fast that breaking it down would have been impossible.

Starting with my father from the truth of his and other white men’s structural and historical racial privilege in his story would be a lot like what happened to ‘Wrong Way’ Riegels, the football player who made a remarkable run leading to points …for the wrong team. The run had been great, the points just went to the other side. Part of the brilliance in Senator Obama’s talk on race is that he made room for white men and women like my father without denying the horrible and continuing legacy of this nation’s racism. He has shown us that holding all those truths together can make for a richer conversation.

If I had known how to talk to my father way back when, I might have tried to hear the pain in his own story before I moved on to the importance of fairness and a genuine equal playing field for everyone, and what can happen if that’s denied. He might have been okay with that.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on July 25, 2008 11:21 AM.

Open Space In Africa was the previous entry in this blog.

III: The Misplaced Longing for Scarlett O'Hara is the next entry in this blog.

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