My father’s father was an illegal immigrant, his mother a domestic worker. My mother’s mother was unmarried. My mother was raised in foster care. My father is an alcoholic. My family needed welfare and food stamps to survive after my parents split up. We lived in apartments where both cockroaches and eviction notices were normal. My husband is an immigrant. My daughter was born in a foreign country.
So why is no one threatening us with deportation, calling us cultural degenerates, accusing us of being takers and telling my husband and daughter to go back to their own country?
Because my father’s parents were Swedish. My mother’s mother was of British descent.
Had my father’s parents been Mexican, many would question their descendants’ right to live here. My father, who after he began drinking rarely saw his children and never paid child support, would be seen as an irresponsible Latino rather than just a garden-variety bum. Had my mother’s mother been black, her out-of-wedlock pregnancy would have been a symptom of the decline of the black family.
Because my family was white, our reliance on public assistance was seen as a helping hand, not a cycle of dependency. My husband’s British accent is perceived as charming rather than threatening. Because my daughter inherited his blond hair and green eyes, her unusual first name is “so cute!” rather than foreign.
America has elected a president who stigmatizes and stereotypes minorities for all the same things that my white family has been for years: Immigrants, people with accents, who fall victim to substance abuse, have babies out of wedlock and commit crimes (My father tried to rob a bank. I don’t talk about it much), who live on welfare and food stamps.
By pretending the ills of our society afflict only minorities, we will not only stigmatize those minorities, we will also ignore white poverty.
When our president-elect told black voters, “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs,” he ignored not only the fact that 75 percent of blacks and Hispanics are not living in poverty, but also that nearly 19 million white people are.
We cannot hope to fix this country’s problems without acknowledging that whites and minorities both suffer from them, and we certainly cannot be great unless we free ourselves from the bigotry that blames minorities for our society’s problems.
You may notice there was one grandparent I left unmentioned: my mother’s father.
Until a few months ago, none of us knew who he was. Thanks to recent DNA testing and a cousin with a passion for genealogy, we now know his name was Edward Gaylord Howell, and that he was of black, Native American and white ancestry. He graduated from Yale University and went to medical school at Howard University.
His wife, Christine Moore Howell (not my grandmother) was a noted businesswoman who studied chemistry in Paris and founded her own line of cosmetics and hair-care products. They lived in New Brunswick, N.J., the town where my grandmother grew up, and where my mother was born in 1933. The Howells were well-traveled and were friends of Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois.
I have no idea why this intelligent, educated and cosmopolitan man slept with my rather insular grandmother, but I’m glad he did. Now I know where my mother got her brains; it certainly was not her mother’s side of the family.
The sequel to my story is that my mother, while working full time as a nurse’s aide and raising her children, was ultimately able (with the help of her union’s educational benefits) to become an RN. My sister, brother and I all eventually got college degrees and have good jobs.
So it turns out that what helped my family break free from the debilitating cycle of white poverty and dependency was the genetic legacy of my multi-racial grandfather.
Oh, the irony.
Terri Blom Crocker, who recently got her doctorate from the University of Kentucky, is author of “The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World War.”