I was raised in Mishawaka, Indiana in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Mishawaka got its name from Princess Mishawaka of the Potawatomi tribe. Princess Mishawka was revered in our town; she was on the city emblem, police cars and the city sign coming into town. Now, I cannot be certain but I do not believe that there were any members of the Potawatomi tribe that lived in Mishawaka. There was one African American family and one Chinese American family that I remember living in Mishawaka during my childhood and teen years; the rest of us were white or passed as white.
Mishawaka is right next to South Bend, Indiana. South Bend had a sizable population of African Americans. Therefore, folks in Mishawaka could drive to South Bend and see people different from them and then return to the confines of their beloved city to settle in with folks like themselves. So, I guess, Mishawaka was not really culturally isolated, except for when we were in our homes or town. This system seemed to work when I grew up; no real turmoil or breaches in the established system.
This is not to say that Mishawakains were not proud of their families of color; because we were! Our families of color were exceptional and were treated as if they were almost white. They were the models of persons of color that we white folks grew up admiring. They knew that they were expected to assimilate into the white culture and to give up their cultures to become like one of us. They knew the expectations of interaction and the families of color knew more about us than we knew about them. The system seemed equitable to everyone and no one was treated differently; we were all just one big happy community, until the Civil Rights Movement caught us off guard.
It never occurred to me, or many students, to study or learn about African American or Chinese American culture; it was never made important and it was not part of the curriculum of school. Cultural differences were not discussed or celebrated. We all knew where everyone really belonged. We were polite and caring and never said racist things unless we were with our families or white friends. No one dared to rock the boat or suggest change; it wasn’t part of the deal.
I really thought that this was the way the world was supposed to work because I grew up reasonably happy in Mishawaka. I had many friends, fell in love a couple of times, and went off to college. In college, I met people who were different from me and it changed me. It created dissonance in my Mishawakian belief system, cracks in the workable system. I read books about different cultures, race relations and began to branch out into different groups for support and to better understand the gift of differences. I slowly, over the course of a few years, began to see the benefit of being white in America. I really did not understand the system of white privilege until a few years back, but now know that my Mishawaka experience was solidly white privilege. Mostly unconsciously practiced and not generally acknowledged.
I have learned that my passive racism that served me so well growing up was not what I wanted to be, not what I wanted my son’s to become, not what is right for America. Eliminating racism is a commitment for me and working with people who are the same as me and different from me to dismantle the system of white privilege. I work to form alliances and coalitions of white folks and people of color to work for social justice .
Today, I am far removed from the Mishawaka that I knew growing up and this is good. But if I wouldn’t have grown up with systemic, hidden and enforced systems of privilege then I would not have the understanding that I have today for change. I have the first hand knowledge of experience with a system that was established before I was born, a system of privilege that benefits me whether I want to participate or drop out. In Mishawaka, it was a great sea of white, punctuated by color that wasn’t really acknowledged except behind closed doors. Persons of color became as white as they possibility could to fit into the grand plan of things in Mishawaka.
I don’t condemn Mishawaka for the way it was when I grew up, the system was there and we just passively played the game. We were taught to be who we were, who we are now, and our teachings were reinforced every day in our homes, schools, churches, media and friendships. Many of the folks that I grew up with also have good memories of Mishawaka and have also spent their lives fighting for the elimination of racism. You see, being white is not a bad thing, it is what you do with your whiteness that really matters.
More to be posted at a later date on growing up white in Mishawaka.