I have been married twice and am lucky enough to love, admire and respect my in-laws in both cases. I am particularly in awe of my first husband’s grandparents. If you want to know what true grit looks like, look at Ellis and Lucille.
Their families came to the eastern plains of Colorado in covered wagons. They settled near the sand hills of Wray, Colorado. Here, Ellis and Lucille met, married and started raising both wheat and a family. The wheat failed, so Ellis took a job with the railroad.
One day, while loading heavy machinery, a chain broke. A metal frame fell on Ellis. It broke his back, paralyzing him from the waist down. At the time of his accident Lucille was pregnant — again. This was a time before societal safety nets.
When families fell on hard times, they depended on the largesse of friends and family.
To say that their lives were hard does not even begin to describe the situation. The family lived on mush, fried mush, and fruit and mush.
Over time, Ellis opened a saw sharpening shop in their garage.
Lucille ran a flower shop out of the front room. Every child in the family found work as soon as they could. At one time every paper route in Wray was covered by one of their children. They delivered the morning papers and came home to a breakfast of mush before school while their snow-covered mittens dried on lines over a wood stove. But every morning they got to school.
One of the children earned a doctorate and became president of the National Science Teachers Association; another got a master’s degree; a third had a degree in engineering and worked in the nuclear power industry; a fourth worked the family farm and a fifth stayed home to take care of his parents, while achieving state and national office in the Lion’s Club.
Every one of these children used their first paychecks to buy Ellis and Lucille household appliances to make their lives a bit easier.
One of my fondest memories of Lucille is one Christmas when all her children and grandchildren came home for a rare family reunion. On Christmas Eve an array of mattresses had been dragged into the living room, covered with blankets, sleeping bags, pillows and made into a dormitory for an easy dozen grandchildren. A group of us were watching the children bounce, crawl, wrestle, tumble and giggle their way from mattress to mattress. Lucille watched the chaos. Then, this woman who had known daily hunger, unending toil, constant worry, struggle and uncertainty started to laugh and she said, “I am a wealthy woman.”
No part of Ellis and Lucille’s life was “privileged.” They were given nothing. They earned everything.
To imply that, by virtue of their whiteness, they spent their life reclining on cushions while bonbons were tossed in their mouths is not just insulting, it is a disgusting lie.
But there is another side to this issue, and right now it amounts to a great deal. For every hurdle Ellis and Lucille had to clear, every obstacle they had to climb over, every hardship they had to endure, the one they did not have to deal with was racism. They never had to face the hardships of their life on top of the hardship of systemic racial bias. For as hard as their life was, it would have been immeasurably harder had they been black, Latino or Asian.
And that is the ugliness of racism, subtle or overt, in this country.
Call that an advantage of being white in a white country. Call it an advantage produced by an accident of birth. Call it wrong.
Recognize it, change it, correct it.
But do not call it privilege.
End racism to keep the faith.
Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in McAllen. She writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.