To what extent do you own your inheritance?
Life is cumulative. At the end of our lives, we take all that we’ve earned, learned, and collected and pass it along to those that carry on our legacy. Recently, while doing research on my family like so many do on the internet, I pieced together parts of my family history. Decades of census reports track the progress of my ancestors from their arrival to America from Europe and Canada in the early 1900’s through the steel mills of central New England, each generation moving up in education and class.
My family history embodies America’s promise.
My great-grandfather, Anthony Golaszewski, an immigrant from Poland arrived at Ellis Island in 1907. With the help of a relative, he landed a job in a steel mill in Worcester, MA where he lived for the rest of his life. Like many immigrants at the time, he lived on U.S. soil for decades before becoming a citizen.
In 1938, Anthony’s daughter, Helen, married Wallace Polewaczyk, who also worked in Worcester’s steel mills, and moved into a triple-decker home in the Polish neighborhood. While they never owned property, they lived a modest life that fulfilled the dreams that carried Anthony across the Atlantic.
Anthony’s granddaughter, Irene, in 1969 married my father, John Cormier, a second generation American of Italian and French Canadian heritage. My mother graduated from high school and my father earned two master’s degrees. Together they ascended to the next level of the American dream, purchasing their first home and, years later, a second home by the ocean shortly after their fourth child was born (that’s me).
My research also uncovered a few painful parts of my family history.
My older brother was arrested for cocaine possession in 1989. As an 11-year-old, I read about his arrest in our local paper, a traumatic moment that altered my understanding of addiction and its impact on our family.
Between the lines of my family history lies an unspoken but potent truth in my inheritance. More than my thinning crown or prominently bridged nose, a defining characteristic has been handed down to me through my ancestry.
My family history embodies white America’s promise.
As I track the progress of my family, each data point has an implicit racial component that adds to the legacy I inherited. While we’re a family that has few material heirlooms and even fewer trust funds, I benefit from an inheritance that has provided me with a level of comfort, access and power directly tied to our whiteness.
It’s not shocking or newsworthy to hear that race impacts one’s lived experience or privilege. That seems obvious, though it’s not always acknowledged or accepted by my fellow white brothers and sisters. While it’s true that my life will forever be linked to the economic stability and supportive environment in which I was raised, it’s not simply about wealth and asset accumulation. It’s broader than that. And all of it can be tied to the fact that my ancestors were – and I am – white.
When Anthony came to America of his own accord in 1907, he depended upon the coterie of Polish relatives and familial acquaintances to start his life and find housing in the New World. This network of support is as American as Ellis Island and as critical to immigrants today as it was to Anthony. Even though Massachusetts was one of the first states to ban slavery and repeal Jim Crow laws, housing discrimination based on race was still legal until 1948, and continued through racist practices like redlining for decades after that. Anthony had access to reliable housing which aided his ability to get a steady job that sustained him and his family throughout his life.
My grandparents could marry in 1938 because they were both white and born in a state without anti-miscegenation laws. Massachusetts’ infamous “1913 law” that effectively banned interracial marriage was not fully repealed until 2008. As a gay man, I am keenly aware of the importance of marriage, and the economic stability and social acceptance that it can provide. Helen and Wallace had access to rights and benefits that were denied to mixed race couples.
When my parents married in 1969, they both had access to education that helped them advance their careers. At the same time, Boston area schools were failing generations of African-Americans (see also: the 1974 Boston busing riots). My siblings and I went to public elementary schools that continued to struggle to fully integrate in the 1970’s and 80’s.
In 1988, the so-called “war on drugs” targeted communities with a racial bias that disproportionally incarcerated African-Americans. Federal penalties for crack cocaine were 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine. Had my brother been caught with crack instead of powder cocaine, our family would likely have been drained financially by legal fees and emotionally by frequent trips to prison for years or decades.
This is not to say that my family was free of struggle and challenges. When Anthony arrived in this country, Polish immigrants were overwhelmingly poor and worked in grueling conditions in industrial factories – which undoubtedly contributed to the high rates of alcoholism, violence, and domestic abuse in their community and within my family.
So, what now? What do I – and others who recognize the lived and inherited components of being white – do now?
For starters, we can admit this openly and push back when we hear comments about boot straps and self-made men (spoiler alert: they don’t exist). We can find our own ways of authentically owning our racial inheritance, including fighting racism and white supremacy.
The question posed to us is more about the future than the past. It’s not enough to simply acknowledge the privilege that comes with being white. What we do with this perspective throughout our lives will be the legacy we leave behind. Awareness effects action.
Because life is cumulative. And what we pass along will define our legacy.