COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY STUDY ON WHITE PEOPLE The Reminiscences of Sheila Wood
INCITE Columbia University 2017
The following oral history is the result of a recorded interview with Interviewee Sheila Wood conducted by Interviewer Full Name on September 24th, 2017. This interview is part of the Columbia University Study on White People. The reader is asked to bear in mind that s/he is reading a verbatim transcript of the spoken word, rather than written prose.
Session # 1 Interviewee: Sheila Wood
Location: Battle Creek, MI
Interviewer: Whitney Dow
Date: September 24th, 2017
Q: So first of all, can you tell me your name, where you’re from, what you do? A little about yourself.
Wood: [15:14:42] So I’m Sheila Wood and I come from Battle Creek, Michigan. We are business owners and I’m a school teacher. I teach high school English. I have two kids, seventeen and fifteen. I also have a stepdaughter who is twenty-nine and she has two children; so I’m a grandmother.
Q: You don’t look like a grandmother. I did not expect that.
Wood: [laughs] Thank you.
Wood: Thanks. I’m fifty-two.
Q: So you were born and raised in Battle Creek. Can you tell me a little bit about the Battle Creek you were born and raised in? Where you lived, what your neighborhood was like, what it was like growing up here.
Wood – 1 – 4
Wood: [15:15:20] So I have to back up a second. I was actually born elsewhere but I live here. I was born in South Haven, Michigan, a small town, a lake community town of 6000 people. I remember growing up there. It was a time of racial disturbance. I remember being at a football game when I was just a kid and the police being there and there was racial violence and I was terrified. So I do remember that. I also remember that in my hometown, blacks lived in an area of town called “the Zone.” And the Zone was not a real great place. It was by the schools but it was definitely a designated area and it really had that feel. It felt wrong at the time, you know? It felt sad. It also was much more of a comfortable thing than I think it would be today for me. In other words, I just grew up understanding that it was that way. And I didn’t feel bad about myself for living in that kind of place and accommodating that point of view, of having people cordoned off, so to speak.
But there was a teacher that I had, Mr. Garman, Art Garman. He was an English teacher and he was—he had a stutter. He was just a person that I was drawn to. He was really a very good teacher of African-American literature. At the time I was stunned by my desire to actually study African-American literature. I really considered it. I also had this opinion that was a little bit different about the people in my community, my fellow students who were black. I noticed that while there were things that were concerns at the time that are relative to poverty, like crime and drugs, I found that my white friends were using drugs much more regularly. And I felt like a little bit jealous of some of those—like, what I saw happening on the weekends in the black community were that kids were getting together and they were not doing some of that stuff as much. You know? They were genuinely together. Their parks were full. Different generations
Wood – 1 – 5 were out there together. That’s not something that we were experiencing as whites. And so I saw them having some advantages in a way, some real strong advantages. That was my childhood.
Q: It sounds like during your childhood you were sort of aware of your own race and that there were different ways. And you were also aware that you were different, that your life was different than the other kids your age who were not white. But that you didn’t really feel that you actually, that it was actually connected to you, in a sense. It was almost as though you saw yourself outside it. Is that what you’re saying?
Wood: [15:18:40] Well, I was too young to really separate myself from my reality and to take a distant look at it. However, I’m the daughter of an immigrant German so—my German mother was raised in World War II during the war and as an immigrant mother, we were actually poor. My mom was a waitress and I was the daughter of a broken family and an only child. So I remember my mom having a real struggle with black people, especially when we had—we had a duplex. And our home, we had an apartment and we would rent that out. I remember my mom literally being on the phone and saying to potential people who would call about the apartment, “Are you Black?” Yeah, really. So I knew that that was her value. That was her concern.
So I remember one time saying to her two things. One, I had a friend, a black friend at school and I invited her over and she was a very popular girl and I had her come over quite a bit. But there was some concern in my friends circle that this girl was stealing from everyone in the group. From their lockers and from different things and there was this kind of what I thought of as maybe a witch hunt going on. So my mom said, “We’re going to do something. We’re going
Wood – 1 – 6 to put this $20 bill under a bowl in the kitchen. And then we’re going to go upstairs and we’re going to see if she takes it.” And we literally went upstairs and we came down and she had taken it. It was one of those things where my mom compassionately called her out and said, “Look. This is what’s going on and we’ve caught you.” And she burst into tears and she was crying and she was, in retrospect, very manipulative. Like she ended up committing crimes in her adult life and such and dying young. But she definitely was found to have been doing this criminal behavior.
And so that was a blow to me. [sigh] “I really thought you were different. I didn’t think you fit into that mold of people as people characterized your race.” And then, cut forward to when I graduated high school at seventeen and I moved to Seattle, Washington. My mom had a tenant, her first black tenant. She had said on the phone before I left, “Are you black?” and I said, “Mom, you can’t do that. You’re going to be sued, arrested. You can’t do that.” She said, “You know what, Sheila? Literally I’m going to trust this woman. She’s a single mother. She’s had her job for a while. And I agree with you. I need to not.” This beautifully well-dressed woman came and lived, moved into the apartment, never paid rent. Never.
So these were two blows that came and they’re very vivid for me and they really reinforce a negative, but I also at the same time—I’m now a teacher and I work with students. We have almost an all-white school but we have kids who come to our school for the programs from other places where there’s poverty and poor, bad situations. They are my—I take them under my wing. I want them to have respect. I see them assimilating to a white culture and I see them eventually get tired of that, trying to be people that they’re not. It makes me sad and they write essays about
Wood – 1 – 7 it. “I saw myself changing to be like the white culture around me and losing a part of myself. And now I’m proud of who I am.”
I still believe people are individuals and that you have to take each person as an individual. You cannot say, just because that girl stole from us, doesn’t mean everybody’s going to steal from us. Or just because that woman didn’t pay rent doesn’t mean everybody’s not going to pay rent. And it just reinforces for me an idea that—I almost resent a little bit being classified if I say something that I observe that seems to fit with some sort of stereotype out there, but I like to go by what I see. Individually. One on one, one person at a time.
Q: I really appreciate you sharing those two stories. Those are both really vivid and instructive. One of the questions I wanted to ask is that if your mother was a German immigrant and she came through the war and saw some of the result of prejudice, where did her distrust and dislike of black people come from do you think?
Wood: [15:23:40] Well, I can tell you that she did witness people being persecuted for being this or that, being Jewish or being whatever. But she valued work. Work was her—I mean, this is a European German ethic. And when she came over here, for whatever reason, where there was a great number of unemployed, we were “Welfare Wonderland” here in Michigan. That was the phrase that they coined for us. There were many, many people who didn’t seem to be working. She maybe couldn’t piece together or didn’t even want to piece together—didn’t even want to listen to anybody who wasn’t working, to say “Why are you not working?” There’s no answer that would be good enough. Absolutely none. There would be no answer good enough. So part of
Wood – 1 – 8 that is still in me. Part of me is “Look, I know you might have been a banker, but if you need to work at Starbucks or you need to work at something else, you need to work. And if you’re not working, that’s on you to some extent.”
And I know that that’s an overstatement. I know that logically. But I think we could be doing more to work. I’ve seen lots of situations where people aren’t working that have their nails done beautifully or that they have their hair done beautifully and they wear nice clothes and they drive nice cars and they’re not working. And I resent that just like my mom did.
Q: And are all people that you see that have nice nails done, for the purpose of this conversation, are we assuming that those people are not white that we’re talking about?
Wood: [laughs] Okay. You know—no. Yes and no. I have to be honest. I was envisioning people that I’ve worked with who are black. I’m not going to lie. I did. But I one hundred percent think it’s an individual and that white people, black people, probably more white and black people, than I think of in terms of Asian or Hispanic. I think of Hispanics as being really hardworking people. Whether it’s legal or not, they’re working their butts off I think. But I do think of white people and black people as being classes or races of people who sometimes fit into that pretty easily.
Q: It’s funny that even though you say that consciously you recognize that it’s both white and black people, why do you think that when you were telling that story you had the image of black people in your head?
Wood – 1 – 9
Wood: Partly because we’re talking about black and white today. At least that’s my sense. But also, I do believe and I know—
Q: I’m sorry. Can we put my questions, so we have a little context for the answer?
Wood: [15:26:38] Okay. The reason why I think I tend to see an image instantly of a black person when I think about people who are dressed well, have nice nails, and drive nice cars and so on who aren’t employed, the reason why that image of a black person came to mind is because I believe that these are some of my conditioned biases. I don’t know that they’re a hundred percent based in reality or if they are partly based on a lot of noise that reinforced that throughout my life, especially when I grew up and where I grew up. I will say that I do think that’s possible, that I’m biased in ways that could be unfair.
Q: I want to talk a little bit about you for a second. When you think of yourself, how would you describe yourself? What is your identity?
Wood: [15:27:47] I think of myself as an independent thinker who’s often finding myself at odds with a large number of the ways people think. But I am drawn to that. I am drawn to understanding what the conflict is about. So I tend not to attack anyone. But I really use like social media to draw people out, to ask questions. My posts will often end up becoming a little bit heated and becoming a place for people to—but I try to tamp that down. I just try to pull out what people are thinking and why they’re thinking those things. I like to think about why things
Wood – 1 – 10 are the way they are. Part of that is a little bit of a problem-solver in me. I like to solve problems and figure out what we have in common versus what we have in opposition.
Q: What about how you think of yourself, your identity? You’re a woman. You’re a mother. You’re a teacher. You’re a wife. When you think about the hierarchy of your identity, how would you describe it?
Wood: [15:29:09] Oh! When I think about the hierarchy of my identity, I think about myself as a woman first. I think about myself as—it’s close between a teacher and a mom and a wife because my tenure as a mom is sort of shrinking with my kids getting older. I mean, I’m always going to be a mom but I’m a mom second. I’m a wife. And then I’m a teacher. And then, I would have to say—I would have said Christian in the past but I’m struggling [laughs] so I can’t really identify myself as anything else other than those things.
Q: Why do you think that you don’t include your race or whiteness into that hierarchy of identity?
Wood: [15:30:17] I don’t really put white in that identity although I think it’s because I am not challenged racially at all. So it doesn’t come into my—if I were asked what am I, what gives me power, I would have said white. If I was asked what gives me power, it wouldn’t have been as a woman or a mother or any of the things that I identify myself as. [laughs]
Wood – 1 – 11 Q: That’s interesting though that the thing that essentially, you’re saying gives you the most agency in the world is the thing, something you don’t include in your own understanding of the hierarchy of your identity.
Wood: [15:31:03] That’s right. I don’t think of my—yes, where I get my power is not how I identify myself. That is very interesting. I’d have to think about that.
Q: And do you think that as a woman, and that you don’t get power from that, is that—are you saying that—which do you think has had the bigger impact on your life: The fact that you’re a woman or the fact that you’re white?
Wood: [15:31:38] [pause] Well, I think that my whiteness has been a bigger factor in my empowerment and who I am. I think that I could have had things a lot different had I not been white. And as a woman, that’s probably second to whiteness in terms of what has given me power.
Q: How often do you think about your race?
Wood: [15:32:08] Mm, not very often anymore because I work in a place where it’s almost all white. Certainly the literature I teach is mostly white literature and I take a little bit of an exception to that. I think there needs to be more comprehensive race and points of view. But, no, not very often because I am white. I live in a mostly-white neighborhood. Our school is almost
Wood – 1 – 12 all white. There’s no one in my family of any other race. I will be honest. I sometimes long for more diversity in my friend circle, I look for, but there isn’t much. That’s probably why.
Q: Can you put a little context in just the beginning of the answer again?
Wood: I think about my own race when I think about things like—is that enough? [laughs]
Q: I think it’s interesting that—how much do you feel—can you describe a situation where you became aware of your race, whether positively or negatively?
Wood: [15:33:42] Yes. The first time I went to Chinatown in another city, it was the first time I experienced being the only person who wasn’t the majority. So that had an impact on me. I felt like, “Oh, this is what it’s like. Okay. I see what it’s like.” Also, working in an inner-city school one time, where there was, you know, mostly a black population. For a short period of time, I worked there and that was another occurrence when I used to feel that way. But I really, yeah, I felt my whiteness then.
Q: How attached are you, do you feel, to your own whiteness? How much do you care about it? How attached are you to it?
Wood: Attached? Do you mean –
Wood – 1 – 13 Q: Like, let’s say you walk out that back door, there’s a fifty-fifty chance you will emerge not white, you walk out that other door—
Q: —you’re guaranteed to emerge white. Would you take that chance? Would you say, “I’m definitely going through this door” or “Actually, I don’t care”?
Wood: [15:34:57] Well, I think if I could walk out the door and I could be anything other than white, I’m open to that experience. Certainly, at this time where it feels like this is a period of, I hope, growth and understanding. I think I can walk out that door and even if I lose power, I still will have the power of one to be an example and to live a good life. I think I would lose some privileges certainly but I also think I would gain something. I could stand to gain something.
Q: That’s interesting that you’d be willing to lose all those privileges that you, possibly lose the privileges that you talked about before.
Wood: Which ones surprise you?
Q: No, I just think—I asked that question to a lot of people and I get a variety of ideas from a lot of people who say, “Absolutely not!” Now, if you asked me, I’d say “Give up being a white male in this culture? I wouldn’t voluntarily give it up.”
Wood – 1 – 14 Wood: [15:36:04] Isn’t it a burden being a white male in this day and age? I mean, there’s a lot of negativity toward—there are a lot of people I think who take a white male or a white female who fit this sort of middle class criteria or upper middle class, yeah, and who put people like that aside and say, “Well, you’re obviously extreme in some negative way.” It’s much more popular to be somebody who is like “Oh, I’m all for equality. I’m all for coming down on the police department because there’s been violence against them.” I mean, there’s all –Transgender. People becoming—oh, what’s the word? When you go from one gender to another? Transitioning. I support all those people. But, I mean, as a white person? And certainly, if you are a Christian which I’m at various degrees of right now. But if you were a Christian? Talk about being oppressed. You are oppressed. It’s not a hundred percent of a picnic. I know there are benefits certainly but I don’t think people take the time to think about that oppression.
Q: Well, talk to me about the oppression. I’m not trying to—
Wood: [15:37:19] Okay. As a Christian person I have in the past felt like I didn’t dare say the word God or church or Christianity or anything because instantly people feel very free to say, even in my classroom, “Stop. I don’t have to hear that.” Okay? Students will say to you, “Don’t even mention God to me. I don’t even want to listen.” Okay? But if we said that to somebody who was talking about race or who was talking about their right to be a different gender? Somehow, we’re all in on that. It’s “cool” even and definitely socially acceptable to be a part of that conversation, to be a proponent of that kind of expression of the self whether we can relate to it or not. Let’s all in on that. Let’s surround ourselves around these people.
Wood – 1 – 15 And I, myself? I want people to be happy. I’m behind that. I want people to express and be themselves and so on. But I do resent that as a person of privilege or even as a religious person that there is an oppression that is very concrete.
Q: But I also would say that that’s also—you’re an educator. Many of the circles you travel are liberal. There’s a lot of spaces where being a white Christian would not be oppressed. I travel a lot and I go to a lot of places that are very conservative, very supportive, that I feel as someone who is like an atheist—a northeastern guy who lives in downtown Sodom is definitely not embraced or really considered as the Other.
Q: But I certainly take your point. I think that that’s something that I think there is—I think that what you’re saying is that in your educated degree, various degrees—you’re an English teacher. So in that sort of universe being a Christian, believing in God, can be problematic and you feel it’s not afforded the same respect as other Others or other otherness.
Wood: [15:39:46] Yes. And otherness is the word we’re talking about really. Whether we’re talking about black or white or religion or anything else, we’re talking about otherness and how we treat “others.” So it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about black or white or anything. It’s who’s in our tribe. And how is our tribe treated by other tribes? And I think that’s part of the problem, is that we need to change what we call a tribe. We have these traditional ways of thinking about who we are in a circle with, who’s on our team. And I think that idea goes really
Wood – 1 – 16 back to the beginning of time where you’re looking at—people always looked for some people to assimilate with because it was a safety thing. There’s safety when you’re with your people because you understand each other and you have these commonalities and so together there’s a power. I think we’ve just got in the habit of saying black as a tribe or white as a tribe or Catholic as a tribe or something else. Whereas we need to change those definitions of what a tribe is.
I think it might have more to do with education and beliefs. That’s why it’s hard to talk on a federal level about mandating this or mandating that or political correctness. It feels as though we need to be allowed to talk about—I can talk about Michigan, southwest Michigan. I can’t really speak to Boston or New York City. I can’t speak to those. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve been to many places where I’m embraced even though I’m very different. But this whole sense of—in the United States I think we really are kind of tribal.
Q: So I want to come back to something you said earlier about your students and how they were feeling that they were being subsumed by white culture. I’m just wondering about white culture. Is there white culture [unclear] and can you talk about what that is?
Wood: [15:41:49] Okay. When I talk about my students who are black who seem to be assimilating into white culture, I’m talking about students who don’t speak up, who stay quiet. They don’t share their points of view. They seem to be a third of themselves in my classroom. Whereas, when class gets out, they move into their corners. White and then blacks seem to assimilate. They are probably only forty blacks in my school of 1000. Okay? Yeah, I know. They
Wood – 1 – 17 tend to assimilate a lot. They’re also not doing very well in my school at all. They’re doing lower than the state average which is shocking to me because we have so much to support them.
But I’m thinking about the students I’ve had who have just been so quiet. And I see them with their black friends and they’re not. So they’re just trying to lay low under the radar, not be proud, not be whoever they are but just keep that to themselves. And those who don’t, those who really do assimilate, have reported to me that they don’t feel included. They’re friends in school but they’re never invited outside of school. They’re never at the party. Not all of them but as a group of people, they’re not really assimilated into the school. And I just think they only show up a portion of themselves because they feel like they can’t, they won’t be accepted in the school otherwise.
Q: Well, tell me more about white culture. Is there white culture and how do you describe it?
Wood: [15:43:38] White culture at my school has a lot to do with money, has a lot to do with privilege. A lot of my kids at my school come from a lake community and have a lot of privilege. I can tell you what the students say about each other; and that is that they’re partying using a lot of drugs that they could be privileged to use because they have means or they have access. I don’t see it. They all seem like normal kids and, in fact, I would say nice kids and I’m sure they are. But they definitely walk around pretty sure of themselves. They’ve got the world right there. And they know it. They bring something to the school, toward teachers even that might be a little bit—“I make a lot more money than you, my family’s quite a lot richer than my teachers.” You know. We have some of that.
Wood – 1 – 18
Whereas the black students who are there, I can’t categorize all of them because obviously they’re so different. I have some that really are close to me who really come from an inner-city situation and so we’re constantly just finding a way to bring them up, to help them out, to help them with their struggles. Some of the kids will come after school and they feel really sad about the fact that they get rejected by white kids. They try really hard.
Q: What about white culture in you? Do you feel connected to white culture?
Wood: [15:45:26] Yes. I felt, even walking in here, like “Good God! I’m so white.” I’m wearing a denim dress that seems very white. My hair is blonde. I look probably like a soccer mom. I have been a soccer mom. I think I’m so white. And I really feel like—you ask me if I feel my white culture. Yes, I do. I think it’s in the way I speak. At least I feel as though that is representative of my white culture, the way I speak. But then again, I’m speaking about the part of white culture that I feel a part of. And the part of white culture that I feel a part of is a very successful, privileged—I’m not bragging. I’m just saying that that’s where I feel comfortable. That’s where I feel like I belong. Whereas, I know many white people who don’t feel that way. So I don’t know if I could call it white so much as a class issue or an education issue. I’m not rich. I’m definitely not rich. I’m a teacher. My husband owns a bicycle store. So we’re not rich. But we are respected and we do feel like we have a voice in the community. I don’t feel held back by anything and that, I think, is a part of whiteness for sure. My kids are great kids. They’re successful. They’re positive.
Wood – 1 – 19 So I feel empowered by all of that. And all of that does fit in with the white “stereotype” I think. But I don’t by any means—again, individuals. There are so many white people who are not any of those things and probably don’t feel empowered because I think it has more to do with money or education.
Q: Have you ever consciously used your whiteness to get something that you wanted or take advantage of a situation?
Wood: Take advantage?
Q: Yes, have you ever consciously used how you know people perceive you as this white, middle class, respected—to impact the situation or to get something out of it?
Wood: [15:47:53] This may or may not answer that question but I remember one time when I was in college I was taking a religion class and I decided I was going to go to an all-black Baptist church with a friend of mine who was from France. And so my French friend and I were deciding what to wear and she said, “Well, I don’t think we should dress up because black people in America are poor and so we don’t want to be elite.” And I said, “Well, let’s err on the side of respect and, just in case, let’s dress nicely and so we’ll err on the side of respect.” And so we went into this all-black church.
It was Mount Zion Baptist Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and it was packed. And the people? We were the only white people that I could see. I remember when we walked in there were white
Wood – 1 – 20 gloves, dresses, hats, beautiful, and literally, they opened their arms to us. They literally just [gesture] like this, you know? Just welcomed us. I felt so much respect. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to be—I don’t want to feel privilege. I don’t want anyone to feel “What are they doing here?” And I never felt any of that. I felt very embraced. That was a really powerful lesson for me. To your question, can you remind me what your question was?
Q: Have you ever consciously used your race to get what you want?
Wood: [15:49:26] So that’s a time when—I walked in. I didn’t feel like I’d be turned away but I was just hoping. It’s kind of the opposite of what you’re asking really. I felt like I hope I wasn’t going to be held back because of my race. I wasn’t going to be treated suspiciously because I’m walking in and I’m white. It wasn’t the case.
Now to say did I use my race—[pause] You know, I’ll have to come back to that because I’m not thinking of a situation. I can think of situations where I might feel privilege or might feel like I could use my race. I feel like if I went some place and there was something going on I would be less [pause] suspected. You know? Of wrongdoing.
Q: So you have the expectation of innocence?
Wood: [15:50:38] Yes. Expectation of being trusted just based on how I present myself. I feel like people are going to trust me. Isn’t that something? It really is. And I know it’s not true. I know it’s not true when someone’s black. I know. I’ve seen—I was standing in a Franklin Covey
Wood – 1 – 21 store one time. This was ten years ago probably. There was a man who walked in and I walked in and the person was helping me. The black man who walked in, nice looking, professional looking man but he called out the sales person for not helping him based on race. And that was just one of those situations where I thought, “I don’t think that had anything to do with race.” I just think that they were helping me and that there wasn’t anybody available at that moment. I don’t think it’s because I was white that they waited on me. I think it was just I was the first one in.
Q: A couple of things. I want to go back to your religion. You seem very conflicted about your religion and Christianity. Can you tell me a little about the arc of your relationship to Christianity?
Wood: [15:52:07] I was raised by an agnostic mother who had been Catholic before the war. Then her family left the religion, left the faith, the Catholic Church. My grandfather was angry against the church. But when I was in elementary school, I was in a public school, and my recollection of why I transferred to a Catholic school is that there was lice going on in the elementary school. So my mother decided to send me to the Catholic school.
Well I went gung-ho, head-first into all of it. Like the Catholic Church. I wanted to be a nun. I was very much into it. And that was from fourth grade through seventh grade that I was a part of that. Then I became a teen and sort of left that Catholic culture, went to public schools and so I fell away. Later, when I was older, I went to work for the Catholic schools and really my issues there became those more of the way women were treated in the schools and the belittling of
Wood – 1 – 22 women was extremely, extremely difficult for me. Even this morning I was having a conversation with my daughter who’s seventeen. We were talking about this. Our family is looking very much after being away from the church now for four years, where do we want to go? We went to a Catholic mass this morning and we all sat around and I said, “I want you guys to not go to church, a Catholic Church, because we’re going to a Catholic Church. I want you to find your spiritual home wherever that is.” Maggie and I both feel very strongly that as women we feel belittled in the Catholic Church. We’re really pushing back on that. So who knows where we’ll land.
I mean, I would like to land somewhere. I would like my children to land somewhere. But it has to be an authentic “yes” to God and I don’t know. I’m not there right now. I’m searching.
Q: So you believe in God?
Wood: [15:54:23] I don’t know. I don’t know.
Q: So what about the Catholic Church and Christianity’s, especially in America, narrative of whiteness? Do you ever think about Christianity’s relationship to whiteness and whether it’s representations of Christ or the role in settling different countries around the world as well as Native Americans, colonialism? Do you ever think about that? I understand the personal relationship being a woman and in a church, that’s a patriarchy, have you ever thought about it in the context of race?
Wood – 1 – 23 Wood: [15:55:06] There’s not a lot of diversity in the Catholic Church, and that’s another thing that Maggie and I were talking about this morning, my daughter. We miss the diversity. It’s extremely white. It’s funny that we’re talking about this now because that was the topic of conversation at our breakfast. It’s too white. We don’t have a lot of—I don’t think of white culture as being extremely deep. I really don’t and I am white. To some degree, I’m probably along that same line of person but I don’t think of our culture as being terribly deep in the United States. Maybe more so in Europe or other parts of the world. So we miss that kind of—we feel like to be authentic, there should be people of all types in our church.
Now, in the Catholic Church in Kalamazoo on Western Michigan University’s campus, there is a fantastic church that we like to call the “barely-Catholic” Church and the “hippie” church because everybody sits in a circle around the altar instead of having the priest up there as the next to God. I don’t mean to offend anybody. In this church, the priest is in the middle. We’re all in a circle. We’re talking. Everybody that I think has been rejected by every other Catholic Church. Because you have gay people. You have handicapped, disabled people. You have black people. You have everybody. Everybody’s there and we’re all “Yeah, we get it! We were rejected, too. [laughs] We’re the rejects but we’re the happy ones” because it feels authentic.
Q: It’s interesting that you’re coming back to our earlier conversation about being a woman and whiteness and that your visceral reaction is first about the relationship to your gender, your sex, and then your secondary is this relationship to—the idea that the Catholic Church is a white patriarchy.
Wood – 1 – 24 Wood: Oh yeah. Definitely.
Q: Well, we might talk a little bit about the movement to politics. Are you politically active? Do you have a political belief system? Are you affiliated with a party? Do you work at certain politics? Where are you in the political spectrum?
Wood: [15:57:27] Well, my mother votes straight ticket Republican, always has. I wouldn’t say she was ever able to articulate it beautifully as to why. She’s highly informed today but I would say as I was growing up it was because of the work issue, we are Republican. [laughs] That is really how we became Republican.
I consider myself now to be much more of an Independent. I’m definitely fiscally conservative and I like that aspect. And then I’m definitely more socially liberal in terms of—although I do feel as a 52-year-old woman like it’s getting so far from where I grew up that it gets a little uncomfortable. But I do want people to be able to pursue their individuality, their uniqueness, whatever that is. Pursue their happiness. So I don’t have a problem. I think marijuana should be legal. I don’t think it’s going to better mankind but I also don’t think it’s really anybody’s business whether I’m better or worse for it. I don’t smoke marijuana at all. [cross talk] [laughs]
Q: —school board [cross talk]
Wood: [15:58:37] It’s the truth. I swear. I think I’m politically independent. I know that my friends consider me—people on Facebook would consider me a Republican. My daughter,
Wood – 1 – 25 actually, has just taken a position with the Republican Party as an intern. She’s an independent, too, but she does more align herself conservatively and so at this point that’s where she’s at. She was thinking about joining the Air Force Academy and she’s a very serious kid, I guess.
Q: How did you vote in the last four elections?
Wood: I’m going to tell you [laughs] that I have voted Republican in every—
Q: In all—
Wood: All four.
Q: So just a little more context.
Wood: [15:59:39] Okay. I have voted in all four elections as a Republican. And I’m going to tell you that one hundred percent of the time I was conflicted. And it wasn’t because the Republican candidate was so bad, it’s just that I also really had a lot of respect for the Democratic candidates. So it really came down to my voting on what I felt was more important, which is the economic and fiscal part of the thing. I let all the social stuff go because I thought the culture is more willing to take care of that but we really need strong federal govern—well, I actually like a very limited government and more localized government. So that’s my basic philosophy aligns itself with that kind of thinking. I want small local governments to make best decisions for people around us. So that’s how I voted. When Barack Obama was elected I wanted to go to
Wood – 1 – 26 Chicago I was so excited. I honestly felt like that was such a positive move for black Americans. And I was disappointed for Hillary [Clinton]. I mean, I love the woman. I really have a lot of things and so does my mom. That we respect her and she’s strong. But I did have a trust issue with her and maybe I’m vulnerable to media. Maybe that was why. I don’t know. But ultimately—yeah, I have lost friends over this but I did vote for Donald Trump and I’m watching him carefully. [laughs]
Q: What do you see so far?
Wood: [16:01:34] Um, terrifying and praying. I’m not even Christian but I’m praying. I’m thinking he’s either the best thing—and I don’t really think he’s the best thing—but maybe some of that stuff is going to bring us back to a more central place where there’s some more realness and authenticity. I think he sounds like a horrible person sometimes and yet, because I grew up in a family of people from Germany who are European and who have those same values that he has, work and say whatever the hell you mean and just [sound of disgust] like it or leave it, lump it, that’s my family. You know? And so there’s part of me that says, “Okay. Well, at least we know where the guy’s coming from. And we won’t like it all the time but you’re not going to like anybody all the time.” And I trust him. I trust him that he means what he says but I also think he’s corrupt. You can tell I’m, just, really struggling. I’m praying even though I’m not Christian.
Wood – 1 – 27 Q: Well, you’re one of the women that the media talks about. Educated, white women who voted for Trump. What’s interesting to me is when I asked that question I couldn’t have predicted in a million years –
Wood: I know.
Q: –One way or another. I wouldn’t have said—if you had said the same things about Hillary I would have been like, “Oh, I totally get it.” Just because it seems to be that this idea of being a woman is really central to who you are, and your struggles with the Catholic Church are—about being a woman. Your struggles at work around being a woman. Your struggles with this idea of power as part of being a woman. And yet, a man that whether or not—in the media, the narrative is that we’ve seen the tapes. He talks about grabbing women by their private parts and belittles them, he does all this stuff, that talks about Heidi Klum’s not being a ten anymore and all sorts of like very belittling things in my opinion. At least what I’ve heard. [unclear] that I’ve heard about women and he discards wives repeatedly and gets the younger model. That that would not be— and here you have a woman running. I’m not making a value judgment.
Wood: No, no, no. I’m okay with that.
Q: I’m just trying to understand—
Wood – 1 – 28 Q: —the thought process that would then lead you to say this guy is going to be on my side.
Wood: [16:04:14] Well, I don’t think he’s going to—here’s the thing. I think that Donald Trump is part of—I know it may come across as weird but it’s his authentic self. He’s not really denying the fact that he said it or maybe he did deny it, I don’t know. But the fact is that men say that stuff and I don’t respect men who say that stuff for saying that stuff. Do I categorically write them all off when I know damn well that there’s a lot of that conversation that goes on. And when you’re a public person you have a responsibility. You’re going to be held to the fire for that. Okay?
But I also think that his daughter has been empowered in his company, that his ex-wife was given—I remember reading in the 80s, I believe, when they divorced that she was given control of the East Coast casino. He has done what I sort of do which is just take each person as an individual. Maybe I’m talking to this guy and I’m going to let the worst part of myself show because I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. I’m with this guy who’s going to get it. I have men on my mother’s side of the family who are like this. All of them have been adulterers. All of them have been not men that I respect on that level in any way, shape or form and yet I love them on another level. I would never accept it from my own husband. I would never accept it from my own son. But these men who make their choices, they’ve got to lay in that bed and live with it. I just think they have to live with those things.
I don’t believe, and it’s one of the things I have trouble with, is I don’t believe that people are saints who go into government. I don’t think any of them are. I more resent the fact that they
Wood – 1 – 29 flipping lie about it. And they come across on TV, “Oh, I’m this great guy and I empower women and”—bullshit. You’re sleeping with them left and right or your page or some guy. I’m not really going to get myself involved in their personal lives, honestly. It is what it is.
Q: When I asked the question I could not have predicted how you would answer that question and I appreciate you being direct and straightforward in this conversation.
You’ve talked a lot about [interruption]—a couple of questions. One is you talked to me about the past. You’ve talked about growing up and as a teacher thinking about history and thinking about the government-sponsored segregation, slavery, Jim Crow laws, all this stuff. We all acknowledge that we have some pretty horrible history in our past that impacted the AfricanAmerican community. Sitting here in 2017, you and me and we’re about the same age, living our lives—you with your business and your teaching—do we have an obligation as white people of education and a certain amount of means, do we have an obligation to the black community to make reparations or somehow help right those wrongs?
Wood: [16:07:47] I’m thinking of a student of mine who I have so much respect for who’s a black student. She’s my right-hand girl for—I have a debate team and a model U.N. team—and we’ve talked about reparations in the past. And I do not feel that reparations are due. I think what we owe is to have conversations. We owe an open-mindedness. We need to put away any residual stereotypes and things that hold people back who, if they’re bringing their best selves to the table and—am I crazy? But I kind of think that we do that.
Wood – 1 – 30 I think that we look at people who bring their best selves and, if anything, we lift them up. I know I had a student a couple of years ago. He was really struggling but every day after school—he’s a black boy—came to school every day after school to work on his stuff. He wanted to do better. He was a struggling student and that’s a generously—he was struggling but he worked so hard. There is absolutely nothing that we wouldn’t have done for that kid. All of us were so excited to help him because he was so helping himself. Am I alone in that? I mean, are we not there as a—I’m sure we’re not in many parts of the country. I just can speak to where I live, the people I work with. I see us wanting to empower and lift up good people of all kinds. But saying that, I know that there are a lot of people who don’t.
Q: But are there vestigial elements of that past that create impediments? Here’s what I would say: you talk about the benefits that you get. So you’re getting benefits but somebody isn’t receiving those benefits. So if you already sort of acknowledge that it is an unequal playing field. So if we acknowledge that there are benefits, do we have an obligation to—
Wood: [16:10:08] No. We don’t have an obligation to pay reparations or to go back and take care of that because, you know what? For every black person who has suffered under that, there’s a German person who fell way behind because of the war, my family included. You’re not born with a right to a wonderful life. You are born with a right in this country to pursue a wonderful life. Part of that is figuring out what to develop in yourself, who to negotiate with. But really I think as long as we make this about who’s making how much money, we’re never going to get there. Money is not the barometer of a good life. Money is not. It’s the quality of your character, the friends that you make, the respect that you cultivate in others over you, who you help. Until
Wood – 1 – 31 we stop making it about who makes equal amounts of money or more money, it’s always going to be this equality game that’s just like arbitrary. There’s not fair. Fair isn’t part of it. You know?
Is it fair that I get this opportunity to pursue my life’s goals? Quit making it about money. And I say that—I tell you what, I am not comfortable financially. Someone else might say that I am but I struggle and stay awake at night and my husband grinds his teeth to make payroll as a small businessman. Grinds his teeth at night. Works his butt off. I see the physical toll that it takes on my husband just to be a small businessman, even white, in this country. No, I don’t feel like we need to make reparations. We need to all do our best every day moving forward.
Q: Well, maybe reparations is the wrong word. Are you saying that that connotates giving money? I’m thinking—
Wood: Like opportunity?
Q: Opportunity or anything special. Like affirmative action. Anything like that. Do we have— knowing that that exists in the past and you may have just already answered the question. I just want to make sure that you know what we’re talking about. Some think that reparations have a very specific meaning. But do we have an obligation other than making sure the playing field is
Wood – 1 – 32 equal and giving them the same opportunities that we have? Do we have any other obligation to right the wrongs of the past, as people living in 2017, living our own lives with our own struggles?
Wood: [16:12:55] If I were a black mother, which I will never be [laughs] but I’m going to, to the best of my ability, say this, and I’ve thought about it in the past. As a teacher who’s had black students I love black mothers. They hold their kids to the fire like crazy and I mean that. Much more than a lot of parents who come and blame the teacher for everything. But going back to your point, if I had a black daughter or a black son, I wouldn’t want them to be given anything. I would want them to behave every day with dignity. I would want them to have security, financial security. So I would want them to work hard in school and do well. And I would probably feel horrible about the fact that they will face racism. And that’s not fair when they go out into the world. But I wouldn’t want them to rely on handouts.
There was a woman in our town recently who decided to hold up a sign on the corner. She was white and she said “My daughter cannot afford college” and she was a straight-A student. “Help me out.” She raised $10,000. But I would never want, I would never do that. I would never say to my daughter, “You should go out and we should panhandle for money.” No. There’s got to be a decent way. You could join the military. You can get free education if you do something noble. Why go out and panhandle? There’s a right way to do things. And I wouldn’t want my child to be given a crutch and have them feel their whole lives like they got there because there was a crutch. And people resented you for getting that crutch and so everywhere you go—I think it furthers racism. I think it furthers it. I think it makes more anger, more resentment.
Wood – 1 – 33
Q: In a very intimate way with someone I’ve never met before, I really appreciate that.
Q: It’s been great to talk with you. I guess the last question I have is how has the experience of participating in this project been for you? Why did you originally come into it and how has— have they met that in any way? What has been like to participate?
Wood: [16:16:14] The reason why I signed up when I saw the advertisement on the bookstore window for this study is because I think about racism a lot. And sometimes I feel like people call it racism when it isn’t. I also feel like I want to understand. Like, am I a racist? [Laughs] And I just don’t know it? Or am I being fair? I don’t want to be a racist but I also don’t believe in political correctness. I want a more authentic conversation. I want to be able to be authentic so that if I am screwed up in some way, in my way of thinking, that I can fix that. But I need to be aware of it.
So I was very curious. I think about race a lot. As a teacher I think about race a lot because of everything that’s been going on with the violence and so on. It seems like when I was a child there was so much violence between the races and then it seemed like we got cool for a while and it was like grow, grow, grow. And then all of a sudden it feels like we’re suddenly back to when I was a kid again in the race equation. And that is freaking me out. And so I think about race a lot. And I want to understand where this is coming from. Is it part of some—[laughs] I’ll
Wood – 1 – 34 be honest. Is it like some part of some Marxist plot where the bourgeois are trying to create the warring proletariat class so we can all be busy so we can’t see what they’re doing up there? I mean, what’s going on? I don’t get it. I find it hard to believe we’re going backwards after we just had a black president.
Q: And have you gotten any of that out? Was there any value to you participating so far?
Wood: [16:18:05] So far it’s been really rewarding to talk about it. I’m looking forward to seeing what other people say. That’s where I’ll get my—really to hear my own voice in the context of other voices would give me some insight. And I hope I didn’t offend anybody. [laughs] I just hope that you let a person learn by participating in the conversation. I’m open to learning.
Q: I hope—and this is what I took very, very seriously about the work when I actually started assembling everything—is that my goal is to represent you accurately. And that is like the bottom line for me. I don’t necessarily want you to like it or not like it but to look at it and say, “Yeah, that’s me, that’s [unclear].” So hopefully when things—first you’ll get a chance to look at the transcript. And even some people who had bad responses from people who’ve seen the thing, I’ve never had anybody yet say you’ve misrepresented me. If somebody said that, that would feel like the biggest failure of this project, if I didn’t represent you in a way that you said “That is completely truthful.”
Wood – 1 – 35 Again, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you coming in and talking honestly. It’s a complicated conversation. It’s a difficult conversation. We as white people don’t often have the opportunity to have conversations—
Wood: That’s right.
Q: —like this really directly. And especially with someone you’ve never met before who’s sitting behind this weird box and talking to you about it. So I really enjoyed speaking with you. I really enjoyed you being open. I can’t thank you enough.
Wood: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Q: So now, one more thing. We’re going to take some stills of you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]