Oh, Insidious Whiteness: A Story of Growing Up in Glen Ellyn, IL

Lake Ellyn on a sunny day, the small, brown boathouse across the water (photo via Wikipedia)

My kids are going indoor ice skating today with their day camp. I told them about skating on Lake Ellyn as a girl. We’d wait for the safety light on the boathouse to turn from red to green, and then we’d lace up to skate all night, freezing and happy.

For just a second, telling them that story reminded me of lines from George Draper’s famous Sestina:

…Before these days of fury,

When indoor rinks were just a gleam in Hockey

Fanatics’ eyes there was no greater pleasure

Than winter mornings…

…but my kids were suddenly interested in “Who is Glen Ellyn, anyhow? Was it a person?”

I explained that a “glen” is a type of place, and “Ellyn” was the wife of someone important in Glen Ellyn’s history. Then I told them about all seven of Glen Ellyn’s historical names–I could remember only parts of five of them.

That led to me explaining how every third grader in Glen Ellyn was required to learn Glen Ellyn history. We had to pass a test to pass third grade.

My sixth and seventh grade children are agog. “You had to pass a test to finish THIRD GRADE?”

“Yup.” I laughed.

“That’s harsh,” my 10yo said.

But the realization of what that test meant crashed down on me, right there at the breakfast table. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. I’m a Midwesterner. Shouldn’t that have insulated me from the worst excesses of whiteness?

Nope. Sorry. And here is proof: I had to pass a test about the “history” of my town in the third grade.

Image result for glen ellyn history

White people posing in front of the historical hotel (photo via the Glen Ellyn Historical Society home page)

  • That history began in 1833.
  • That history included lots of white folks “settling,” and “staking claim” and building things. It also included those same white folks fighting for the Union in the Civil War.
  • That history was an “idyllic” one with vacationers in suits and bustled dresses punting  on the lake.
  • That history included a hotel fire and a train station and Stacey’s Tavern.

But here’s what that history didn’t include. It contained no references to any people of color whatsoever.

No queer folks, either.

And what did the indigenous people call that place before the white folks showed up? No one taught us those names.*

My own children did not exist in the “history” of the place I grew up. And neither did I (likely part of why it took me so dang long to imagine that, as a bi woman, I exist at all). More importantly for the time, what did the (very) few children of color in my school learn from that unit? How did this vision of history impact them?

So here’s my reminder for today (as if I could forget) that George Draper was wrong. There is no “before” the “days of fury.” We just put ourselves in places where we didn’t have to look real fury in the face and then we taught our children that fury never existed at all.

Then we tested them on it.

We had to make sure they kept our stories straight, our alibis tight.



*I have made a number of phone calls and am searching through archives to try and learn those names as soon as possible.

One thought on “Oh, Insidious Whiteness: A Story of Growing Up in Glen Ellyn, IL

  1. Ali, keep on searching! Wonderful, provocative piece. I grew up on Addison St. in Chicago, in a house that my Dad grew up in as well. If I crossed the street and boarded the bus, riding it to the end of the line, I would be at Wrigley Field (home of the Chicago Cubs). In my “neighborhood”, in my school, my classmates were Italian, Polish, Czechloslovakian, German, and Irish with names like Guido, Palumbo,
    People of color, brown and black, were nowhere to be seen except when we took the “El” downtown to see the Christmas decorations in the windows of Marshall Field’s once a year. Our “whiteness” was protected, to our loss. My first African-American classmate was in my senior year in high school.
    But then I traveled, and learned, and grew. Probably many of my old classmates did not. I feel grateful


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: