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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edith Mitchell Dabbs, October 4, 1975. Interview G-0022. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Thoughts on paternalism and conscious effort to avoid it

Dabbs discusses the role of paternalism in issues of social justice. When asked if she thought, in retrospect, that she and her husband were paternalistic in their views towards African Americans, Dabbs offers a thoughtful discussion of the nuances of paternalism and its implications. Because of the views with which both were raised, Dabbs suggests that avoiding paternalistic attitudes was something they had to remain conscious of and work to avoid. She describes paternalism as a form of intolerance, discusses paternalism as both a racial and socioeconomic attitude, and she ruminates about the distinction between compassion and condescension.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edith Mitchell Dabbs, October 4, 1975. Interview G-0022. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
You think that your attitude was what today we would call paternalistic?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Well, that is a thing that James and I have both watched ourselves and watched ourselves every step of the way. Because having grown up in a paternalistic atmosphere, having always seen only that sort of thinking, it would be very natural for us to be paternalistic. We were certain that we were to some degree paternalistic now at what point had we been and how much so? And really improving? If so, why not faster? We felt that it was a bad thing in this day. Now, maybe in slavery times it was so much better than your attitudes could have been that there was a place for paternalism for that transition period, maybe. But this was much too late for paternalism and it is not useful, it is not a good thing to be and can be a bad thing. So how could we rid ourselves of what we had grown up with, just born into us practically, you know and conditioned into us. We always wondered, James always said, "I keep asking myself if I am in any way prejudiced. I don't want to have a bit in the world, but do I have it? Did that thing I said or this thing I did actually reflect deep seated ideas? Is prejudice still there?" It is a thing that you dont' get rid of in a hurry. It can be totally unintentional. It is a habit, an attitude like of that of a certain amount of very limited condescencion, it's a habit and most habits are unconscious. That's why they are so hard to break. You can't get hold of them to do anything with them. So, you aren't aware of it. Miss Reid used to laugh at it—she was a delightful person. She said about tolerance that she hated to see people who were so intolerant of each other of different customs or of different cultures, or a different life style, she just hated to see those things. She had spent a life time trying to be more and more tolerant. She wanted to be totally tolerant and she said, "You know, I think I am. I think I have finally made it." Or at least she said to me, "I got to the place where I said to myself, 'I finally made it," and I was convinced that I had made it and was tolerant now. I was the shining ideal and vision that I had wanted to be. I could put up with any kind of person, any kind of idea, I didn't let anybody shock me, even these wild young people, even the reactionary people. Nobody shocked me anymore and I am totally tolerant. Then, I suddenly realized that I am absolutely intolerant of intolerance."
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
That's Miss Reid talking?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Yes, Miss Reid. [Laughter] So, you see, condescension, that paternalism is like intolerance. It gets down and then you don't know that you have it. You are afraid to say that you haven't got a bit of it anymore. I suppose actually so long as you make allowances for people for the reasons that they are different— in this case, the reason is that they are black—if you make allowances for them and don't demand that they measure up and be all of whatever it is, the whole thing, then you are being paternalistic. And that is not what you always meant by it at all. So, it is very hard to say that you are not. I'm sure that sometimes I do make allowances, I 'll say, "Well, those people never had a chance in their lives …" You are inclined to make allowances for them. You feel like it is a generous, right thing to do, to make allowances for them. Don't demand more than they can deliver. But why can't they deliver, why don't they deliver? Maybe you have got to make the distinction between they "can't" or they "don't" and they don't because you don't let them or something doesn't let them. But now, if we do honestly believe they could, maybe that's the test. I don't know and I don't know how to say when and at what point you no longer have any paternalistic attitudes. I don't mean to have them, but then on the other hand if I look at myself, I realize that there are times when I wonder if I make allowances to many times.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
People would be surprised though, I think, to hear you admit that you are conscious of these attitudes.
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
They might be. I feel that I have gotten over condescension and more paternalism than most of the people I know. I think that I am as nearly free of it as anybody I really know personally and I can understand and judge that. But at the same time, I don't know whether that is true, whether you would call that totally free or not. Because there are people I know that I feel I shouldn't blame … now wait a minute, I say that about white people, too. If they have never had the advantages of any education whatever, or other advantages that would enable them to do the kind of job that I feel the situation ought to have, then even if they are white, I would make allowances for them because they didn't have those advantages. So, maybe that's not … unless that's being paternalistic, too, that is paternalism. It is not white-black paternalism, but it is being paternalistic, I guess.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
What is the difference between being charitable and compassionate or being condescending? And if you can walk that line …
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Yes, I think that is maybe what I am trying to get at. I don't know just where the line is and I don't know whether you ever do know for sure. You've got to be fair with people. God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb and you've got to temper your judgements to the possibilities of people's capabilities and not feel that everybody is responsible for the same beginning potentiality. Because maybe they didn't start off evenly handicapped. Maybe some of them had to make it up faster than others. You make allowances for children, in school, you expect one of your children to go after things differently from another, someone in your own family, sisters and brothers. You will say, "Well, he is different from the others, he sees it this way."
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
But that, of course, always leaves you in a position of dominance, if you are the one who is saying, "Well, I will make allowances for this person."
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Yes, now that could be called paternalism. That's looking down from your height of superiority. But I don't think that I do that at any point because somebody is black. I feel that I have gotten past that, long ago. If that is … if I am seeing the line where it really is between compassion and understanding and paternalism, then I am not paternalistic.