Islander writer and performer Jenifer E. Maxson read “Catching a Break or Catching Hell,” the column by Michael White that appeared in the Reporter’s print and web editions last month. As a way of introducing her essay, she wrote, “I was gratified that finally someone had opened up this crucial conversation. What follows is, I hope, my first contribution to it.”
I was a Long Island girl born and bred, an early-vintage Baby Boomer, witness to the advent of Levittown, shopping malls, fast food chains and that Grendel’s mother of technology, television. The dawn of the 60’s was also the dawn of my high school career. At fourteen, naïve and pre-occupied with adolescent angst, I had no idea that the whole of American society had one foot sunk in the complacent, self-congratulatory world of the 1950’s, the world of Father Knows Best, while the other was being firmly spliced to the tiger tail of a decade that would severely shake, even shatter, most of the pillars upon which, for so long, that society had comfortably rested. None of those pillars were more vulnerable than the towering white marble one that supported our notions of “race.” My notions of race.
Though I may have been naïve, I wasn’t totally uneducated. I’d known about atrocities like slavery, like lynchings, since elementary school and, yes, I’d always felt a muffled outrage. I was aware of the Civil Rights movement, and that the colored people were holding sit-ins and marches and naturally, I wished them well, but I couldn’t have said that beyond that I’d ever really wondered about dark-skinned people at all. Nonetheless, if you’d asked me, I would’ve told you I was on the right side, the good, humane side, of the racial issue.
I remember a get-away to Antigua my parents took back then. When they returned, my mother, describing the highlights of the trip, mentioned that a colored man had asked her to dance. “You know,” she said, “Colored people down there aren’t the same as they are here–they have lots of pride. Anyway, when that man took my hand I have to say I was amazed–his skin felt exactly like … well, skin.” My mother wasn’t any Mrs. O’Hara from Tara–she was a smart, savvy, self-made woman in the retail “rag” business – a “people person” who would have staked her life on not having a prejudiced bone in her body. Of course not. In fact, I recall being quite impressed that my mother was capable of such an original, not to mention profound, observation. Obviously, the mind-numbing ignorance it implied — hers and mine, totally escaped me.
I realize now that not thinking about race was what passed for tolerance in my mind – I simply didn’t know any better. There were some colored kids in my high school, but I never had a colored friend – not in high school nor college. Maybe I may have had acquaintances who did. I’m not sure. Certainly there was something exotic but unsettling about the idea of having a Negro “friend.” I vaguely remember puzzling on just how one would go about having such a friendship.
In college I read Black Boy and Native Son and much later, during another iteration of my college career, The Color Purple and Beloved and along with everyone else, I watched Roots. I found the stories compelling and often moving, at least while I was reading or watching, but, like with the Holocaust and Anne Frank’s story, I now realize that, even so, I only managed the barest wisps of real “identification.” I think now that, as a white person, my emotional “receptors” were underdeveloped, stunted, simply because I’d had no opportunity, and no need, to exercise them beyond the limits that had kept me, literally, within the “pale,” a member of the only “race” on the planet that has never been confronted with wide-scale racism. When, via books, movies and current events I was exposed to the non-white experience, I think that more than anything else what I felt was a kind of distant, unarticulated relief – far enough away that it didn’t require any unsettling self-reflection – but strong enough to verge on “gratitude.” Indeed, I knew that I was glad not to be Jewish and gladder still not to be a Negro, but I could always lay that sad but pragmatic recognition on the doorstep of a flawed society. I remember seeing Imitation of Life with Lana Turner and being morbidly fascinated by the idea of trying to “pass” for white. Of course, to me it seemed the only logical thing to do if you could get away with it. By the same token, I’d always puzzled about why all Jewish people didn’t try to pass for Christian in World War II Europe, instead of resigning themselves to wearing those chrome yellow Stars of David – death stars. Yes, I was stunted. Very.
But it went deeper, this ignorance-based racism. I may have been a relatively privileged girl from the East Coast, a hot bed of American liberalism, and I may have known – in the dawn of “political correctness”– the absolutely right, progressive sentiments to express but, underneath it all, I was inadvertently but firmly cemented to a foundational “truth” so clear, so obvious, that it would never need to be expressed: Being white is superior – in all ways superior – to being black (and/or any color in between). This “little white lie” is so lethal, so toxic because, for most of us, it operates, as it did with me, just beneath the reach of consciousness – and by “most of us,” I don’t mean most whites, I mean most of the human population on this planet. In fact, in some instances, it is people of color who seem to prize lightness of complexion more highly even than Caucasians. In a bizarre way, our tacit global agreement on this point unifies us as a species. From a societal perspective, of course, this lie has been so successful because it has become self-evident – one would have to be naive to the point of simple-mindedness not to acknowledge that, in today’s world (and every permutation of the world leading up to it), it is and always has been vastly “better” — certainly easier, happier, and much, much safer to be white.
Here’s the thing. In the fifty years of living that has intervened between my mother’s discovery that black skin feels like white skin and my discovery that I needed to share the truth of my racial experience, however queasy and off-putting it feels to do so, life has given me — thank you, thank you — many opportunities to exercise those stunted receptors of mine. I no longer feel that ambient relief of being white, but rather a deep responsibility for being fully human, for helping erase that lie that is still making it safer, easier to be Caucasian. As far as I can tell, today’s young people won’t need half a century to abjure that lie but, with the election of our first black president six years ago, pockets of racially-charged anger and fear were unearthed that even the corrosive double-speak of “political correctness” couldn’t camouflage. The fact is, as citizens we must start to have brave, honest, good-faith conversations with one another — however messy and uncomfortable they may be at first — conversations which are crucial in beginning to heal the greatest of the seeping wounds inflicted by that white lie: the abomination of slavery. Unless we are able have them, our nation — white, black, brown, yellow, red — will continue to be enslaved.
These conversations are 150 years late in the coming, but might be encouraged if they can begin, finally, with one little white truth: There is nothing physically, emotionally, morally, spiritually, creatively or intellectually superior in being white — nothing.