As I sit alone in my office, in the dark, in the middle of the night, the idea of atonement seems hollow and fruitless. Only the personal, everyday choices I make in the world of racial interactions, and not some abstract or ritualistic gesture of apologizing or of being forgiven, will really make a difference. In the process, I realize, I will always be watching myself.
White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness
White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness
I just spent the last couple of weeks with members of my family who live a half a day’s drive or so north of where I do. As I drove there, I knew that my vacation would be a very “white” one—I was going to be surrounded by white people. I was also going to be “on vacation.” These two facts made me a bit conflicted.
I wondered, as I have before: When I get up there, how much should I question and examine the whiteness of the people and the settings around me? How much should I keep in mind, and try to tell other people about, what I've come to realize so far about what whiteness means? Shouldn’t I just relax and take a break from such things, in the hopes of reinvigorating myself for a continuation of that struggle when I go back home?
I was driving along an interstate highway, blithely sailing along at my usual ten miles over the speed limit. I realized that because I’m white, I don’t feel at all concerned about how my race might register to traffic police, either as I drive by them, or if they stop me (I’ve never been stopped for going ten miles over a highway speed limit). I also don’t have to be aware of certain localities that have more racist traditions than others, a racism that’s reflected in more frequent traffic stops for non-white people.
Then it occurred to me that I often realize those benefits that come to me from Driving While White. So that means that I’ve escaped, to some extent at least, the “false consciousness” of whiteness. A false sense, that is, that my race doesn’t matter much at all in my life.
So (my thoughts continued), if I’ve escaped to some degree the false consciousness that my society had previously lulled me into about my racial status, being “on vacation” would not mean taking a break from a truer consciousness. Being aware of whiteness in these rural northern spaces, and of my own white tendencies as I move through them, should come more naturally to me than it used to.
My parents came from a small northern lumber town. After a few decades of life in the city where I was born and raised, they moved back to their hometown, and my father still lives there. He now works in same lumber mill where he had his first job, which consisted of stripping the bark from poplar trees (machines do that now). He and I did a lot of hunting and fishing together as I grew up, and although I rarely do either anymore, we recently started an annual tradition of taking a summer fishing trip together. This year that trip was delayed for a couple of days, since I arrived in his hometown just as its birthday celebration was getting started.
The town’s celebration included a musical review of the town’s history, full of local “actors,” and a parade, which included an Elvis imitator, refurbished old cars, mobile advertisements for local businesses and politicians, the high school marching band, members of the state college marching band, floats constructed and ridden by members of especially large local families, fire engines, a nostalgic outhouse, people throwing candy, honking horns, blasting cannons, and more. There was also a lumberjack demonstration; a beard contest; booths selling pies, sausages, crafts, t-shirts, memorabilia, and beer; a musician who played a saw and told moldy jokes; an outdoor dance party; a “lumberjack breakfast”; and a closing fireworks display that went on for twice as long as almost everyone expected.
As I walked around amidst the hundreds, perhaps thousands of visitors who came for the birthday festival, I was surrounded by almost exclusively white people, in a town that had always been almost exclusively white as well. And yet, despite so much whiteness, I felt myself getting lazy about white awareness. I was, after all, “on vacation,” and so were a lot of the people around me. And a lot of them were people I knew, and even loved, and thus not people I especially felt like giving a hard time about their racial status and their racial beliefs and attitudes.
But there was also more to my struggle to remain vigilant about whiteness. It’s been my experience that in settings like this, where the whiteness is so unrelenting and nearly uniform, none of the white people present seem to notice the lack of non-white people, and they certainly don’t have anything to say about that. As for me, I now get kind of creeped out when I’m in such extremely white settings, because I know that’s not an accident—the exclusion was, and often still is, deliberate, and ugly.
That racial homogeneity, which is probably glaringly evident to any non-white participant, is almost invisible to the white ones, as taken for granted as the air around them, or the availability of electricity or running water. So when I say there’s more to my struggle to remain vigilant about my whiteness than my own laziness in such settings, I mean that there’s a sort of passive-aggressive pressure in such places to avoid the topic of whiteness, and even to stop thinking about it. Mostly because no one else seems to even notice all that whiteness, and also because most of them would take it badly if anyone were to broach the topic critically.
The facts of electricity, running water, and a nearly uniform whiteness seem so natural to the white people in such settings that they don’t have much of anything at all to say about all three of them. And electricity and running water are of course thought of as good things, when they’re thought of at all. At one point, as I watched the performing “lumberjacks” ham it up for the kids in the audience, I wondered if being surrounded by white people is also thought of as a good thing, as something as beneficial, and “hard to do without,” as electricity and running water.
I decided that actually, yes, whiteness is often thought of that way here—if the more general topic of race comes up. My evidence was a conversation earlier that day with a cousin, who asked where I was living these days. When I told him about the place, he said he’d been there, but he didn’t like it.
“Why not?” I said.
“Because they had lots of coloreds down there.”
Coloreds? I hesitated—where to start? And how much did I want to alienate this person I’ve known all my life?
“I guess you mean black people? African Americans, as people also say these days?” I tried to make the point more palatable with humor. “Come on, man, get modern! People don’t say ‘colored’ anymore.”
He didn’t see anything to smile about. “Around here they do. Some do, anyway.”
“Well, around where I live, they don't, and they don't in most other places either. I like living with different kinds of people. And it’s not dangerous, if that’s what you’re thinking. Hasn’t been to me, anyway. You’re just being prejudiced.”
My cousin looked doubtful, but he didn’t say anything. Then he shrugged, saw someone else to talk to, and walked away. I think he does feel safer living away from “all that crime” in more populated places, and I’m sure that he associates that crime with people who aren’t white, not with how much more crowded such places are. So he’s happier to be away from “cities,” but he’s also happy (probably without thinking about it all that much) with being surrounded by white people.
When the lumberjacks had finished beating each other at hand-sawing, log-rolling, and chainsaw sculpting, they cleaned up their area for another show, and members of the crowd got back to talking to people they knew. I was with my father, and we fell into conversation with another relative, or rather a soon-to-be one, the fiancé of another cousin of mine (my father had five brothers and sisters, so I have lots of cousins). I’ll call him Bill.
I hadn’t met Bill before, and he was connected somehow with a kid I also hadn’t met, a blond-haired boy of about eight who was fascinated by the lumberjacks.
“Can I go ask them for an autograph?” he asked Bill.
“Sure, I guess, but I don’t know what they’d write it on.”
We all watched as the boy ran over and shyly approached a lumberjack, who nodded, reached down for a flat piece of wood, and signed it with a fat pen that he had in his pocket.
The boy came back to us with a huge smile and showed us the signature. “He did it!”
“Great,” said Bill, tousling the boy’s hair. “That was mighty good of him!”
As the boy went off to show others, Bill added to my father and I, “I was going to say ‘that was mighty white of him.’ But, you know . . .” He shrugged and laughed a little, almost nervously.
I did, of course, want to say or ask something about that expression he’d just used, or maybe almost used—“that was mighty white of him.” But someone else was approaching to talk to Bill, and I didn’t know if whatever I would accomplish by calling him on his use of that old expression would outweigh whatever would come of my doing so. I usually call people on such racist terms, but sometimes I still fail to do so. I’m not an especially aggressive person, for one thing, and for another, I don't know how much good it would do to point out the racism of someone who may well have a whole lot of other things to worry about instead.
My father and I raised out eyebrows at each other, worked our way around to saying good bye, and then turned away toward his house.
“I bet you were just itching to say something about that one,” he said, “weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was. Something. I'm not sure what, though, or if it’s really worth it.”
“Right. You can’t change those kinds of attitudes with just one comment.”
“Well, maybe he’d think twice before saying it again. And what a weird thing to say, actually. I haven’t heard that one since I was kid.”
“Oh, I have. People at the mill still say that sometimes.”
“Really? What do you think they mean by it? Do they really mean ‘white,’ as in racially white?”
“Actually, no, I don’t think they do. I think it’s usually just a compliment, or a way of saying thanks. It used to work in a more racial way, of course, back in the fifties or sixties, but now it’s pretty much detached from race.”
“But then, Bill knew it was wrong. He didn’t want to say it in front of that kid.”
“Right. But I don’t think he necessarily knew it was wrong because it’s racist. He just knew it had some kind of bite to it, so you shouldn’t say it around kids.”
“Reminds me of the word ‘gay.’”
“Gay? How so?”
I told him about how the many kids I hear using that word in a negative sense, rather than a positive one, to mean stupid, wrong, uncool, and so on. He hadn’t been aware of that.
As the festival wore on, I did see a couple of non-white people. One was a black man with dreadlocks, holding hands with a white woman (I assumed she was the one with relatives in town). Another appeared when a person I was sitting with in the beer tent, another relative of mine, pointed out the long, shining black hair of a woman walking past us.
“Look at that,” she said. “Her hair is so beautiful! It’s so shiny, and smooth, and it’s so black!”
As the woman turned around briefly, we saw that she looked like a young Native American woman. She was walking alone.
I never saw any other such people. There are some “Indian reservations” nearby, and the mill workers often spend whole paychecks at the casinos there. By the looks of things, though, this white town’s celebration of itself wasn’t an attraction for the local indigenous people. Which should be no surprise to any white person who might stop to think about such things.
I also attended the historical musical review, curious to see just how far back in history it would go. A master of ceremonies began by telling us that the town was “carved out of the virgin wilderness” over 100 years ago, when a rich man (a white man, it went without saying) set up a mill, a railroad line, and a company town, complete with company houses, a company store, and company money for the workers. All of the forty or so performers in the musical were white, as were all the stories they acted out. No recognition was offered of those people who occupied the so-called “virgin wilderness” before the town was “carved out.”
My father stayed away from all three performances of that musical, and he refused to say why. After I saw it, I asked him again about the peculiar name of an area out in the woods. The town is surrounded by many miles of forests, lakes, rivers, and streams, and many of these areas have names that all the locals know. One area has a name that I’ve heard all my life, with a word in it that I don’t think white people should use—“The Ni**er Camps.”
People in that town still refer to that area of the woods that way, saying it just as matter of factly as they do the other named places out there. My father and I have driven out to where those camps used to be, and nothing at all remains of them. Also missing, it seems, is anyone’s solid memory of them. My father doesn't remember any actual camps or black workers there, nor does anyone else we've asked in town. It’s just a place in the woods where, presumably, such camps once existed. And they existed out there because such workers, while welcome as laborers, were not welcome to sleep or live in town.
“Have you found out anything yet about those camps?” I asked. I’ve been asking my father for years about them, and about who the workers were and how long they were there. I’ve also visited libraries in towns all over that area in search of information about them, but without success.
“I’ve asked around,” he said, “but like me, no one knows when that place had actual camps. Or how many workers there were, or what they did. I suspect they came up to build the railroad, then left when that work was done.”
“Hmm. More whitewashing.”
“Whitewashing?” Another raised eyebrow.
“This place is whitewashed. The Indians, the black people, probably Latin American people—“
“Right! I picked cherries with them when I was a kid. Migrant workers. I haven’t seen any around since then.”
“More migrants. ‘Hands.’ Unwelcome, except for what they can do, temporarily, with their hands.”
The people in that town clearly think of themselves as good, honest people, but like most white Americans, they live in communities that are anything but good and honest when it comes to their relations with, and their thefts from, people who were and are not white. And once you realize that, and you realize how that knowledge can alienate or separate you from people you otherwise know and even love, it can be uncomfortable, and even despairing, to be surrounded by other white people. It can also be easy to fall back into the common white habit of not even thinking about that knowledge, let alone speaking it or acting on it.
The day after the closing fireworks, my father and I traveled further north in search of new places to fish, and to see some places that we’d never seen before. Everyone we encountered in our travels was white, except a man with long black hair who was walking alongside a highway. I considered diluting the racial homogeneity by visiting some reservations, but that seemed intrusive.
"And anyway," I thought lazily, and perhaps, whitely, "we’re on vacation."