Stuff White People Like Essay About Myself
White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves
Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance.
H i white person in my DMs, let me respond here in the hopes that I never have to again.
Almost every day I get a message like yours from a random white person — on Facebook, Twitter, or email — offering to provide me with the “white perspective” that they think that my work on race and feminism is missing. “Just to give a more well-rounded picture,” they’ll explain, or “Having been a white person my whole life, I think my insight would be useful to you,” or, “I think I can help you understand how this issue looks to white society.”
To which I say: Physician, heal thyself.
No, I do not know everything. I do not cover every angle all the time. Sometimes, I’m flat-out wrong. But here’s the thing: I do know white culture. I know white culture better than most white people know white culture. I know white culture, white history, white politics. I know it better than you because if you knew why you were really in my DMs right now, you’d be embarrassed. Why do I know white culture so well? Because I’m a black woman. And while I, and just about any person of color who has spent their lives in a white supremacist society, know enough about white culture to write a book or two on whiteness and option the bestseller movie rights, y’all know almost nothing about us and even less about yourselves.
Why? Because you don’t have to.
Why do I know white culture so well? Because I’m a black woman.
I may be coming across as arrogant but honestly, I’m just exhausted. From the moment I was born my life has been steeped in whiteness. Not just the MTV I grew up with or the Disney characters I loved, but the white history I learned from white teachers, the white art I learned to revere above all else, the beauty standards I knew I’d never live up to. I know what songs y’all like the most, who your biggest movie stars are, how you achieve the hottest hairstyles in your magazines, what fashion you’re appropriating. I know what your “ideal” family looks like, what your definition of “American values” is. I know what you find funny and romantic. I know your definitions of success.
But it’s more than that, much more. I had to learn to talk to my white teachers in a way that didn’t seem “too boisterous,” and I learned why enthusiasm would be disruptive from me yet welcomed by white boys. I had to learn what level of eye contact with cops seemed respectful, what seemed evasive, and what seemed challenging. I had to learn why clerks in the grocery store were following me. I had to learn why the same white people who clutch their purse around me when they have a coin will come running to me for help when they don’t.
I know what “articulate” really means. I know what “thug” really means. I know what the words “tough on crime” will do to you and us. I had to learn why a black President scared the shit out of so many of you. I had to learn how many times I could voice my opinion in a work meeting before I was labeled “difficult.” I had to learn how loud I could raise my voice before I was labeled “threatening.” I know why so many of you want to say “nigger” so bad. I know what face you make when you are about to shout it at me. I had to learn why so many of you think that people like me are why you are poor. I know why you co-opt our movements. I know why you still expect a thank you. I had to learn why your needs are default but mine are “divisive.” I had to learn how to not get suspended by white teachers, how to not get arrested by white cops, how to not get fired by white supervisors.
I know what the words ‘tough on crime’ will do to you and us.
I know right now why so many of you will feel compelled to make me understand that I’m not talking about you here before you will consider reading further.
And to know all of that about you, I had to learn how race was invented as a function of capitalism to justify the brutality of genocide and forced free labor. I had to learn how slavery was repurposed into the prison industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline. I had to learn how your police force was created to return black people to slavery and maintained to control brown and black populations to manufacture a false sense of white security. I had to learn how the Southern Strategy was able to capitalize on the racism that you dared not see in yourselves, even though we could see it clear as day. I had to learn how the Irish became white when we could not. I had to learn how you could claim to rightfully own stolen land and how you still can today.
You have not had to know these things; even if you studied some of these topics in school, you did not have to know them. People of color, on the other hand, have lost so much when we’ve gotten it wrong. We have been fired for wearing our hair in ways you don’t like, for not hiding our bodies that you decided to hypersexualize, for having too many opinions, for answering too honestly, for using our own accents and dialogue instead of yours, for believing you when you said you didn’t tolerate racism in the workplace, for teaching history you refuse to acknowledge, for celebrating our beauty that you don’t want to see. We have died for walking with a certain swagger, for reaching for our wallets, for asking for help, for speaking with the wrong tone, for giving a menacing look, for playing our music too loud, for not walking away, for walking away, for marching in peace.
I had to learn how race was invented as a function of capitalism to justify the brutality of genocide and forced free labor.
Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance. The dominant culture does not have to see itself to survive because culture will shift to fit its needs. This shift is cheaper and easier when you don’t look too closely at how it’s being accomplished — if you never ask who is picking up the check. And no, you hardly see us at all — even if you love us. You can’t; we don’t exist as whole people in most of the places that you have been getting your information from.
And as much as I’d like you to see me — as much as I’d like systemic racism to simply be a problem of different groups not seeing each other — I need you to see yourself, really see yourself, first. This is the top priority.
Because I and so many people of color have had to stand by and watch you declare we live in a post-racism world when Obama was elected, when we could see how much of the legacy of slavery and brutality was still lodged deep in your bones. I had to watch the Tea Party rise from your fear of losing the centuries-long promise that you’d always get more because we’d always get less, all while you brushed it off as fringe lunacy. I had to watch you high-five each other and celebrate an election already won while I could see that your parents, your uncle, maybe even your spouse was going to vote for White Supremacy, because deep down part of them knew that they didn’t earn all that they enjoy in this world, and in a couple of years they wouldn’t have the votes to protect the parts they stole.
When I Said All Trump Supporters Are White Supremacists, I Meant It
Yes, all of them.
And when the election for the extension of White Supremacy was won, I had to watch you say that it was not White Supremacy, it was the economy or it was identity politics or it was the Clinton legacy. And when white people across America started doing Nazi salutes in high school gymnasiums and political gatherings, when white people started adding swastikas to their profile pictures and painting swastikas on walls, I had to watch you turn to the nearest person of color and ask, “how did this happen?”
And while I get it — I understand how the entire history of this blood-soaked racist country and its entrenched self-delusion would lead us here — I do not actually know what it will take to get you to see it as well.
The dominant culture does not have to see itself to survive because culture will shift to fit its needs.
Because we have been trying, very, very hard, to show you. None of this — not a single word I’ve written in this essay or in my entire career — is new. People of color have been begging you to see what you are doing and why. We’ve been begging you to see what you came from and the true legacy you have inherited. We’ve begged you to see your boot on our necks as long as it’s been there.
Find yourselves white people. Find yourselves so that you can know what whiteness is. Find yourselves so that you can determine what you want whiteness to be. Find yourselves so that you can stop your loved ones from voting for a definition of whiteness that you no longer want to subscribe to. Find yourselves so that racism no longer surprises you. Find yourselves so that maybe I can try writing fiction for a change.
Find yourselves so that next time you offer up the “white perspective,” you might actually say something that surprises me.
To be white and write about race is to fail at writing about race. That is the best you can do. This should embolden contemporary white authors to just go for it and attempt a statement on one of the most pressing and knotty issues of our time because they’ve got nothing to lose really (American writers are overwhelmingly white and male, as are their critics; they’ll survive any critiques lobbed their way). Instead, most avoid the topic altogether and hand the duties over to the anointed authors of color such as Junot Diaz, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Zadie Smith.
Here’s how heroic curmudgeon Stanley Crouch diagnosed the unspoken agreement amongst literary types when it comes to race-parsing fiction in his 2004 essay, “Segregated Fiction Blues”: “If I don’t write about you, you won’t write about me. I’ll stick with my favorite subject—myself—and I suggest you do the same.” White writers suffer from “cowardice,” Crouch adds, “because contemporary American writers are hardly lacking in experience or information about other people.”
Jess Row was handed the rules of engagement for a clever, white, literary author like all the rest; he just doesn’t give a shit. He is not a coward like most of his peers and for that he should be applauded. His debut novel “Your Face In Mine” (Riverhead Books) is one part brilliant black science fiction and one part tedious urban-suburban bildungsroman, and all hammy ambition. It tells the story of Kelly Thorndike, a white guy, in his 30s, well-educated (he’s sitting on a thesis about some obscure Chinese poets) who lost his wife, Wendy, and daughter, Meimei, in a car accident, and lives in Baltimore alone in a daze, running a crappy low-rent NPR station. He carries with him plenty of grief: for his dead wife and child, for his estranged group of high school friends, and for China, where he lived with Wendy, where they met and spent a significant amount of their time.
On his way to an Asian grocery store one day, Kelly spots somebody who looks like an old friend walking through the Mondawmin Mall parking lot (credit to Row for constructing a Baltimore that reflects the contingencies of the city and doesn’t just flip through a Fodor’s, watch “The Wire,” and plug in locations and neighborhoods). But that can’t be his old friend Martin Lipkin because this man is black and Lipkin is white. Strangely, Martin strikes first, greeting Kelly and revealing, suspiciously early in their conversation, that he has gone through “racial reassignment surgery,” in which his physical appearance has been radically and successfully shifted into that of an African-American male.
He is now Martin Wilkinson, married to Robin Wilkinson, a black woman, church-going, fairly militant, working at a Hopkins hospital. They have two kids, adopted twins. Robin doesn’t know about her husband’s white background. Martin, something of a fast-talking salesman type, quickly convinces Kelly to document his racial reassignment, and be “the Alex Haley to [his] Malcolm X.” Lipkin/Wilkinson’s story, once it gets out to the public, will change everything, he asserts. Also, it will make them a lot of money. Kelly agrees because he’s intrigued but also because the radio station he manages just got sold and his days there are numbered.
This novel is about too many things, and so, it is, in part, a comment on the end of normal conventional employment with job security for damn near everybody. Kelly happens to luck into a particularly lucrative desperate hustle. He becomes a part of Martin’s life, interviewing and observing Martin as they travel together. Kelly at a crab feast with the Wilkinsons in Druid Hill Park. Kelly in Bangkok where the surgery took place and continues taking place and where Wilkinson seems to be some kind of super-wealthy mover and shaker, like somebody out of one of those Joseph Nazel “Iceman” street fiction novels from the ’70s.
Row crams everything he can into this book: The novel’s first sentence is self-conscious like David Foster Wallace, impeccably well-constructed like a Henry James mind-blower that runs almost 100 words. Martin’s biography is revealed through raw transcriptions of his interviews with Kelly. Later on, instant messages and emails between characters push the plot forward in such a way that you’re witnessing a knowing novel that realizes buzzing prose alone can’t get the very daunting wrestling-with-race job done. We also learn about Kelly and Martin’s high-school friendship (back when Martin was a bass-playing Jewish dork who loved Jaco Pastorius) and through that, the indie rock band they had, their dead buddy and bandmate Alex, a heroin addict, and plenty of ruminations on growing up in the ’90s, none of which is necessary or even all that interesting, but oh so “relatable.”
What to do with a sex scene between Kelly and a high-school flame, whose “alert nipples demanded to be tongued” or the scene where Kelly’s jerking off and thinking of Martin’s wife’s ass makes him come “explosively”? Either this is circling-the-drain, typically closed circuit, contemporary fiction or a meta-exercise in obsequious whiteness, in writing bad, even offensive, sex scenes from a clueless white male perspective on purpose—which would make the whole thing a postmodern puzzle. Yes, some of Row’s tangents are well-observed (particularly an aside about how parents seem to pretty much formally give up parenting in the weeks before their children go to college) or just plain smart (a discussion of Obama as a tragically self-aware leader of the free world, “responsible for everything, in control over almost nothing”), but they all detract from the much-more-fascinating plot.
And so, a smart novel ends up as a “smart” novel. It’s as if Row runs away from his clever idea any chance he gets in an attempt to make some larger, more “literary” statement, unaware that his conceit and the plot machinations are the literary statement. There’s a brilliant 200-page piece of breezy, speculative racial fiction here, an heir to rummy race statements like Mark Twain’s “Puddn’head Wilson,” George Schuyler’s “Black No More,” Melvin Van Peebles’ “Watermelon Man,” and Sam Fuller’s “White Dog.” Unfortunately, it’s locked inside an indulgent book twice as long and filled with, well, stuff white people like to read about.
Jess Row reads at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on August 20 at 6:30 p.m. For more information, please visit calendar.prattlibrary.org.