December 2015
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by Jonathan Wallace

I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and was struck by his habit of referring to “the people who believe they are white”. Coates got me thinking about the state of “whiteness” as a construction rather than as an absolute reality, a white/nonwhite binary switch that could only be set to one of the positions. I realized that for much of my adult life, in a variety of contexts, I only have felt, on a good day, about two-thirds white.

Before I explain this further, I feel the need carefully to clarify that the opposite of white, in this analysis, is not black, but non-white. Black is only one of the settings on the American race-meter. This is not an essay about claiming to be African American, like Norman Mailer in “The White Negro”, but an essay about not feeling white.

As a child, I never thought about whiteness any more than a fish does about water. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, and the Italians who lived nearby seemed almost the same as us; we and the Irish were all the whitest people in the environment together. I think I met only a single WASP family before I went to college. There was a hierarchy: Puerto Ricans, whom we never saw socially or in school, were less white than us. The black kids who appeared in our school when busing began were mostly unhappy to be there, and we were taught both to feel superior and to be afraid of them.

Then, at Columbia, and for years after, I dated an Anglo Protestant girl from Philadelphia I thought I would marry, and encountered the vast gap between her Social Register background and my Brooklyn one. I became hyper-aware of something I had managed to ignore for much of my life in New York City: Her family did not regard me, and I did not feel, as of the same race of them.

I am dark,very hairy, Jewish looking. At some point in my adventures in the WASP world I became aware of a phenomenon I have never stopped noticing. Social convention demands that two men shake hands at a first meeting. I noticed that there were men in the world who did not like touching me, who had an unconscious, automatic, uncontrollable tic after shaking my hand, of slapping their own thigh, in effect wiping their hand, after shaking mine. I would rather not shake hands at all then witness this reaction, which I have noticed hundreds of times in my life. In fact, I rarely initiate handshakes--but the fact that the other man does is no guarantee he will not do the thigh-slap thing after.

My WASP girlfriend once admitted that when she took me to family events, she felt that, by my presence, she was making a dark sexual confession. As a child in the 1960’s, I had been astonished by an article about a Klansman who said Jews were not white, but I had written him off as crazy. On a Eurail Pass tour of Europe, I met a girl from Norman, Oklahoma who had just left Italy. “Those Italians really like white women,” she said. I haven't heard a lot of this kind of statement, but just came across the following in my reading: Congressman John S. Wood, chairman of the Dies Committee (predecessor of HUAC), said Charlie Chaplin (who was Jewish) "has become notorious for his forcible seduction of white girls". Walter Goodman, The Committee, p. 173

This is not an essay about anti-Semitism either. I have run into very little outspoken prejudice against Jews in my life. I don’t have a Jewish last name, and when I visit other places, for better or worse I have tried to keep my ethnic identity to myself. I have frequently had the experience of watching white people react to the otherness in me, as they try to figure out what I am.

Learning French at the Alliance Francaise in Paris in 1977, I could retreat, in the eyes of my gloriously diverse fellow students, into being simply an American; most could not focus the telescope so closely to distinguish differences between the various kinds of Americans. I made friends with two Palestinian students without ever telling them I was Jewish. One, evidently obscurely sensing something, asked me one day: “Have you ever visited my country?” I was able honestly to answer no: I had not yet.

Meeting Palestinians and other Arab people, I saw that they looked much like me, that we were in the eyes of America's majority, sub-white together. A few weeks ago in court, I was sitting on the attorney's bench with two colleagues, one a heavily tattooed Irish woman, and the other an Arab American woman dressed impeccably and professionally for court. A suspicious court officer came over and asked the Arab American if she was an attorney.

Once you notice differences in your skin, you become aware of other differences as well. Your teeth aren’t as well cared for. Your clothes are not as good, and you don't wear them as well. You don’t understand the rules of the WASP world, how to talk to people, what topics to avoid and which fork to use. A very few of your hosts are harsh and startled, but the majority react with a not always hypocritical gentility, and every once in a while you see that someone feels sorry for you.

On the other hand, I believe that black people have always seen me as incontestably white. I have written elsewhere that I remember being oblivious to race, until age seven or eight, and then very racist for a few years, and then working hard to overcome racism. In my sixth grade class, there was a kid named Richard whom I got to know a little, and one February day at recess, when neither of us had been picked to play softball, I offered him my gloves. My hands weren’t cold, and he was grumbling his were. I had to overcome an internal resistance to make the offer, and he showed equivalent discomfort declining it. It was the first time in my life that I understood that the anxiety about the other could, of course, run both ways. Since then, a few of the thigh-slappers I have noticed have been African American.

In perspective, my sub-whiteness has never translated into my being stopped and frisked (though having shoulder length hair in 1970 did), nor am I in danger of being shot by police when I go jogging in old sweats in my own neighborhood in Brooklyn, Queens or East Hampton. (Driving an old, inherited Lincoln Town Car in East Hampton, on the other hand, got me pulled over a lot for no apparent reason--apparently my whiteness behind the wheel did not so greatly shine out as to avert this.)

A movie which is very wise without ever being undramatically didactic, is John Sayles’ Lone Star, which examines the intersection of three ethnicities in a Texas town and ends with the memorable line, “Forget the Alamo”. Once I became conscious of being sub-white, I could not forget it. Being other is like having a large zit on your forehead at all times. It is a slight sense of awkwardness which can multiply into intense embarassment in an instant (when you see someone staring at the zit).

On the first episode of the Norman Lear television show, The Jeffersons, the upwardly mobile couple moved in to their new apartment and met a daffy British neighbor who did not immediately notice they were black. I remember thinking that was impossible in America: race was the one thing you could never forget.

Circa 2003, I was working on ambulances and, after hernia surgery, could not lift patients for six weeks. The company offered me a job in the office until I recovered and I became very attached to my co-workers, all of them more experienced EMT’s with great stories. One day, after a young Italian tech had come into the office and then left abruptly, a senior co-worker, a man who would be a mentor in the years after, said, “He doesn’t like hanging with the moulinars”. I suddenly realized that for weeks I had been the only person in the room who was not African American. I had in fact forgotten race.

True forgetfulness is different than the race-blindness dishonestly claimed as a cover for racism. I read in the paper a year or so ago about a private school, founded by nuns early in the twentieth century, to educate the poor and ethnic for little or no tuition, which had transformed into an expensive and almost all-white institution. The principal, defensively and ridiculously, told the reporter that the institution was color-blind, did not think about these things at all: he had not noticed there were no longer black students in his school. Coates is scathing about this false forgetting.

In a truly post-racial world, ethnicity would retreat to one of the many things you perceive about a new friend which makes him different and interesting. It would be by definition something you could then honestly forget, in daily life, work meetings, projects and even play, when it isn’t an important factor. The alternative to segregation is not the phony “melting pot” which implies an end result of dreary sameness. Coates is very disturbed by this as well: the well meaning white person who says that if everyone entered an interracial marriage, in a few generations we would all be the same color. This is one of those cases in which the world of computers provides a first rate analogy. Integrating hardware does not mean making every computer identical to every other. Instead, it means creating interfaces, like BSD, which allow quite unlike machines to speak a common language to one another. Elsewhere, I have celebrated liminality, the experience of living in very different worlds simultaneously. A truly integrated society would not be one in which we were all alike, but one in which our shared spaces would be like those computer interfaces, allowing us to communicate fluently and in complete equality.

I can’t stress that last point too much: to earn that forgetfulness, we first would have to create a world of complete and unconscious equality. Not forced or pretended, not worked for, but second nature. That’s what existed in the operations room at the ambulance company. Another world is possible.