Many years ago, in the late 1980s, I attended a university in the south, very white, highly segregated. I had a friend, a young white man, more aware and more well-educated than me in things that mattered, who took a class in African American history taught by a well-known black civil rights leader. My friend acknowledged—with astonished, lacerating shame—that there was a moment in class when the pressure of his own racial identity became so unbearable to him that he found himself imagining shouting nigger at the professor. This was a whiteness inside him he had not before come in contact with—had been cushioned from. Cushioned, in that paradoxical fashion of whiteness, by the very fact that he was white and thus did not need to know it.
My friend also told me that one day during class, the professor looked out the window—it was a first-floor classroom and the large windows were only a few feet above the ground—and saw an African American woman he knew, another professor, of literature. He leaped out the window to greet her, left the class behind. Riding the wave of the white students, racial hostility and shame, right out the window.At least, that’s how my friend described that moment. But what did he, or I, know really, beyond our own projections? That classroom was for my friend a theater of endless self-contradictory projection—anger at the teacher and then an envious, mournful resentment that he had left—the peculiar, roiling emotional machinations of whiteness, of the particular kind of whiteness I wish to think about here: well-meaning whiteness, whiteness that means no harm, that thinks it has it mostly figured out. I’ve reconstructed that classroom as my own theater too here, for my own purposes, a curiosity about what happens when the projections turn back inward. Which is another way of saying that when the cushioning is removed, you realize it’s a mess in there, in the white mind. Which is a start.
I didn’t know how to think about these things in college; at that time, I only knew that I wanted to. I went to graduate school. In graduate school, in the 1990s, it turned out that “race” was something you needed to know about. I do not mean to imply that this was an unsalutary development. It was a hugely powerful development in my own education. I feel that most of my education has come from books and the small but remarkable group of teachers who have been their interlocutors. In graduate school, the books stripped off that cushioning and in its place gave me a chastening, freeing distance. The usefulness of temporarily exiting my own confused and cushioned mind. I could offer a long list here of the books that did this; a list that I try still to convert on a regular basis into syllabi for the classes I teach. Maybe most powerful for me was the experience of reading the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, for they taught me in a sustained way that white liberals like myself were a problem. The ones who think they mean no harm. And are a problem still, for many reasons, including their feeling that their good intentions inoculate themselves against racial self-awareness.
It was good then, that in the ‘90s “race” was something you needed to know about. But it has had its other effects. In the academic world today it is possible to encounter smart white people who feel the presence of people of color is optional, since they already know “race.” Whiteness is resilient that way.
Another effect of this period was that white people began to praise each other for talking about race. It was brave to write about it. But saying it is brave to write about one’s whiteness is not unlike saying it is brave to live inside a house. White people are often so defensive on the subject of race because to be white is to feel a certain—perhaps unsought, perhaps uncultivated, but still palpable if you look for it—sense of unmistakenness. There has been a test you didn’t even have to take and you got the answers right (points subtracted for certain errors—your mistaken desire, perhaps—but still. You did well). White people don’t like to be mistaken. They would prefer not to take any more tests. They passed! And when they write about race, they would like you to give them an A for effort. Because they were brave.
One way, if you are white, to take note of your whiteness is to pay attention if you feel a little p.o.’ed, a little restricted, when asked to think if your race matters to what you write or read or think; or when asked to consider that your writing about race has a content that you have not sufficiently considered. That your effort alone is not enough. It is not that I know for certain that race always matters. I’m honestly not sure how to calibrate this. But it may matter more often than a white writer thinks, and it may matter in ways she doesn’t realize.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that it is important, valuable, for white people to write about race. But not because it is brave. Let us reserve that term for more truly dangerous endeavors. Saying it is brave makes it special, optional, and somehow unchallengable. When it could instead be unremarkable, a matter of course. Not easy, mind you. Hard. But not brave.
For many well-intentioned white people, writing or talking about race is hard, but not in the way I want to mean this word. It is hard for us because there is the feeling, back there in your mind, that there might be a skeleton in the closet you don’t know about, or one you don’t remember. That you said or wrote or did something that someone will use against you. I feel that fear raised up in the back of my mind as I write this. What can I be accused of? It’s there. Many white people react to that question with defensiveness or fear, which are both forms of avoiding the truth. Because there is a skeleton in the closet. There is something to be accused of. Because you are white. And you grew up in a racist country. And there was a moment, or many moments, maybe even whole decades of earlier life, when you didn’t sufficiently transcend those conditions. You have been wrong.
So what? This is the wrapper that must come off, unremarkably, as a matter of course. What I mean by hard is something different. What is difficult is the education you must commit to as a white person, the long and necessary education. A long and necessary education whose primary condition is that it never ends. You are never finished.
In a book I wrote about the murder of a young gay man in the town where I live, I tried to counter the blanketing whiteness of the town by counterposing some voices of color against the comfortably unaware voices of some of my white interview subjects. A white colleague told me that was a predictable move. It was a move, of course, a use. I didn’t worry too much about this, in the sense that I mainly tried to do it well and stay alert for mistakes. This is obvious: it seemed worse to leave some subjects out because to “use” them would be “a move.” This orchestration might not have been “natural” to me as a writer; but unnaturalness, unnatural engagement, was the best I could do at the time. I believed, still do, that whiteness was part of what made so many of the white people in my town react in certain ways to the murder, a reaction that became the dominantly reported reaction, because they were white. I also believed it might be useful to at least somewhat dislodge this dominant reporting. Did I use people of color to do this? Yes I did. I interviewed people of color because I reckoned they knew things I didn’t know, things that weren’t optional to know. I wanted the point of view to not settle in a single body. I wanted people to hear themselves, to hear people other than themselves— I wanted the book to do that for everyone. It was all moves. It was writing.
You try hard not to make mistakes, you accept that you will make them. You try, if you are white, to not use “race” as yet another open field for your endless and praise-hungry self-assertion. You don’t run people out of the room when you don’t get an A. In one way the question is what writing is for. I don’t have an original answer to this. I write and read so that I can finally think; and I write and read to hope that it might be possible for me to construct a vantage point on what I don’t yet know how to know. These two things do not feel like separate endeavors. Is it impossibly idealist for me to believe that when I read, say, Richard Bruce Nugent, I both am and am not myself, as he is both himself and not? Not a transcendence, but a chance to halfway get out of one’s own mess of a mind in order to get back in. You don’t write to get clean. Writing’s not hygiene. But I write in the hope that writing clears some room for something else.
Beth Loffreda teaches creative writing and American Studies at the University of Wyoming. She is the author of Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder.
From The Racial Imaginary: Writers On Race In the Life of the Mind. Copyright © 2016 by Max King Cap, Beth Loffreda, Claudia Rankine. Used with permission of Fence Books and Beth Loffreda.