Advertisement

White Bread and Mayonnaise

WASHINGTON POST

Paul Bauer is a white man. Quite a white man. So white he has freckles. So white his beard has grown in orange. “You won’t see me on the beach during daylight hours,” he says. “I’m just as pink as can be.”

He is proud of his whiteness, but not in a white-pride way. No, definitely not. Bauer is troubled by the bad deeds his white ancestors did. And his ancestors were whiter than most.

Four hundred seventy-seven years ago, one of them set foot on Plymouth Rock. This was on his mother’s side, Mom being a Warfield. (Dad is second-generation German, which is not only white, it is dangerously white; possibly Aryan.) In the United States of America, it’s Anglo-Saxons who first defined whiteness. And you don’t get much more Anglo than the Pilgrims.

There were 101 of them on the Mayflower, splashing ashore on the chill cusp of winter, low on provisions and wearing the wrong clothes. They would survive to celebrate the first Thanksgiving, but as every schoolchild knows, it happened only because the friendly local Indians patiently demonstrated how to catch fish and plant corn.

Advertisement

And here, centuries later, stands Bauer (“Like Eddie Bauer,” he says, “but not as well dressed”) with one finger firmly on the lid of his Starbucks cup so it won’t spill on his “Father Sky, Mother Earth” T-shirt. The folding table he minds is stacked with literature from the Council for Native American Solidarity. The banner above his head bids, “Free Leonard Peltier,” referring to the imprisoned Sioux the courts call a murderer and his supporters call a martyr.

Rest assured, there are people who feel very, very bad about all of this injustice--people acutely, painfully, obsessively aware of transgressions past and present, real and perceived. Three hundred of these people, Bauer among them, gathered last month on the fringe of Harvard University, and you’ll never guess what they had in common.

The Second National Conference on Whiteness was not what you might think. It was not what just about everybody seemed to think.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you’re going to a Ku Klux Klan meeting,’ ” says Carah Reed, who flew all the way from Orange County for what was the furthest thing in the world from a Klan rally. The only hate being spewed at Episcopal Divinity School during three gray, introspective days was the self-loathing of committed liberals--anti-racism storm troopers who identify themselves as racists because they are, you know, white.

Advertisement

“One thing about white people, we tend to either be proud or ashamed of being white,” says Jeff Hitchcock, executive director of the Center for the Study of White American Culture, the Ne1998585857Jersey nonprofit that organized the conference. “Proud in a supremacist way, or guilty in a liberal way. Very seldom do you find the balance. It’s either one or the other. And that’s kind of psychotic.”

This year’s conference drew six times as many attendees as last year’s, evidence that whiteness is a topic of growing, serious scholarship. Some 90% of the people here are white, but they are multiculturalists at heart. They see society changing, becoming more ethnic, and they want to help it change.

But on another level, this gathering appears to be a kind of purification ritual, the way the white attendees start out by copping to the very thing they are working against, ardently confessing that they harbor (somewhere within themselves) the same snap judgments and idiotic prejudices that everyone else harbors, but which surface in them only by sneaking past a watchfulness that puts the White House security detail to complete and utter shame.

“I have an ulcer, OK? I’m 23. I have an ulcer,” a lad named Eric announces to his peers at a panel devoted to dissecting, among other evils, “adultism.”

There are sessions on “Ableism and Racism,” on “The Invisibility / Visibility of Arab Americans,” on “The Vector of Whiteness” (subtitled “The Latino Case”). The sessions are pan-racial, as likely to be led by a stout black woman with a British accent as a fit graybeard from Boston.

But at the end of the confab, after all have had their say, it is obvious who will have to carry the freight. At the closing session, a Caucasoid fellow of about 60 reaches into a badly wrinkled paper bag, pulls out a bottle and throws back a hard slug of something. It is Pepto-Bismol.

The White Man’s Burden: Rudyard Kipling, the English writer, adventurer and, many say, racist, coined the phrase in 1899. Kipling’s poem went on about the grave responsibility of caring for “new-caught, sullen peoples / Half devil and half child.” In this place, on this weekend, the White Man’s Burden is something else altogether. The White Man’s Burden is his own bad self.

Holding the Mayo

Advertisement

Martin Mull wrung about all the tang you can from vanilla in “The History of White People in America: Part I.” The mockumentary, which aired on TV 10 years ago, profiled a typical suburban family, each member of which carried around a jar of mayonnaise the size of a chair. On a tour of the living room, Mull pointed out the stack of coasters, explaining that these will serve to protect the finish of a natural surface, “should any occur.”

Who wants to be white? The pasty suburban kids lining up in baggy shorts to buy the latest Bone Thugs N Harmony disc? Their pasty dads who lined up for the latest Sly & the Family Stone album?

“Whoever heard of a wise old white woman who gets a permanent once a week and talks on the telephone?” asks a woman named Myke, reading a poem. The poem is called “Wanting to Be Indian,” and it has set heads to nodding. These nods are not terse; they are the kind that roll off the shoulders and involve a lot of neck. The sound that goes with them is a soft “hmmmmm,” a throaty affirmation that translates to “how true.”

It seems safe to say that no one in this sea of pale faces wants to be white. And, in fact, the room does not “feel” white. It does not feel like a New Hampshire Rotary Club meeting on the day Pat Buchanan shows up to campaign. It does not feel the way the Roanoke Room or the Chesapeake Room or any dimly lit conference space in any hotel in America feels at 10 o’clock on a weekday morning, with the name tags lined up there beside the big stainless steel coffee urn and a stack of pastries on a perfectly round brown plastic tray; someone has sliced every Danish in half.

The big room feels as though it has no color at all. The vibe here is of a deliberate wash, of identity being pulled back, conscientiously held at bay. Everyone in the room is in a receive mode, unwilling to project anything at all save the quietest, softest strength.

The people here--many of them women, many with long hair the color of steel--are practiced at this. It is what a lot of them do for a living: sit in a room with other people, thinking hard, feeling harder, withholding judgment. When the emcee, a fast-talking woman named Meck Groot, asks how many are educators, a third of those present raise a hand. Afro-American studies. Women’s studies. Multicultural advisory office. Another third call themselves activists or organizers. A little cheer goes up at the words, at the mere suggestion of a cause.

No one has to explain to this bunch what the “process room” is. (It’s where you go “if you have an issue,” Groot notes for the record.) No one has to say why the host starts with a “centering exercise.” (It’s to remind you “that you have a body, and it needs to be paid attention to.”) A loosely structured workshop on “Modern Racism and Internalized Oppression” suits this crew like a peasant blouse, like a dashiki, like a Peruvian wool jacket that looks as scratchy as a hair shirt.

Colorless People

Advertisement

They are making history here. They are on the leading edge of something. Only five people in the entire group have ever taken a weekend to meditate on “whiteness.” The concept is too new. Too slippery.

Here is a woman with a tortured expression on her face and a book in her lap. It is her journal. Look out. She’s going to read from it.

“Whiteness,” she says. “A strange, eerie, unreal thing. When you think about it.”

Here is a muscular woman explaining why she is running a workshop on “White Folks Exploring Native American Cultural and Spiritual Traditions: Appreciation Versus Appropriation.”

“One thing people ask us is, why are white people doing this workshop?” she says. She answers herself: “We’re all experts. If a person is white, he’s an expert on this.”

And here someone who is not: a striking 28-year-old woman with hair the color of rust and skin the richest shade of sienna. She was born in the United States, grew up in Zimbabwe and has lived in the Boston area for eight years.

Her name tag reads: “Blessing.”

“Coming back to America, I didn’t identify with the African Americans,” Blessing says. “I identified more with the white people. The African Americans seemed more like a different race. They weren’t like me.”

Her black friends noticed this too. They said, “Oh, you’re so white.” They said she watches white TV shows.

“ ‘Seinfeld,’ ” she says. “I love it. It’s one of my favorite shows.”

Behind her, a man sneezes. She swivels toward him.

“Bless you,” Blessing says.

Blessing (last name: Tawengwa) is later called up to the front of the room with eight other people, most of them black. Each is to answer a question: “What does whiteness mean to you?”

“It’s a culture,” Blessing Tawengwa says. “It’s a socialization process. It’s not color.”

Wrong answer. (Well, no. There are no wrong answers. “We can process out here if you want to.”) Every perspective has value here. But when it comes to fighting racism, certain perspectives are more useful.

An African American woman declares: “Whiteness to me is a threat.”

“It’s not a real human identity,” says a black man.

“Definitely the absence of color,” says another.

“Whiteness,” says the woman who speaks last, a young Caucasian named Jane, “is potentially the one place of refuge I think I have in my life.

“The challenge for me is not to claim it.”

And there it is. For the purposes of this discussion, white is not a color, not a pigment, not a race. It is a mantle that must be claimed--but also spurned.

Even the Center for the Study of White American Culture, which brought everyone together to talk about whiteness, at times seems to want no part of it.

Jeff and Charley

“Center for Study.”

This is how Jeff Hitchcock has learned to answer the phone. It’s what the executive director calls the “nonreactive” name for the Center for the Study of White American Culture, hard experience having taught him that if you utter the word “white” you will spend half the workday explaining what you are not.

He carries business cards that do it for him: “Not an organization for white people, as some people may infer. . . . “

These are the same cards carried by the center’s president, Charley Flint, but Charley Flint has less need of the explanation, being, as Charley Flint is, a black woman.

“I was named for my father,” she explains.

They are husband and wife, Hitchcock and Flint, as well as salt and pepper. They have been together 22 years, which means that the officers of the Center for the Study of White American Culture are everything their group stands for: a harmonious multiracial society, living a day-to-day existence that tries to push whiteness “out of the center” of life to make room for a new way of doing things.

In other words, Hitchcock and Flint put flesh on the bones of the issues that wisp around the rafters of the Episcopal center for three days.

For example: Their son goes to a public school. Most of the kids in the school are black--about 90%, Hitchcock says.

Flint says it’s only 70%.

You could count the kids, of course, but the point is the disagreement. Despite all these years with a black partner, Hitchcock sees things with white eyes. Or at least with what his wife considers white eyes.

“I believe when blacks get to 10% or 12%, whites see more blacks,” Flint says.

It might be one way of defining whiteness: paranoia, or at least a looming sense of being outnumbered. (By 2050, whites will be only a bare majority in the United States, the Census Bureau projects.)

There are other ways.

“Being on time for appointments, that’s a white thing,” says Christine Maguire. She thinks a moment.

“Making lists.”

She is making one now. Folded onto a sofa in the lobby, taking a break, she has just finished leading a workshop on white people appropriating Native American culture--wannabes looking for purification in sweat lodges, or paying to watch a Hopi medicine man work.

Maguire, whose ancestors were Scots, regards her list.

“Very linear thinking, that’s a white thing,” she says.

The list is hard to make for a couple of reasons. One is the very vagueness of “whiteness.” If you begin, as everyone here seems to, with the premise that the majority group is the historical oppressor and that the oppressor has established the society’s norms and established its institutions, you can end up defining whiteness as everything around you, and all the usual ways of doing things.

Hitchcock, for one, argues that by simply acknowledging that you are white, you are also acknowledging that you have privilege. You may not have asked for the privilege, but you do enjoy it, even if the privilege amounts to not being noticed.

“White people never think about a group identity,” says Paul Marcus, one of the conference organizers, who works for the Boston anti-racism group Community Change Inc. Marcus is white and, therefore, an expert. He believes that white people think of themselves as individuals, which is why they get their backs up when called racists: “Who, me? I don’t think like that.”

But blacks, he says, are more likely to identify with a group. Maybe it’s a result of being seen that way by others. Maybe it’s the natural inclination of a population that feels aggrieved (this would explain Rush Limbaugh’s Dittoheads).

In any event, Marcus points out, it begins to explain why whites and blacks spend so much time talking past each other when the topic is race.

Not that white people really like to talk about race.

“You know, white people do feel terribly self-conscious,” says Hitchcock: “ ‘What if I say the wrong thing?’ ”

A Great White Hope

Uptightness. It is a hallmark of whiteness: Think of Richard Pryor doing his white guy, cutting the wattage by two-thirds and ratcheting up the sphincter factor. Think of Billy Crystal out on the dance floor in “When Harry Met Sally,” doing “the white man’s overbite.”

The Ward Cleaver-Ed Sullivan archetype of whiteness is a parody of rigidity, and about the only place it survives today in public life may be the good old American workplace. (Who wants to be white? Quite possibly someone who isn’t, when applying for a job.) It is an arid substitute for identity, the opposite of ethnicity. The archetype is such an easy target for satire because it is so obviously artificial.

And that artificiality turns out to be the central point of “Exploring Whiteness to End Racism,” as the banner over the lectern in the Episcopal center reads.

The thinking here is that we might never have enshrined “whiteness” as a concept if people with lighter skin had not felt the need to feel superior to people with darker skin.

And, in fact, scientists looking for something in the human genome that is as tidy as the categories on the U.S. Census survey are now concluding that there appears to be no gene for race.

“The idea of people, in 1997, buying into the concept of race is like the Flat Earth Society,” says Lowell Thompson, one of the livelier wires at the conference.

A black man who works in advertising, Thompson has written a book called “The Invisible Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” At the conference, he circulated a petition reminding President Clinton that he has “a chance to begin the next thousand years, as James Brown would say, ‘on the good foot.’ ” But mostly he peddled his latest book, “White Folks.” This, Thompson explains to a white man, is how black folks refer among themselves to the majority population. It’s also the name of the Web site (https://www.whitefolks.com) where Thompson posts his “White Folks Funnies,” featuring Leroy Freud, the world’s first “clinical whiteologist.”

When Hitchcock of the Center for the Study (https://www.euroamerican.org) ran across the site a couple of years ago, the two struck up a relationship that resulted in the First National Conference on Whiteness. Held in New Jersey last year, it attracted about 50 pioneers, one-sixth the number who have turned out in Cambridge. At this rate, next year’s confab in Chicago may well push the study of whiteness somewhere powerfully near the mainstream.

One of the enemy groups actually had the temerity to ask to be included on the program this year. It wasn’t a militia wing, but a dubious pack of revisionists that goes by the name American Renaissance. Its Web site includes writings such as a 1993 article summarized as follows: “American slaves had surprisingly positive things to say about slavery.”

The antidote Hitchcock prescribes is itself enough to make your head hurt.

But it begins with the blandly profound observation of author Robert Terry, who back in 1970 said that part of being white is not thinking about it. Therefore, says Hitchcock: “As you learn what it is to be white, that takes you out of the traditional experience of being white.”

Standing there under the “Free Leonard Peltier” banner, Paul Bauer seems to know all this instinctively. He realizes that his heritage leaves him no choice but to be conflicted. He also realizes that the point of talking about whiteness is not to make white people feel self-conscious, which is uncomfortable. The point is to make them self-aware, which can lighten the load of that big jar of mayo.

“I personally prefer Miracle Whip Light,” Bauer says. “But that’s a neo-white thing.”


Advertisement