White Bodies, Black Faces

Why do so many white people want the power to surrender their whiteness?

WHEN the Rachel Dolezal story broke, I found myself thinking about the first sentence of Joan Didion’s The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” As a nation, it was easier to tell ourselves the story that Dolezal was just another white person trying to be black than to entertain the more complicated possibility that she is among the many white people who no longer want to be white. I say this not in defense of Dolezal but in interrogation of whiteness, and to ask why so many white bodies—once willing to give up everything for it—are now doing anything in their power to give it back.

It is just this sort of interrogation of whiteness that grounds Jess Row’s novel Your Face in Mine, in which Martin Lipkin, a white Jewish man, leaves his native Baltimore for China to get racial-reassignment surgery and returns as a black man. At face value, Row, who’s white himself, seems to be telling another story of a white body masquerading in blackface. But what Row really does is present the masquerade itself as a thesis about whiteness—and how the stories we tell ourselves in order to live can become a death sentence.

I was able to link with Jess at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in New York City, where, over the gentle hum of guitar strums and children singing “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” we chopped it up for over two hours about why he was told not to write Your Face in Mine, how the Sioux helped pay for his college tuition, why his father feared guns, and how we reconcile the facts of our lives in the face of the fictions we allow ourselves to live.

Why did you decide to write about a white man who decides to get racial-reassignment surgery?

A pivotal moment for me was when I was listening to an interview with James Baldwin. I was listening to this 1961 interview with him from just before Another Country was published, and in it he suggests that the psychological toll of racism is felt as much or more by white people than it is by black people. And this planted the seed in my artistic consciousness that I needed to write about race directly, that I needed to find a way to encounter it. Then, in 2008, I happened upon a book about the history of plastic surgery, Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul by Sander Gilman, which led me to the idea of racial-reassignment surgery. I listened to that Baldwin interview in 1999, and the book wasn’t published until 2014. That’s 15 years! But even at the beginning, I knew that it would be problematic.

How did people react when you told them about the project?

My previous agent told me not to write it. It was a one-sentence conversation. We were having dinner and in a semi-joking way I said, “My next book is going to be about racial-reassignment surgery—and a white man who undergoes surgery to become black.”  I don’t remember the exact words, but she responded with some version of the typical thing white people say when they’re in the defensive posture about race, that there’s nothing a white person can say about race that won’t get them into trouble.  She said, “Don’t write that book. You don’t want the kind of trouble that book is going to cause you. You don’t want to open that Pandora’s box.”

Did you write the book from a place of “I’m going to try to write myself out of trouble” or “This is trouble regardless, so let me just write it?”

I wanted to write into trouble as much as I could. There’s a really important difference between writing into trouble and writing to be provocative. I think that’s a crucial distinction for anyone that’s writing about race. It’s a distinction that’s lost on a lot of white writers. When you write yourself into trouble, you’re writing about your own vulnerabilities. You’re willing to risk a kind of raw emotional honesty, being reflective and honest and opening up.

Writing to be provocative is writing from a defensive position. You’re basically saying, “I’m going to say something hurtful or offensive, because that’s the only kind of honesty I can have.” You know what I mean? To be provocative is to create a scenario where your own body is not in question. That was the opposite of what I was trying to do. That’s why I wanted to put the white body first in the novel. Instead of just focusing on the black body, I wanted to make Martin’s white body vulnerable.

In the book you have this quote, “The house of blackness has many doors. Not everyone chooses the same way in.” Do you see whiteness similarly, as a house with many doors and different ways in?

I stole that from Henry James, who says in the preface of The Portrait of a Lady, the “house of fiction has many windows and many doors.” So I was being ironic. What I was pointing to was that, yeah, blackness is a fiction; whiteness is a fiction. When we live according to these categories, we’re living within a fiction. Of course, it’s a fiction with very real consequences.

The only honest way to approach the question of whiteness and blackness is to start by accepting that these are arbitrary categories that were invented in the 17th and 18th century in order to justify imperialism and slavery.  They’re categories intended for the enforcement of power. They were never intended to be psychologically satisfying in the way we want them to be.

In my conversations with white people, I’ve ­realized that one of the reasons so many of them are uncomfortable talking about race is that they’re completely unaware of their whiteness. At first I thought they were playing stupid. But I’m realizing that they often really don’t know. Even for you: You said the idea for this came in 1999, but it took 15 years to write it. How do you develop and embrace an awareness of whiteness when it wasn’t the reality you grew up with?

It’s really true. I grew up in Washington, D.C., in a very upscale neighborhood. My parents both worked for the government. Both were active in the civil rights movement. They were that generation of very idealistic liberals in the early years of the civil rights movement and then were profoundly disillusioned after the riots following King’s death—especially the ones in D.C., because they experienced those directly.

And when I was a kid, I went to the National Cathedral Elementary School. The chaplain of the school was the bishop of the cathedral. His name was Bishop John Walker, and he was the second African-American bishop in the Episcopal Church. He had grown up with Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King. He was a close friend of Desmond Tutu. He was an activist and black religious leader in the tradition of King. My only real exposure to Christianity growing up was through him.

But here’s how I would describe my childhood: We had black heroes but no black friends. We had black icons, but my daily life was totally white. It was a very intellectual upper-crust upbringing. And this was in the ’70s and ’80s, around the turn into the Reagan years. That’s a very complicated legacy. It’s not the same thing as having grown up in the South. The segregation was more de facto. Like many of my white peers, I grew up with idealistic parents who considered themselves very anti-racist but were carrying out a kind of geographical and psychological apartheid without really knowing it.

Let me follow up on that, because I think the South gets a lot of flak for being the place where racism lives. I wonder about that after reading a book like Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and better understanding the intimacy of racism there, how deeply and directly connected people were and still are in the South. Is the idea that the South is more racist than the North a fiction we northerners tell ourselves because we don’t like to face the reality that the North is segregated in a way the South could never be?

Places like Washington and New York and Chicago are bastions of white liberalism that never admit how segregated and racist they are—and Boston perhaps more than any of those other places. Boston is just a profoundly, phenomenally racist and segregated city, but it’s also the birthplace of the abolitionist movement. So there’s all this reserve and repression and historical chauvinism and arrogance that profoundly separates white and black experience in the North.

Is that part of what we’re witnessing with the ­Oregon Militia—this idea of historical chauvinism and arrogance of the white imagination?

The connection I make is to my father, who came from South Dakota. His father, my grandfather, was a lifelong career military man. But my father spent most of his upbringing in the Black Hills with his mother’s family, who had been there since the gold rush. Custer’s Last Stand was fought near where my father grew up. North and South Dakota are as close to the South African apartheid as we have ever had in the U.S. Even now, the Sioux lands still belong to the white descendants of the people who “settled” it in the 1870s and ’80s. Every time I went back there as a kid, I would meet relatives who spoke with this profound paranoia that the federal government was going to take the Black Hills and give it back to the Sioux. This was a perennial subject of discussion. Everyone in my family was heavily armed. There were lots of guns, and that was directly connected to this sense of “We live on stolen land and we are enforcing it by being a highly armed rural population.”

A year ago, a white friend described white guilt to me in a way I had never heard before. He thought the reason a lot of white people experience guilt is because they believe had it been them who were slaves to black people and displaced by Native Americans, they would’ve killed blacks and Native Americans a long time ago. And a part of white guilt is a deep suspicion connected to that feeling. What you’re describing seems to get at this, that white people know or suspect that they’ve done something wrong.

My father passed away almost three years ago, and one of the questions I regret never asking him was “Do you think you left South Dakota because you had just had it with the racism, and you had just had it with living in what felt like a settler colonial outpost? Where the history of Custer’s Last Stand was psychologically still being fought?” I never got to ask him. And I don’t know what he would’ve said. But to me, it seems obvious that he left because he wasn’t a racist. He didn’t hate Native Americans. He hated guns. He would never allow them in the house.

When I was fascinated by guns as a kid, he kept repeating this story from his childhood about how his best friend’s father got drunk and was killed in a hunting accident. He shot himself with his own rifle. Of course this happens all the time. But that experience changed my father’s life and made him an avowed opponent of gun ownership and anything having to do with them. 

I think that was a big part of why he left. But his leaving erased a whole part of my history, in a sense. It erased the violence and the racism. I would visit South Dakota for a few days and hear these conversations and think, “This is a different universe. This has no relation to me.” But I’m directly related to those people. And I inherited their money. Their money came to me and helped pay for my college education. Talk about invisible capital. The stock in the gold mine that was stolen from the Sioux 150 years ago was part of what paid for me to go to college.

So how do you reconcile that?

I don’t think you do. One of the things I’ve been thinking about with white guilt is that popularly we tend to associate guilt with sin. And sin is always associated with forgiveness and absolution. Sin can be washed away. That’s the Christian narrative.

For me the whole exercise of feeling guilty, feeling like you have to repent—or confessing and expecting the person you’re confessing to to absolve you—is a big part of the problem. I prefer to think about white guilt as something possibly restorative or reparative, as a process, but not necessarily reconciled. You don’t get say “I’m done with this.”

There’s this feeling I have as a white person that race is something that I can pick up, take up, and leave. In other words, race is a subject I can enter into and deal with and then be finished with. But of course that’s nonsense.

The national narrative about Rachel Dolezal largely focused on the fact that she wanted to be black. There wasn’t as much thought given to the idea that she no longer wanted to be white. And although thinking about her story that way doesn’t change the act, it does change the investigation. The question was never “What is it about whiteness that repels?” The question is always “What is it about blackness that attracts?”

This is a central interest throughout my work. The life of privilege is a fantasy life. If you live in a privileged position, so much of your life is about symbolic choices and self-definitions that don’t have actual consequences. And this novel is about somebody who can’t take living in a realm of symbolic choice anymore and decides to change himself so he no longer has to be in his own body.  But the irony of what happens to Martin in a black body is that, because of his personality, because of the way he displaces himself internationally, he still winds up having all these symbolic choices. He still winds up in a position of privilege. He still places himself in a position of ­consequencelessness.

In some ways, the essential moral problem of inhabiting a place of privilege is figuring out how to break out of the fantasy you’ve been living in. Even when you try to do something permanent to break out of the fantasy, in some ways that’s still an expression of the fantasy itself; it’s still an expression of choice and consequencelessness.

Often when we talk about the European immigrants who came here, changed their last names, and did a myriad of other things to become white, we rarely talk about what they gave up. We mostly obsess over what they got in return. I think white people are beginning to question that, at least unconsciously.

That’s so right, and it speaks to the American obsession with genealogy and family history. I think that has to do with the fact that a lot of people—white people especially—feel a sense of intrinsic hollowness and meaninglessness in their present lives. So they look for self-definition by saying, “My ancestors came from Germany,” or whatever, searching for some sense of positive ethnic identity. Because what they feel in whiteness is a sense of negative identity. There’s no way to belong to it as a category. So instead you say, “I belong to my Scottish clan” or “I identify as a gamer” or what have you.

I don’t know what’s going on with white identity right now. The social and cultural pressures are pulling in so many directions. One thing that has obviously happened in the past two years is the emergence of an explicit, unapologetic racism in the national political mainstream—from Trump to white racists on Twitter. It’s not really that there’s more explicit white racism; there’s just so much attention being paid to it. The political climate that we’re in is so polarized that white conservatism is being drawn back to an explicit white nationalist racism. That part of the white political body is going backward, and it’s a total disaster for American politics and culture.

But there are all these other people who are left with really profound questions about where we’re going as a country, about solidarity. Some will choose to engage, and some will choose to escape. It’s one of those moments where American culture is becoming extremely politicized, and a lot of people, a lot of white people, are checking out and going back to their bunkers. That’s what I think is happening now.