The Little White Lie
THE LITTLE WHITE LIE: By Jenifer Eklund Maxson I was a Long Island girl born and bred, an early-vintage Baby Boomer, witness to the advent of Levittown, shopping malls, fast food chains and the Civil Rights movement. I remember being about 14, when my mother, having just returned from a week in Antigua with my dad, described the highlights of the trip. She mentioned that a “Negro” man had asked her to dance. “You know,” she said, “Negro people down in the islands aren’t the same as they are here. They have lots of pride. Anyway, when this man took my hand I have to say I was amazed–his skin felt exactly like...well, skin.” My mother wasn’t any Mrs. O’Hara from Tara–she was a smart, savvy, self-made woman–in the retail “rag” business–a “people person” who would have staked her life on not having a prejudiced bone in her body. Of course not. I recall being quite impressed that my mother was capable of such an original, not to mention profound, observation; however, the mind-numbing ignorance it also exhibited managed to escape me. I knew about “civil rights,” at least from a distance; I’d known about atrocities like slavery, like lynchings. since elementary school, and, yes, I’d always felt–in the moment, at any rate–a muffled outrage. I was aware that Negroes had held sit-ins and marches and naturally I wished them well, but I couldn’t have said that beyond that I’d ever really wondered about dark-skinned people at all, though, much like my mother, I considered myself on the correct side of the racial issue. I suppose that not thinking about race was what, in my mind, passed for tolerance–I simply didn’t know any better. There were some colored kids in my high school, and I remember my parents mentioning that most of them came from “old black families” which had been in our town for “ages.” It seemed as if, for my parents, that distinction conferred on those particular families a kind of pedigree not extended to other people of color. I never had a colored friend–not in high school nor college–but I think I may have had acquaintances who did. I’m not sure. Certainly there was something decidedly exotic, however unsettling, about the idea of having a Negro “friend.” I vaguely remember puzzling on just how one would go about having such a friendship. In college I read Black Boy and Native Son and much later, during another iteration of my college career, The Color Purple and Beloved and, along with everyone else, I watched Roots. I found the stories compelling and often moving, at least while I was reading or watching, but I now realize I only managed the barest wisps of real “identification.” As a white person, my emotional “receptors” were underdeveloped, stunted, because I’d had no opportunity to exercise them beyond the limits that had kept me, literally, within the pale, a member of the only “race” on the planet that has never been confronted with racism. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. When, via books, movies, current events I was exposed to the non-white experience, I think that more than anything what I “felt,”, beyond that easy outrage, was a kind of distant, inarticulated relief–far enough away that it didn’t require any uncomfortable self-reflection, but strong enough to verge on something like “gratitude.” Indeed, I knew from childhood that I was glad not to be Jewish and gladder still not to be a Negro, but I could lay that sad but pragmatic recognition on the doorstep of a flawed society. I remember seeing Imitation of Life with Lana Turner and being morbidly fascinated by the idea of trying to “pass” for white. Of course, to me it seemed the only logical thing to do if you could get away with it–on the other hand, I’d always been puzzled why all Jewish people didn’t try to pass for Christian in World War II Europe, instead of resigning themselves to wearing those chrome yellow Stars of David–death stars. I guess I was responding less to the moral deformities of my race and more to the misfortune of those not being born a part of it. This skewed notion ran deep. I may have been a relatively privileged girl raised in a hot bed of American Liberalism, and known, as the age of “political correctness” dawned, the absolutely right, progressive sentiments to express, but subconsciously I was cemented to a foundational precept so clear, so obvious, so ancient that the truth of it need never be actually expressed: Being White must be superior–in all ways superior–to being Black (and/or any color in between). The centuries-worth of “evidence” for this “truth” seemed irrefutable, except for the fact that it’s turned out to be a lie, a lie that for most of us (of every color)still operates just beneath the reach of consciousness. The great, seeping wound of slavery that continues to infect our nation is just one of the abominations spawned by that same lethal little white lie. Certainly that wound will never have a chance of healing until we, as citizens, are willing, in good faith, to have those messy, uncomfortable conversations with one another that, first and foremost must be based, finally, on the truth: There is nothing physically, emotionally, morally, spiritually, creatively or intellectually superior in being white–nothing. Nothing.