Show me the color of your right hand, pt II

6 07 2015

I didn’t want to be racist, and knew that whatever good anti-racist politics I might hold, if every black person I saw was every black person, I was a racist.


So I figured I needed to get over that, and looked for apartments in, if not wholly black neighborhoods (as in North Minneapolis), then in neighborhoods where black people lived, which at the time included the area around Stevens Square. I took the bus with black people, shopped at stores where black people shopped, hung out in the park where black people hung out, and if I was still the (self-conscious) observer, I was, at least, beginning to see that one black person was not every black person.

It was also at some point in graduate school that I became interested in my own ethnic background, or at least the Irish part of it. I’m more German than Irish, along with Scandinavian, French, and, Polish, but in the 1990s I lay claim to Ireland. It was, I knew, a bit of a pose: I’d been Irish all along, but that had never mattered, and there was nothing particularly Irish about my upbringing, but I loved the Pogues and read Kate O’Brien and scoffed at green beer with the best of them. It was something I chose.

I was Irish. But white? No, that still didn’t make sense, and not in a how-the-Irish-became-white kind of way. It was something I recognized as a social reality—that people would look at me and see a white woman—but I didn’t feel “white”, didn’t know what it meant to be white.

A word about white privilege: I don’t much like the term, not least because it seems to personalize the issue too much, to customize the yawning fabric of white supremacy into a bespoke suit of advantage. It’s not that white privilege isn’t real, but that it isn’t the point: it’s just the final, small echo from the deep, deep well of white supremacy.

White privilege is the erasure of white supremacy, a forgetting that white, too, is a race. To call it a privilege to forget is cast this privilege in the most ironic of shadings: to use the term earnestly, piously, rather than sardonically, savagely, is just another way to dodge one’s own race—to look at the privilege, rather than the whiteness.

What does it mean to be white? What does it mean for me to be white? Again, I can look at social constructions and systems and structures of oppression, but do I know who and how I am as a white woman?

I prefer to talk about ethnicity, these days about how I’m mostly Irish and German, but that, too, is a dodge. I know I’m white, but don’t know I’m white. I see the history of whiteness in the US as a history of negation—this is what we are not—built around qualities and characteristics and people that those who are white are not. It’s not just that, of course, but if I reject the ‘positive’ characterization of whiteness, which is to say, white supremacy, then I don’t know that whiteness has any meaning at all.

I’m not sure about any of this. It seems that I’ve concluded that whiteness (in the US, at least) positively affirmed is white supremacy, that a whiteness without supremacy is a lack.  Is whiteness without blackness a thing of its own? Should it be? I don’t know what a non-supremacist whiteness would mean, that it could mean anything.

I am concerned these days with ontological matters: what does it mean to be? The question ‘what does it mean to be white’ appears as an obstacle, the whiteness obliterating the being. I don’t know if I have to answer this second question in order to get to the primary one. In contrast, I don’t feel as if I have to answer ‘what does it mean to be a woman’, that ‘a woman’ blots out the ‘to be’.

No, there is something about whiteness, a somnolent heaviness which masquerades as weightlessness, a history without a history, which interferes with my ability to make sense.

I’m a white woman, and I don’t know what that means.

Show me the color of your right hand, pt. I

5 07 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, after excerpting a story of his experience with racism, has invited his readers to submit their own experiences. A misreading of this invitation (“talk about your experiences with race”)  prompted the following response from me. I thought I’d whittle it down and submit it, but upon re-reading his post, it’s clear my response isn’t on target and so won’t be submitted. Still, I thought it worth posting. Here’s part I:

I didn’t know I was white until I was an adult.

Even now, long into adulthood, I’m not always so sure.

As a kid in the 1970s, growing up in almost completely white town in a mostly white state, I knew I was white—but white meant pale, white was set against tan, not black. White was about the sun, and the more sun—the tanner you were—the better.

I could get a decent tan (we used suntan lotion back in the day, not sunscreen, and only until we had a base tan: then we’d switch over to baby oil), but mostly I found laying out boring. I wanted a tan to look better, to not be white, but it was a hassle not being white. You had to work at not being white, so while I worked enough not to look sickly—pale—I never achieved the glorious tans of some of my friends.

I wasn’t completely oblivious of race back then. We had a t.v., after all, and on trips to or through Milwaukee I would see black people; on family trips around the country I’d encounter black people, and they were utterly other to me. I wasn’t afraid, wasn’t particularly taught to be afraid by my parents, but it was always a little thrilling to talk to a black person like it was a normal thing to do.

*Caveat: I am running off of memory, This is how I remember the experience, today; how I actually experienced it, in the moment, is gone.

“Nigger” was not used in the Peterson household. No nigger jokes, no racial jokes, generally. Did we say “nigger pile” when we three kids jumped into my parents’ bed on Sunday mornings, or were we admonished not to? Did we change the words to “eeny meeny miney moe”? I don’t remember*. I do remember my dad telling us about the separate drinking fountains in San Angelo, Texas, where he served for awhile in the Air Force. There was at least one black man in his unit.

I liked to imagine, later, that it was this experience, along with, perhaps, seeing on t.v. the brutality of white resistance to civil rights protesters, that set my parents against racist talk, but I don’t know. It’s not something we talked much about.

My time at college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was my first sustained exposure to black people. Some lived in my dorm, some taught my classes, some worked at The Daily Cardinal, but however friendly we might have been with one another, we weren’t really friends. I was always conscious of their race; I had barely begun to think I, too, had a race.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I thought, truly, to do something about my other-consciousness, which meant admitting my self-consciousness. I remember reading a bit in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune of a white woman who, while waiting for a bus, thrust out her arm and screamed out STOP! at a young black man running up to her, intent, she was sure, on stealing her purse. He was, of course, only running to catch the bus, but this woman justified her scream with a well-he-could-have. . . .

I was scornful of this woman. Of course he was only running to catch the bus, how racist could she be? But if I wouldn’t have screamed like that woman did, I might have had the thought behind the scream. I knew that when I looked at one black person I saw every black person. They were all the same to me, I admitted, and if that wasn’t racism, little was.

I didn’t want to be racist, and knew that whatever good anti-racist politics I might hold, if every black person I saw was every black person, I was a racist.


Hey baby, it’s the fourth of July

4 07 2015

Well, it’s actually the fifth—I missed the date by 29 minutes—but no reason to let the clock get in the way of John Doe, Exene, and the gang:

Money’s too tight to mention

2 07 2015

So, the second summer session course was cancelled, and work at the second job seems to have dried up.

Which means that, for the first time in my life, I’ve applied for unemployment.

Actually, when I went to the unemployment claims page, I discovered I could have applied for unemployment when the first summer session was cancelled: that I had part-time work in addition would not necessarily have torpedoed the claim. (There’s process for applying for retroactive UI, which I may try.)

I had never thought to apply for unemployment insurance in previous summers (or during the hell year of 2011) until a colleague (also an adjunct) mentioned that she was on UI: I had thought that, as an adjunct, I wasn’t eligible. I almost certainly left some money on the table as a result.

That’s fine, though. Yes, I could have used the money back then, but I somehow figured it out. I’m pretty clearly motivated less by maximizing my gains than minimizing my losses.

(That lack of motivation is an issue, actually, in terms of career advancement, and is something on which I need to do some serious thinking. But. . . , well, yeah, I might need an motivation adjustment.)

I don’t know how long this process takes, or what, exactly is involved in terms of my obligations. If my claim is accepted, I’ll have to do 3 job-related tasks on 3 different days each week, which seems reasonable. I’ve been meaning to update my c.v. and send it to a coupla’ other colleges, so this would be a good time to do it. And I think there are opportunities for some training courses; if there are computer/software courses, yeah, I’d sign up for those. Never know when those skills could come in handy.

I’ll be grateful is this does come through. I’ve put up a freelance ad on Craigslist (where I’ve had decent luck in the past) and there may be more work at the second job eventually, but it’d certainly relieve some anxiety to know I’d have at least some money coming in.

Which I guess is one of the virtues of insurance.

In the city

28 06 2015

When I was a kid I remember a poster of a black cat on a cement sidewalk.

“City Cat”, I think, was the title.


A variation on a theme: “Windowsill Cat”.

Smile, everything is all right

25 06 2015

I mentioned earlier an infected, broken tooth—which both infection and tooth were dealt with on Monday.

Which is good. And I’m neither in pain nor allergic to the antibiotic, which is also good.

I did notice something, though. When I went outside prior to the oral surgery, I was incredibly fucking conscious of how misshapen my face was. It was not just embarrassing, it felt like I had done something wrong, and everyone could see I had done something wrong.

I mean, by Sunday (I didn’t leave the apt)  I looked like this:


And no, that bulge in the cheek and neck is not a normal look for me.

Walking home after the surgery, however, I wasn’t the least self-conscious.

True, I was still groggy from the anesthesia, so wasn’t conscious of much beyond “one foot, then other foot, then that first foot”, so maybe that’s not the best example, but even later that day, when I went down to Target to pick up the antibiotic, I knew I looked like hell and I didn’t really care.

Okay, again, I was reaaaaalllllllllyyyyy tired and in some pain, so probably also not the best example.

BUT I HAVE A POINT HERE, somewhere, if not a point, exactly, then certainly an observation: being all swollen pre-op seemed shameful, but the post-op swollen-ness (which on Monday and into Tuesday, when I went back for a checkup, was just as bad) was just sorta, “yep, looks bad”.

So, to recap (not that that’s necessary but indulge me, wouldja?): Looking like a lopsided chipmunk due to illness? NASTY! Looking like a lopsided chipmunk due to oral surgery? Eh.

That’s some fucked-up level of moral reaction to an infected tooth, and its treatment.

The world is unfair, wah

21 06 2015

Sore back, abscess, broken tooth, and broken fridge.

Great fuckin’ start to summer.


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