White Girls, White Masks

January 24, 2010

 

The archetypical white girl: We don't all live like this.

 

 

It was my fourth full day in Mexico. My luggage was still in Texas, and I was wearing the itchiest pair of Mexican grandma underwear ever. And crying. Absolutely balling.

I had begun my Great Leftist Adventure with naïve enthusiasm. I would become fluent in Spanish! I would experience the transcendence of radical community! I would engage in strenuous physical labor and learn to love my body! I would fall in love with a Che Guevara look-alike!

Alas, these things would not come to pass, nor did my Great Leftist Adventure get off to an auspicious start. My flight from Dallas to Mexico City was delayed by more than four hours, arriving at midnight. I just barely managed to catch my ride as the driver was leaving. My luggage hadn’t come, and I wouldn’t see it again for another week. Dressed in my usual white girl uniform of skinny jeans and neo-Victorian blouse, I was armed to face underdevelopment with only a copy of a Vaclav Havel book and a half-knitted mitten.

We left Mexico City the next morning, arriving by late afternoon in a tiny town in the mountains. Three days of orientation were to follow. On day one, I was tired but hopeful, determined to be positive. On day two, after eight hours of lectures that elaborated a “New York bankers intentionally fuck farmers in the Sierra Norte de Puebla” version of Marxism, I had begun to have my doubts. I had come to imbibe from a spring of leftist knowledge, and instead I was getting warmed-over Stalinism?

By Wednesday morning, I had had it. After an hour of the evils of “individualism,” I raised my hand and, in my mangled Spanish, argued that belief in the individual was central to the American progressive tradition. Some of the Americans thanked me, but the Latin Americans probably thought I was completely incomprehensible. (Which, admittedly, was probably true.)

And so it came to pass that later, as I was sitting in the common area, reading my Vaclav Havel, oblivious to the general drunken mayhem unfolding around me, I realized that M, the director of the program was at the next table over, holding forth. More specifically, holding forth about me. I tried to defend myself, this time in English, offering what I thought was an elegant pontification on American democracy from Tocqueville to King. (And probably plagiarized from an Eric Foner lecture.) M was not impressed by my Ivy League learning, and responded in forceful Spanish that was as much spoken word as political prose, warning me of the dangers of neoliberalism. (I really hate this word, but that’s another story.) By the time he got to McDonalds in France throwing away perfect potatoes, I was sobbing. I, Emma Hulse, dressed in borrowed t-shirts and Mexican grandma underwear, had been transformed into a symbol of global capitalism.

In less than 30 minutes, my dream of a Great Leftist Adventure had died. But if M had not unleashed himself upon me, if my GLA had unfolded according to plan with much leftist-love and self-love and Latin America-love, I never would have come to Guatemala.

At the time, I was absolutely furious, and my anger affected my attitude throughout my time in Mexico. Now I have achieved enough emotional distance to appreciate that M never meant to hurt me, but rather to convert me, to force me to see the extremities and brutalities that characterize the political realities of Latin America. I would like to see him again, to explain more clearly and carefully what frustrated me about his analysis and approach. But I also believe that the root of the problem was something I perceived at the time: to M, I was a privileged, naïve gringa. I was a white girl, and had to be shown the error of my white girl ways.

I fully recognize that I am privileged, and that I am also sometimes naïve. And, obviously, I know that I am white. But I was born that way. On January 19, 1987, I fell from my mother’s womb white, pink and privileged, with her green eyes and my father’s allergy to antibiotics. This is the person I am, and I can’t stop being her. Nor do I have any wish to. I may have written my senior thesis on Black Power, but I love all manner of white girl things, like Sofia Coppola, France, Jane Austen and champagne. If my hair were straight, I would totally have bangs. I see both the beauty and the ugliness in the white people and places that made me who I am, and it would be inauthentic if I were to renounce them and hide out in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, plotting revolution.

But how do I make sure that my whiteness doesn’t get in the way of people understanding my meaning, and prevent me from understanding theirs?

M wasn’t really talking to me on that terrible night in Mexico. He was talking to a real, yet imagined, white girl: the ghost of the Conquest, the phantom of the School of the Americas, an archetypical Elizabeth Cady Stanton, employing racism in the service of suffrage. Nor was M’s outburst the first time I had been so misidentified. From community activists in Indianapolis to Black Power veterans in Newark, I have actually become accustomed to it.

However, I haven’t become all that much better at dealing with it. The only time I ever managed to unmask myself was in my final interview for my thesis, with the wife of a famous African-American poet. It hadn’t been hard to get most of the male Black Power figures I’d interviewed to talk. But I really struggled to connect with the Black women whose voices I so badly wanted to hear. After one terrible encounter and another mediocre interview, a professor advised me to find a way to explain the my political reasons for writing about Newark. And so I explained at the outset that I had become interested in Black Power while working in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood in Indianapolis, and that I saw memory as a way to explain the importance of the Black Power movement in shaping racial consciousness. The interview that followed was my very best: honest, anguished, and heartfelt.

But even my explanation of my motivations was coded. Although leftist white kids spend most of their undergraduate careers discussing the vicissitudes of race, class and gender, nothing is more tabooed. Our conceptions of these things are so deeply embedded in our social languages, that we find it hard to even name them. And naming them, acknowledging our divergent identities and experiences and seeking to understand the other, is the only way to ever overcome them. What I was trying to tell the wife of the poet, was that I wrote about Black Power because I wanted to understand how the ghost of the sixties, of slavery, still shape politics, culture and interpersonal relationships. How does race define us, even in a “post-racial” era?

In the end, I didn’t come to Guatemala just because I wanted to learn Spanish and think about Paulo Freire. I came because two and a half years ago, I briefly played the role of a symbol of global capitalism, and afterwards I felt angry, alienated and lost. I need to understand that alienation more than the subjunctive tense and educational theory. I need to understand it because it is at the very heart of our collective darkness.

I would like to say that in the last four months I have figured it all out. But the truth is that the deeper you delve, the harder it becomes to see. The hardest part of my day at P is not completing my assignments or even speaking Spanish: it’s making small talk at the lunch table. I want to connect with people, to show them that I care, to demonstrate my humility. I’m getting better at it, but I worry that I have not yet learned how to name myself, to identify my motivations clearly. And I sometimes worry that I will never, really, manage, no matter how good my grammar gets.

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