In State College, Pennsylvania, five miles north of the airport, in a stately house on a street that hasn’t quite grown into itself—the trees are like shrubs, which is striking given the wooded expanse one hundred yards away—Jim lives with his wife, Shannon, and three children and one grandchild. The oldest is twenty-one and a problem. The two younger children, nine and eleven, are being homeschooled the “classical” way; they’ve just started learning Latin. At 2:30p.m. when school lets out, they race to the bus stop at the end of the street to find friends to bring home to play.
Jim works for a San Francisco-based affiliate of Hewlett Packard and has a 415 number. Jim also has a side gig: buying and repurposing computer parts and reselling them on Amazon. He has just returned from a work trip to New Zealand and is jet-lagged. His wife has been alone with their four children for the past two weeks. If Chanelle, their foster daughter, hadn’t emancipated herself earlier in the year, after placing her own baby up for adoption, it would have been five at home with Shannon, a former schoolteacher with a graduate degree in education, pale skin, and blue eyes. When Shannon is pulled over for speeding, she cries. She is generally let off.
I meet Jim in Chicago’s O’Hare. He’s standing with a guy named Ricky in the Priority line for the help desk, waiting, like me, to be rebooked on another flight to State College. Ours has been cancelled. I’ve never been to State College, where I am to attend an academic conference. I lean over the barrier to ask the men about distances. Pittsburgh is an option, Ricky says, though Harrisburg is closer.
We move ahead in our separate lines.
There are no flights to Harrisburg, and nothing to State College until tomorrow. The options are Philadelphia tonight, with a flight to State College tomorrow morning, or Pittsburgh at 10p.m., and then a rental car. Jim walks over to me, the brown girl in the charcoal coat and worn boots, three desks away, and interrupts my phone call to say, come with us from Pittsburgh. We’re getting a car.
Ricky and Jim are on expense account. Ricky pulls up Hertz on his phone and prepares to make the reservation. He is a Gold Member. When the flight lands, Jim waits for me on the jet bridge and we walk together through the airport to find Ricky and the rented Toyota. I get in the backseat. Ricky drives.
I am maybe eight years old when my brother, in the same aisle as me but on the other side of our father, idly kicks the seat in front of him. Airplanes then are not as cramped as they are now, which means that his legs have more space to gather momentum, so maybe he kicks hard, I don’t know. I do know he kicks the seat of a white man who is not pleased. I do know that this man stands up in our aisle and towers over my brother. I do know that he tells my brother, who is five, that if he doesn’t stop he will kick him back. He will make him stop. Something like that. There is malice that my brown father minimizes as he apologizes profusely for my brother. We learn then who can and cannot threaten violence. We learn about our father.
Two years into the Obama presidency, I get engaged to a man whose Mississippi-family traces its stock back to the Jamestown settlers. Southern aristocrats, with status if not wealth in conventional terms, they are landowning farmers in the poorest state in the country. They grow cotton. Faced with competition from foreign-grown product, they switch to rice, soybeans, and catfish.
Indianola, Mississippi—with its deep-rooted local families, acute class consciousness, racialized division of labor, and almost tribal relations—reminds me of small-town India. Here, there are tracks and differently colored people on either side of them. There, the legacies of caste discrimination are still being negotiated. Here, my mother-in-law grew up in a house next-door to her grandmother’s. There, my great-aunts and uncles live in the same village as their mother. Everywhere, mosquitoes. It’s not that difficult to make myself at home.
So when a milk punch-drinking matriarch says that I’m turning this family into “the United Nations,” I smile. She also asks what pattern I’m choosing for my silver.
And when a nonagenarian Mississippi man, a relation by marriage, turns to me and comments on the color of my hair—“Your hair,” he says, “is mighty black”—I don’t decry the exoticism.
I am used to Indian family members commenting on appearance: who has gained weight; who is too thin; who is darkest of them all. I know that the really insidious prejudices take more nuanced form than such overt gestures of racial assignment. I know it’s not a big deal, so I smile.
“Your hair is mighty black.”
This is me talking myself out of reacting to the big white man, a man for whom the descriptor “beefy” just about serves. This is me talking myself out of asking how many guns he keeps in his house. This is me talking myself out of feeling hunted. This is me talking myself out of pulling back from his outstretched hand, his fingers thick and white as they reach toward my face.
“Your hair is mighty black.”
Yes, I think, I am a curiosity here, a brown woman among white women who the black women serve. But how can I judge their incredulity over my visible otherness, when I am, if more discreetly, appraising their own?
The trouble with writing about whiteness is that you have to write about white people. This is a problem if you yourself are not white. You don’t want to participate in the classist cataloguing of “stuff white people like” (snowboarding, microbreweries, crossword puzzles). You know that for every child putting Ranch dressing on her pizza there’s one fashioning a pile of sand into a Waldorf salad. You know that if you’re writing about the Ranch dressing and the Waldorf salad you have already waded too far into the muck at the intersection of race and class.
You know that you are seeing as a brown woman, a child of immigrants, an Indian American. You know that it’s you, seeing. But you don’t forget all those things “they” do, those things you learned at an early age were Other, that in the moment may have been unremarkable, but which you recall years later. Those minor scenes that have come to exemplify whiteness for you. You see them, in retrospect, seeing you, seeing them.
A man is sitting on a couch with his legs up on a coffee table. He is wearing shoes, and they rest on a pile of books.
A woman is ordering a Diet Coke, with ice.
A teenager is on an airplane for the first time, going to visit her dad.
A man is reaching for your hair.
A woman is calling John McCain a maverick.
A man is coming home from hunting camp.
A woman is making her husband a sandwich: just peanut butter, between two slices of white bread.
A man is filling up at a gas station outside Altoona.
A tap is running into an overfull sink.
What is white and what is American? That’s whiteness: the slippage, the fact that you’re never sure.
At some point when you are young, you start to center white stories. You learn to metabolize white people’s narratives, especially men’s. Is that because they like to talk or because you are expected to listen?
It starts in school, where the great are named George and Thomas. It starts because the teacher would rather call on someone whose name she can pronounce.
It continues as the word problems ask you to count the number of dumplings in chicken soup, as the protagonist named Jack eats another meatloaf. When in first grade you are invited to Rachel’s house, where you eat boiled carrots and uncooked cookie dough, and though this for you is an experience of the exotic, you recognize it all the same because you have seen it written. Chicken soup, meatloaf, cookie dough: in diaspora, these are your daffodils.
You are maybe ten years old when the little white Girl Scout asks if you speak English. It continues because you know the rites of Girl Scouts, but they obviously haven’t heard about you.
You don’t realize until it’s long since been normalized that every story by a woman or person of color has been qualified as such.
It continues as you are asked repeatedly to give an account of yourself.
At Hindu weddings of Indian Americans with predominantly Indian guests, pundits translate rituals and mantras into one-liners and punch-lines for the sari-clad white Americans. You get used to explaining the fire, the seven steps, the shoe stealing, the red dot. You are asked to rename everything. Every word you speak is a translation. You tolerate their bad accents because you’re the one with the inscrutable customs, the impossible name.
All your life you absorb casual comments couched in colloquial speech and bathed in alibis of unintentionality that remind you of your place, your difference, how you are being tolerated, the lines you transgress at your peril. “Do you speak English?” “Where are you from?” “Your hair is mighty black.”
“Lahiri,” you correct the academic who mispronounces the famous writer’s name. Lahiri. Lahiri. Lahiri. Lahiri. You think that if you say it enough, he will hear you and, knowing that you know better than he does, he will hasten to correct himself. That’s what you think.
Jim is in his late forties and handsome. He eats fries with ketchup and likes his milkshakes thinner than normal. At a Sheetz convenience store-cum-gas-station outside Altoona, he grabs a vanilla shake out of the fridge, peels its lid off, and places it in an otherworldly machine that renders the caked substance in the cup liquid, somehow, and frothy sweet. Drinking it, he walks over to the beer cave at the other end of the store, for a look.
Ricky is older than Jim, sixty, heavy and balding, and works for an oil company based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He knows something about fracking. He’s from Shreveport but has been living in State College with his third wife and some of his children for about seven years. The youngest is adopted—Ricky and Jim have this in common—from a family they know whose daughter couldn’t manage what would have been her eighth child. So Ricky and Rebecca took the boy, in an open adoption that should have been simple but cost them nearly twenty-five grand. That first year, Ricky says, when they moved to State College with the baby, and he was working out of town most every week, Rebecca cried and the baby cried. They were so many miles from Louisiana, and it was cold in winter, and they were alone.
Ricky flies first class now. He has a chronically pinched vagus nerve and when he gets too excited, exercising or yelling, it makes him feel nauseated and weak. He still wakes every morning at 4:30a.m. to spend an hour on the elliptical, before taking his boy to school at 8. He sleeps by 8:30p.m. He drives a mammoth gold Ford truck with leather seats and a backseat full of helmets and water bottles. It’s a work truck, but he sets the radio stations.
In addition to Latin, Jim’s children are learning Spanish and sign language. For a while, a girl from the Dominican Republic was living with them, not a nanny exactly but she watched the kids sometimes. Tomorrow, Jim and Shannon have an appointment with a social worker to discuss another foster girl, a sixteen-year-old who has been living in a group home and is ready for a placement. They might start with weekend visits. They are also scouring the state adoption website’s face-book of available children and contemplating another. Jim’s sister is adopted from Korea, his youngest child is adopted from Korea, and his parents took in scores of foster children over the years. It is a calling.
In high school English, you are given a long rope to write whatever you want. Use whatever language, the white male teacher says, take any risks. You are given white men’s essays as examples: Tom Wolfe, Garrison Keillor, Phillip Lopate. You write your first assignment for this class about a vulgar white teenage boy with whom you talk nightly on the phone, who never hears you.
When you go to the teacher’s house for dinner some years later, he will ask to take your picture. On your birthday, he will write you a poem. Happy birthday, Indian princess / May the last of your teen years / enable your body / to rejoin your star-hitched soul / distant as the sun though it be. You will recall these words in a gay bar in Lexington, Kentucky, when, after a flight of one-dollar PBRs, you find yourself spinning on a stool next to a tall white man with long silver hair who asks, “Are you an Injun?”
Everything goes dark.
On Monday, you read an op-ed about how coastal elites, the college educated, blue staters, and professional classes are detached from real Americans in the heartland.
On Tuesday, a woman on TV says that our failure is a failure of connection, because our bubbles don’t touch.
On Wednesday, a pollster says that we newspaper readers don’t know the hearts and minds of the TV watchers.
On Thursday, Tomi Lahren, in conversation with J.D. Vance.
On Friday, more self-flagellation by self-professed liberals about how we need to pay closer attention to people in flyover country in places like Altoona.
On Saturday, graphical representations of the divided country, the pretense of two sides, he said-he said.
Sunday comes. No rest for the weary.
I’ll tell you why the disconnection-thesis is so galling. It’s not just because Trump is no populist embraced by a neglected working class, but rather, as has been amply demonstrated, a white supremacist dog-whistler embraced by a paranoid white America. It’s not just because plenty of “liberals” have longstanding relations with conservatives. It’s not just because white Americans who might otherwise be anti-racists, feminists, and defenders of education and the truth are too closely enmeshed with their racist, misogynistic, patriarchal, Trump-voting, Brett Kavanaugh-supporting kin. It’s also not about Trump or Kavanaugh or Sean Hannity or David Brooks or any particular white man.
The disconnection-thesis is galling because people like me, people of color, immigrants and their children, have spent our entire lives thinking about white people. Our entire lives putting ourselves in their shoes, hearing their stories, feeling their fears, watching their movies, reading their books, marching to the beat of their hearts in the heartland, measuring ourselves against Joe-the-Plumber and coming up short.
But each new declaration of war against the world by white America is the result of our failure to empathize?
White people cringe when you name them so, so used are they to being subjects.
I’m married to a white man. I have white in-laws. I have a white extended family. They don’t call themselves that. I don’t call them that. I don’t say it to their faces.
In all the years that I’ve been visiting the American South with my husband’s family, I’ve never once heard an involved discussion of race, religion, or politics. That’s because we don’t talk race, religion, or politics. When you gather once a year, you make nice. That, or you don’t gather at all. There are rules, and you learn them. You explain yourself. You repeat your name. You close your ears. You talk yourself out of reacting to the big white hand.
Tell me talking to each other is the answer. Tell me our failure is a failure to connect. Tell me we haven’t heard enough of their stories.
My children are a quarter Jewish, a quarter Mississippi Confederate, and what my five-year-old calls “half Indian blood.” Ethnicity mixed up with nationality mixed up with religion mixed up with tribe. English and Scottish in there somewhere, Lithuania.
My children are half white. They don’t know this yet. Half-white babies, made in America, twenty-first century full fracture.
That other little Indian girl at the birthday party, “her dad’s white, too,” I tell my mother-in-law.
“Her dad’s Anglo?” she replies.
“Yeah, he’s white,” I say, an eyebrow raised.
As my kids grow up, they’ll be made conscious of their Indianness. At school, they’ll be asked to wave the India flag on nation’s day and explain the Diwali celebrations we might not have had. This is America, where color means race. This is America, where the seeing are blind.
I’ll make them conscious of their whiteness, without making it a prize. I’ll give them texts to read. Nell Painter on the history of white people. Robin DiAngelo on white fragility. Cheryl Harris on whiteness as property. David Roediger on the wages of whiteness. Claudia Rankine on citizenship in white America.
I’ll tell them. This, too, is your inheritance. I’ll tell them. You must divest from that on which you will depend. I’ll tell them. That whiteness—face it, transform it, divide it, ethnicize it. I’ll tell them. That whiteness—find a way to make it serve others, since you’re going to have to make it yours.
On the way from Pittsburgh to State College, Ricky and Jim show me where the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers meet at the Golden Triangle. It is not yet dawn, and the rivers shine diamond with the lights of the city.
At Sheetz in the middle of the night in the red center of central Pennsylvania, Jim buys me a mint-chocolate chip milkshake. I drink it, knowing that I will remember this drive, this night, his story, Ricky’s story, the words and lives of these two white men. Will they remember me? Will they know my name? Could they pick me out of a lineup?
We get back in the car, and Jim leans over from the front seat with an offering of fries.
Photo © Matthew Friedman