Non-fiction

Ghosts: Whiteness and the Spectre of Race in America

And from that pallor of the dead, we borrow the expressive hue of the shroud in which we wrap them. Nor even in our superstitions do we fail to throw the same snowy mantle round our phantoms; all ghosts rising in a milk-white fog…

‘The Whiteness of the Whale’, Moby-Dick

The myth of the Ring of Gyges recounts a Lydian shepherd who discovers a golden ring on a corpse. The ring grants him the power to become invisible at will. With his newfound power, the shepherd seduces the queen and usurps the king in a murderous plot. It’s a familiar trope, invisibility—familiar enough to have become a trope. Plato uses the ring myth in The Republic to explore the nature of justice: is justice a good in itself? Are our worst instincts of self-interest held in check only by our accountability to others? Plato puts the argument in favour of justice as a good in itself into the mouth of a ficto-phantom Socrates, who in the flesh justice had failed.

The two best-known adaptations of the myth tend to emphasise the haunting quality of becoming invisible, how the person wielding this power is visited with terrors. In H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, the anti-hero Griffin furtively attempts to reverse the process by which he attains invisibility, and his failure fuels the action of the story. Griffin pinballs between vengeful criminality and earnest remorse, a captive to his own power, until he is beaten to death by an angry mob. Only death restores visibility to his naked and mutilated form. The Lord of the Rings franchise warns its readers with an allegory: the ‘one ring to rule them all’ haunts a succession of its wearers with the promise of power. Such power alienates the wearers from their peers, with the worst-off among them transformed from a copacetic Shire-dwelling hobbit into a literal golem. The narrative engine of Lord of the Rings is that the ring is evil and must be destroyed. Becoming invisible, in Tolkien’s reckoning, is not only to lose one’s form, but to lose one’s very substance, to vanish into the narcotic spell of unaccountability.

*

Growing up in the suburbs imbued me with a sense of being outside of the action. Our lives, my friends’ and mine, were lived in the shadow of New York City, where presumably real life took place. Playgrounds, walls and parking lots served as waiting rooms where we sat out the formative years, smoking pot and drinking beer, counting down the days until life would start. Invariably, a police cruiser would roll up, the windows would roll down, and the cops would tell us to move on. Where were we supposed to go? Go home, the cops usually said. Go home at 8:30 on a Friday night. If you gave them lip, they’d say something like, shut your face you little freak. One cop looked me up and down in disgust, at my studded motorcycle jacket and dyed-black hair spiked with Elmer’s glue. He said, I bet your mother is really proud of you. I said, yes, she is. We both have jobs so we pay the taxes that pay your salary. As revenge, he stopped me every time he saw me for sixteen days straight, saying don’t loiter on the streets, go home. Go home.

Occasionally we managed forays into the city. There’s a photo of me and my friends, standing around in the subway en route to a gig at Irving Plaza, casually adopting the attitude of people for whom this was an unremarkable moment. On the streets, not even the overwhelming indifference of New York’s eight million inhabitants could erase our sense of painfully standing out. It took cans of Silver Thunder wrapped in brown paper bags, staggering down St Mark’s Place, hiding the beers in our jackets when the cops (who didn’t give a shit) walked past on their beats. A kid not much older than us begged for change through gritted teeth, reclining on the sidewalk with a hand-written cardboard sign. Some guy leaned down and shouted in his face, ‘go back to your mom and dad in the suburbs’. The implication was that kids like this were kids like us. I simultaneously held these kids in contempt for reinforcing the stereotype that all of us would rather be homeless than be who we are, but I also totally understood the impulse. It was justifiable, despising this rush to catch the last train back from Grand Central, watching the world outside of the carriage windows getting darker as the city lights receded, your own unwelcome reflection against the blackness getting sharper the closer you got to the place you had to call home.

*

Greenwich, Connecticut is a dozen stops on the Metro-North line connecting Grand Central Station to New Haven. Situated at the border with New York State, it attracts heavy hitters from Manhattan who commute to and from the city in under an hour, and pay less income tax as residents of the Constitution State than New Yorkers. Although it boasts of being one of the richest towns in the United States, Greenwich is comprised of vastly unequal parts, home to a cross-section of race and class. The town has always seemed to me to be a country in miniature: back country roads with McMansions cleaving the dense woodland on the one hand, three housing projects in earshot of the highway flyovers on the other, with a middle class spectrum sandwiched like topiary neatly and discreetly in between. When the rail lines were laid in the 1840s, supplanting the connection of Greenwich to New York by sea, the town attracted all comers: working class men and women fleeing the overcrowded cities, migrant workers feeding the insatiable hunger for cheap labour, and merchants hoping to get ahead of the curve by servicing an expanding catchment of residential spending power. The Bush family, distinctly Texan in their public personae, trace their antecedents to Greenwich. The historic Bush-Holley House once served as lodgings to a group of American modernist painters known as the Cos Cob Art Colony, so named for the section of Greenwich shot through with the Mianus River where they produced their works, exhibited in 1913 at the New York Armory Show. Greenwich made the news two decades ago, when a group of residents battled in court to keep non-residents off Tod’s Point, the long strand of beach with a view of the New York skyline over Long Island Sound. (They lost.) I’ve always imagined that J.D. Salinger’s story ‘Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut’, which charts the stifled misery of a young woman’s domestic bliss, took place somewhere in the umbrageous Round Hill Road neighbourhood, near the Merritt Parkway. Greenwich is a place you aspire to live in, and if you actually live there, you either revel in the aspirations of others or you vanish in the sleight-of-hand by which they are framed.

*

I never associated the word ‘bullying’ with my experience at Greenwich High School. Bullying happened to smaller kids, weaker kids, kids who were easily hurt. What I experienced was not hurt, but outrage. So I delivered my grievance to the principal’s office. Her secretary greeted me with the obligatory ‘Can I help you?’ I asked to see the principal.

‘She’s busy.’

‘I’ll come back. When would be a good time?’

‘You’ll have to make an appointment.’

‘OK, I’ll make an appointment.’

‘I’m afraid she’s not free until next month.’

‘Then I’ll make an appointment for next month.’

She hadn’t expected me to dig in my heels. I watched her write my name into the diary, and I copied the date and time of our appointment onto the cardboard back of my spiral notebook.

When the day arrived, I sat across a desk from the principal and recounted my list of indignities. She listened to me with a smirk, eyeing me over glasses poised at the end of her nose. She smirked the whole way through my stories of being called freak, being called faggot, having half-drunk cartons of milk thrown at me, having half-eaten lunch trays thrown at me, having entire rubbish bins thrown at me, and chairs, and rocks, and the time two jocks drove up onto the sidewalk like they were going to run me over in their pick-up truck, and the racist abuse hurled at my non-white friends, who took more of this shit than I did, and then being told we didn’t deserve to live in Greenwich—but she interrupted me. ‘Why don’t you try harder to fit in, then?’

*

Around this time in 1995, Mississippi became the last state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery.

*

Reni Eddo-Lodge, in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017), asks, ‘Why don’t white people think they have a racial identity?’ [116] Her line of inquiry begins with the struggle to define white privilege. ‘It’s so difficult to describe an absence.’ [86] Being bullied made me something of an outsider, a social standing that came with its own peculiar set of values. Standing out, not fitting in, felt very much like punching up. With the sense that I was on the receiving end of social relations, I came to believe implicitly, without conscious consideration, that those social relations and their attendant structures did not implicate me. But as Eddo-Lodge points out, ‘white privilege is an absence of the negative consequences of racism.’ [86] Eighteen months after leaving school without a diploma, I moved to London, which seemed less daunting than moving to New York. I’ve been living on this side of the Atlantic pretty much ever since. My American identity (the accent as much as the passport) is my badge of difference, a benign matter of curiosity. I’ve never been denied job opportunities because of it, never had someone cross the street to avoid me, never had trouble getting a taxi, never feared for my life when talking to police officers, never had someone assume they could read into my psychological profile or my ability to sing or dance or my taste in food or the reason behind my resting bitch face. If I put on the ring or drink the elixir—voilà! I blend into the landscape. Being encouraged by the principal to fit in implied that I could choose to fit in, that the only thing separating me from the rest of Greenwich, the rest of the white world—a world built in my image—was my lifestyle choices. Of all the things I failed to learn in high school, this has got to be the most glaring.

*

As the days grew longer and the drudgery of the school year crawled to a conclusion, students received their yearbooks. A rumour spread about one of the Vitti kids, the son of the head of school security. Mr Vitti once chased a streaker across the whole campus, out onto the Post Road, and jumped onto the hood of the car the streaker tried in vain to escape in. On this occasion, Mr Vitti demonstrated a commitment to punishing streakers that didn’t extend to bullying. His son Dan was a senior. Being an athlete, Dan belonged to that clique of jocks who recreated the field-side benches along the wall next to the vending machines in the student centre. The Vitti kids were friends of friends, other Italian-Americans from my part of town. I had heard a little about them. For example, I heard they had a black dog with an unimaginatively racist name. So it came as little surprise when he did what he did.

Each senior composed a short message to be printed under their photograph in the yearbook. (This is a tradition, apparently. School yearbooks cost more than my parents were willing to spend on an artefact of belonging to a group I patently didn’t want to belong to.) The senior quote often made sense only to its intended audience. Other times, it demonstrated the bombastic overconfidence of kids who have been reared on a steady diet of positive reinforcement, of being told that they’re special. After all, these kids are from Greenwich, where even the social dropouts drop all the way out and beg on the streets in the city. Dan Vitti’s senior quote went the extra mile. It opens: ‘Heaven doesn’t want me, and hell is afraid I’m gonna take over.’ He lists shout-outs to a series of abbreviations in a haze of in-jokes, then closes with the unpunctuated non-sequitur ‘kill’. Four of his buddies, over the course of many pages, signed off with similar fragments: ‘all’; ‘ni’; ‘gg’; ‘ers’. Their boasting even reached the ears of freaks and faggots like me.

*

In Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), Claudia Rankine ponders ‘the ambition of racist language […] to denigrate and erase you as a person’. [49] On further consideration, ‘you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that is hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present’. [49] In a little world that imagines itself as lily-white, racial difference is present in a unique way. Indeed, any difference at all is received in the white suburban imaginary as a statement, an assertion. Fear and ignorance, those homely twins, argue that difference is all well and good, as long as you’re not throwing it in someone else’s face. But as Rankine points out, being constructed as different is, by definition, to be ‘rendered hypervisible’. Intolerable, insulting difference is hurled into the faces of those who stand out by mere virtue of their presence. Citizen catalogs the ordinariness of white dominance, a balance of power that, in Roland Barthes’s words, ‘wallows in the evident’. Whiteness, in this formula, is not-otherness. Starting from Rankine’s insight, it follows that whiteness becomes invisible in the presence of otherness, an invisibility that exonerates white people from the burden of identity.

Whiteness relies on difference to achieve this luxury, much as a parasite relies on its host. If society were monoracial, this would not be the case: whiteness comes into being only at the moment that it recognises itself as not-other. In Rankine’s words, it exploits all the ways that the racial other is present. Without the other, there is no whiteness per se. James Baldwin understood this when he challenged white America to acknowledge their conjuring of the racial boogeyman, and to ask ourselves what purpose he serves. This asymmetrical relationship of Americans to race exposes ultra-nationalist fantasies of a white ethnostate as silly, as well as dangerous. But whiteness as a brash, disruptive sociopolitical platform, jarring as it is to the liberal ear, is itself a form of difference: fascism is a boogeyman that brings the fact of whiteness unsettlingly into visibility.

The invisible variety of whiteness, that default racial identity that is no identity at all, proves in practice to be equally insidious. The stability of normative white identity relies on effacing notions of race altogether, except where it applies to non-white people. Arguments against levelling the playing field in education, the workplace, and other areas of civic life through affirmative action invariably rely on such wilful blindness. The argument that race (or gender, or class, etc.) shouldn’t matter in a meritocracy entrenches institutional racism by denying that there are countless unearned advantages of being white. To acknowledge my own white privilege is to acknowledge white dominance more generally, an avowal that undermines the prevailing neoliberal fantasy that I am a unique individual constituted in my freedom of choice. For many white people, acknowledging race would be world shattering. As such, white people are haunted by the spectre of race—that is, the spectre of our own race. Whiteness appears like a ghost: wherever you find it, that is where it shouldn’t be, a revenant presence signalling a slippage in the established order and meaning of things.

*

The New York Times reported on the yearbook incident in their Metro Section: ‘Dismayed Greenwich Confronts a Message of Hate in a Yearbook’ [David Stout: 15 June 1995]. The word ‘dismayed’ seems apt: not indifferent, but not devastated; the word ‘confronts’, not so much. ‘Confronts’ suggests that Greenwich, as a unified whole, faced off with the issue of race (which is to say, whiteness) and made a clean breast of it. All five boys were suspended, and were asked politely to give the graduation ceremony a miss. Presumably, they received their diplomas in the post. The Times reports that the school made efforts to retrieve all 1,400 copies of the yearbook, hoping to replace them with an updated edition ‘without the offending message’. The whole endeavour would cost ‘$20,000 or more’, the principal was reported as saying, but “I am sure the community will find the money”. The school superintendent told the paper that the police had been notified. “This is extremely serious, and we’re treating it seriously”.

Not everyone agreed. In a second New York Times article published a week later, ‘Racist Message Reveals Town’s Rift’ [Jacques Steinberg: 21 June 1995], local mother and racial justice activist Joyce McKenzie states flatly that “[t]here is a racial problem” in Greenwich, about which “the town officials are in total denial”. The Times reports McKenzie as residing at Armstrong Court, one of Greenwich’s three housing projects. “Certain people have certain privileges […] And certain people don’t”, she says. The town’s then-First Selectman, a white Greenwich native, took a different view: “I don’t think we have a racial problem”. Many of the local people quoted in the article seem to concur. Just some kids horsing around. Not symptomatic of a wider problem. A few bad apples. Nothing to call the police about. Why the fuss? They’ll grow out of it.

In the last twenty-three years, have we grown out of it?

*

The following October 3rd, our last class finished early and the teacher switched on the television. Tensions built as the jury foreman stood to deliver the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. The words ‘not guilty’ split the room precisely and audibly by colour.

*

Despite the commencement of another senior class, the jock section looked the same. Someone placed a handwritten sign above the bench that read: WHITE ONLY. A group of black students took exception to this, some being jocks themselves. Kids faced off, arms raised in a physical question mark, bumping chests. The security guards broke it up. Someone took the sign down. Nothing happened.

In the cafeteria, two kids—one black, one white—got into a scuffle. ‘He bumped into me,’ one of them complained as a teacher broke it up.

The security guards kept their eyes on the black section from the other end of the student centre. They watched a small group move slowly past the preppy kids, past the table where the black-clad trench coat mafia sat, past the cafeteria with its subsidised hand-me-down fast food, towards the vending machines. Huddled at the vending machines, the group stared at the bench, where a line of white faces stared right back.

*

I opened the doors into the student centre to find a riot going on. Large grey rubbish bins wheeled past spouting fire. Scores of students brawled among piles of broken chairs and tables tipped over. An adult seemed to vault, as if by magic, clean through a glass door, sending shards of broken glass sliding across the smooth stone floor like hockey pucks over ice. Security guards chased students, who dodged and scrambled away into the crowd or turned and clashed. Full, unopened cans of soda shot through the air in long hail-mary arcs, landing sometimes with a bang and other times with a menacing silence. I watched it happen, standing next to a banner hung to celebrate diversity week. I watched, and nobody noticed me watching, so I walked away. Why waste an opportunity to smoke a cigarette without fear of getting caught?

No national newspapers covered the school violence, but the local police blotter swelled with names. Many of the kids who were arrested managed to slip away at first; they were apprehended later at their homes. It just so happened that the security guards recognised their faces, in some cases even knew their names, so the police made an easy sweep through working class and minority neighbourhoods and the housing projects on the edges of town. The police and school officials treated this kind of thing very seriously indeed.

*

I’ve lost touch with the United States since leaving. I don’t get all the pop culture references, but I hear the big stories. The last time I visited was in 2012, to attend the funeral of a friend. My buddy Norm drove me back to the airport. On the radio news, I first heard of ‘stand your ground’ laws. Trayvon Martin was dead, and George Zimmerman was not likely to be prosecuted. Just today, the Guardian reported that a small group of activists climbed the Statue of Liberty to protest Donald Trump’s immigration policies. In between the lines of copy, the whole of white America (including me) performed a magic trick: now you see me, now you don’t.

July 4th, 2018

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