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In her American Poetry Review essay, “Awake in the Scratchy Dark: On Writing Whiteness,” Joy Katz writes, “I wanted to mark my whiteness but lacked the language to do it without sounding awkward, overzealous, or heroic.”
White supremacy permeates our lives so thoroughly that the language to recognize and convey its brutal and relentless mutilation of human relationships is indeed lacking. So what language can be used—invented, repurposed, reinvented—to investigate white supremacy and apprehend whiteness, particularly on the complicated micro levels of human relationships? In Wite Out: Love and Work, a hybrid collection of autobiographical journal pieces interspersed with poems, Linda Norton chronicles the spaces of work and love that she moves through as a “dark white” (the title of the book’s first section) — a white woman with immigrant grandparents (one Irish, the other Sicilian) — with a long, deep history of family trauma and financial insecurity. Her brother Joey died from AIDS; her ensuing grief is constant through Wite Out, as well as its prequel, The Public Gardens. The other brother, Richard, is mentally ill, a self-imagined genius who tells Norton he is making a living driving a taxi while also asking her for money. Her relationship with her parents is complicated, sometimes perilous, and holds insistent echoes of the immigrant experience as shaped by the US structures of white supremacy. Norton writes how the complexions of Sicilian immigrants, including her mother’s parents, were noted upon US arrival: “dark, fair, swarthy, whatever.” On the other hand, skin color was not indicated on ship manifests from Ireland, “like the Scythia on which my father’s mother arrived from Cobh that same year.”
In an interview with Mohammed Elnaiem on the League of Black Revolutionary Workers, Darryl “Waistline” Mitchell discusses how ethnic and racial hierarchies work together to maintain white supremacy: “[I]n America, you came from Poland, you were at the bottom of the order because you were Slavic. If you were Irish, you came in, but below the English. Before Blacks entered, there was a pecking order based on ethnicity. So we had to fight it on the basis of the color question.” (https://daily.jstor.org/league-revolutionary-black-workers/) In Wite Out, that toxic interaction of race, ethnicity, complexion, and class threads throughout Norton’s marriage and divorce, as well as parenting her daughter and her friendships and loves. We see how distances are both closed up and maintained, how conversations are fraught, how people struggle to step outside hierarchies forced on them by an overwhelmingly larger system of oppression and exploitation.
I wondered while reading why Norton retained the brand spelling of “Wite Out” for her title. Perhaps she wanted to avoid other possible connotations of “whiteout” and to stay focused on how the brand-name Wite Out is specifically used to erase. Her language throughout is also focused, free of adjectives that might shape or situate or foreground her whiteness. Some of Wite Out focuses on Norton’s relationship with Marcus, a teenage boy unjustly caught in the system (he is on probation because he allegedly received “stolen goods” in the form of an iPod given to him by a friend for his birthday). Norton first works as his court advocate, which involves a mind-numbing amount of paperwork and court dates, then becomes his friend, and subsequently a sort of family member. Marcus sometimes introduces her as his “mother,” something the author relates matter-of-factly, without offering her own interpretations. While working through yet another bureaucratic roadblock (in this case, taking a sick day to prove that Marcus is enrolled in school), she writes:
I’m the only white person there. People come and go and get their paperwork. The young clerks conspicuously ignore me for a while, comparing their gel nails. I know what I look like to them: a white lady who wants to save black kids and get a prize for it. The whole thing—history, this situation, me being here—it’s all fucked up. I know. I’m being tested, and the only way to pass today’s test is to shut up and wait and not make it all about me.
So, what, exactly, can Marcus call her? If “white savior,” “friend,” or “mother” don’t seem quite to express their relationship, what would? Where in our language can we find the words to envision relationships not forced or shaped by hundreds of years of white supremacy? How can we describe what an older white woman might mean to a Black teenager–and vice vers–that is not based on hierarchy, fear, or exploitation? Norton writes, “The glorification of whiteness is everywhere, including language—’He has fine hair.’ ‘She is fair.’ ‘He is dark.’—’Her coarse hair.’ How to speak or write or live without complicity?”
Another figure in the book, Vee is Norton’s friend from college, who is, in fact, Black. In describing their friendship, Norton addresses the larger intersections of class and race in Boston, a city that is particularly obsessed with both.
One day Vee and I were standing in line in the lobby of the student union. Kevin Moriarty, a senior from a lace-curtain Irish Catholic background, was in front of us. The school belonged to guys like him and his father; they “let us in,” the boys would remind us after a half a keg.
Vee was smiling, managing him as I’d seen her manage others. Then he made some remark about her “scholarship status” or affirmative action or something. Vee laughed and put her arm around me, flipping the ends of my straight hair.
“I’m not on scholarship,” she said. “But she is.”
I smiled. She adjusted the collar of her Izod shirt.
He turned away, speechless.
I remember how glad I was that Vee had deftly put my whiteness to good use. (Italics in original.)
However, a few paragraphs down, Vee makes clear to Norton the accumulated exhaustion of similarly racist encounters, asking, “Why don’t white people talk about racism with other white people?” Norton replies, “a self-righteous white person is a ridiculous figure everywhere … Because maybe she thinks she knows, but what does she know?” But then, she writes, “It’s true that fools are my favorite characters in literature. Maybe there is a role for a fool like me.” Here, Norton provides a glimpse of a new language that might at first read as “foolish,” but which might open a way for white people who want to see and talk about whiteness for what it is — all of its horrors, all of our complicity.
Surprisingly, I found something in Wite Out I didn’t expect: the beginnings of a way to understand my own experience as a white woman who spent my early childhood in the Boston area, too, the daughter of financially struggling artists, my first friends the children of the Black family who lived next to us. Whiteness gazes at itself, but often does not actually see what is there. And when it does, the language to describe that view is inadequate. However awkward it may feel at first, whiteness requires a new language to see itself as such, and from that perception, change will hopefully follow.
Wite Out: Love and Work by Linda Norton is published by Hanging Loose Press and is available online and from independent bookstores.