I used to teach a class to architecture students in which we read an essay called “Welcome to the Banquet.” The general premise is that when you enter the field of architecture, when you’re heading out into the world, you pick a table at which to sit, a group of thinkers with whom to engage. The essay is written by a female architect, but there is no mention of asking permission to sidle up to any of these tables once you choose. There is no caveat about the ones at which you may or may not be allowed. This feels, to me, like a glaring oversight. I’ve been thinking, lately, my whole life maybe, about who gets to sit down and at what cost.
More specifically, most recently, I’ve been thinking about the role of white women at the table. We have almost always been invited. We’ve been present, to look pretty, to offer counsel; perhaps, a hand squeezed under the table when a voice is raised too loud.
We’ve always had a place, but that place is constantly in conflict with itself. We’re there but why and to what purpose; we’re there, but we’ve seldom had sufficient power to feel sure we’ll get to stay. There’s a certain safety in that and also a certain danger, a presumption of value that often goes unproven, a level of culpability that can, perhaps, be easily dismissed. We are other, insofar as we are sometimes less than, but we are also there. We’ve also been given space.
In Morgan Jerkins’ essay about Emma Cline’s novel The Girls, but more largely about novels about bored white girls who enact violence on themselves, she writes:
These white female characters have everything: family, money, friends, and societal reinforcement that they are better than the rest. And yet, they still want to ruin themselves, and the writers often do not explain why. Is it the danger that their whiteness does not afford them? Is there this subconscious awareness of their privilege that causes them to try to step outside of it so that they can be seen more as individuals than as parts of white hegemonic structures? I can only interrogate. But in my position as a black female reader, I pour into stories and leave them feeling more stupefied than full, wondering if boredom in literature is another form of white privilege—one that women of color cannot access as society’s direct adversaries. Therefore, they need to struggle in a multitude of ways that serve as a background for further intersectional study. For white female characters, I am not so sure: their destruction is described as one of their own volition.
As a white female writer, I’ve thought often about this essay since I read it. I’ve thought about it not only because I wrote a book about a young privileged white girl who seeks out self-destruction for no good reason; I’ve also thought about it because I was one of those girls. Jerkins says, “It is a destruction in which a world wants them to exist, a world in which they are the standard for beauty, purity, and innocence, and they reject that world by disappearing. For women of color, it is the opposite, and that makes all the difference.” I read this part and I was confused by the dissonance I felt. She’s so very right, I thought at first. But then I thought, I’ve never felt that the world wants me, or that I might be a standard of any kind of purity or beauty; but also, I knew I’d had all sorts of space and safety that is a privilege that I haven’t thought about.
Of course, my privilege has not always felt like privilege. It’s hard to know what you don’t know until you learn. It’s hard to know what you don’t know when it’s not been given the space and time to be said. My destruction did not feel self-made when it took place. But that does not mean that it’s not my obligation as a writer to consider where it came from. That does not mean I should not try to make those who do not see or understand where it might have come from see and understand. That does not mean my desire at moments to disappear myself is not, inadvertently or not, in conversation with others’ desperate, sometimes life-threatening, need to be seen.
I spend most of my days teaching black and brown kids. The other day we went on a field trip to an especially white space. We were walking around—a gaggle of thirty-odd 16-year-olds plus three teachers. I was one of only two white people in our group. The looks we got, of horror. It was midday on a Wednesday, and the only people besides us there were old and white. It is possible it was just the fact of us that upset them, teenagers, talking, laughing, knocking up against one another in large groups. It was also possible some of the reactions had something to do with our kids’ race.
An older (white) woman, picking up her grandson to take him quickly to another room, glared at us. Why are they here? She said to no one. I glared back at her. If she hadn’t been holding a small child I might have chased her down. One of my kids whispered, but loud enough she clearly meant for me to hear her, Ms. Strong’s going to hit a bitch. I laughed and put my arm around her, walking toward another room to look at model trains and rainforest plants.
I was the only one in our group who looked angry. Maybe because our kids are teenagers and they are too self-centered. They were too busy taking selfies. Too busy flirting. Too busy being relieved not to be in class. But maybe also, already, they were just used to the world not being happy to have them in the room with them. Maybe they were just already inured to white people and their anger. Maybe I was the only person who felt safe enough inside that space to direct my anger out.
White women have had it better than almost anyone. We’ve had it better than everyone but white men. We’ve had it just good enough, that it is easier, less scary, to just play along. We’ve had it good enough, that, right now, we feel capable of anger without as much fear for how we might be punished later on.
There is a novel, many novels, whole worlds in which the only action undertaken by the white woman is as listener, is as seer, is internalized. Perhaps what has not been taken into account in writing about this is the fact of this being a privilege; perhaps what has less often been taken into account is the, sometimes inadvertent, outward violence this might cause.
Richard Rodriguez says in his essay, “The Third Man,” that what he envies most about whiteness is the blankness, the “arrogance and confidence,” to be anything. “I grew up wanting to be white,” he says. “That is, to the extent of wanting to be colorless and to feel complete freedom of movement.”
James Baldwin said of Giovanni’s Room, a book peopled completely by white people, concerned largely with what were then perceived as aberrant views of sexuality, ‘‘I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it,’’ he said.
Whiteness gives a character space to be or not be whatever they want both in fiction and outside of it. But how to address the costs of that freedom, those who are less free. How to acknowledge all that our silence has left out.
We’ve been reading theory lately in one of the classes I teach. I assigned an essay titled “Monster Culture,” which I’ve taught for years, which I have used before to scare overly confident undergrads with its density. The first couple of days I talked too much. I was trying to unpack and explain the concepts and the abstractions. The text argues all the various ways in which societies’ others are monsterized.
The kids got it though, impressively quickly, they got it, so I asked them to locate monsters in the wider world for their homework. This wasn’t hard for them. They presented witches and insanity in Ghana. One kid talked about Frankenstein. The conversation turned quickly to police violence, then to colorism. Some of us got teary. I was quiet, most of the class, only jumping in to make sure a student’s point had been heard or needed clarification. It was not, I understood quite clearly, my turn to talk.
There’s this feeling right now, that we all must take to our corners: mothers, women, people of color. We are what we are. We can only write about this. We are what we are and we all read about what we’ve already been. We like books, by consensus, online. Auto-fiction. We write books about people just like us.
There is value to this, surely. I do not know my students’ experience. I will never know it fully. They do not know mine. But looking at it everyday, engaging with and acknowledging our difference, as well as our sameness, feels imperative to accomplishing anything of worth right now.
My students didn’t Google me until October. I’m one of their older teachers. I’m married and a mom. When they found my book they dropped it casually in conversation as if they’d caught me doing something. I hadn’t told them I had a novel out. I’ve gotten better, over years of teaching, at creating boundaries; the fact of making sure that we accomplish what we’ve come to accomplish, often feels too urgent to waste any time talking about me. They brought the book up a couple of times and I reddened and told them I didn’t want to talk about it. They made a few more jokes, could we Hold Still a little longer, Ms. Strong? You want to write a book about me next time? We moved on.
A week later, one of my colleagues sent me an email saying, I didn’t know you were a writer. He ran the school reading room and one of my students had ordered my book to be kept on the shelves. She is a sweet, kind kid and a smart reader. For a couple of weeks she carried my book from class to class. I could never look directly at it. She never brought it up with me, though we are close and talk often outside of class.
My book is about a rich white lady and her self-immolating daughter. I’m proud of my book, but I don’t imagine my student found much in it with which she could relate. Of course, she might have, in that she is a person, a female, someone who tries and fails to love other people, of course she could have in that she is a thinking feeling person who can empathize with and relate to other lives, but I didn’t write a book that I’d be excited to assign to her or her classmates in an academic setting. I didn’t write a book that I’d be excited, as a teacher, to use as an example of what books might do for or mean to her.
I have always thought it is the necessity of fiction to hold a thumb on one specific bruise as firmly and as surely as one can until anyone who’s ever had a bruise or thumb can feel it. It is perhaps just as much the job of fiction to at least acknowledge all the gashes, all the deaths and absence, all the skin that is not bruised around that one.
To be a blank as a white woman, to both have the ability to appear and the impulse to disappear still feels to me like a worthwhile space to explore in fiction. It is a space to which I feel deeply attached. But considering the implications of that blankness, its bluntness and its impact outside the individual, the ways in which it can silence, is as imperative as examining the thing itself.
We need diverse books, says everybody. We need a diverse world. More than ever it seems imperative for the people who write fiction, as well as those who put it out, to reconsider what our job is and how we might be better at it, how we might both acknowledge our individual experience of violence while also acknowledging we’re a part of something else.
In Leslie Jamison’s essay about the Women’s March, she talks about the strangeness of just being a body. Just being a body being perhaps one of the great quandaries of women, of all colors, throughout time. But in the case of the march, in the case of moving now toward making space for other bodies, Jamison explores how just being a body can be a sort of power when that body is knocking up against others’. “The point of participating in large-scale collective action isn’t glory. It’s something close to the opposite: being a body among bodies. It’s about submerging yourself, becoming part of something too large to see the edges of.” This is as useful a way as any to describe how I’ve come to think of fiction writing. We are a part of a larger conversation. If you can see the end and the beginning, think yours is the only voice that matters, I’d argue you’re doing it wrong. I’d argue you’re not working hard enough.
Being one among many is a kind of power, this is true in protest, and it’s true in art. When many of us have been taught, both by the industry we are a part of and by our culture, that the only way to assert any kind of power is to stand out, what might it look like to re-consider writing as bodies among many, what might it look like to spend as much time looking out? Where might we situate the ‘I,’ to interrogate and celebrate it, while making space for all the other ‘I’s to have their say?