I’m not in a position to know everything about how whiteness inflects or determines or delimits my writing. Part of what makes writing worthwhile—for the writer and for the reader—is not just what artistry achieves but how it fails, how it is necessarily disfigured by history, which includes, which is dominated by, what Baldwin called the “lie” of whiteness. Certainly [The Topeka School] is a book about whiteness, is more intensely focused than my others on how racist (and other forms of) violence fills the vacuum at the heart of privilege for white boys on the cusp of becoming white men, how whiteness is a radical imaginative poverty. But I don’t pretend I got it right or that getting it right is the point of making art.
I like what you say about the powerlessness of whiteness, which is why I thought of Baldwin’s “On Being White and Other Lies,” and the “terrible paradox” with which that little essay ends: “those who believed that they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves,” which makes me think, too, of Fred Moten’s urgent and loving demand in The Undercommons, which you no doubt know: “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”
I feel hailed by that—as a person, as a writer, as a member of an interracial family—that I need to work towards the recognition he’s describing, without pretending I can achieve it singly or finally, without reinscribing some kind of white victimhood (the flipside of the savior complex), without expecting to be congratulated for it, and so on. And/but to keep faith with that possibility of emergent “coalition,” new modes of filiation, a sense of a future beyond repetition.
- Ben Lerner, in conversation with Ocean Vuong over at Lit Hub. You can read the whole thing here.