Near the end of this powerful book, art scholar Maurice
Berger reveals that he had set out to produce a “linear” study of race but changed his mind. Thank goodness. He fully vindicates
Walter Benjamin’s celebrated remarks on the incendiary power
of recovering and reassembling fragments of texts, lives, and thoughts. White Lies, a collage of provocations from experts on white identity coupled with bursts of poignant autobiography, destabilizes racial certainties.
The quoted passages, culled mostly from intellectuals of
color, reveal exquisite taste and gather classic accounts of what whiteness means. The best of “whiteness studies” appear in quotations from Toni Morrison, Adrian Piper, Cheryl Harris, and Noel Ignatiev, who starkly writes, “There is youth culture and drug culture and queer culture; but there is no ‘white’ culture—
unless you mean Wonder Bread and television game shows. Whiteness is nothing but an
expression of race privilege.”
We know far too little about the origins of passionate
antiracism among whites, and Berger’s frank autobiographical sections provide soaring
insights. His own life shows that fiercely contradictory experiences can at times energize egalitarianism. During his childhood, living in a New York City housing project, Berger’s mother, a dark woman of Sephardic Jewish background, suffered from both anti-Semitism and the suspicion that she was “colored.” She hid her pain under a thick cake of white makeup and exulted when Dr. Martin Luther King died.
Berger’s father, a white-collar worker whose mental illness caused him to lose jobs, embraced liberal views on race. He cried alone when King was shot.
Berger himself shied away from white kids until college, when he was encouraged to cherish the privileges of race. White Lies brilliantly charts the decidedly nonlinear process through which intellectual work and everyday life taught him that the inhumanity involved in embracing those privileges carries too high a cost.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 16, 1999