Over the past two posts, I have been writing about Lila Quintero Weaver’s Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White. Today, I want to finish up the discussion I started last post about the malleability of whiteness that Weaver highlights throughout Darkroom. She explores this with her father when he goes to the church in Texas and when he goes with the black carpenter to the 4th Street Diner. She also explores the slipperiness of whiteness with herself, specifically during her time at school. These are the moments I want to focus on today.
Reading these moments of whiteness’ plasticity, I kept coming back, again and again, to “Going Cowboy,” an essay in Jennine Capó Crucet’s My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education. In the essay, Crucet details moving to Nebraska to start a position at the University of Nebraska and going to ranch to stay and work in order “to see the real Nebraska, whatever that meant.” During her time at the ranch, she realized that the rancher thought she was white.
The television remained on Fox News, and the rancher would “go off about Mexicans getting free passes into the United States.” Crucet points out, as the rancher used “Mexican as a synonym for Hispanic, and I was, I learned in that moment, passing as white to him.” The rancher perceived Crucet as white, just as the men and women in the 4th Street Diner viewed Weaver’s father as white. Crucet continues by pointing out that in these moments she “accidentally trespass[es] into moments that are essentially displays of white power intended only for other whites.”
The rancher did not realize that Crucet, who sat right in front of him, was “the manifestation of one of his greatest fears,” that “Mexicans” would be come into the country and destroy it. She continues by pointing out that she worked at the University of Nebraska, “whose football team he followed as closely as his religion.” Within these moments, and others that Crucet details in “Going Cowboy,” the absurdity of whiteness surfaces. The absurdity of defining people based on skin. The absurdity of narcissism that says, “I’m superior because I’m white.” The absurdity of buying into narratives that prop up whiteness while diminishing others.
Weaver’s exploration of this differs somewhat, especially when it comes to her own experiences. During the summer of 1970, Weaver attended Marion Military Institute. Her father served on the faculty, and the school had just enrolled its first black cadet. Weaver befriended him, and the rumor mill started. Weaver and the cadet would walk around campus together. Seeing them from a window, two staff members see them and raise the alarm to the commandant claiming that the cadet and Weaver are romantically involved.
In this instance, Weaver becomes white, more precisely the white southern woman in need of protection from the black cadet. News gets around, and Weaver depicts a page showing all of the phone calls taking place before the final one to her father. When she gets home, Weaver shows a gulf of water between her father and herself. He tells her, “You put my job in jeopardy!” while she screams, “Lies! Lies!” What is interesting here, of course, is Quintero’s position, considering he received similar looks when he went to eat at the 4th Street Diner.
The commandant reprimanded Weaver, and one line from the disciplinary letter stood out to her: “We expect that you will restrict yourself to bona fide academic activities.” Again, Weaver becomes the white southern woman, not an Argentinian woman. The perception becomes that the cadet will somehow defile or her or that he has tricked her into liking him instead of just believing that the two have become friends.
Weaver follows this incident up with two more that continue the thread. In the first, two black students get into a fight in the girls’ locker room. Weaver tries to intervene and one of the girls looks at her saying, “Always in black folks’ way about something. Mind your own business! We don’t need you, soda cracker. Go back to your own kind!” Again, Weaver becomes white, but this time, it confuses her, and she falls back on her history, talking about the times she has stood up for equality. She depicts herself as a warrior, and she says, “I’ve taken a stand for equality, and I’ve lost most of my white friends because of it! Blah blah blah!” Her self-righteous history has no place here; instead, she just needs to listen.
In the final moment, Weaver oscillates between being white and being othered. A group of white students call her brother “Argentina boy.” One day, they encircle him outside, ready to attack. When she gets to the circle, Johnny looks at her, and she sees a “strange detachment” in her brother’s eyes, the same look that she saw every day in the eyes of the black man walking down the street as dogs barked at his heels.
The boys surrounded Johnny because of his sister; they told him, “Your sister’s a nigger lover.” Again, in this moment, Weaver becomes white, but the boys view Johnny as non-white. This fluidity works its way through this encounter. When whiteness serves a purpose to perpetuate white supremacy, Weaver and her brother enter, or as Crucet puts it, “trespass” into whiteness. However, when it doesn’t fit the purpose, they become foreign as in the case with their father.
This moving back and forth, this malleable, protean nature shows that whiteness serves as a weapon, a weapon designed to exert power over others. It shows that individuals can become part of this whiteness, they can enter into it, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. It’s not fixed, but it has fixed ideas of superiority. These ideas of superiority are what Crucet, Weaver, and others highlight again and again. These narcissistic ideas of superiority lead to racism and structures that perpetuate whiteness as the be all end all of “civilized” society. These narcissistic, self-absorbed ideas of superiority embody the violence enacted against others for some perceived threat against it.
What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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