Same Hot Buttons, Same Heat
The reissue of Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land reminds us that we’ve always been here.
Four years ago, PBS launched a program called The Whiteness Project. It purported to speak frankly about race, to give space to white people to talk about the experience of whiteness and to ask uncomfortable questions about the experiences of other races. The natural argument against this program (and scholarship in this vein) is that white people do not need more space to talk about race. The white experience of the world is the dominant narrative in America, one which allows little to no room for other races to talk about race – and those stories are the ones that need more room. The aim might be to expose unconscious, destructive aspects of whiteness, but the result is to re-center whiteness unhelpfully.
Still, I, a white person who tries to interrogate her whiteness, was optimistic. I hoped that the program would open dialogue instead of closing it. I hoped that it would encourage white people to understand whiteness, instead of going through life unconscious of it. That it would cause white people to examine our own race in a way that people of color must do on the daily.
Nope. The first few episodes told me this project would not meet my expectations. In the series, the subjects say stupid, offensive things. It is not a useful self-examination; it is an experiment that only exposes the lack of self-examination operating at epidemic levels among white people. It’s this epidemic illness, this white blindness, that allows white supremacy to operate in a society too fragile to acknowledge it.
One of the strongest medicines for this blindness is the work of Eula Biss. She is a white essayist and the author of three books: The Balloonists, a collection of personal essays; On Immunity, about vaccinating children; and Notes from No Man’s Land, a book about race in America, which is being rereleased this week in a tenth anniversary edition. Biss’s work in Notes from No Man’s Land is part of what I imagined when I imagined an ideal outcome to The Whiteness Project. It is a white person examining her whiteness so compellingly that she forces her reader to do the same. And wondering aloud how she, as a thinking human being, can bear to live in a country so imbricated with white supremacy that such privilege is a moral crime – a crime that consistently escapes notice, much less punishment.
It’s fortunate that such a flawless writer elected to make this question the heart of her book. Biss’s writing is muscular, thoughtful, and entirely without artifice. She is precise and evocative, mixing personal experience and fluorescent analysis without wasting a single excess word on either. Her experiences are also uniquely helpful in combating white blindness: she taught in Harlem; she wrote for an African American newspaper, the San Diego Voice and Viewpoint; some of her close family is mixed-race; she is well traveled. During an encounter with some rude Americans in Mexico, she writes:
Biss doesn’t get bogged down in her horror at white greed and privilege. She excises her thoughts about this horror, as if with a scalpel, and presents them cleanly. It’s a very difficult line to walk, to admit the sheer culpability of American whiteness without turning maudlin, or shaping guilt into self-pity. (This may be part of why intelligent white writers rarely write about whiteness.) But Biss has done it. This book is a crucial dispatch from a thinking white mind. It’s an appeal and a confession and an analysis and a memoir, all wrapped up together.
But for me to review a ten-year-old book seems pointless. For Graywolf to reissue a ten-year-old book of criticism seems equally pointless, even if it did gather up awards on its release (the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award). Why did they do it, and why am I writing this?
The thing that kept chilling my skin as I read was how little our racial landscape has changed since 2008. Which is ironic; it was the year Barack Obama was sworn into the highest office in the land. But nothing about Biss’s work seems dated, mired in the Bush era or trapped in 9/11 politics, as so much nonfiction from the 2000s feels to me. She writes about issues that have not been resolved: inordinate black deaths from police shootings, profoundly different media rhetoric when describing black and white college students committing similar crimes, the hopeless grind of lower-middle-class living and the particular burdens of people of color stuck in that grind. Maybe these are not issues that America could have resolved in a decade. Nevertheless, I despaired that Biss’s insights are precisely as damning as they were ten years ago. It’s an unpleasant shock to realize that despite these ten years, containing the Ferguson protests and Black Lives Matter and a two-term black president and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s MacArthur Fellowship and Shonda Rhimes’s influence and so on and so on – that the lives of ordinary people of color are just as disregarded as they have ever been.
The only way for white people to realize how eternal these issues are is to read books like Notes from No Man’s Land. Through its examination of the white self in an inherently white supremacist nation, it inspires the white reader to come to terms with the history that parades around on the surface of her skin.
Such a pretense – refusing to accept such a legacy – is something that white people of this nation can no longer do.
Last week I watched a video of Americans shouting Sieg Heil and saluting a burning swastika. That was an event that happened in 2018 America. The boldness of white supremacy has only intensified in the ten years since Notes from No Man’s Land was released; the ugliness roiling along the far right has erupted in hate speech, property defacement, violence, murder. Sometimes all in the same week. Biss is here, still here, to tell us that it was always so, that it didn’t come from nowhere, and that we need to look (hard) at ourselves, our history, our unconscious assumptions, before we deem ourselves blameless.
The epidemic of white blindness needs to end. Books like this are the cure.
header image: mixed by eric fershtman; “leits metallux 2,” wolfgang lehmann (foreground) / wikimedia commons; (background) wikimedia commons