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White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness
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White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness

by Maurice Berger

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The acclaimed work that debunks our myths and false assumptions about race in America

Maurice Berger grew up hypersensitized to race in the charged environment of New York City in the sixties. His father was a Jewish liberal who worshiped Martin Luther King, Jr.; his mother a dark-skinned Sephardic Jew who hated black people. Berger himself was one of the few


The acclaimed work that debunks our myths and false assumptions about race in America

Maurice Berger grew up hypersensitized to race in the charged environment of New York City in the sixties. His father was a Jewish liberal who worshiped Martin Luther King, Jr.; his mother a dark-skinned Sephardic Jew who hated black people. Berger himself was one of the few white kids in his Lower East Side housing project.

Berger's unusual experience--and his determination to examine the subject of race for its multiple and intricate meanings--makes White Lies a fresh and startling book.

Berger has become a passionate observer of race matters, searching out the subtle and not-so-subtle manifestations of racial meaning in everyday life. In White Lies, he encourages us to reckon with our own complex and often troubling opinions about race. The result is an uncommonly honest and affecting look at race in America today--free of cant, surprisingly entertaining, unsettled and unsettling.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“The quoted passages . . . reveal exquisite taste and gather classic accounts of what whiteness means . . . Berger's frank autobiographical sections provide soaring insights.” —The Village Voice
Kirkus Reviews
A book that is both immensely interesting and ultimately frustrating: part autobiographical vignettes, part a collection of anecdotes and quotes by whites and blacks on how each group perceives the other. Berger, a senior fellow at the New School's Vera List Center for Art and Politics, has a fascinating background: he is the son of lower-middle-class Jews, his mother a dark-skinned Sephardi with strong racist attitudes; his father highly sympathetic to the civil rights movement. As a gay man, Berger also is sensitive to being an oppressed, often "hidden" minority. His many short topical chapters, on such matters as "Rage," "Fear," "Envy" and "Beauty," focus in an immediate, personal way on "the game of racial avoidance and evasion." Berger performs a real service in discussing the most uncomfortable aspects of his subject, such as the competitive racial resentment he felt against a black man who was awarded a prestigious fellowship when Berger appeared better qualified. He also demonstrates through the evidence of numerous informants that "white people, while vigilantly aware of the presence of blackness, are most often oblivious to the psychological and political weight of their own color." Yet Berger's almost exclusive reliance on autobiographical and anecdotal material precludes him from exploring with sufficient depth or nuance most of the topics he touches upon. He also errs more profoundly in positing the existence of "whiteness" as something more than a racial category, without paying more than glancing attention to the fact that "white" is as much a social construct as "black."

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.53(d)

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White Lies


More than anything, my mother's life was shaped by her otherness: the darkness of her skin, eyes, and hair; her Sephardic heritage; her Hispanic-sounding maiden name. More than once she had been called a spic. More than once she had been called a kike, a hebe, a Jew bastard. More than once she had lost a job because a producer or casting director thought she was "too dark" or "too Jewish." My mother was the embodiment of the mutability of race, the evidence that terms like "black" and "white" are imprecise at best, living proof that miscegenation has blurred the racial boundaries of almost every one of us, confirmation that race itself is socially and culturally constructed.

In nineteenth-century America the law in many states would have qualified people lighter-skinned than my mother as black because of the traces of African blood that coursed throughtheir veins. But by the 1920s my dark, small grandfather could slip past rigid quotas and through U. S. immigration as white on the basis of his word and the implied promise that he would strive to meet the immigrant ideal of an all-American whiteness.

My mother's earliest memories were shaped in an environment of prejudice and fear. She was born in Germany in 1920. Her father, Norbert Secunda, a research assistant in the mathematics department of the University of Hamburg, had confronted the usual bigotry known to Jews in Germany in the years before the rise of National Socialism. His projects at the university were often ignored or stripped of funding. The ranking members of his department, who, in polite conversation, would frequently refer to the fact that he was Jewish, encouraged him to find work elsewhere. Fearing that he would not survive this situation, he immigrated with his family to the United States in 1927, leaving behind a steady income and most of his worldly possessions. His fears were prescient. By the end of World War II, nearly every member of both his and his wife's families—scores of men, women, and children—had been killed by the Nazis.

Living in New York with her mother (her parents divorced soon after they immigrated), my mother decided to pursue a career as a singer. The prejudice she encountered played a significant role in undermining her professional life and destroying her morale. While she gave recitals at the Metropolitan Opera House, the old Brooklyn Paramount, and other venues in the late 1930s and early 1940s, her revered voice teacher, a retired soprano assigned through one of the programs of the WorksProgress Administration, was a destructive bigot and Jew hater. She continually warned my mother that if she did not convert to Roman Catholicism and capitalize on the "Spanish good looks" that would easily allow her to pass for Gentile, she would never make it in the professional opera world. My mother, an Orthodox Jew, would not even consider the idea. The teacher, initially one of my mother's greatest supporters, retaliated by relentlessly assigning Christian hymns (which my mother refused to sing), cutting back on her participation in student recitals, and refusing to write letters of reference or recommend her to agents and producers.

My mother's dark, ethnic looks frequently prevented her from getting roles, even bit parts, in the small theater companies she turned to after her opera career stalled in the 1940s. She changed her name to the all-American, professional-sounding Karen Grant after a number of agents and producers warned her that her given name, Ruth Secunda, sounded too exotic, too Spanish, too Jewish. (The name Secunda had achieved national prominence in the late 1930s after the Yiddish song "Bei Mir Bist du Schön," written by a relative of my mother, Sholom Secunda, became a hit for the Andrews Sisters.) After a brief stint in Miami in the late 1940s—where daily trips to the beach rendered her an even deeper shade of brown, leading producers to typecast her for roles in Latin nightclub revues—she returned to New York and took up work as a lingerie salesgirl. The only parts she could get were in the small Yiddish theater companies that still dotted Manhattan's Lower East Side.

My mother's career ended when she met and married my father in 1954. Broke and living on the Lower East Side withher obsessive, overbearing stage mother, she saw my father as a way out of her failed life. Listening to her scratchy old 78 rpm demonstration records years later, I realized that her voice—an amalgam of coloratura grace, overwrought emotion, and quivery vibrato—probably would not have made her a star. But I have never doubted that racism and anti-Semitism helped to undermine her self-image and her will. She would never forgive the bigots who she believed thwarted her professional life and forced her to trade a future on the stage for a life of poverty and hardship. Even on her deathbed, she found a way of blaming her terminal illness on prejudice. Medical researchers had long suspected that cancer was caused by repressed rage, she told me, and an early death was the price she was paying for years of buried anger against the Jew haters who had destroyed her life.

Copyright © 1999 by Maurice Berger

Meet the Author

Maurice Berger grew up in the Simon Baruch Houses, a public housing project in New York City. He is a Senior Fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School for Social Research. He lives in New York City.

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