White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness [NOOK Book]

Overview



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

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Overview



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.

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Editorial Reviews

Bill Curtis

Courageous White Lies Opens Eyes
—a Bill Curtis Book Review

The measure of a good book is in how far it chases readers somewhere new. In White Lies, author Maurice Berger gives us an insightful glimpse into white lies, its self-deception and objectification of everything but itself.

Using poignant autobiographical reflections, recent media events, and comments from other writers, artists and researchers, Berger intrudes the silent, racist, mentality of "whiteness". His edgy presentation makes you laugh, feel dread, and pity at the sheer stupidity of racism. White Lies is an equal opportunity to examine how the paradigm of racism limits personal thought and freedom.

Mr. Berger meanders across issues of class, racist myth and hype, his mother, integration, silence, his background and a myriad of insights which penetrate personal comfort zones. Drawing examples from popular culture and news events, Berger scoops the sugarcoating off white western world racism, cultural imposition and nullification. Berger chases readers somewhere new.

He quotes various authors, including Farai Chideya, journalist and author of Don't Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation about African-Americans, who "finds that cultural disinformation about African Americans is everywhere in the media, concerning every aspect of life: sex, love, family values, primary and secondary education, affirmative action, wages and employment patterns, the arts, sports, the criminal justice system, politics. No matter how free of racism white people think they are, no matter how much white people love jazz or enjoy the company of black friends, their racial politics cannot help but be distorted by hype."

In White Lies, Berger contends that "Whiteness" as a "cultural" expression discounts every other culture and people to be less than "whiteness." He says, "Racist hype justifies white anxieties about an unknown or unfamiliar blackness. It shores up white power by justifying white people's need to curb black power or expression. These are some of the reasons why it is so hard for white people to acknowledge the lies and distortions that underwrite hype."

"Hype," Berger indicates, "predisposes white people to see even the most innocent black person as dangerous, sinister, or scary: the black medical student walking down a dark street at night reads as savage, licentious, criminal. The black mother pushing her son in a stroller down that same street in the light of day reads as unmarried and irresponsible."

For readers willing to examine the dynamics of how white racism works as false cultural expression, Berger's White Lies is a primer into whiteness, its limitations, and its paradigms. He says that white supremacy practices are legitimate as long as Blackness is negated, vilified, criminalized, animalized, marginalized. Like a PC mouse click, whiteness perpetuates its power by maximizing negatives about other cultures, while minimizing negative racist white practices, behaviors and cultural expressions. The snow job (pun intended) is so thorough that people think the dominance of whites over blacks is "normal".

In White Lies Berger says, "Cultural and social institutions controlled by white people have been slow to reward black accomplishment not because African Americans don't excel but because such rewards declare that a black person may, in fact, be far more talented, more intelligent, or more beautiful than his white peers." This compelling book pulls the sheet off the Klan mentality draping the perception of the typical white American mind into bizarre, illogical paradigms of oppressive dualities, anti-black propaganda, and true white lies. Maurice Berger's White Lies is my first recommended Must-Read-Reading (MRR***1/2) for even the fainthearted.

Bill Curtis' commentaries and reviews have been published in the Afro-American, The Baltimore Chronicle, The Baltimore Press, The Baltimore Times, The Baltimore Sun, Financial Independence Magazine, Every Wednesday, Blind Alleys, African-American News & World Report, and at Barnes and Noble on the internet. Contact Mr. Curtis at WebReady@theglobe.com or P.O. Box 2043, Baltimore, MD 21203-2043.

David Roediger
[The book's] quoted passages...reveal exquisite taste and gather classic accounts of what whiteness means....Berger's frank autobiographical sections provide soaring insights.
The Village Voice
Laurie Alderstein
...[A] quirky, engrossing inquiry [that] turns an equally critical eye to mundane encounters and to pointed confrontations...
The New York Times Book Review
Booknews
Berger (New School for Social Research) juxtaposes short takes about the politics of race with personal vignettes about his coming of age in a public housing project in New York City during the 1960s. Also here are the words of ordinary people coping with fears and anxieties about race, and passages from such writers as James Baldwin, Roland Barthes, and Toni Morrison. He includes no index and no notes beyond identifying quoted passages. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Laurie Alderstein
...[A] quirky, engrossing inquiry [that] turns an equally critical eye to mundane encounters and to pointed confrontations...
The New York Times Book Review
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."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429932899
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/28/2000
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 680,764
  • File size: 309 KB

Meet the Author



Maurice Berger grew up in the Bernard 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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Read an Excerpt


White Lies
MOTHERMore 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
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First Chapter

Chapter One

MOTHER


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 through their 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 Works Progress 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 Schon," 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 with her 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.

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