White Folks / by Daniel Oppenheimer

I had a long journey with this piece, which began as a talk I gave at the Clinton School in Little Rock, but it's finally out and I'm really happy with it. It's a review of White Folks: Race and Identity in Rural America, which is a really fantastic, and utterly obscure, book by education professor Timothy Lensmire. An excerpt from my review:

Perhaps the most dramatic example of internal conflict shows up in the tug of war Frank describes between his professional persona at the high school, and the role he plays when he’s with his buddies at their weekly poker games. In these “high” and “low” spaces, as Lensmire describes them, Frank encounters radically different incentive structures, and he reacts accordingly. At work Frank feels as though he has to carefully measure every word he says, on racially sensitive topics, for fear that if he says the wrong thing his co-workers, all of whom are white, may tag him as a racist. At the poker games, it’s the opposite. Racist talk is rewarded, and social opprobrium awaits the person who preaches caution. “Maybe I’m not a racist,” he tells Lensmire, “but in that subculture, I’ll go way out on a limb and say some pretty horrible things because I’m being rewarded by other people that are functioning in a subculture mentality.”

One result of this split, for Frank, is his sense that there is nowhere he can talk about race in ambivalent and inevitably clumsy ways. There’s no “middle place,” so to speak, where he can talk through his jumbled thoughts and impulses in order perhaps to arrive, over time, at a more integrated and coherent perspective. In the high spaces, the danger is that he’ll say the wrong thing and be shamed. In the low spaces, the danger is that he’ll shame his friends, if he dissents from their racism. In either case there’s anxiety, confusion, and a fear of shame and rejection.