Robin M. Boylorn's Sweetwater caused me to examine stereotypes that claw at my own background—deeply racist aunts and uncles refused to think beyond an ignorance of the other, allowing them to find some class-based solace in relation to their own feelings of sociocultural worthlessness. In the tradition of good scholarship, Robin's work invites me to unnerve my own whitegirlness, to unsettle this racially reifying practice and, with all of the pedagogical potentiality of performance, hopefully, to engage a conversation privileging a continued critical and communal reflexivity.
An unsettled I.
My “whitegirlness” is unsettled by this book, unsettling privilege being one of the best reasons for performative autoethnography.1
My whitegirlness that feels the bones of systemic and familial racism,
the whitegirl who knows she can and cannot avoid
the presence and absence of embodied race,
who is unsettled by the so little room in our language system
to articulate the complexity of negotiating race with and between selves/others/bodies/cultures.
And the whitegirl who knows she could recede into an apoliticized whiteness
trying to push and push the unsettled back into a body numbed by privilege.
In Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Anna Deavere Smith notes that we have yet to find a language that speaks the complexity of race while simultaneously creating supportive and productive diverse communities.2 Cornell West, in writing of the Los Angeles uprising, argues “either we learn a new language of empathy and compassion, or the fire this time will consume us all.”3 I neither trust nor can live without language; but, trust it or not, language will represent me, others, culture, based on its collective will composed by those in various kinds of power at the moment of utterance.4 Sometimes I am one of those in power. Sometimes not. And so within Smith's and West's complexity, compassion, and fire I think it best to remain an “unsettled I,” alarming the whitegirl, magnifying the nerves beneath her freckled melanin.
Because I do not want to engage, as Robin puts it, the “pigeon-holed stereotypes (of black women as angry, mean, reckless, inherently strong, combative, hypersexual, overly religious, etc.).”5 The stereotypes claw at my own background, where deeply racist aunts and uncles touted these ways of being as evidence for their own refusal to think beyond an ignorance of the other, allowing them to find some class-based solace in relation to their own feelings of sociocultural worthlessness, as they could easily be—and surely were—profiled as white trash.
And so I find myself situated where any good scholarship should place me, betwixt and between excruciatingly conflictual lived experiences, those examined in Sweetwater, and those of my own background; and it is in this liminal and unsettled space, smack dab where Dwight Conquergood would want us to be,6 that I feel more deeply than before the conflicts I have among the shame of my white trash roots, the ways in which that racism might frame the women of Sweetwater, and my own personal/political knowledge that these women's stories are indeed “stories of resilience and social justice.”7
So I remain unsettled, unnerved, unable to respond without whitegirlness being brought to bear in all of its overt and subtle performances of privilege, sustaining the performativity of whiteness, “a self-reifying practice,” writes Bryant Keith Alexander, “a practice that sustains the ability to name, and conversely not to be named, and the power to speak without being chastised while in the process of chastising others.”8 And maybe this racial unnerving is in no small part because of the ways in which the women Robin describes so deeply resonate with the women of my upbringing. Of course, the colors of their skin made the socioculturally hued experiences and privileges of their lives quite different. But my aunts and uncles and cousins had/have names like Bootsy, Boy, Hattie, and Lucky, and a large part of our summers were spent running around Uncle Boy and Aunt Hattie's trailer, where Uncle Boy would cook the salmon that they had caught in a scary little boat off Whitefish Bay in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I remember my mom trying to tell us kids how lucky we were to be eating salmon cooked in culinary love by my Uncle Boy. And where, even or especially in those young years, subtle seeds of racism were being cooked into every bite.
So in the tradition of good scholarship, Robin's work invites me to continue to unnerve my own whitegirlness, to unsettle this racially reifying practice and, with all of the pedagogical potentiality of performance, hopefully, to engage a conversation privileging a continued critical and communal reflexivity.