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WHITE LIES: Race and the Myths of Whiteness by Maurice Berger

WHITE LIES: Race and the Myths of Whiteness


Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0374527156
Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"

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."" Many whites may relate to blacks in terms of crude stereotypes (e.g., that of disproportionate black drug use; Berger shows that whites are about as likely to use drugs as blacks). But to speak of ""whiteness"" itself--and at the end of his book, Berger extols the emerging field of ""whiteness studies""--may undermine rather than advance'a thoughtful, self-reflective dialogue between two major American races by propagating still another racial/ethnic myth.