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I am the white girl in every James Baldwin novel

Feb. 23, 2018
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The first time I read Another Country, I was in another country, and I was about to fall in love with a woman for the first time. It was a watershed book for me: it was a book that told me what sort of person I was about to become. James Baldwin taught me how to exist in liminal spaces—a pursuit which I’ve since fashioned into a career.

Nobody ever tells white people that reading James Baldwin is for them, which is fine; he doesn’t belong to us, after all. My pathway into the close spaces of his work was one of becoming—the process of leaving behind heterosexuality like a bad apartment and settling into something new. I found him and needed and cherished him as a queer person. Loving James Baldwin as a white person, by contrast, is more like a process of unbecoming. You are listening at the door, waiting to hear how you are described by an outsider; then you remember which way the door opens, and you realize that you are the outsider.

The white women in Baldwin’s novels are more human, perhaps, than we deserve to be. In his novels, we exist at the intersection of innocence and complicity: we are burdened as much by our race as by our sex. More importantly, we mean well—even as we indulge in acts of betrayal. As in real life, we are guided by our desire to feel needed. We dance around the ability to recognize the dangers we pose to the people we care about, and the dangers those people pose to us.

After all, white women possess a unique superpower: we are able to weaponize our victimhood. Among those of us who are willing to acknowledge the hand we’ve been dealt, most white women only go so far as to account for what we have lost. We avoid the issue altogether, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the inconvenient truth that hurt people hurt people. Baldwin’s white women are not like that. They are not above self-pity, but they pay a high tariff of guilt for the privilege. His white women buck convention, they defy the expectations of the white people around them, but they have not transcended ego: they merely answer to pride rather than to vanity. For one of James Baldwin’s white women, the opinions that matter are the ones that she has deemed worthy. 

But there’s something else about being the white girl in a James Baldwin novel, about being Barbara or Cass or even poor Hella. It means you are seen clearly for your failings. Baldwin’s white women are both victims and villains of their own whiteness: whether or not they believe themselves to be free of its influence, their race shapes the damage they do to others—as well as the damage they inflict upon themselves. But they are never entirely overtaken by their whiteness—that is to say, not without their consent. Baldwin’s white women maintain their agency; however much they give themselves over to their various privileges, they do so willingly. His white women are neither demons nor victims—they have more say in their destiny than either option would allow.

When I read Another Country, I didn’t fully realize at first what the book had done to me. By then, I was already familiar with the concepts of intersectionality and white privilege; I recognized that experiences of sexism and racism were discrete and unique. But it wasn’t until I saw myself through James Baldwin’s eyes—as a queer person, then as a woman, and finally as a white person—that I first recognized whiteness as its own identity. Now, years later, I recognize that my race is an integral part of who I am. Neither my virtues nor my shortcomings define me, but both are defined by my whiteness. And by acknowledging how much influence my whiteness has had on the person I have become, I get to decide how much it defines the rest of me.