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White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness Hardcover – January, 1999
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From Publishers Weekly
Maybe this is what President Clinton had in mind when he tried to kickstart a national discussion on race. Berger's book is subjective, fragmented and, most appealingly, devoid of piety. The son of a dark-skinned but racist Sephardic Jewish mother and a pale-skinned father who admired but didn't know blacks, Berger was raised in a mostly black New York City housing project, where he found himself navigating the shoals of identity and allegiance. In this book, he juxtaposes his memories and observations with a collage of interviews, anecdotes and quotes from other writers?many of them black?about the way we mythologize race. In some ways, this is a particularly good subject for such an approach, since attitudes about race are so much a matter of individual perspective and experience. And his broadening of focus allows Berger to encompass some potent voices, from the dreadlocked black person mistaken for Whoopi Goldberg to the white-seeming black artist Adrian Piper, whose Calling Card 1, a work of art and functional calling card, alerts people to racist remarks. But the format also has its limitations. Berger's treatment of affirmative action doesn't give enough credit to strong criticisms, and the story of his university education, in which black intellectuals were slighted, isn't followed by acknowledgment of today's multiculturalism. (He now teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York.) But Berger deserves credit?and readers?for coming up with an idiosyncratic way to think publicly about the vexing problems of race and racism.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
White "lite" characterizes the type of racism on which Berger focuses in this interesting treatment on race relations. But that doesn't negate the substantial value of this book to the new genre that deals with whiteness as an appropriate focus of America's troubled race relations. Berger does a good job of highlighting the subtleties of modern racism as unconsciously practiced by white Americans. He notes that when such practices are pointed out, whites usually deny the implication, and embarrassment results. Berger also focuses on his own experience and background as a white orthodox Jew, growing up in New York. He was raised by a mother whose expressions of racism against blacks were mirrored by a preference, if not favoritism, his father felt toward blacks. Yet neither parent had substantive relations with blacks who were their neighbors. The book is rounded out with numerous race-significant experiences of some whites and a few blacks that further mirror the myths and lies under which we reflect, if not relate, in an interracial world. Vernon Ford
Top customer reviews
Mr. Berger rightly sees the classification of races as a form of social restraint stemming from economic and political competition. He also believes that most whites know this but won't admit it. He gives an example of homeowners being asked to answer some racial questions after declaring that "allowing blacks into their neighborhood would drag down the property value of their homes" They were each informed that instead of race being determined by fate it would instead be allocated in quotas by the government. They are told that they have been wrongly made whites and will now be made blacks but they have an offer of compensation. How much do they think their "loss" of their racial grouping is worth ? One man said "50 million so that he could live anywhere free from prejudice" another simply stated "that he would NEVER give up his race" Previously they had all been on the defensive declaring themselves non racists. Whilst insisting that blacks imagined slights and racism where there was none to be found. But their own replies belied this assertion making it clear that being born white was so socially advantages and economically valuable in America. That like the art in the Vatican. It was basically priceless.
I found the reflections on his father more intriguing than the ones on his mother. Because of his father's refusal to capitulate to family and ethnic group pressure stereotypes to be a professional success. His father identified with the plight of African-Americans not from guilt. But because he knew that no matter how much you tried to please you could still be rejected for being what you are. Mr. Berger's startling revelation that he scupper's his father's opportunity for domestic happiness with an African American nurse by using emotional blackmail. Is simply shocking when he knew that his father's relationship with his late mother was physically cold and intellectually juxtaposed.
Berger writes from a unique perspective; that of an intelligent and perceptive man reared in public housing in New York, whose mother was a racist and whose father was a supporter of the civil rights movement. He was not only aware of race as an issue early in his life, but was torn between his parent's opposing views while simultaneously trying to apply those contradictions to the people he knew outside the home - largely minorities. The issue seems to have obsessed him, but ultimately in a positive way. This book, part biography, part essay, part reportage, cannot be easily described. It is fragmented and impressionistic, but its focus is clear - to make the reader (and it seems to assume a white reader) really aware of all the unspoken lies that support the privalege of white power in America. It is hard to know whether he succeeds or not. This reader already sympathized with much that he had to say and was impressed with the way he managed to make subtle points clear. Would a real white supremacist be won over? That is doubtful, even if they read the book with an open mind. But they are not the intended audience. Rather, Berger is addressing those whites who like to believe they are not - in any way - racist. Until this group recognizes the subtle ways in which they cling to a privaledged position and the impact this has on minorities, there will be no improvement in race relations.
I enjoyed reading this book very much. Each chapter was a surprise and a pleasure. Some of the digressions seemed puzzling but for the most part everything in the book helped illuminate his theme. This is not a polemic or a Jeremiad, but a soft spoken and carefully thought out piece of writting. Once Berger's point of view seeps into the reader's consciouness, it's hard to see things the same way again.