28.5.08

Great To Be White

I spent a few days over the Memorial Day weekend in Woodstock, New York for my friend's birthday. We walked a long, paved path up the side of a mountain in the Catskills on a beautiful, warm day. Hundreds of people along the path - a great caucus of whiteness; people with plenty of leisure time, everyone greeting the total strangers they passed on the trail with a big smile and a hearty "Hello!" What is it about a bunch of white people in one place, on a nice day, and the impulse to say hi to every person they pass?

I know the conventional wisdom is that New Yorkers are rude, brusque. They rush place to place, loathe to say hello to some schmucky stranger on the street. It's just not true. Well, it's less true in Brooklyn than it is in Manhattan. I think that's a safe generalization. Sure, during the rush hours, people are harried and don't stop for much. But then suburbanites driving to their Merrill Lynch headquarter in New Jersey don't wave to the people they pass in their Porsche Cayenne's either, do they? In my neighborhood there are plenty of nods and chin-chucks and "oh-right"s tossed about on the streets. I don't know these people, but you pass a dude sitting on a stoop and make eye contact: nod, "oh-right."

But the white greeting is a totally different creature. I remember growing up in Princeton, New Jersey and going out on Sunday afternoons in town. Thousands of families with kids and strollers, a vast sea of smiling white faces. I feel like there's a subtext to that brand of greeting: "great to be white." It's a detail worthy of a "Stuff White People Like" mention; "Other White People." It's cute really, a bunch of white people out and about in some affluent rural/suburban oasis all thrilled that every person they pass is white!

There's one! the white stroller-pusher thinks to him or herself "Hello! (Great to be white)" There, another, and with a stroller! "Huzzah, friend! (Great to be white)"

I don't think this kind of thing really happens in, say, South Dakota, because everyone there is white anyway. It's these little liberal enclaves like Woodstock, Princeton, Greenwich, Scarsdale (is Scarsdale still really white? I'm not sure) where our people are thrilled for the sunny day and waltzing unfettered by otherness through the downtown arches. A guilty pleasure for the limousine liberal.

When I arrived in Brooklyn, the "oh-right" greeting on the streets was a little odd. But now I understand it. "Oh-right" is just all the acknowledgment you need: "I'm here, you're there, we both exist, oh-right." That's it.

Yes, fellow white person, I know you exist. But everytime we acknowledge that, it doesn't need to be accompanied with a snarky little celebration.

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