a long talk

‘If You Can Perform Whiteness, Then What Does It Mean to Be White?’

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Penguin Random House

“Over the past two weeks, I’ve seen good white people congratulate themselves for deleting racist friends or debating family members or performing small acts of kindness to Black people. Sometimes I think I’d prefer racist trolling to this grade of self-aggrandizement. A racist troll is easy to dismiss. He does not think decency is enough. Sometimes I think good white people expect to be rewarded for their decency.”

The novelist Brit Bennett wrote these words in 2014, in the wake of a grand jury’s decision to not indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. A month earlier, a grand jury had failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the killing of Eric Garner. “Good white people” were angry. Or at least they wanted to be seen as angry. As Bennett pointed out in her unforgettable essay, “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People,” which garnered more than a million views on Jezebel, it could be hard to tell the difference. And exhausting.

In her propulsive new novel, The Vanishing Half, which debuted at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, Bennett takes the theme she explored in that essay to a startling new place. Partly set in a mythical town in the Jim Crow South, the story offers a critique of whiteness from the perspective of someone who passes for white by choice — a choice motivated by an understandable desire for privilege, financial stability, and most of all safety. Stella Vignes lives in Mallard, Louisiana, a town solely inhabited by black people who strive to marry lighter, so their children will be “like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before.” One night as a child, she and her twin sister witness the lynching of their father by a group of white men. As teenagers, this trauma leads them in dramatically different directions; one sister marries the darkest man she can find, the other runs away to live and pass among a group of good white people.

In the most famous stories about passing, Bennett points out, the protagonists ultimately face society’s reckoning. But Stella is never found out. Instead, she suffers from something more subtle and enduring — the hollowing out of the self. Bennett was interested in passing because of how it both exposes and strengthens the artifice of race. “On the one hand, if you can perform whiteness, then what does it mean to be white? If you can move between these categories because you decide that you will, what does it actually mean that we have systems that are built on reinforcing those categories?” she asks. “On the other hand, these characters who pass usually end up reinforcing the hierarchies that they are potentially destabilizing. The tension within passing stories is between this idea of destabilizing race and then reaffirming race at the same time.”

How’s your week been?
It all feels very surreal. There’s a weird feeling of whiplash from seeing these pictures of a deserted Times Square to seeing these huge crowds everywhere. I’ve been out a bit — I went out to the protest that was going up Bedford [Avenue in Brooklyn] last week. In some ways, this is the most normal life has felt this spring. It feels weird to say that, because obviously there’s something really unique about the protests. You’re seeing people gathering all over the world at a time in which we all understand gathering to be something that’s potentially dangerous. But at the same time, we’ve seen this constant loop of black death over and over again. There’s something familiar about that, in a way that lockdown felt completely like nothing I’d ever experienced. So it’s all strange.

And then you’ve got like a book coming out in the middle of it.
[Laughs] It’s been a whirlwind in every possible iteration of life.

Has it been surreal, too, to think about these parallel moments between the events in your novel and what’s happening in the world right now?
It’s been eerie for me to see people describing the book as timely, because when I was writing it, I didn’t think about it that way. Of course, these are conversations we’ve been having for decades, but I did not think that this would be the top thing that people would want to be talking about when the book came out. So it is surreal. The book opens in 1968 — that’s a year that everybody wants to talk about right now.

What inspired you to set the book then? And more generally, what was the first seed of inspiration for the novel?
I wanted to write a book about a town that exists in this weird liminal racial space between the worlds of black and white, in a time and a place in which binaries are very important. In the Jim Crow society, it’s all about the binaries. So what does it mean to be outside of that binary? And then, what does it mean to leave that town? I was interested in the idea that this liminal third space was mobile, that it was something the characters carried with them even when they left the town and went off to other places.

I’ve heard you talk about how the town was based in part on stories your mom told you. When did she first mention a town like this, and what did you feel when she first mentioned it to you?
We had a conversation on the phone around 2014. She mentioned offhandedly this place she remembered from her childhood. It struck me because I had always thought about colorism as interpersonal or systemic, but I never really thought of locating it within a specific town — that the view that light skin is preferable to dark skin could be instituted within a town, and that the town would be so invested in light skin that they would be striving toward genetically engineering their population to get lighter. There was something so strange and really striking about the implications of that. If that’s the core value of your town, that’s going to affect not only how you think about your body, and how you think about other people’s bodies, but also who you marry and your kids. All of these really deeply intimate choices we all make in our lives will be governed by that core belief.

I was interested in this town as a mythological space. It’s a place that has been filtered down to you from somebody else’s memory.

When was the first time that you remember thinking about colorism and being aware of it?
When I was a kid, I remember hearing people say things — like, dark-skinned women shouldn’t wear red lipstick or you shouldn’t wear bright colors if you’re dark. I remember seeing the movie Imitation of Life when I was a child, which is about a white-passing character. It’s also a thing you just pick up on that nobody has to tell you. I was aware of the fact that when I was a child, the biggest black heartthrob was Halle Berry. I was aware of who is considered attractive, who is considered desirable, who’s considered smart. But with this book, I was interested in the idea that colorism isn’t something you observe, but is actually formalized and institutionalized in a place.

Focusing on a pair of twins is such an interesting way to explore that idea, too.
Once I knew I wanted to write about this town, the twins were the next step. When I started thinking about who lived in the town, I realized, “Oh, I can have twin sisters who are living lives on opposite sides of the color line.” Twins are so useful narratively. There’s the mythological component — twins are important in a lot of different myths. They also allow us to explore questions of identity — how people turn out to be similar or different to each other. Once I started imagining that one of the twins would marry a dark-skinned man and have a dark child and return to the town, I wondered about the polar opposite of that experience. So I started thinking, okay, well, the other one passes for white, and she has a white child, and she’s living somewhere else. That was a way to stretch those characters as far apart from each other as I could, and see how the story could exist in the tension between those two women being stretched to their edges.

Brit Bennett. Photo: Emma Trim

And both of their lives are shaped by witnessing the same act of senseless violence when they were young. At what point in the writing process did that feel like necessary to you?
I knew pretty early on that they would not have their father. The idea of them witnessing his murder was in fairly early drafts. I thought about these two little girls witnessing this thing that is both horrific and also unexplainable, so they’d have to exist in the illogic of this experience, have to spend their lives trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense. In a way that traumatic moment is a second birth for them, setting them on their different paths, because of how differently they each react to this experience.

When I was reading the sections about Stella living as a white woman, I was reminded a little bit of your Jezebel essay, because she basically becomes a good white person, and those are the sorts of white people she’s surrounded by. I was curious to hear about how you thought about the kind of white person she would become.
It’s something I thought about a lot, because I kept thinking “what type of guy is she gonna marry?” In Nella Larsen’s Passing, the white-passing character marries this guy who’s a huge bigot, and it increases the tension in the story because you’re thinking, oh my God, what’s going to happen when he finds out? That was one thing I thought about — maybe she joins this deeply loud and proud racist white family, and she has to ingratiate herself that way? But what ultimately felt more interesting was for her to join this moderate, well-mannered, polite white family, because she has to learn how to perform whiteness in this way she has never experienced as a black person. She has to learn how to be white in a way that is acceptable within this suburban, upper-class community, and that’s different than these men she saw murder her father. That’s different than what she had experienced as a black woman growing up in the Jim Crow South. I found that that was a lot more complex, that she’s constantly having to teach herself how to perform whiteness when the scripts for whiteness are being changed around her all the time. And she’s always kind of doing it wrong.

Even beyond that, I didn’t want current white readers to be able to separate themselves from these characters. Sometimes that’s what you risk when you have white characters who are very obviously, cartoonishly bigoted. Nobody thinks of themselves as a bigot, so people see that and they’re just like, well, that’s not me. These characters are pleasant. They would never burn a cross on somebody’s lawn. They have values that are much more similar to most contemporary white American readers. That’s what’s useful about the good white people community Stella joins. It doesn’t allow the reader to look away.

Were those the sort of white people you grew up around?
Yeah, that was my experience. I grew up in Northern San Diego. I had white friends growing up, I had white teachers who mentored me. We had lots of white neighbors who were very kind to us. And I think about how unusual that is in the history of my family. I remember having white friends come over when my grandpa would be over, and he would just be amused. That was funny to him, because my grandpa lived in Watts, and that was certainly not his experience when he was a kid. Learning how to experience race and these intimacies in a way that is murkier, that’s something that’s true of me, not only because of where I grew up, but when I grew up. My parents didn’t grow up with white friends. As adults, as co-workers and colleagues, they gained white friends. So I learned race differently than they did, and differently than my grandparents did.

You’d have a much easier time learning to be white than Stella does.
I think so. I have a fluency with white culture because I’ve had to have that fluency, but also because I’ve grown up alongside it and seen it displayed as the predominant culture. For Stella, it’s not like she grew up watching TV. They didn’t have access to this white world — they’re really sealed away from it. So she has to learn on the fly, how to speak differently, and how to express the right opinions. And it’s not only that she’s become white, but that she’s entered this upper-class world. She hasn’t learned racial fluency in a way that she needs to succeed in this kind of world, so she has to constantly learn these new scripts, at a time in which they are being challenged and rewritten right around her. She’s passing during the civil rights and post civil-rights movement, at a time in which integration is increasing. So her performance of whiteness is always wrong, it’s always one step behind.

It’s interesting to think about performing race at this moment when racial tensions in the country are so high, when so much of the conversation right now revolves around the Black Lives Matter movement.
The idea of performing race raises really interesting questions: what does it mean to live in a country that is built on racial hierarchies if the categories are permeable? If we can’t even know the categories — which we can’t. We don’t know people’s gender, or their race, we just make these assumptions. And then we have all of these social and political and economic implications that come from these assumptions we’re making. Sometimes when you say race or gender is a social construct, people think what you’re saying is those things are not real. It’s not the same as saying that race is not real, that’s just saying that the way we think about race is not natural or inherent or inevitable. These are ideas that are constructed by us, over time, that we’ve agreed upon, that we have reinforced, that we have propagated. There’s nothing inevitable about these categories.

What becomes really interesting about passing is that, on the one hand you have this character who is exposing the flimsiness of racial categories — because if you can perform whiteness then what does it mean to be white? If you can move between these categories because you decide that you will, what does it mean that we have systems that are built on reinforcing those categories? And so the passing character is really transgressive and maybe even kind of liberatory. But on the other hand, these characters who pass usually end up reinforcing the hierarchies that they are potentially destabilizing. When Stella becomes a white woman, she’s not attacking white supremacy. She actually ends up embodying white supremacy in order to maintain her role as a white woman. The tension within passing stories is between this idea of destabilizing race and then reaffirming race at the same time.

I’ve read you talk in other interviews about how you didn’t want to write a story where the passing character would be punished or judged for her choice. But at the same time, reading the novel, Stella seems so unhappy. And as a reader, it’s clear she has made a choice that’s left her empty in some sort of fundamental way.
I think that’s true. When I was a kid, and I watched Imitation of Life, I found that movie so baffling. Why would somebody do this? Why would you just decide that you want to be white? It was difficult for me to imagine, which I think is probably a credit to how I grew up and the love I was taught for myself and my culture. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around that movie, which is a very moralizing story. At the end, this character is punished — her mother dies, and she feels so guilty she disowned her mother and she’s shamed for transgressing between these categories.

I didn’t want to do that — I just don’t think that makes interesting fiction. But at the same time I did want to think about what Stella is losing by passing. We can imagine what she’s gaining — she’s getting money, status, access, safety, all these things she didn’t have before that she wanted. But the idea of what she’s losing was the most interesting. Losing her family, her connection to her sister, her connection to her home. She’s got this hollow center, because this whole section of her life she can’t talk about with anybody. She can’t tell her daughter, her husband, who she loves; she can’t be wholly herself because she’s constantly worried about being caught.

In addition to the protests around the country, this week has also been a dramatic one in the books world, with the strike, and the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag blowing up on Twitter. Although those conversations have also been going on for years, there seems to be heightened focus on the racial inequities within the publishing industry right now. In light of that, I’m curious about what your path to publication was like.
My road to publication was a lot smoother than a lot of writers’ were, particularly a lot of black writers. I wrote the Jezebel essay as I was finishing up at my MFA, and that essay led me to my agent. I was working on The Mothers at the time, and we were able to sell that book as I was leaving my MFA in the spring. We had interest from a bunch of different editors, and we received a preempt before we went to auction. I’ve been really fortunate. I’m an outlier, compared to what I saw on Twitter.

But I hope it’s a moment of reckoning for the book world. I’m hoping that this is not just this capitalism moment of, “Oh, we see people are interested in black stories, let’s push those.” We’ve seen this influx of anti-racist reading lists. And even for myself, my novel is not How to Be An Antiracist, it’s not White Fragility. It’s not something I wrote to teach people anything. But even considering that, I know there’s been a rush of support for this book because of the conversations that are happening right now about how it’s important to read black people and to read about black people. And I think that’s good. But I also think you should read fiction by black people because these books are good, and not because those books will teach you how to be a better person. I always cringe a little bit at that kind of discourse: that reading a book by black person is like eating your broccoli. Two of our greatest living American writers right now are Colson Whitehead and Jesmyn Ward. How do you not read those people if you’re reading contemporary American fiction?

Lauren Michele Jackson wrote a great essay on Vulture about this recently, about the inherent problem with anti-racist reading lists.
The idea of reading Beloved as some how-to guide just kills my spirit, you know? Yes, there are things I learned while reading Beloved, yes that’s part of the experience, but it’s a book that’s a marvel of language. It’s the images, it’s the rhythm of the sentences, in addition to the ideas. That’s a thing that I find troubling — that you can or should reduce fiction by black authors into ideas. That these books are content you can extract something from, and that is their value, versus the idea that you read these books because they are beautiful.

*An earlier version of this piece misidentified the author Nella Larsen.

If You Can Perform Whiteness, What Does It Mean to Be White?