When I was a little boy growing up in New York City I would hear older relatives using two different terms to talk about what I eventually realized were the same people: “Americans” and “White People.” As in, “White people eat white bread. We eat rye. Americans take their hats off in church. We keep ours on in synagogue.” Mind you, these aunts and uncles of mine were all American born. And while their English had a certain inflection that even without the Yiddish sprinkled through it would have given them away as New York Jews, English was the language of their education, the language they dreamed in, and the only language that they passed on to their children: “Yiddish not spoken here.”
A few years ago someone wrote a book titled something like, How the Jews Became White. While I’ve never read it I can only imagine that the author’s conclusion was similar to mine. Some time in the middle of the last century, when the dominant culture decided to consider the possibility that “Negroes” were human, the color bar slid over and suddenly people like my relatives, who spoke of Americans and White People, found that they were now also talking about themselves.
About a decade ago I wrote an essay that I only showed to one other person, the by me (a Yiddishy turn of phrase) Very White (i.e. British-descended) Lesbian member of a small writing group I belonged to. I called the essay: “Things we’re not supposed to talk about.” Her slightly horrified response to it was, “Andrew, you’re really not supposed to talk about that.” In it I discussed my opposition to legal marriage for same-sex and two-sex couples, my lack of sympathy for the late Princess Diana and Mother Theresa, and I decided to tackle the subject of Race and Smell. This is what I had to say:
Many years ago when I had a practice doing bodywork, a Japanese client very nervously told me after our second or third session that the only reason she could work with me in my little office was that I didn’t smell bad like most white people. She thought it was because I was a vegetarian, and didn’t “stink” from eating meat like most whites. She also told me that she and her Japanese friends called white people potatoes, this “Because you’re pale, lumpy, shapeless, and you all look the same.” (The “But I’m not white” part of me was offended. The newly white part of me was amused.)
Tobias Schneebaum, one of the great uncelebrated Gay American Jewish authors, (of Keep the River on Your Right and several other amazing books,) tells a similar story, of being accepted by natives in the jungles of New Guinea because he didn’t smell bad. I don’t know what white people smell like, or Jews. (Growing up in the 20’s my father didn’t think of himself as white but he may have smelled bad to some of his non-Jewish classmates, because my grandmother sent him off to school each day with garlic around his neck, to ward off a terrible disease called “Spana-mana Jesus” that’s spread by Christians.) But I have noticed that some black people smell different to me than anyone else. This smell somewhat reminds me of how my wool sweaters smelled when I was a boy and got rained on on the way home from school. Which makes me wonder if the smell I detect has something to do with differing oil gland secretions.
Some black people don’t have this smell and some have it very strongly. An African American friend told me he wears heavy scents to cover a smell he can’t detect himself, afraid that white people will otherwise react to it. I have found that this smell takes me some getting used to with some people, but not everyone. Sometimes, like fragrances, I like one person’s smell but not someone else’s. On a few occasions I’ve smelled it in the air on an empty street where someone has passed a moment before, smell lingering like perfume. (But I don’t think I’m supposed to say this, and I’ve never asked anyone black, “Do I smell?” Do I smell bad to you? Not my personal smell, but my white person smell. Even though I’m still not entirely convinced that I’m white, and I’m not a vegetarian anymore either.)
There’s only one other group of people I’ve met who have to my nose a distinct smell. I’ve met a few Indians, and briefly dated one, East Indian not Native American, who have an odor somewhat like a subtle blend of muted spices, similar to the smell of certain cooking spices, but not exactly, perhaps what happens to them when they’ve run through a human body: a mixture of pungent, tangy, and a bit sweet too, that registers differently to my (possibly class and race inflected) nose than the smell of some black people.
I can’t believe I said all of that. But I did. Again. In public. Which makes me remember an afternoon about fifty years ago, when I was passing through the kitchen of one of my best childhood friends (Jewish but not yet white.) His mother and Matty the “colored girl” who cleaned for her five days a week were sitting over coffee and cake, chatting, gossiping, and laughing like two best friends. But when the “girl,” who was a decade or so her senior had gone, my friend’s mother took the cup and plate Matty used to the sink, poured a tiny amount of bleach on them and scrubbed them as if they had been contaminated by someone with a rare and fatal contagious disease. I was shocked, stunned, having never seen anyone do anything like that before in my own home or family. And yet, some part of me understood what she was doing, picked up I’m sure by things I saw and heard out in the world.
I get very dark in the summer, perhaps from my lingering Sephardic genes. And I remember a time when I was six or seven and trailing behind my Aunt Rachel and Uncle Bob as they walked through the turnstile into the crowded Long Island beach club they belonged to, which had only very recently allowed newly white Jewish people to become members. But the very white and blond young man behind the turnstile stopped and said, “Little boy, you can’t go in here.” I panicked as my aunt and uncle continued on ahead of me. Finally I called out and my aunt came back. To this day I can remember the look on the face of that (cute) young man when my aunt said, “This is my nephew.” He sneered then shrugged and let me through. But even at that age I could read his look, which said, “Lady, I know this is your cleaning girl’s kid. It’s nice of you to bring him here, and there’s nothing I can do to stop you, but don’t do it again.” Maybe I understood because of all the times I’d heard my parents play and talk to my brother and me about these lines from a song in South Pacific: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
This is just an excerpt from this issue of White Crane. We are a reader-supported journaland need you to subscribe to keep this conversation going. So to read more from this wonderful issue SUBSCRIBE to White Crane. Thanks!
Andrew Ramer is a writer and educator. He is the author of numerous books including Revelations for a New Millenium, Little Pictures: Fiction for a New Age and the Gay classic Two Flutes Playing: A Spiritual Journeybook for Gay Men from White Crane Books.
Ramer lives in San Francisco. Praxis is a regular feature of White Crane.