book White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness

reviewed by Rachel Barenblat

Published in Issue No. 25 ~ June, 1999

I wanted to like this book. A combination of memoir and extended musing on race and race theory, White Lies is the work of Maurice Berger, a white boy who grew up Jewish in a largely black Lower East Side housing project. His father was a liberal who worshipped Martin Luther King Jr., his mother, a dark-skinned Sephardic Jew who hated black people. I wanted to see what synthesis Berger created from this parental dialectic.

Unfortunately, White Lies didn’t live up to my expectations. Berger did come from an interesting family, and when he’s describing the dynamics of his childhood, he temporarily forgets the rhetoric of scholarship. But the book’s vignette-based structure ultimately weakens it, making it hard to follow. Worse still, Berger paints a pathetic portrait of himself as a young white liberal sometimes-racist who finally discovers, in being gay, what oppression is all about – and by the end of the book I just didn’t like him.

There are enjoyable aspects to this book. The sections about Berger’s family are compelling: the descriptions of growing up white in a black housing project, of how his mother avoided eye contact with their neighbors, of how his mother and father differed in their understandings of race.

“Moments after a television news bulletin announced that Martin Luther King, Jr., was dead, my mother said he deserved to die,” is the book’s riveting first line. Berger does not spare his mother in the retelling, and his retelling is effective. Especially when his mother’s reaction is juxtaposed with “As I walked down the hall to the bedroom I shared with my sister, I heard my father sobbing. Tears rolled down his face as his finger pointed to the radio, which blared updates on the assassination.” The family’s tensions are clear from the start.

Berger tells us that his mother’s life was shaped by her otherness, the darkness of her skin, her Sephardic heritage and Spanish-sounding maiden name. “My mother was the embodiment of the mutability of race, evidence that terms like ‘black’ and ‘white’ are imprecise at best, confirmation that race itself is socially and culturally constructed.” Indeed, a few short sections later, Berger brings us along as he watches his mother’s “beauty regimen,” a half-hour long ritual of pomades and liquid foundation “many shades lighter” than her complexion.

One section, called “Delusion,” carefully deconstructs Dinesh D’Souza’s claim that liberals have exaggerated both the history and persistence of racism in America. Berger neatly rips D’Souza’s argument – that race activists are “poisoning” the minds of an unbigoted younger generation, and that the worst of American racism lies comfortably in the past – to shreds. This is skillfully done, and I wanted to applaud by the end of it. Berger knows how to argue.

But White Lies presents a confusing portrait of its author. At first, Berger seems to be merely reporting on his mother’s racism as he identifies with his father’s “anti-racism”. He tells stories about being beat up by the other white kids in his school, his transfer to an Orthodox Jewish academy, and his relief, upon transferring back to his neighborhood school, that all the other whites were gone. Berger’s childhood friends and allies were black; he tutored black kids instead of going to gym class; in the racial polarization of his family, it is clear where he stands.

In high school, though, Berger discovers advanced-placement English. His friends change, he tells us, as he starts to analyze “some of the more difficult writers of the twentieth century with adolescent passion. For the first time in high school, I was reaching out to the white kids.” What? How does AP English equate to “reaching out” to white kids? Berger’s latent racism, which he hasn’t acknowledged until this point in the book, suddenly blossoms.

“In order to break the code, to be initiated into the brotherhood of whiteness,” he tells us, “I needed to stop fighting and start to love the wan pinkness of my skin. I flirted with the raw, unspoken power of my race, and I began to let it do its work for me.” Berger seems to be telling us that he is aware of his transition into racism and makes the transition anyway. A part-black, part-American Indian woman beats him out of a graduate school fellowship, and he is convinced (at least at the time) that she won because of her color. Ultimately, he chooses “to think and write exclusively about my own people.” He admits that his academic focus is homogenizing, that he chose to interest himself in white history, white art history, white scholarship. This is not, in itself, a sin. But placing this admission in the context of a book that claims to explore racism seems odd, and it set my teeth on edge.

Berger’s racism comes to a head about two-thirds of the way through the book, when he describes his father, ill, in the hospital after his mother’s death. His father’s favorite nurse, with whom he flirts, is black. His father asks Berger and his sister if they would mind if he went out with this favorite nurse. Berger and the sister say yes, they would mind. The father never brings it up again.

Strangely, Berger juxtaposes this anecdote with an apt deconstruction of a Ralph Lauren ad in which a black man is compared with a horse. He describes “Lauren’s vision of the black man as polo pony” as indicative of “stereotypes [that] deny the intellectual and human dimension of blackness just as surely as they systematically ascribe to black people bestial traits that are rarely applied to whites (the Marlboro Man, after all, is riding on his majestic horse).” Berger seems capable of picking apart someone else’s racism, yet quite unaware of or unfazed by his own.

And then he says, in a later vignette, “For the first time since my college years, I am disgusted at the sight of another person’s racism. Our distinguished black colleague is no less articulate, erudite, elegant and passionate than we are. Yet the color of his skin and the subject of his scholarship mark him negatively in my professor’s eyes. Strangely, they do not mark him negatively in mine.” I can’t believe that. Not after the racist things he has said. Berger has made himself an unreliable narrator.

Ultimately, I don’t know what to make of Berger. One moment he’s an anti-racist; then he’s blaming his fellowship loss on his “unprivileged” white skin; then he’s dissecting his mother’s racism with disturbing candor; then he’s revealing his own.

The book’s structure is one of vignettes, and every few sections there is one comprised entirely of quotations, in italics, from famous thinkers and writers: W.E.B. Du Bois, Cornel West, Toni Morrison. Is Berger trying to absolve himself of his racism by quoting black thinkers? The quotes he chooses are ones that illustrate race realities, the difficulties of being black in America – he seems to be condemning the white majority that has created a racist world. And yet he participates in that racist world, over and over during the book.

Ultimately, book’s vignette structure is its downfall. Race is complex, and Berger’s decision to interweave meditations on race with the story of his own development (as a racist? An anti-racist? Neither? Both?) makes the narrative even more complex. Because Berger refuses to maintain one attitude consistently, the book is jumbled and confusing.

“To be honest about race demands that one be honest about one’s racial attitudes,” Berger says near the end. No doubt this aspiration, to be honest, led to the writing of White Lies. Unfortunately, his honesty doesn’t come matched with clarity. And, ultimately, I’m not certain that this story is one that needed to be told.

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Rachel Barenblat is co-founder of Inkberry, a literary organization in the Berkshires. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A chapbook of her poems, the skies here, was published by Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio) in 1995. Learn more at