Thursday, December 30, 2021

Field Notes from Talking to a "Nice White Lady"

I spent a good part of my graduate school years working in ethnographic methods. While it's been close to 30 years since then, the habit doesn't fade completely, and sometimes when I have an encounter that cries out for field notes on an aspect of our culture, I scurry off and write down what I remember right away.

During the return trip of my recent December road trip, I had such a moment while we stopped in a western Maryland town that had an interesting history and architecture. As we waited (masked) for our takeout lunch order at a local bar and grill in the downtown area, I struck up a conversation with an older white couple who were seated, also waiting for their food. He appeared to be about 75 and she was a bit younger, though I could be off on each by five years.

I don't remember how the conversation started, but they knew we were passing through (I think the bartender had asked me and they overheard). After establishing that we were from Minnesota and traveling back from Virginia, and they were also returning from visiting their daughter in the Washington, D.C., area, this is the part of the conversation that was relevant.

They said their daughter used to live in Berkeley, but it was too busy and there were too many people. [Berkeley: famously built up with skyscrapers, right? The Manhattan of California.] And it was too expensive. Washington, D.C. is too expensive too, they said, as a bit of an afterthought. And the traffic!

Earlier, their daughter had gone to school at the University of Maryland in College Park, then she was in Chapel Hill [North Carolina], then Berkeley. Now she's back in the D.C. area. I asked if she was back in College Park. Oh, no, the woman said, she's in Kensington [Maryland] so her kids don't have to go to private school, they have good public schools in Kensington.

I asked where they [the couple] are from. Washington, Pennsylvania. [Which is a small but historic city of about 13,000 in far western Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh.] He's from there, they said, and she's lived there a long time. "It's getting so built up": said as a negative thing. I asked, Oh, because people from Pittsburgh are moving from Pittsburgh? No, they said, more because of the boom from well-drilling [fracking]. They said a half-acre used to be required to build a house "and we liked that because it meant air between" everyone, but now they don't like it as much. [That's one of the few things the man said.]

Their food arrived at this point and I excused us away from them so they could eat in peace. Our order came soon after and we left the restaurant to eat in the car.

From all of that, I heard the usual white people's hatred of density and belief that white people can say coded things like this to other white people without the slightest fear of being called on it. And I didn't call them on it, partly because I didn't know how to start with all the embedded assumptions and how they piled one on top of the other. Berkeley is "too busy"? What does that mean, exactly? College Park doesn't have "good" public schools? By the time we had gotten to the half-acre being needed to allow for "air" between houses in Washington, Pa., I knew it was a lost cause (if not an aspect of The Lost Cause), at least within a short, casual conversation.

They were clearly Nice White Parents.

By the way, Washington, Pa., was the focal point of the Whiskey Rebellion, as I learned from the Wikipedia as we drove past it on the way to Virginia during the road trip. It has a museum in its honor and in 2011 someone started a Whiskey Rebellion Festival, including reenactments of tarring and feathering the tax man. As a supporter of the idea of taxation for the common good, that sure makes me feel safe to attend. I guess I would have to go in some type of disguise, if I did.

One final thought. Is the daughter of this couple an academic at a Washington or Maryland-area university? I suspect she may be, given the pattern of places she has lived. Or maybe her spouse is. And while I wonder how much she or her hypothetical spouse reflect this older couple's values, I at least know they're the ones who live in Kensington so they can send their kids to a taxpayer-supported school that's "good enough" for them. 

This is part of how we white people naturalize and reinforce white supremacy.

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