I lean over the railing, watching shrieking seabirds swoop overhead, feeling a swift sea breeze rearrange my hair from purposefully tousled to straight up disheveled. Fishing vessels chug out into deeper waters and boats span their sails to catch a westerly. Lighthouses peak out from rocky coves. Towering homes with waterfront views stake the claim of unseen wealthy residents. Taken as a whole, the scenery panning outward from the deck of the Martha’s Vineyard Ferry is a Norman Rockwell-esque interpretation of New England summertime utopia.
After the ferry docks I stroll through the port town of Vineyard Haven. Stonewalls frame the perfectly manicured lawns of cedar-shingled homes with fresh white trim paint and Nantucket-blue doors. Restaurants proudly boast on hand-painted signs that they sell organic, island-grown food. Bikers zoom up and down the streets, navigating between shiny imports in that annoying, spandex-soldier manner of cycling enthusiasts
I proceed to the rendezvous point and await my friend’s arrival. While I’m standing there a cop approaches.
“Hi, excuse me, sir. I don’t want any trouble or anything, but would you mind not waiting here? This is the taxi pick up zone. I’m sorry to bother you, but it’s for safety reasons.”
I stare at him, perplexed. I’ve never had a cop speak to me like this. I’m used to brutes with sausage arms addressing me with the humanity of RoboCop. This guy is like a boy scout. He’s talking to me in the defensive way I normally speak to an officer.
“Hey pal, move it along,” I tell him. “Go on, beat it, get out. I don’t want to see you around here anymore, understand?”
Okay, I don’t say that. But I’m certain I could get away with it.
My friend pulls up in the taxi zone. I heave my rucksack into the bed of his truck, slide into the passenger seat, and we’re off. The cop gives a friendly wave in parting.
“So what do you think?” says my friend.
“It’s really fucking white here,” I say.
This single, offhand comment serves as the entry point for a goal I loosely set for myself over the course of the month I am to spend in Martha’s Vineyard. The mission: to discern the essence of Whiteness.
Touching down on this island, I feel the way I imagine Darwin did when he arrived on the Galapagos. Although he may not have immediately known the place would give birth to the theory of evolution, surely he must have felt a sense that the creatures there were a portal to some greater truth.
While arguably scientific, my research is nonetheless painstaking. I linger long after my meal is finished at restaurants and listen in on conversations. I lie on the beach, my eyes hidden behind dark aviators, observing the behavior of the vacationing fauna. At supermarkets I keenly observe what people are buying. While a guest in peoples’ homes I make mental inventories of their possessions. I am, in short, a total creep.
Not long into my project I identify three major varieties of American Caucasian. The first demonstrates an inclination to enjoy such things as copious amounts of horsepower, blowing the fuck out of quadrupeds, and speaking derisively of France. They tend to overestimate their physical prowess while underestimating the importance of family planning. These whites are very rare on the island.
The second major type of Caucasian is abundant during the summer months on the Vineyard, tending to winter in other parts of their eastern range, including New York, Boston, Washington, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Virginia. When not driving their high performance four wheel drive vehicles on dry, flat pavement and subtly endorsing eugenics, they generally keep busy by making sure themselves and their family are spared from inhaling the plebian stench of the first type of white person.
By far the largest gathering of Whites on the island occurs within a third group, and it is this variety of Caucasian that ultimately became the subject of my research. With each passing day the master list of ideas, pastimes and objects that define this group grew into a collective snapshot of their essence. Darwin would be proud. In fact, if he was still alive, he would probably be considered among this group.
Things were going great until somebody forwarded me a link to a website entitled Stuff White People Like, which became so popular it earned the author a book deal with Random House.
I had been foiled by my fellow white man; relegated to mere Alfred Russell Wallace status.
Despite my disappointment, there a good number of differences between our lists, enough so that I feel justified sharing a portion of mine. Besides, I’m not going to let weeks of investigation go to waste. If I’ve learned anything from my research, it’s that distinguishing yourself ever so slightly from your peers is, dare I say, the white thing to do.
Thinking they can speak Spanish
When you ask a white person if they speak Spanish, their answer is typically “a little bit” or “some” or “I know a few words.” This is a lie. It is invariably true that all white people can speak a little Spanish. But when pressed, their knowledge rarely extends beyond what one can learn from hanging out at a Taco Bell trying to get laid by the cute little Latina who works the counter. White people somehow think that America’s proximity to Mexico has resulted in lingual osmosis. As impressive as it is that they we as a nation can say tortilla, tequila, hola and adios, this nonetheless does not qualify as speaking Spanish.
Starting a blog
At some point, most white people consider starting or actually start a blog. White people deem their ideas to be highly valuable, as they spend many hours of their life reading, watching documentaries, amassing degrees, and otherwise learning things that will in no way make them more employable. But one-upping others via pseudo-intellectualism is far more valuable to white people than money. A blog offers the perfect forum for them to repackage their unoriginal thoughts and receive undying praise from a handful of family and friends.
White people revere granite for its strength, durability, breadth of colors and the fact that it appears in the kitchens of other white people. Although granite is considered top of the line, quartz, marble, slate, limestone and soapstone are also acceptable. Faux granite, if it successfully passes as authentic, could earn a white person praise for their clever taste and value consciousness. If it is easily spotted as a knock-off, however, the impostor’s true hard-stone-owning peers might wonder what’s coming next. Engineered wood flooring? An above ground pool? A Daewoo?
Ideally, granite should be matched with stainless steel appliances and illuminated by recessed lighting. Extra whiteness points are awarded to those who do the work themselves, buy environmentally friendly, re-quarried granite, and extend the use of granite into the bathroom. Nothing says white like browsing The Economist on an e-reader while dropping an organically-generated deuce and appreciating the millions of years of geological activity required to form the vanity top.
White people are fond of shunning materialism, and often speak of “decluttering” or “simplifying” their life. Doing so serves as a material cleanse that leaves them feeling morally superior to their hoarding friends and family. Selling possessions at a yard sale, garage sale, rummage sale, flea market, or any other event geared around the purging of old possessions is a good way to achieve this. For the white buyer at a yard sale, they can feel good about not creating more waste and pollution through the manufacture of new products. It’s a whitey win-win.
From a young age we are taught that pink is a color appropriate for girls, not boys. But somewhere around high school white guys substitute the word pink for salmon and begin to occasionally wear clothing of this hue. For the white male, wearing pink is a way to demonstrate he doesn’t care what people think and is an individual who eschews established trends. Both of these qualities are extremely important to white people. Salmon haberdashery is also a hit with white people because it is considered more European, and white people generally consider anything from Europe to be more sophisticated.
Knowing the weather forecast
Due to their connection to nature and need to spend as much time as possible outdoors, it is important for white people to know the weather forecast. More advanced white people can even tell you sunrise and sunset times, when high and low tide occurs, and the current lunar phase. Some white people are so gifted that they can explain the difference between scattered and isolated showers as well as partly sunny and mostly cloudy skies.
Having a good vocabulary
Having a good vocabulary is essential for a white person. It is a way to demonstrate that they are well read and intellectual. Among mixed company, a white person may employ big words as a probe to find other white people. However, they must be careful when taking this approach, as it could be perceived as hostile by those whose vocabulary is not so expansive. When this happens, a white person needs to be able to quickly disguise their words to match the prevailing vernacular. For example, if a white guy uses a word like canard or vicissitude, and subsequently draws dirty looks and/or furrowed brows from other males, he needs to quickly be able to find common ground by talking about the local sporting team and/or degrading women.
It is important to note that one white person will never admit they don’t know the meaning of a word used by another white person. If stumped, they will smile and nod in understanding, then use their 3G equipped mobile device to perform an internet search for the word meaning.
Another interesting case occurs when one white person encounters another of equal lingual talents and a subtle vocabulary standoff ensues. When this happens, the winner can usually be decided by determining who has a greater understanding of word etymology, or who has a better vocabulary in a foreign language, as most white people speak or claim to speak at least 2 or 3.
Mock Civil War and Revolutionary War battles. The sites of historical battlefields. Living villages where workers dress in colonial garb and present themselves as blacksmiths, candle makers and grocers. Those places where you can watch knights joust while a serving wench brings you a side of beef and a giant glass of ale. If it involves history being reenacted or otherwise kept in the present, then white people are on board. When considered alongside their predisposition for antiquing, it follows logically that white people have an affinity for anything from the past (which they might refer to as rustic, classic, or traditional). Think of the hours of joy an older white man can experience watching the History Channel, or the fact that most white women would give a fallopian tube to live in a Victorian-era home. This also explains, in part, why white people love Europe. Just by going there and walking among the historic buildings, they consider themselves to be more civilized. Focusing on the past also suits white people because they like to bemoan the soullessness of modern life and offer rural, agrarian lives as a utopia.
Having a shitty job when they are young
Young white people are expected to work at least one degrading job when they are young, such as slinging burgers, working on a construction crew, or being sodomized by a priest. Although the work does not have to be physically demanding, it should be low-paying and foster a sense of hopelessness towards a capitalist economy and consumer culture, two institutions that white people will continue to speak derisively about for the rest of their lives.
Having a shitty job is the closest thing white people have to a coming-of-age ritual. Once a white person graduates from university and takes a stable, well-paying, benefited position, they have entered “the real world,” as they like to call it, and are officially an adult. As such, they gain the authority to talk to younger white people about the importance of temporarily scooping ice cream, mopping floors, stocking shelves, etc. They can explain to the youth that in order to become a know-it-all in regards to the shortcomings of Western culture, it is necessary to first gain firsthand experience in one of its more base aspects.
This period is also a vital opportunity for white people to learn tolerance, another principle that they laud. By working alongside and getting to know foreign and uneducated people, white people learn that members of these other groups, despite holding outdated views on health, politics, religion, and aesthetics, are nonetheless decent. This stance is well summarized by a favorite white expression: “They’re not bad people…they’re just ignorant.”
If you have a British accent, white people automatically take you to be more attractive, well-spoken and charming. People from England have the purest form of this tongue, although those from other parts of the UK, as well as residents of New Zealand and South Africa, are also acceptable. Australian accents are tolerable as a last resort.
White people perceive a British accent as an oratory superpower that turns a speaker’s every word into mellifluous diction. When George W. Bush and Tony Blair presided over their respective nations, white people found Blair utterly charming, whereas Bush was seen as a pariah, despite the fact that both men lured their country into an unjustified war using bogus information. When watching Blair spew lies and propaganda, white people responded by wondering why they couldn’t have a thoughtful, intelligent, well-spoken leader. But when witnessing similar behavior from Dubya, white people tended to watch Zeitgeist, talk about how America was become Fascist, and reference Orwell’s 1984 ad nauseam.
All white people dream of dating somebody with a British accent. Being seen with even an average-looking man or woman with a British accent instantly raises the credibility of a white person. When asked to explain the appeal, however, white people generally can only offer up unconvincing comparatives such as, “it just sounds more sophisticated/classy/distinguished.” White people also come up empty when attempting to explain why a British inflection virtually disappears when words are sung.
Thinking they are part Native American
White people are, naturally, of European descent. This fact, however, does not keep a great number of them from insisting that they are part Native American. White people who claim to be of Native descent typically follow the same pattern. They begin by offering a fractional amount of their heritage, such as ¼, 1/8, 1/16, etc. and end by referencing a shadowy family legend about the Native American in question. A comment may also be made about just missing the cutoff that allows people of Native ancestry free admission to Dartmouth. They may go on to attribute their dubitable genetics to a great number of things, including athleticism, woodcraft skills, and the inability to hold their liquor.
White people consider all things Native American, like those from Europe, to be wiser and more desirable. While they have no idea how to live off the land and in harmony with nature, white people still pay lip service to the value of such a lifestyle. It is also en vogue for white people to speak out against the genocide of Native Americans and shun the barbarism of Manifest Destiny. But the fact remains that white people have a much better chance of being related to somebody who killed a Native American in the name of Caucasian dominance than actually having a Native American relative.