Anne Marie Ward
Creative, Editor, Researcher, & Writer

Nonfiction

Essays & Research

Lethal White

Nothing is an isolated incident, not even the love two people share. There is context to everything. History. Roots that run so deep and thorny vines that climb so high, so far around you, that you don’t even recognize that you’re engulfed. It’s just how it is. You hate that phrase, and rightly so. But you also have to understand that you’re not an innocent player in this game. Maybe you’re somebody’s pawn, but you’re still making moves. When you were a young child and your father tried to teach you chess with his beautiful marble set, you would steal back your captured pieces with glee, as he laughed at your mischief. The pawns could move one space, knights could jump, etc... Can you steal back your pieces, here? Dad’s set was pink and grey, instead of the traditional white and black. You learned that white always goes first, but that’s just convention. An arbitrary rule. Are love stories arbitrary in the structures they follow? The patterns seem to make so much sense, but what if that’s just exposure talking?

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You were just friends at first. So it goes. You met, not for real, in Junior anatomy, but it wasn’t until senior year that you started giving him rides in your silver ‘06 Mazda 6 with cloth seats that you paid way too much money for, with money that you got when your Aunt Dottie suddenly died a few years prior. That first time, around Halloween, you talked and listened to music, and wasted a quarter tank of gas driving in circles and dead-ends in his bourgeois Franklin development- with the big houses with tall ceilings and same rustic fencing out front. And slowly this became an everyday thing, and slowly you started talking on Skype after school, with some of his friends too, and slowly you started hanging out.  Slowly and yet suddenly, he became your best friend. You trusted him more than you had trusted anyone in a long, long time. You felt like he cared about you more than anyone had in a long, long time. He was so cool, and he showed you all kinds of obscure music and tech stuff, and he was super into karate and self-defense. He was smart and funny and cute and so easy to talk to.

Then by the time graduation rolled around in June, you guys decided to give the dating thing a try. Both of you agreed this friendship had been leading up to this. And it was great! For maybe a week. And then he decided he “wasn’t ready for a girlfriend” and just wanted his  “best friend back,” and you recall quietly saying, “I just feel so stupid,” before pulling out of his driveway, and out of his development, with tears rolling down your face, feeling like you had been kicked in the teeth. You acknowledged all the not-so-great things about him. He was dismissive. A know-it-all. Things that you said were often met with a snide comment or regarded as stupid. Sometimes, he was just mean and rude. You remembered him saying to you once that, “You’re well-read, but that’s about it,” in regard to your talents, your worth. You’d read a few books, and that was about as talented as you would get. At the time, you laughed it off: it was just Him being his sarcastic, irreverent self. But it actually really fucking hurt.

Summer started, and you suddenly understood why all the songs on the radio were about heartbreak and summer love. It felt like an emotional flu. And even though he said wanted his best friend back, he spent most of the summer not contacting you. You stewed in your heartache and self-disgust, as he worked a weird environmental job, moving rocks, clearing trails, and kindling a relationship with another girl, and not telling you anything about it.

You guys should’ve never talked again. You should’ve cried and listened to breakup songs and gone out with your girlfriends and gone on tinder and swiped and swiped and swiped for a rebound. But that’s not how intensely-toxic relationships ever end. You always have to enter a horrible cycle of on-again/off-again, friends/not-friends, talking/not-talking, before it finally, slowly fades out, after more pain and trauma and false-stops. That summer was just the beginning of the end. A segment in the pattern.

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It’s really not such an unusual story arch, not so different from most young-love and breakup stories, even if there are details specific to it. What if this were the same story, but nobody ever found out that you were white and he was black? You wanted to believe that race didn’t matter in your relationship. You wrinkled your nose at comments like, So you like black guys? And because you hated that ignorance, you tried your best to move past it. But race would’ve always mattered, because of how this world works. How your world worked. You didn’t even begin to realize how ignorant you were, and still are. You didn’t realize that trying for colorblindness didn’t solve any problems, it only ignored the existing ones, creating warped perceptions of reality. What your context was and is. Because context matters.

When you guys first started talking, he considered himself lucky, because he had never met any real racists. He told you this as you drove him to his home in Franklin Township,  a town in a rural county in Northwestern New Jersey, which is predominately white. A county that not-long-enough ago had Klan activity.

You met in high school. In a high school that in decades past had White-Power Wednesdays, and only a decade or two ago, a student sued the school for violation of his first amendment rights when he wore a Confederate flag t-shirt and the school said he couldn’t. The student won.

You didn’t consider this history in your relationship, or maybe you subconsciously ignored it. Wanted to will the past to stay out of the present--pretend this history wasn’t the foundation on which your current lives rested. You wanted to ignore it, think both of you were above it. But that’s not how it works. You were both a part of a much larger history and legacy that while you might’ve not wanted a part in it, you really didn’t have a choice in the matter.  And ignoring it didn’t help either of you.

You didn’t even realize you were ignoring it. He talked to you about black culture, parts he liked and didn’t. He talked to you about Caribbean culture, how his parents came to the US from Jamaica. You talked to him about being a teenage girl, the heinous things that men would say to you, or about you. He would talk to you about the heinous things boys would say about the girls, and you never felt more self-conscious about it than when hearing a guy admit it happened regularly.

Nobody knew about your romantic relationship with him at first, you wanted to keep it quiet because it was so new, and you guys had been such good friends for so long, and dating as a concept was so new for you, personally, that you felt super awkward about it.

But you also lived in a town where girls would admit, in hushed tones, that their parents would never let them date a black guy. You weren’t worried about that, but you were worried and enraged by the dreaded phrase, Oh so, you like black guys, like it were a requirement, as if his individuality and friendship to you never mattered in the transition to dating. Asking if you liked black guys wasn’t seen as a type of fetishization; it was just seen as a type. You doubt even now that you fully understand how these lines work in people’s minds.

///

College rolled around. You were insanely, deeply, horribly depressed, but you didn’t know that yet. And he was there for you, at least for a while. You thought love would save you from yourself.

Right before both of you started college, he had a graduation party. His family came over before any of his friends did, or maybe after they left, and his grandmother came into his room and started questioning him, about college, his major, how he was feeling before she gave this advice:

“Don't be dating those white girls, they have a habit of saying you rape them.”

When he told you about it, he was laughing. Probably not because it was funny, but because it was so not funny. He had already told his other friends about it, and they couldn’t believe it.

You tried to say ironically, “I guess I’ll just try to not say that you’ve raped me,” but it didn’t make things better. You then said, “I feel guilty, but I don’t know what I’ve done wrong…”

“Yep,” he said, “That’s the racial guilt.”

He broke up with you a few days later. Part of you worried that it was because of what his grandmother said, even though she hadn’t known about your relationship, but the girl he started seeing after you was also white. That comment made you feel like you had been punched in the gut, but how could you be angry at her? She wasn’t wrong. White girls used black men as their scapegoats and got them killed again, and again, and again. There is a dark history there. You carry that legacy. You think about being a dumb, white bitch.

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In college, you suffered from heavy depression from the beginning, but you also learned so much, experienced so much. You saw the whiteness and wealth of the private college versus the city outside of it, and that deeply bothered you, but you didn’t know what to do about it besides feel enraged. You experienced being the only white person working in food service or on the subway coming back to campus. You took classes that look at gender, race, and class theory and learned words and phenomena about all the unfair and backwards shit you didn’t even realize you were immersed in back home and at college. The thorns that engulfed you.  You volunteered with smart, radical people and learned about socialism in America, and casual ableist language, and how history was whitewashed to unfairly remember the Black Panther Party. You listened to a fiercely intelligent black professor from Lehman college talk about her new book about the Black Panthers. She called Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row in a PA prison, and we all listened to him talk about revolution. At one point, a young black girl in the audience asked the professor about an infamous comment made by a Black Panther leader, she asked about how, “He said, something like, the only place for a woman in the party is on her back?”

The professor smiled, and said that she loved writing this book because of all the research she was able to do, and secrets she was able to uncover. And she learned that that comment was made in the context of being a joke. She moved on to the next question. You looked at the girl’s reaction, and she did not seem satisfied with that answer. It just didn’t seem funny.

You wondered what the girl was thinking. You wanted to buy the book. You posted about the event online, and you had relatives call the Black Panthers terrorists, as if it were that simple. As if the stakes were the same.

///

You weren’t even talking to him at this point. Not by the time of the 2016 election. Things had finally, painfully fizzled out, and you were both starting to move on from each other. Out of mind. But then the election happened, and you found yourself looking at people you thought you knew, you thought were good people, and wondering how they could vote for such an openly racist billionaire. You wondered if he voted. You started to feel your complicity and complacency. Thinking about your relationships with your friends and your relationship with your first love. You looked around and suddenly saw the thorns everywhere, encasing everyone and everything. Realized that these sentiments had always been there, no matter what sitcoms would like to have you believe about race relations in this country. It was like doublethink. People would insist that they weren’t racist while voting for a racist.

You thought about a conversation you had with him after both of you had started just started the first semester of college. Some guy did or said something to you, and you were mad about it. You were mad about being a woman, you were mad about having a vagina, you were mad at the whole binary system, and you angrily asked him, “I mean, have you ever walked into a room and been afraid because you’re a girl?”

He got quiet and said, “No, but I’ve been afraid because of the color of my skin.” Such a difference from the boy who told you he had never met any real racists as you drove him home.

You paused, suddenly ashamed: “You’re right. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

You imagined him shrugging, “We all have our stuff, y’know?”

You didn’t know who would become president at this point; you still thought it was going to be a woman. A white woman for president? Part of a weird political family?

You remembered the first and only time you visited him at Rutgers. You weren’t technically dating at this point, but everyone on his dorm floor still referred to you as his white girlfriend. His new group of engineer friends kept making strange comments about how he was black, and you felt so helpless. You didn’t want to jeopardize his new college friendships, but you also wanted to punch them in the face. You told this to him after, and you guys held each other and loved each other, but you still felt like a coward. You were a coward.

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You cannot stop thinking about Lethal White Syndrome. It’s a horse disease. You learned about it through Eliese Colette Goldbach’s essay,  “White Horse.” Unlike hers, this essay has nothing to do with white horses, proverbial or not, but you cannot stop thinking about it, and the way she described it, as you write. You think about white horses and chess pieces and all the heinous subliminal messages that we all have been taught again and again about what colors are good and pure versus sullied and evil. You think about the thorns digging deep into your flesh, and the roots pulling at your feet, and the constant struggle to be better than the horrible birthright this society ascribes to you. Try to keep learning and becoming a better person. Better friend, sister, lover, coworker, neighbor, adversary, acquaintance, stranger. You think of invisible knapsacks and the lack of black beauty salons in your hometown. You think about how your home county voted red, wear red caps with pride. You think about Facebook articles and Russian collusion. You think of white people who think they can say the n-word because they have black friends, and they think they know the difference. You think of love stories, and break up stories, and what people call “jungle fever.” You think of the girls in your high school and your roommates who only ever dated black guys, and what that means, versus people who never date black guys, and what that means. You think of the 2016 campaign, and the exhibit in the New Orleans WWII museum that showed Nazi propaganda, and the unnerving, repulsive similarities between the two. You think of eugenics and pseudoscience. You think of Lethal White Syndrome again and again and again.

Lethal white syndrome kills baby horses that are unfortunate enough to be born with it. It’s genetic, and they either later die or are euthanized. They are born appearing normal and healthy, with a white coat and blue eyes, but their insides are rotting. The genes connected to skin pigment and the nerves in the colon are somehow connected. They don’t have functioning colons and cannot pass waste. Their insides are rotting and swelling and poisoning them.

You think about love stories. You think about hate speech. You think about your other love stories, your other lovers. You think about how you used to not want to be political before you realized that everything is political. You think about him, and how deeply and passionately you loved him or thought you loved him. You thought about how much you missed his friendship and still often do. You think about how you haven’t texted him in over a year and a half and probably hadn’t texted him six months before that. You think about different kinds of love stories. Nothing is an isolated incident, not even the love two people share.

This was originally featured in The Brink Mag’s Issue 1: To Have A Heart

Winner of the 2019 Reid Family Prize for Excellence in the field of Creative Expression