About the Book
Although scholars have outlined the stages of white identity development, it wasn’t until Kelly Norris was the single mom of a biracial child, teaching in a suburban school where she’d been called a “nigger lover,” that she began seriously considering them. Kelly had long been struggling with identity and race in America, haunted by the question: what does it mean to be white?
Her early attempts to answer this, however, focused primarily on what it meant to be black. Too White is a memoir of a white woman’s journey to explore the racial divide. In this sometimes embarrassing, sometimes painful, but often exhilarating journey, she confronts racism head-on, ultimately forging a positive white, anti-racist identity. Unlike the theoretical body of work on the subject, this memoir offers an intimate, honest look at the motives, struggles, and revelations attending white identity development.
For Readers and Book Clubs:
ONE DAY I got on the train, but not to go to the New School. My cover-up mission was to get my hair braided. Bo Derek had recently made it acceptable for white women to have braids (at least to the white community), and I was armed with a backpack carrying a journal, a few bucks, and the address of the salon I’d gotten from an awkward phone call to 411. As long as I had an alibi in case anyone asked, I felt free to wander and observe.
I got off the train at 125th Street and headed down the staircase from the platform, following the flow of the crowd. Not wanting to draw attention to myself by looking lost, I continued up a steep sidewalk that led past brick housing projects, a fire station, and corner stores, acting like I knew where I was going. People were packed in here. Window ledges and door hinges were duller than at home, seemingly covered in a layer of soot. The world was bronze and gray rather than green and white. A child of birdwatchers, I recognized some pigeons as familiar allies, but even they were disinterested in my presence and pecked at the ground hastily as if to say pass on by, white girl.
When the street flattened out and widened, I stopped and bought some frozen ice from a vendor who spoke to me in Spanish, who didn’t care that I didn’t understand. Kiosks sprang up, offering everything from hats to suitcases to magazines. I peered into faces many shades of brown. On their turf, contact was totally different than in New Canaan, where I only encountered groups of people of color at the train station in the mornings.
On any given day, scores of women from New York or Stamford would be getting off the train to clean the houses and watch the children of white women. Then, it was all deferential smiles and downcast eyes, miles of space and status between us. Here in Harlem everything was flipped on its head: teenage girls in bright tank tops stared at me, interrogating me with their eyes. I was the one who stepped aside so they could pass. Rattled but thrilled, I felt like I’d escaped from a cage.
I finally tracked down the salon, and three women near the back all looked up at me when I pushed the door open. One stood, braiding hair, another sat in a large, black swivel chair, getting her hair braided, and one was leaning over a counter talking with the other two. On a TV mounted in the corner, African women danced with no volume, their hips gyrating dizzily. The small shop was cramped, decorated with glitzy photos of airbrushed women in front of hot-pink or zebra-print backgrounds. It smelled of stringent hair product and beef stew. The women stopped what they were doing when I came in. I wasn’t sure who to speak to, so I looked at the woman behind the counter.
“Hi. I want to get my hair braided?”
She stared at me, flipping the page of the magazine in front of her without looking at it. I repeated myself, looking at the woman getting her hair braided, and stupidly asked, “Do you braid hair here?”
“Come here,” she said, coming out from behind the counter and leading me to a black, faux-leather sofa. She pointed to a stack of books with hairstyles and walked away.
I looked through them for a few minutes while they resumed talking. The pictures featured mostly black women but none of them wore braids. Had she misunderstood me? Or was this her way of telling me no? I pretended to be interested in the pictures for what seemed like a respectable amount of time and then got up. The women were laughing and frowning and gesticulating while they talked loudly in another language. When I asked for braids again, they stopped. The one getting her hair done looked at me with the corners of her mouth turned down, the hairdresser narrowed her eyes, and the woman behind the counter let her mouth fall open.
“Braids?” she gasped, walking over and picking up a strand of my hair. She inspected it, hanging limply between her fingers like cold spaghetti, then tossed it away, saying, “Ok. Two hours.” Only I didn’t hear the two hours because her accent was so thick. The woman getting her hair done had to translate for me.
“Come back two hours,” she said sweetly, laughing in her throat.
“Ok,” I lied. I didn’t have anywhere to go for two hours and it was getting late. Plus, the whole episode had shaken me. As I walked out of the shop, I could feel their eyes on my back, sure that they knew I wasn’t really coming back.
It didn’t matter. Soon I was back on the train, headed to the sleepy streets of New Canaan. When I stepped out onto the dark, empty platform, I was greeted by an enormous, familiar silence. Gone were the honking horns and shouting voices. Gone were the close bodies, subtle, electric interactions, and probing eyes. I walked home under a row of street lamps, dutifully shining down, lighting the whole of Main Street just for me. Talbot’s, the National Bank, and New Canaan Playhouse snoozed cozily after another day of service, like faithful dogs curled up at the foot of the master’s bed. The sound of my shoes on the pavement so late at night cried out a solitary defiance. I stepped deliberately, as if tramping on the skin of the town itself, glad to be the little annoyance keeping it awake. I rounded the corner to a darker street and headed toward our apartment where my mother would be asleep, my head still buzzing from all the stimuli, my heart emptying like a tide.