Eula Biss’ “White Debt” in New York Times Magazine
Eula Biss’ piece comes at an important time, providing a deeply thoughtful and nuanced example of how white people can and should be thinking about their place in racist systems. Using the idea of debt, Biss speaks directly to her own experiences with whiteness as a privilege unacknowledged. She begins by discussing the purchase of her own home and student debts, and the fact that she often forgets about and does not necessarily feel their presence. Instead, as Nietzsche argues, pain is what keeps memories intact. Referring to Claudia Rankine’s recent essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” Biss thinks through what defines the condition of white life. It is the “illusion that depends on forgetting the redlining, block busting, racial covenants, contract buying, loan discriminator, housing projects, mass incarcerate, predatory lending, and deed thefts that have prevented so many black Americans from building wealth the way so many white Americans have.” It is forgotten debt:
“Whiteness is not a kinship or a culture. White people are no more closely related to one another, genetically, than we are to black people. American definitions of race allow for a white woman to give birth to black children, which should serve as a reminder that white people are not a family. What binds us is that we share a system of social advantages that can be traced back to the advent of slavery in the colonies that became the United States. Whiteness is not who you are. Which is why it is entirely possible to despise whiteness without disliking yourself.”
This piece is an essential read, for understanding and thinking about whiteness as the moral problem that Biss proposes. White people can ignore their debt, “an inevitable result of having lived so long in a house bought on credit never paid off,” but Biss suggests that white guilt can be imagined as an initiative, as a shift to action. Whiteness does not indicate ownership, but it can empower and initiate political change: “When we buy into whiteness, we entertain the delusion that we’re business partners with power, not its minions. And we forget our debt to ourselves.”
Jean Hannah Edelstein’s “I’m a previvor” in Catapult
I love the way Jean Hannah Edelstein writes. On some level the premise of this essay is almost unbearably bleak: first Edelstein’s father dies and then, six months later, a gastroenterologist confirms her hunch that she has the same syndrome that he did:
There’s a name for this thing that I have, this genetic disease that makes me 80% more likely to develop cancer. When I google the name of the syndrome—Lynch, like the murder, but also like the doctor who discovered it—I discover that there’s a foundation set up for people like me. On the foundation’s ugly, rudimentary website, I learn that we are divided into two groups: “survivors” and “previvors,” as if cancer is not a possibility or a risk, but a certainty. I guess that’s what I am now: I’m a previvor. In my head, I sing it to the Destiny’s Child tune.
With this series of events, Edelstein creates something that speaks softly but stays with you, something that, through being so measured, breathes light into the bleakness. It’s sad and beautiful and, in a kind of harrowing but also affecting and very human way, really funny (“The geneticist looks at me, and I look at him, and for some reason I laugh, as if to say: Dads! What are they like? Dying in February!”). Go read it!
Myriam Meloni’s “The Country That Was Orphaned by Emigration” in Narratively
Myriam Meloni is a photographer and videographer who tackles the little-explored domain of women and migration. In this haunting photo essay for Narratively, she presents the case of Moldova, “a tiny country wedged between equally impoverished Romania and the Ukraine.” Here, 250,000 children live as social orphans, meaning their parents are alive, but have emigrated to another country to find a job. Many of these children live under the care of their aging grandparents while their parents send money back for them to live on (barely). For those whose parents aren’t making enough to support them, these children are sent to orphanages–sometimes for many years–and sometimes that orphanage is in another country.
Moldova was relatively prosperous during the Soviet era, when it was a significant exporter of fruits and vegetables to the rest of the country. But today, it is one of Europe’s poorest countries. … One-fourth of Moldova’s working-age population has left the country to work abroad. For most of those who decide to remain in Moldova, the means to make a living remain scarce. … Ina’s mother went to work in Russia when Ina was just seven months old and since then has only sporadically returned to Moldova for short visits.
It’s a heartbreaking story told in striking photos, of a choice no parent should have to make: stay and attempt to find work so you can be with your children, or leave and let someone else raise your kids while you work to ensure there is enough money to feed and clothe them. For most of these parents, it’s not even a choice, because there is no work to be had within a reasonable distance of their home that will provide them with enough money to support their family.