Writing a Book About My Whiteness Forced Me to Confront My Own Lies
Baynard Woods on the Infinite Gap Between Self-Conception and Material Reality
All reporters have to learn to deal with sources who lie. Lies were at the heart of my last book, I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad (co-written with Brandon Soderberg). The story centered around a group of plainclothes cops who lied on warrants, in arrests, and on the stand, robbing from drug dealers and selling the drugs. They lied to each other—about how much money they found, what happened to the drugs, and on overtime slips that allowed them to fleece the citizenry as well.
When all of this came tumbling down with a federal RICO indictment in 2017, those with reasons to lie proliferated. Each of the eight cops initially arrested had their own stories, jockeying for the best deal or betting on acquittal. Several other dirty cops whose crimes were outside of the statute of limitations were charged with lying about them to the FBI. Then there were all of the victims. Many of them had been trying to get people to listen to their stories for years. But others, who might not have been mistreated by these particular cops exaggerated their own stories hoping to gain a settlement from the city or to get something from a gullible reporter.
My co-author and I spent countless hours digging through documents, debating each other, and testing theories to try to figure out who was lying and what was the truth behind all the lies. We couldn’t figure everything out, but in the end, by cross-referencing countless different stories, many of them told under oath, we were able to put together a pretty good picture of the case.
But when I started working on my new book, I found myself facing off with a source whose tricks beguiled me and whose fables I could not distinguish from the truth. That liar, my subject and source, was myself.
We all carry around half-cooked stories about our lives and our families. We are most often either deluded or confused by our own motives. The words “know thyself” were carved above the oracle at Delphi because so few of us do.
In revisiting my past, I constantly found myself confronting the way I wish it had been or the way I had convinced myself it had been. Like all the liars in I Got a Monster, I was a self-serving source.
To make it even more difficult to sort through my own lies, my book Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness addresses my life from the perspective of race, of my whiteness. And one of the first things I realized about whiteness, is that it is itself a lie that spawns other lies and keeps us from seeing the truth about ourselves.
First, I avoided the problem by writing a draft that was more social history than memoir. I was able to look at the history of whiteness and how it intersected with me. But I did so as a witness, rather than a perpetrator. This was the first lie.
My editor, Krishan, saw through it immediately. She pushed me to tell the story from the inside, to let her know what it was like to be white right now.
I started a new draft as my father, who was raised under Jim Crow and later became a Trump supporter and is a big part of the story, a foil against whom I tried to fashion my sense of myself, was dying of ALS. I loved him deeply but I was furious at the lies he had both accepted and passed on. Part of the writing became an attempt to reconcile that love and that fury, which seems necessary if we ever hope to really disrupt white supremacy. My deadline became a true deadline, a race with his mortality. Watching as the connection between his mind and his body broke down, I was overwhelmed by our finitude and how few chances we have to really tell the truth.
For months, between frequent trips to help my dad, I wrote furiously. It turned out that sentences and paragraphs served as good levies for hurricane-force emotions. And that those emotions helped me override the part of my mind that exists to lie to me. I knew that in order to capture the truth of his life, I had to understand not only his family’s history as slaveholders, terrorists, and supporters of Jim Crow, but also my own life. How had he formed me? How did I fit into all that?
In what felt like a terrifying maneuver, I began to seek out the gaps between my self-perception and reality because in those spaces, I thought I might catch my whiteness at work.
I was shocked to see that throughout my life, there was an infinite gap between my self-conception and my material reality that opened up when I thought of myself in terms of race—which is something most white people don’t do.
I began to see that every time I thought I was rebelling against the system, I was still acting and thinking within the framework of white supremacy.
When I got arrested for weed and kicked out of school in 1990, I thought I was the rebel hero fighting the system, when I was really just playing my part. South Carolina cops arrested white kids like me so they could show how the scourge of drugs endangered affluent white people so we would fund more draconian measures against poor people of color. And I did my bit right on cue. I lied and told the cop I got the weed from a “Black guy” on the Southside of town. I did pre-trial intervention. They probably ramped up enforcement in a Black neighborhood.
Fifteen years later, as a white teacher in a mostly Black charter high school, I thought I was being noble, and saving my students, while the truth was that I took far more than I gave and I exercised power in a way that baffles me in retrospect. I thought they needed a sternness that I myself had shunned.
Whiteness, I started to see, is choosing to think we are something we are not while enjoying the very real privileges of the reality we deny. We think we are rebels when we are burghers; we consider ourselves radical when we are revanchist; we insist on our gentility at the very moment we engage in torture; we consider ourselves white when we are splotchy shades of pink; we think we are universal, irreducible individuals when we are white people, exhibiting a group characteristic.
From this vantage point, I could also see how similar Dad and I really were, how the attitudes we thought of as a our own idiosyncrasies are our cultural inheritance as white American men, much of which is embarrassingly basic Hemingway stuff.
For all our differences, Dad and I both thought we had the inside scoop on things, knowing either the cheapest or the best or the rarest options; we both thought we could handle ourselves well in a variety of situations, especially emergencies; and we both thought we deserved to be heard, and that whatever we had to say was not only important, but more important than what the other person had to say.
We believed we had experienced the world; believed we could hold our liquor; thought ourselves above average in bed; and took a certain pleasure in noticing the mistakes of others, while refusing to see the most obvious in ourselves. These attitudes were not just idiosyncrasies but our cultural inheritance as twentieth-century white men on the cusp of the twenty-first.
Our differences, I realized with some horror, amounted to matters of style. In terms of our basic engagement with the world, the way we moved through it and interacted with other people, we were, without a doubt, both white dudes.
This was my inheritance…and my responsibility. It was too late for him—it was not religion and I did not think I could save him. But I could understand myself better and, I hoped, be better in the world.
I was racing toward the end of the rewrite, working with my editor on each chapter as I went, when my father died.
I wrote the last chapters in the days between his death and the memorial. We were on deadline and Krishan reluctantly called on the day of the memorial to tell me the chapters weren’t good. Sometimes, when I tell people that story, they act as if it were a horrific thing. But it was an act of grace. I knew that what she told me was true and I knew I could always believe her after that. She was instrumental in the process of outsmarting my internal lies.
I went home and rewrote the ending again as clearly and as honestly as I could.
Dad’s impending death had not pushed me to cover over any of the uglier truths of his character and our culture as I wrote the earlier draft. I could express my anger and my frustration at the background of white supremacy that he refused to acknowledge. I could detail the crimes committed by my family and the racist comments he made. But, as is so often the case with fathers and sons, I could not adequately show my love and my grief in those final pages, until after he was dead.
The lie, in that draft, was pretending that I was OK when I was broken. When I opened up that brokenness in the end, I learned that white people can’t overcome the white supremacy that still dominates us with fury alone. We also need to fight it with love and compassion—for ourselves as well as others.
As a journalist, I had also learned that “truth” is always transitory and changes as new facts emerge. One day, I might come to revise or even reject the emotional truth I carved out in those grim days last year, to see it as another layer of deception. But for now, I feel like I have wrangled the truth from the best liar I’ve encountered in my career of sifting through lies.
Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness by Baynard Woods is available now via Legacy Lit.