[Readings] The White Stuff, By Savala Nolan | Harper's Magazine

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[Readings]

The White Stuff

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From “On Dating White Guys While Me,” an essay from the collection Don’t Let It Get You Down, which was published last month by Simon and Schuster.

Holt was a catch, and I thought maybe we were heading somewhere, but then I saw his feet, and they were beautiful, unlike mine. Dating requires intimacy: bare feet, side by side, maybe touching at the foot of a bed, in the sand, the grass. I did not want to place my feet next to his.

His feet were smooth and well-shaped, as if carved from marble, with neat cuticles and nails filed symmetrically. When I saw them, I thought, They’re like David’s right foot! Years before, I’d sketched David’s feet in charcoal, full of hope, the filtered light as gentle as a powder puff in the Florentine museum, a hushed flow of tourists and art students around me. I wish I’d sketched the slaves and their pocked granite confines instead, but back then, in the spring of 2002, it was David who spoke to me. He was being cleaned with water and Q-tips, by erudite Italians kneeling on scaffolding beside his pensive brow; that’s how Holt’s feet seemed to me—like things another person would carefully clean for him.

There were many things about Holt that I liked. I liked how his biceps emerged from T-shirt sleeves. I liked getting breakfast with him early in the morning at the coffee shop that served so-so coffee, and I liked how it looked to anyone walking by: me, with him. And I liked that he was white. I liked his whiteness in an uncomfortable, subterranean way. I’d long sensed that the most succinct, irrefutable way to move up in the world was to be loved by a prototypical white man—i.e., someone at the top. There’s a cultural magic in their approval, a kind of magnetizing glitter that surrounds the approved-of object. So I pursued them. I had relationships with men of color, too, but a certain type of white guy had a particular hold on me, on my psyche. I hoped, in landing one, to earn a medal. To sling it around my neck and prove that I wasn’t too low on the ladder for blessings. Adjacent to them, accepted by them, I’d undo the injuries of not belonging that I’d endured. I’d become the girl I’d ached and tried my whole childhood and adolescence to be: a version of that fairylike, Nordic blonde in a Timotei shampoo commercial, whom I obsessed over as a child, floating on my back in the bath and imagining my brown, cotton-candy hair was a white silk ribbon, like hers.

Holt had potential. He could be my world of oysters. We clicked; he seemed to see that I was bright, credentialed, special. He, with his jocular, confident whiteness, could slay my otherness, rescue me from the ogre of myself. I’d grieve, yes, but then watch my life bloom, unfettered by bigness, by brownness. I really believed this—until I saw his feet, which were so handsome—sophisticated, even—compared with mine.

I saw them on a cool November night. We were in his kitchen drinking Two-Buck Chuck as he fried salmon burgers and his roommates watched television. His long torso in a white T-shirt was so satisfying there, spatula in hand, rough whoosh of thick sandy-blond hair on his head and gumdroppy lips saying something or other, basketball shorts low on his hips, when I looked down—how had I never seen them before?—to his feet on the terra-cotta tile. They were lovely. I almost blurted it out. Fizzy heat needled up my spine and sloshed down the front of my head as I thought about how my own feet, shoved suddenly deeper into my shoes, were a particular kind of not beautiful, a big that attached to and amplified my blackness, my poorness, my body-bigness.

Laila Ali says she gets pedicures because her feet are a women’s size twelve and (she laughs) nobody wants to see them big old thangs looking more mannish than they already do. Her words, uttered in a husky voice with a toss of her straightened hair, have played in my head for years. There’s no hiding big feet (mine are twelves or thirteens), even in hyperfeminine ballet flats, or carefree Havaianas, or high heels. My feet are often dry because I never apply the shea butter I buy. And I rarely get pedicures because they’re expensive and exploitative and don’t actually change the size or shape of your feet. My feet have always struck me as my tell of otherness, even more than my nose or hair or weight. No matter the private schools, the white-sounding voice, the white-sounding name, or how I put white people at ease—especially rich white people—my feet seemed to cast me out, if only in my mind, which is enough. Years ago, my uncle saw me barefoot and said, “I’d love to have those big, wide bear paws!” He said it admiringly, but looking down at my “bear paws” pressing heavily into the hardwood floor, I flushed. I was maybe ten when I couldn’t play-wear my mom’s shoes anymore, and somehow that day encapsulated something horribly wrong about me. I was just a child, but I had outgrown my mother.

“Hand me your plate,” Holt said, lifting a burger. Silently, I did. I was smiling, but whatever confidence I had once felt, or fun lust I had once signaled, had disappeared. Fear replaced it. The place behind my solar plexus tightened. I chastised myself for my wishfulness—as if Holt would choose me, smart and witty and even pretty as I was, upon seeing through my feet just how completely I differed from the fetching white girls I presumed he usually dated. (At least one of his exes was white and petite and cute; I’d seen a photo.) This was the danger of pursuing the white-male gaze: if it landed wrong, it hurt.


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