Volume Two, Issue 1

On Whiteness

Vasantha Sambamurti

A white woman dropped a packet of beans in the grocery store. They fell at her feet and spread like locust. A perfect, green-husk circle. I had the mind to run and help her, but this thought was deflected by the impulse to give her space. I didn’t want to infiltrate a circle that had already become so fraught. She had to process so much; the lost beans, the plastic bag. Usually, I wouldn’t care so much. But I didn’t only read her as just a white woman—she was a nice white woman. Her hair was the color of dates, cinched at the back of her head with a clip. I could see her flyaways, untamed. She didn’t pretend to be the type of woman who could make a mess a beautiful thing. In my eye, this made her human; it made her easier to help. But I had moved too much that day. Twenty minutes prior, a white woman had reached for a cart at my side, so I made myself scarce to spare her the sight of me. It was at the fish-tank entrance, where everyone rotated in and out, and peered at each other without glass, before getting drawn into the portal of the store. Many people had the chance to look at me, as I often grocery shopped with my mother and she took her time choosing a cart. We were a strange shade for the South. Her skin lighter than mine, but her difference became clear when she spoke— a telltale accent. I helped her find okra and fruit. When a white woman passed me a box of strawberries, I flinched in surprise because I couldn’t fathom that she would go to such lengths for me. “Thank you! So much,” I told her and she murmured something sweet. There was no reason to believe she was anything but kind. She seemed untouched by what I so strongly felt—a gift of recognition that was conferred by touch.

There are different ways to be seen in white space: the armrest, the tired couch, the discussion piece at the dinner table. Always, I feel an ancestral need to accommodate, to make space. It’s a germ that charms people. A white woman will ask me where I am from and I will tell her a history that isn’t mine. She will ask me to get a pastry from behind the glass at a café and I’ll sweat to do it for her, precise in the movement of my hand and the firmness with which I pick it up. She must know that I am swift, that I listen—that I am not a larger complication than I am purported to be. Whiteness commands space. And I know this is not the conscious fault of the white woman. But I wonder, how largely, it is mine.

Vasantha Sambamurti: "I am a sophomore Creative Writing student at Emerson College from Charleston, South Carolina. I am the current co-editor of Faith Zine, a publication for Boston-area students of diverse faiths to discuss spirituality. I was previously Assistant Editor for Flawless Mag, a biannual publication produced by Emerson College’s social and professional network for Women of Color, Flawless Brown. In 2017, my free verse poem “Effeuiler la Margeruite” was published in Teen Ink’s print magazine. I am a Scholastic Arts & Writing alumna, having received two gold medals for short stories and a Creativity and Citizenship Award at the 2016 National Competition. I am the author of Ali, Allo, Alter (2016), a collection of short stories delineating the experiences of characters at the crossroads of race, gender, and sexuality."

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