STUDY ON WHITE PEOPLE The Reminiscences of Brooke Plotnick
INCITE Columbia University 2018
The following oral history is the result of a recorded interview with Brooke Plotnick conducted by Whitney Dow on December 15, 2017. This interview is part of the Study on White People. The reader is asked to bear in mind that they are reading a verbatim transcript of the spoken word, rather than written prose.
Session #1 (video)
Interviewee: Brooke Plotnick
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Interviewer: Whitney Dow
Date: December 15, 2017
Q: I’ll tell you what it doesn’t do.
Q: It doesn’t make your children go outside.
Plotnick: [14:31:15] No! You’re totally right there. But it did cure her of her fear of dogs. So that was good. But she swore up and down, “I will take her out all the time.” [Laughs]
Q: Yes. Never.
Plotnick: [14:31:28] You have enough?
Q: We’re ready.
Plotnick – 1 – 2 M1: —I think so. We have the dog discussion. We’re good.
Q: Okay. So first of all, can you tell me your name, your age, where you’re from, and a little about yourself?
Plotnick: [14:31:43] Okay, sure. So little bit about myself and where I’m from. I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is about an hour from Richmond [Virginia]. And I’m forty-four years old. I grew up entirely in Charlottesville, Virginia. I went to college in North Carolina. And then I lived in Philadelphia [Pennsylvania] for a little while, migrated back to Virginia, floated around, ended up in Roanoke [Virginia] for a bit, and now I’m in Richmond.
Q: Tell me a little about your upbringing—your family, how many kids, what was the neighborhood like to grow up, were your parents together, what was your family like.
Plotnick: [14:32:16] When I was born, my parents lived in Southern Albemarle County [Virginia], which is about forty-five minutes south of Charlottesville. My father is from Connecticut, and my mother is from Kentucky. And she was not born and bred and raised to marry a Northerner Jew. She was born and bred and raised to marry a doctor. And she did. And then she met my dad, in Virginia, and ran away to the country. [Laughs] So I grew up in a very small community, until I was about ten. There were maybe eight houses around us in the county. Almost all of my neighbors were white. I didn’t notice that until right this minute, in this interview.
Plotnick – 1 – 3 My neighbor across the street, Lisa, was half African American. But I didn’t really notice, at the time. I was under ten. I don’t know if I really was aware of that, back then. My dad and mom are both college-educated and we were in a very rural, small community, so we might have found it awkward to fit in at all. I was young and don’t really remember.
Q: Well, did you—you mentioned that your father was Jewish. Was that something that—your mother wasn’t raised to marry a Jewish person.
Q: Was that some sort of an issue in the extended family, that she had married a Jewish person? Can you talk a little about that?
Plotnick: [14:34:04] Yes. Yes. Let’s see. So my dad is Jewish and my mother is—a Christian religion from Kentucky. I’m not sure which one. But my parents met in Charlottesville and she left her husband for my dad. Her parents took decades to finally sort of accept him. His parents weren’t all that welcoming to her. They weren’t as surprised by it. I think, on some level, they were glad he finally settled down. But on her side, we experienced a lot of animosity. My grandmother, in particular, was very rude to my sister. Because my sister looked like my dad. And I think she just resented this otherness, that she couldn’t anticipate coming into her culture. It’s really strange, when I think about it, but—so I just grew up with it.
Plotnick – 1 – 4 Q: And you’re sure that this is because he was Jewish, not because he had broken up the marriage? Was that definite or is that mixed up together? How is that—
Plotnick: [14:35:25] That’s a good question. So we’re trying—I’m not sure, actually, if the otherness was entirely because of the Jewish versus the breaking up of this anticipated thing. My mom had married her high school sweetheart. And this was a really big change. So I can’t really say for sure. But simply because I look like my mother and my sister looks more like my dad and she was rejected in a way that I wasn’t, I kind of think that it—and my sister has expressed this a lot to me, recently, that things that were said to her really indicated that it was a rejection of him and, I think, by extension of the faith, as well, which is kind of funny, because he never practiced. [Laughs]
Q: So tell me a little about your identity. How would you sort of like rank the hierarchy of your identity, the things that make you who you are?
Plotnick: [14:36:28] How I would rank the hierarchy of my identity. Probably, when someone looks at me, they think, white, they think, vegetarian—[whispers] I’m not at all—they think, probably, immature. Because like I said, I’m forty-four and I’m short and I’m kind of loud, so I seem a little younger. But I identify—and I never did, growing up, because my dad is a quite vocal atheist. And my mom just kept religion close to her chest. I identify currently as a halfJew. After graduate school, I worked in a synagogue preschool for a year or two and really fell in love with the holiday traditions, despite the fact that I never practiced them growing up. And actually, in the decade since—or the year since Donald Trump was elected, the more I see of
Plotnick – 1 – 5 people othering Jewish people, the more I feel like I identify with—like proud to identify with a group that’s being treated badly. Because it’s not fair. And it’s my heritage, even if it isn’t something I was raised with as a child. It’s where I come from.
Q: And when people say heritage, especially when it’s not something that is a tradition that’s passed down to you, what does that mean to you?
Plotnick: [14:38:05] When people say heritage, if it’s not something that was passed down to you, for me, I kind of see it as historical. I used to say, as a kid, “Well, if I were alive during World War II, I would have been taken away.” So for that reason, I am Jewish. And today, years later, I actually do light candles and spend some time with those moments. I married someone from another culture. And his appreciation for the decades of culture that lead to where my family is today, that has brought me to a whole new awareness of and appreciation for it. Because I was seeing it through these outside eyes, rather than my own.
Q: When you say outside culture, is he from another country or—
Plotnick: [14:39:02] Yes. I married someone who was—he’s of Indian descent. He is an American now. But he is from India. He was born in Uganda, spent formative years in Tanzania and then moved back to—or moved to India, for high school. And then, for graduate school, he emigrated to the US, started working here and became a citizen. But his sense of who you are comes initially from your name. When he hears your name, he can tell you your ancestry. He knows where you’re from. And that feeds the conversation on a different level. It makes it much
Plotnick – 1 – 6 deeper and richer. And I think sometimes, especially in America, people don’t know that that’s even part of their culture. And you were asking how that outside perspective feeds it.
Plotnick: [14:40:50] Okay. Well, to him, a sense of culture and who you are and what you stand for and what makes you who you are is not tied to the place you were born. Because he was raised in one country but he was from another place. And now lives here. He identifies as Indian first, American second.
However, that comes from a lot of not really being welcomed into the fold as an American. The cultural expectations that we have of people are what we do ourselves. So when someone comes in, if they are not doing the same thing, they don’t necessarily reap the same benefits. Because maybe they aren’t discussing golf or football or whatever it is that is the currency of the office. Right? And so they aren’t connecting in that way. So then they might, on some level, just feel more comfortable connecting with people who are of similar backgrounds. This is the essence of the why the power structures in our culture haven’t been changing, isn’t it?
Q: Now, what about your family? Did your—your father went through something where he wasn’t accepted by his family. Was your family accepting of your husband, someone being so different?
Plotnick – 1 – 7 Plotnick: [14:42:51] Well, my father wasn’t accepted by my mother’s parents. But my father is also extremely able to sort of just not stress about things that he can’t control. So it didn’t really bother him. And he raised us to be extremely open to and welcoming of other cultures. And so he was actually kind of happy that I connected with someone outside of my normal life pattern. And my mother was too. I think—it was an adjustment, and it still is, every day, for them. Because the cultural norms are so different. And my family is fairly informal. And an upper-class Indian family is very formal. And simply calling at the same time every week is something that’s expected. And if you don’t have that in your—“Oh, we’ll call when we miss you” kind of thing, it seems rude to the other family. But they were very accepting and we all try very hard to figure out how to do it right. [Laughs]
Q: And do you have children?
Plotnick: [14:45:51] My husband and I have a child. She’s eight. And she’s amazing. Of course, every parent says that. But she is. And she is—it’s so interesting to me. As a teeny-tiny baby— and I think this may be just what human reproduction does. But she kind of looks like her dad, right? And everybody in her dad’s family said she looked just like him. And then, as she grows, everyone who knew me as a child talks about how she looks just like me. Whereas everyone who knew him as a child talks about how she looks just like him. It’s amazing. In summertime, she gets pretty brown. She doesn’t get a sunburn. I try and remember to put sunscreen on her, because that’s the responsible thing to do. And she just has this combination of both cultures, in her face and in her mannerisms and the way she interacts with him, as opposed to the way she interacts with me. It’s amazing how the two cultures can come together so well.
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Q: Do you feel that you’re ever treated differently when you’re by yourself versus when you’re with your husband and your daughter?
Plotnick: [14:47:08] The differences that I experience when I’m with my husband, I don’t know if they are ones that are racist or racial. They are just other. Most white women are not with Indian men, in our culture. Just historically, our cultures are so different. The pairs don’t work very well. Generally, if it’s mixed-race in that way, you’ll have a white man and an Indian woman. So I’ve seen countless times, when we walk into a restaurant—they look at me and my daughter and they say, “Two?” And I say, “No, three.” And then they do a little double take and they add him to the equation and we get brought to a table. I don’t think that affects the way we’re treated, most of the time.
We just go out to eat a lot, so that’s why I’m using this as an example. But there are times—he’s very personable with waitstaff and stuff like that, when he’s in a good mood. And when he’s feeling like engaging with people, suddenly we’re getting this extra level of service. And when he’s not, we don’t. And I think I experience that on my own, as well. Like maybe once or twice I’ve noticed where I’ve felt like there was poorer service, because of it. There are certain places where he has felt that there’s some sort of bias. But for the most part, he does not think that he’s treated that differently.
Q: What compelled you to get involved in this project?
Plotnick – 1 – 9 Plotnick: [14:49:32] What compelled me to answer the survey and agree to be involved in this? I would say, in the past year—well, and a month—I’ve started to do a lot of exploration of the things I ignored before trump was elected, the people I didn’t listen to, the signs I didn’t notice, and the lack of engagement in my world. I just let it go. And so I’ve been reading, been mostly engaged online, and like Facebook groups and things, with people who are exploring a lot of different issues. And you keep finding, again and again, that there’s this intersection with race. So I realized that I didn’t make eye contact with people who didn’t look like me. I just didn’t. And while we travel a lot, outside the country, inside the country, I never went anywhere unfamiliar. I was in la-la land. So I read this book, actually, called Overcoming Bias. And one of the tips they said is just put yourself somewhere different than you normally go and see how it feels and see how that expands your perspective and see how that measures where you stand and what you might be missing. I read that and I started—this is going to sound really silly—I started friending new people that were unlike me, on Facebook. I just became everybody’s friend, and engage in or follow conversations with people I didn’t know before. Those little tiny things opened me up a teeny-tiny bit, I’m not going to say anywhere near enough.
Q: And so, when you saw this, it seemed like an opportunity to do that.
Plotnick: [14:52:07] Well, when I saw this project, it seemed like I really—mostly I filled it out because I was curious what was the next step. But I feel like most of the people that I know are probably more qualified to be here talking about this than I am, just because they were working on it before Donald Trump became elected president, you know? But I know that’s also just silly. Yes.
Plotnick – 1 – 10
Q: Well, I think it’s very silly. I think that everybody’s equally as qualified—
Q: —you’re the most qualified person on the planet to talk about yourself.
Plotnick: [14:52:41] That’s true. Another reason I was compelled to come is because—I’m from Charlottesville, Virginia. Two, three months ago, a young woman was killed on the streets in a terror attack, by a white nationalist. And when I was in Charlottesville that day, I didn’t enter into the fray. I drove around the outside, staying on side streets and stuff, in case my friends who were inside needed help. And then eventually, I went in at one point and joined them, after the major incidents had occurred. When I was driving around what I saw, over and over and over again, were young men, probably in their low twenties, joining up with these people. And they were all clearly white. And they need something. They’re missing something. And they’re trying to figure it out. They’re like, Well, we need our culture. They need a culture. We need a culture of whiteness, that embraces who you are, where you come from, where you’re going. And it can’t be just because you don’t like other people, who are different from you.
Q: When you say we need a culture of whiteness, what would that be?
Plotnick: [14:53:58] Well, I would say that a person who needs an understanding of what whiteness is to them—as one would say, it’s personal and independent for every single person,
Plotnick – 1 – 11 right? It’s different for me as it is for you or for any person watching this. But I think that, as you grow up and you hear about “Oh, let’s celebrate this culture,” or that culture and as a white person you could feel left out and unappreciated. And then they have trouble, maybe, in school or they don’t get a job or people just don’t like them, because they’re kind of jerks. Who knows? But they’re looking for some reason to lash out. And if you don’t have a sense of identity, a sense of community and you go looking for it and these people who hate have created a pathway to a sense of identity and community and you’re an impressionable young person, that’s where you’re going to go. And that’s not healthy for anyone. We need to have a pathway to becoming an adult and to having a sense of who we are as people, white people, black people, any people, biracial people.
Q: What is it that makes you white?
Plotnick: [14:55:11] What makes me white is the fact that, when people look at me, they see a white person.
Q: And can you describe a situation where you became aware of your race?
Plotnick: [14:55:29] I can totally describe a situation where I became aware of my race. As I said earlier, my husband is Indian. And I went with him to Kuwait, with our baby girl, to visit his sister, who is also, clearly, Indian. And their whole family is Indian. And we went to [Souq Al-] Mubarakiya, which is the bazaar, where you can just shop and everything. And we’re walking through this Arab market, me and a bunch of Indians. And all I got were stares.
Plotnick – 1 – 12
Q: And what about closer to home, in Richmond?
Plotnick: [14:56:10] Yes. Okay. Closer to home, in Richmond, I had an experience, right here in town. I went to—I think it’s the African American History Museum [Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia], for a book talk, by—I think her name’s Angela Dodson, if I remember correctly. The book was Remember the Ladies. The people greet us at the front desk. And they’re like, “Oh, let’s take the elevator up.” So I’ve never been there before. We take the elevator up. The door opens directly into the event, interrupting everything. We’re running a few minutes late. It’s a room full of African American women watching this book talk. I step out of the elevator and it’s just me and my daughter. And everybody else is African American. When I first walked into that room, I was like, I hope they’re happy I’m here and not annoyed. Because who knows? Our entrance disrupted the event.
Q: Are you happy that you’re white?
Plotnick: [14:57:12] [Laughs] That’s a funny question. Am I happy that I’m white? That’s a really strange—hard question to answer. I don’t know. I feel, on some levels, [laughs] jealous of this vibrant culture all around me that is not necessarily mine. And that may one reason I really embrace going to like Indian festivals and stuff, for my daughter, and really embraced the Hanukkah tradition of my Jewish heritage. Because I think, echoing back to needing a white culture, having some celebration of who you are is great. And—I don’t know—sometimes were a little bit bland. [Laughs]
Plotnick – 1 – 13
Q: Do you feel that being a woman or being white has had a bigger impact on your life?
Plotnick: [14:58:09] Do I feel like being a woman—has had a bigger impact on my life or being white? I’m going to say that I don’t think either of those—well, probably being white, to be honest. But I haven’t explored that so much. But I would say that, coming from educated parents, who, even if we were struggling for money, figured out how to send me to a better school and got loans and knew how to navigate those kinds of systems, made my life much more easy than whiteness or gender.
Q: Let’s talk a little bit—because of especially the things [phonetic] that are in—here we are in Richmond. What, as white people living in 2017, is our relationship and connection to our history, the legacy of the past? This was the seat of the Confederacy. This—so do you feel connected to the past? Or in what ways do you or do you not feel connected to the past?
Plotnick: [14:59:44] So when thinking about how I’m connected to the past, as a—in high school, I was at a private school. I thought I had a great education but, looking back, I missed a whole lot. And I don’t know if that was me being distracted or, you know, teachers. Who knows? But the connection I feel to the history and culture of the South is kind of academic.
Plotnick – 1 – 14
Plotnick: [15:00:29] My connection to the history of the South comes from what I learned in school, rather than having a grandfather who fought in a war or something like that. I grew up in Charlottesville, so I learned Thomas Jefferson was the “best person ever.” And my dad went to UVA [University of Virginia], so Thomas Jefferson was the “best person ever.” In college, on spring break we took a road trip that really kind of followed the civil rights path. But [laughter] I feel like, really, my Southern cultural connection is kind of like the Yankee who came down and rode a bus with some people who were going to stand up for others.
I feel like it’s my job to do things to ensure that we’re not honoring people who want to hurt people today. We can’t honor them. I can’t send a young African American man to a middle school that’s named after someone who wanted him to die or be their slave. That’s not right. But as far as being connected—I read Confederates in the Attic. It was an interesting book. And I understand that people are really tied to their heritage and their grandparents and all of that. But you need to move on a little bit and be a part of today. And today is—we need to make sure that we’re bridging and not making things worse.
I went to a talk, a few months ago. These educators were sharing information about how we decided to eliminate the Jim Crow-era laws and change them.
Plotnick – 1 – 15
Plotnick: [15:03:26] I went to a talk recently about education and learned why the schools are in such bad shape, why they’re so divergent. I learned that Jim Crow-era laws, when they were “repealed,” and, as I learned in history class, in the late ’80s, early ’90s—that civil rights was done and we fixed it all and here’s all these rules and things and ways it’s better, that that wasn’t true. Because as much time and effort as you put into creating systems that disenfranchise people, you must put the same amount of time, effort, and money into re-enfranchising them, or else you’re not going to fix the problem. That’s why I say that I feel it’s in some ways economic rather than color-based. Because you can be white and live in a neighborhood that has terrible schools and be disenfranchised, in very similar ways. You can be a felon. You can have your rights not restored. You can have parents who don’t know how to read. All of these things disenfranchise you. And it doesn’t necessarily matter what you look like on the outside.
There are people I know of color who have participated in some activities. And they were telling me about how they were shocked to find out that they had more privilege than a lot of the white people around them. That’s not to say that there is not a problem with race in this country. Don’t misinterpret that. Because there is. And I want to be clear that I understand that. But I think there’s a lot more to it.
I have one other point. I have a lot of friends who moved here from different countries. And one thing that several have mentioned to me is their surprise at our news and media and what people say when they’re talking about circumstances regarding people in—and where they’re struggling. And they said, “It’s so interesting. Because here you talk about black people and
Plotnick – 1 – 16 white people, whereas in my country”—multiple different countries—"we would talk about poorer people and wealthier people,” or lower and higher caste, if you’re speaking of India, not that they’re legal anymore. But—I think that sometimes we do get caught up in race and there’s more stuff going on than we’re acknowledging, because of our guilt, because of our anger, because of our history or our personal experiences on the day-to-day.
Q: Are you proud to be a Southerner or proud to be from the South?
Plotnick: [15:06:20] Yes. I haven’t really thought about whether I’m proud to be from the South. When I lived in Philadelphia, I was kind of embarrassed about it. [Laughs] Because people think you’re dumb. But I would say that those Trae Crowder videos and how he’s a comedian, Southern, funny, liberal. And he really does highlight a lot of good stuff about the South. There’s good stuff! There’s peach pie. But it’s a mixed bag.
Q: Let me—people talk a lot about the—especially around this understanding—no, we’re—
Q: I’m really interested in how people are connected to the past and how the past manifests itself in the present. And here, we’re in the seat of the Confederacy, with all the monuments. When
Plotnick – 1 – 17 you see those monuments, and you’ve seen them all your life, how do you feel like they relate to you?
Plotnick: [15:08:42] But when thinking about how our heritage or our past feeds into the present—when I saw the monuments, when I moved to Richmond and when I lived in Charlottesville—Lee Park is right next to the library that I went to in middle school. I watched those riots, the day of the event, on the street where I returned my library books. And I had never noticed that statue as a kid, at all. And listening to people of color talk about them, some of them said, “Whatever. Just ignore it and just move on,” and then others were like, “Let’s get rid of it.” And I feel like I’ve started to notice the legacy of decades of crap and difference and otherness of people of color, in the South. I feel like, in my day-to-day life, as a white person, it doesn’t affect me, unless I choose to let it, embrace it, seek it out, and try to make it affect me. Because otherwise, I could just go through life and not care and not notice.
I think the effect of having monuments to people who oppressed others, that were erected many decades after the fact, as an expression of dominance over those people, is a problem. I think, if everybody knew when they were erected and why, then they’d probably agree, if they got out of the emotional response and into the intellectual one. I do know that the monuments bother people, a lot of people. And that needs to change, you know? And I don’t like this violent aspect of wanting to change things quickly. I think that there are a million good people, doing a million
Plotnick – 1 – 18 good things, every day. And we’re going to change it. If it’s done in a slow and steady manner, it will be lasting. There won’t be a pendulum swing back to the other side.
Q: How attached are you to your whiteness?
Plotnick: Can you rephrase that?
Q: Let’s say, when you leave, there were two doors and, if you walked through one, you would stay as you are, you walk—the other door, there’s a fifty chance that you would emerge as a black woman and fifty-percent chance you would emerge as you are. Which door would you pick?
Plotnick: [15:11:39] I’d probably pick the—okay. If there were two doors and, one, I’d walk out just exactly as I am and, the other one, fifty-fifty chance I’d walk out black or white, I might try the other door, just to see what life was like, so I could really understand other people. Interesting.
Q: And are there any negatives to being white?
Plotnick: [15:12:08] Huh! Probably. Let me think about that. When I think if there are negatives to being white, I would say that, as in any “other,” you’re not a part of other things. I don’t know. If you can’t fully understand and empathize with someone else’s experience on some level, you’re not as connected. And so that is a deficit. Other negatives to being white. Today, I
Plotnick – 1 – 19 would say that you’re struggling. Because you’re learning how to not talk. Because we’ve dominated and we’ve talked. And we have to learn to listen. And it’s hard to learn to change your style and to be in that position where you have to give stuff up. That’s really hard to learn. And so it’s a negative, but it’s something you got to do.
Q: Have you ever consciously taken advantage or used your whiteness to get something that you wanted or have a situation be the way—
Plotnick: [15:13:51] If I’ve ever consciously used my whiteness and known that my whiteness was taking advantage of a situation, where I was given the benefit of the doubt or the luck of the draw because I’m white. Every single day, when I drive. Because I know that I’m a little white lady in a little car. And if somebody passes me who is of color, who’s going faster, I’m safe. And so, yes, I recognize that privilege. I’m not going to speed up and pass them, to sacrifice my privilege. But I see it all the time. I’m using—it’s not a big thing. But it’s like, Oh, that person passed me. I feel safe now. I’m not going to get pulled over. I don’t speed that much. Don’t get me wrong. But, you know, that’s something that I know keeps me protected.
Q: Is there anything that we didn’t talk about, that you think is important to say in the context of this conversation?
Plotnick: [15:14:52] Can you name the project again?
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Plotnick: [15:14:55] Like what’s the—
Q: The facing whiteness.
Plotnick: [15:14:59] Facing whiteness. This may be a small thing, but just two days ago I saw someone post something about, “Thank you, African Americans, for voting, in Alabama, to elect someone who is not really [Roy] Moore—” And just below that comment, I saw a man’s name. And I looked at the profile picture before I read the comment and it was a white man. And I was like, “what is he going to say?” And then I clicked it. And he said, “Let’s be more accurate. Let’s thank the African American women.” Instead of saying, “Oh, a bunch of us were on the ground, walking and knocking doors too,” he said, “Let’s thank the African American women.” Because they actually are the ones who showed up, even more than the men. And I was just blown away by the fact that, one, I thought he was going to say something negative and, two, that he didn’t, that we’re on a good path.
And it’s not just in Virginia. It’s not just in Henrico County [Virginia]. It’s not just in the South. It’s not just in Seattle [Washington] or New York or somewhere like that, but it’s in Alabama, it’s in Mississippi. It’s everywhere. It’s awareness and education. We are going to continue to improve the sort of chances of the people. We’re going to continue to recognize and learn about our own privilege and learn about how we have to step back—and the amazing stuff that’s going to come out of that, the power, the wisdom, and the experience, that we don’t see, because we’re not privy to it, because we won’t shut up. We’re going to get that. And it’s going to be so great.
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Q: Great. So what I want to do now is I want you just to—we’re going to just take some stills. So just look at the camera, just relax your face. [Pause]
Q: Now you can smile. [Laughter]
Plotnick: [15:17:33] It’s hard not to smile, for me. I kind of smile all the time.
Q: Do you? [Long pause] Okay. Thank you, very, very much. We’re going to take—we have the heat back on in here.
[END OF INTERVIEW]