by Rich Benjamin
Parul Sehgal Bookforum Oct. 15, 2009
For two years, Rich Benjamin insinuated himself in some of the fastest-growing communities in America: “Whitopias,” places in Georgia, Idaho, Utah—and even parts of Manhattan’s Upper East Side—where white people are currently migrating in massive numbers. Searching for what these “refugees of diversity” are running from and towards, he attended churches and poker games, posed as a prospective house buyer, hosted potlucks, and even participated in a three-day retreat with white separatists. It’s a topical and conceptually sensitive project brimming with promise, especially given Benjamin’s self-professed boredom with the black-white divide (Benjamin himself is black). The 26,909-mile journey recounted in Whitopia, he points out, “is about our nation’s future, not about how white and black people are getting along.”
But how quickly that promise is squandered. Although Benjamin criticizes our tendency “to reduce racial politics to feelings and etiquette [rather than] the deeply rooted and currently active political inequalities,” his account frequently fixates on approval and social graces. Too much of the book is given to tedious descriptions of how seamlessly the author is able to ensconce himself in various Whitopias (“The retired old ladies of Dixie are sweet as taffy to me!”), and much of its potential is sapped by his reluctance to engage in substantive discussions about race. When a white woman asks him if he too wouldn’t like to live among “his own,” he says nothing. When a Manhattan co-op resident makes a racist joke, he laughs.
He is content to take dictation. He tries our patience by telling us things we know to be true (“One of the most surprising lessons of my Whitopian journey is how sharply class can divide Americans!”) and things we can easily surmise (his subjects are generally hostile to immigration). And for a writer who’s taken pains to announce, “I love the English language,” he indulges in some risibly bad prose: “Her smile is a grid of flawless white Chiclets, which complement her large, almond eyes and punctuate her dark espresso complexion.”
When Benjamin finally attends to systemic racism—and how damaging a society fractured into race-based zones would be to all races—it is very late in the book. These final passages unfold with momentum and economy, but of a troubling sort, because his a priori conclusions seem so removed from his research. The Whitopians, upon whom so many pages were lavished, vanish. They are replaced by pro-diversity experts and flabby edicts (“we must reinvigorate the common good”). It’s almost as if the Whitopians get their own special neighborhood in Benjamin’s account. The book itself is tugged in two, buckling beneath the unreconciled voices of those describing the world as it is and how it ought to be.