Baynard Woods reflects on growing up white in the United States : Code Switch In Baynard Woods' new memoir, Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness, Woods reflects on how growing up white in South Carolina impacted his life. He argues that it is crucial for white people in the U.S. to reckon with their personal histories.

What does it mean to "inherit whiteness?"

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good, y'all? I'm Gene Demby.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

DEMBY: And this is CODE SWITCH from NPR.

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DEMBY: So you know on this show, we look at a lot of aspects of race, and that includes whiteness. And whenever we talk about race on the show, we keep bumping up against the fact that whiteness is often invisible to people who are white, even though whiteness and their whiteness is not invisible or neutral to those of us who aren't.

BATES: True. So, Gene, for this episode, I talked to someone who's trying to make the ways whiteness works more visible for himself. He talks about himself as a white person as opposed to just a person. He's trying to make whiteness not the default for everything.

DEMBY: OK, so who is this cat, KGB?

BATES: His name is Baynard Woods. He's a writer and journalist from South Carolina - you know, first state to secede, one of the last states to remove the stars and bars from its flag.

DEMBY: Yes, South Carolina, home of John C. Calhoun, that rabidly pro-slavery vice president and, you know, your boy, Strom Thurmond.

BATES: My boy.

DEMBY: Not your boy, but Strom Thurmond, the segregationist governor and senator, that South Carolina.

BATES: And, we should say, father to Essie Washington, who is a Black woman - yeah, that place, place of contradictions. Baynard is now based in Baltimore. And his racial reckoning didn't start in 2020, Gene, as it did for a lot of people. He was in Baltimore in 2015 covering the upheaval after the Freddie Gray killing. And he's the author of a new book called "Inheritance: An Autobiography Of Whiteness."

BAYNARD WOODS: The logic of whiteness is that we are supposed to be protected by the law without being bound by the law, and the people of color are supposed to be bound by the law and not protected by the law.

DEMBY: Shout out to Wilhoit's Law, but why did Baynard decide that he wanted to excavate his own whiteness, so to speak?

BATES: Good question, Gene. I wanted to know that, too. And I started out by asking him about his book's title.

Your memoir, "Inheritance," you call it an autobiography of whiteness. What do you mean by that?

WOODS: You know, I find discussions of structural racism very useful. But I also found that they could let me off the hook because it's easy to say, oh, everything is racist, and I'm going to go about my business. But having to situate it within the details of my own life, within the memoiristic (ph) details of my life and that of the people that I love, to see how white supremacy intersected all through the - my family connections. I felt that was the only way to - for me to tell this story. I wrote at alternative weekly newspapers for a long time, and I covered police here for a long time. And I realized that in a lot of ways, covering the rise of Trump and the far right and police, that I was letting myself off the hook. So I started investigating what that meant and have been doing that for the last couple years.

BATES: Take us through that journey a little bit. What does your personal evolution look like? You talk about coming from South Carolina, a state that has a long and fraught racial history...

WOODS: Yes.

BATES: ...And a very specific, in some way, kind of culture. And it was culture that you felt like you couldn't stay immersed in any longer at one point, so you left. Tell me a bit about who your people were, you know, growing up and what the racial atmosphere was there.

WOODS: Sure. So I grew up in a suburb right outside of Columbia, S.C., the state capital, the birthplace of secession. My father worked for an insurance company downtown that had been founded by a slaveholding family shortly after the Civil War. I didn't know that at the time. And he was the biggest company man in the world. He just loved this company so much, the American dream. It was all about working hard and getting success. And I didn't fit in very well with that. I wasn't masculine in the way that he would have liked. He was a big sports guy, a huge NASCAR fan, and his family had a lot of pride that their family had fought in the Civil War.

They talked to me - his mother, my grandmother, who was one of my favorite people in the world, she knew the past of our family, or a mythology of it, and she would tell me things that, like, the people that they had enslaved were happy then and that it was much better during that time for everyone than it was during the awful and dread Reconstruction. And so I started there because it was one of the moments where I started to see that this was a peculiar place that I was raised in, that this was a strange kind of culture. And I thought I had escaped that. And then, in 2015, I had been covering the Baltimore uprising here...

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Our streets.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Our streets.

(CHEERING)

WOODS: ...And had seen how segregated this city was in ways that I'd never realized as a white person.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Shut it down. Hey. Shut it down.

WOODS: And after that was the Mother Emanuel massacre in Charleston, where my dad's family was from the area near Charleston. And Dylann Roof, the racist shooter, had grown up 10 miles from me. And that was when I realized that I couldn't leave any of that stuff behind or it was going to come back. So I then started going back to investigate what that history meant more.

BATES: You have an interesting anecdote near the beginning of the book where I think you're in the car with your grandfather, and a Black man walks across the street and he says, bear. And you're like, oh, my God. What do you mean? And when you asked about it later on, I believe, and I'm - I may be bushing (ph) my chapters up, that your mother said, you know, we do not use the N-word. That is low rent. People like us do not do that. You know, maybe lint heads and hillbillies do. But we are not they. We are not that kind of white person. So there was some differentiation between the kind of white people who raised you immediately and the kind of white people you were trying to get away from, yes?

WOODS: I mean, yes and no. The difference was class. We were middle class. And so it was a matter of manners. So, yeah, my dad grew up in this town, Clarendon County. And so my dad's dad always used this word, bear. And he worked with a lot of people of color delivering furniture into the Black parts of Clarendon County. And so he thought that was the polite way of talking, my grandfather, and then my dad just accepted it. My mom, though, would kind of slap him on the shoulder and say, now, John, we don't talk like that. Yeah, that's what rednecks say.

And it was so strange to realize later that both of my parents had grown up in an apartheid system where every public door they had ever walked through read white or whites only above it. And yet then after the Civil Rights Act, they just never spoke about it again, at least impolitely. My mother was like, that's something we don't talk about anymore. So that was my dad's kind of joking way around it. But it was, you know, not only was it dehumanizing, it was also, later on, it was the kind of - they would go on bear hunts and stuff and the - so it was dehumanizing and violent.

All of that was something he inherited from his father and his father and the way that he saw the world and that he was passing on to me, that came from this whole mythology that wanted to see what they wanted whiteness to be, what they wanted race to mean, rather than what they'd actually made it mean.

BATES: You said at one point, I think after you left South Carolina, that you hadn't realized that whiteness existed only in juxtaposition to Blackness, that if you didn't notice Blackness, then the whiteness would have been irrelevant. There was something to compare itself to. Talk about that a little bit.

WOODS: Yeah, I was born in 1972, so it was the year that finally public schools in South Carolina integrated, even though Briggs v. Elliott was one of the things that went into Brown v. Board. And the suit started in the '40s and it was all the way until '72 when the schools were integrated there, and there were the Lamar Riot, white people turning over school buses. So that was the year I was born and the atmosphere I feel like I was born into. But we didn't talk about race really at all. And so we saw ourselves as people. Other people are the Jones family, but they're the Black Jones family, and we're just the Woods family. We just are people. And I think that's how so many white people see race. Whiteness is the freedom not to see race most of the time. And it's why when white people are asked to see it, we get so uncomfortable.

BATES: You have a line in your book that keeps boomeranging back at me. It says, my inheritance was not a lie. It was a way of lying. What did you mean by that?

WOODS: Whiteness is not only a lie that is told to us, it's a lie that we tell to ourselves about the world. And it keeps us from seeing the world, but it actually shapes the way we live in the world. And whiteness is where our subjective experience of that world intersects with power and all of these power relations. And so part of what I was trying to do is figure out what it looked like, how I had been able to not see the way my whiteness was working so heavily through much of my life. And I just was unaware of it. But then I realized that it only worked because I was unaware of it. Had I become aware of it, then the way that whiteness is now, post-civil rights would have fallen apart because it works by our silence. And it doesn't say we don't suffer as white people, we don't overcome odds, we don't - but we don't see the structure of power that we're utilizing when we're doing that. And it's because it's within our interest not to see it.

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DEMBY: All right, y'all. After the break, Baynard discovers some unexpected family history.

BATES: Stay with us.

DEMBY: Gene.

BATES: Karen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

So, KGB, before the break, Baynard Woods was telling us that for many white people, including himself, it's really hard to see how whiteness affects their lives because they don't think about it. They don't have to think about it.

BATES: Yeah, Gene. And given that, he'd grown up believing one thing about his white people in the South. He'd been told his family history over and over again. So Baynard thought he knew most of it. But when he was in his mid-20s, he discovered a critical chunk of his family history that had been omitted and left him kind of twirled.

WOODS: There's never been a time that I didn't know that my family consisted of Confederates, slave owners. But I didn't know what that meant for most of my life. I was told that that was something to be proud of, that that was something that was part of the honor of our family and that Yankees were terrible and that they had somehow taken that away. And it was when I was 25 years old that I learned that my great-grandfather had - after the war in which he'd been wounded, that he had come back and killed someone, a Black man, and that he had killed him because he was Black. And so throughout my life, it was a period not of getting more knowledge, but of getting more understanding of what that actually meant.

And I think that's part of what the problem with white people who have had similar histories is. We know what they are, but we've been lied about what that means. There's phrases like, a kindly slave owner. There's just absolutely no such thing that someone could be - that's like a kindly executioner, a kindly torturer. There's no possibility of that. And so there's not a time that I didn't know it. And yet there's still not been a time that I've been able to fully fathom it and what it means.

BATES: You know, many white people throughout history have realized at some point that their families were slave owners and written about it. They've tried to reckon with that or distance themselves from it, depending on the person, or ignore it. What does your book add to this particular genre of reckoning and of self-reckoning?

WOODS: Yeah. I thought a lot about, like, Edward Ball's book, "Slaves In The Family."

BATES: "Slaves In The Family," yeah.

WOODS: And then he came out with the "Life Of A Klansman" about...

BATES: Right.

WOODS: ...A relative of his while I was in the middle of writing, and it's a great book. But I thought, now we really need to interrogate ourselves more and we need to understand how we fit into that history, what we get from that history. And so I tried to find the gaps between my own self-conception at various places in my life and the material reality of my life in those moments. And I thought in that gap was where I might see how whiteness works. It was really looking at how was it constructed in my mind, and how does that connect to what I had inherited? And I haven't seen anyone else do it in that way.

BATES: Talk about your decision to draw a line through your name. Why do that, and what does it change, practically speaking?

WOODS: So I realized that my name was a Confederate monument and that I was - as I was covering Black Lives Matter, as I was covering police corruption, I had a Confederate monument over every story I'd ever written. And I didn't think I could just let it go unremarked upon, and yet I also didn't think I could just change it. And so I thought it was something like putting crime scene tape around the name as a kind of full disclosure because my great-grandfather was involved in the assassination of a Black county commissioner in Clarendon County, S.C., in 1871, whose name's Peter Lemon.

And I heard about this assassination, about this murder in the '90s. And I just thought of it as this story - you know, that my great-grandfather killed a Black man after the war and had to flee. But I started to become really obsessed with it because I wanted to know who had been killed and why. I then started to realize there were very few periods in the history of South Carolina that a white man would have had to have fled at all for killing a Black man. Lemon had been in charge of one of the militias that was fighting against the Klan, and the militia met at his funeral march towards town where they were met by a large group of armed white men. And this story needed to come out. So I needed to both strike my name out and restore to the record the name of Peter Lemon in order to even begin making some kind of small personal step towards reparation.

BATES: In reading through your book, it feels like a lot of your identity depends on not being something, you know, not a Trumper, not an Obama hater, not a white person soaked in racial grievance. But it took you a while to realize that, for all of the things you're not, there are some things that you are. And a lot of those things come with immense privilege. Can you tick through that list for us and tell us how you came to understand what you are?

WOODS: Yeah. It's - in many ways, I still don't know what I am because there's no such thing as a white identity that's not tied to white supremacy. It was created as a hierarchical power structure, and we can't really separate it from that without really trying to dismantle it. And so I would realize, in retrospect, how much whiteness had affected my thinking and my behavior without me being aware of it. And that's why it seemed so urgent and so dangerous to me. But I think living in Baltimore - more than anything else, living in a Black-majority city, being in the physical minority in a number of situations on a daily basis, makes you think differently about your own race because you have to think about it.

BATES: We're at this point right now basically where laws are being passed to forbid telling the truth about the country's complicated, tortured racial history. You've said one of the things you think we need if we're going to move forward as a country is to have more of a 360-degree view of history. And yet it's going to be one of the hardest things that we do, because so much is invested in seeing ourselves in a certain way. I'm wondering what you think it would take to have that happen.

WOODS: I don't think white people are likely to do it at all, unfortunately. It's why I'm really turning to trying to do some organizing and why I wrote this book. Because as resources become more limited, as pandemics spread, we see, you know, the people raging at state capitals with guns against masks starting up in the pandemic, all of the other crises we're going to be facing are going to be made worse by whiteness and going to make whiteness worse. And so if we're going to deal with this, we have to deal with it now.

So I think about the young people and how we might be able to by teaching a more clear view of history, really address what it is, what we have inherited from the past of whiteness, because we haven't looked at it at all yet. The thing we still don't ask at all as white people - how was it that our ancestors were able to live in this luxury in the midst of a concentration camp economy, in the midst of this totalitarian system? And how has that infected and affected us and the kind of horror that was experienced on a daily basis?

BATES: So how far along, Baynard, do you think you are in your own racial reckoning? And were there turning points where the blinders just came off?

WOODS: I don't know how to answer that because I don't know what the endpoint would look like because I don't believe that until we can abolish whiteness in some way, that we can just say, OK, I'm done. I'm not racist anymore. I'm not - because part of it is that we intersect with apparatus of power, that we don't know how we intersect with them. And so our words and our actions have consequences far beyond what we think we're doing and so beyond our intention.

So the white person who calls 911 because they hear a noise, and they don't think about what that 911 call might do to their Black neighbor, and yet they're calling because of a noise complaint. They don't think they're being racist at all. And most of the times in my life when - all of the times in my life when I've been racist, I didn't think I was being racist in that moment. But I think I still have a long way to go.

BATES: What has doing this cost you? You know, I remember talking to Ed Ball when he first wrote "Slaves In The Family," and he said there were a lot of people who just stopped speaking to him because they thought what he had done was disgraceful, sort of dragging the family through history's mud. How did your family react?

WOODS: My father was the biggest loss, and he died while I was - just as I was about to finish the book. But he had been going with me to do some of the research. And we were in an archive together and found a document that said Dr. Woods plus maiden slave at the top and had generations of Black descendants from his grandfather as well. We talked about what that would mean and how he - I had to really try to convince him that that would have to be rape.

And we were continually fighting about these things, too. And it really blew up after January 6. And he then - his health also deteriorated to where he was unable to talk well after that. And I had to almost - the other way around, give up on him in that way, on changing his mind because I realized it wasn't about deathbed conversion or something, about having a holy soul. It was about doing - making change in the world. But no one in my family has really talked to me about the book since it's come out, and I figure they need time.

The one thing that I think it's important to get across is that I'm not coming at this from a place of perfection. I'm not coming at it from saying, look, I'm better than you. You're wrong. I'm trying to come at it from a way of, we've all been infected with this, almost in a public health way. And we have to figure out how to deal with it. And here's been my experience. Let's start talking from there. And these are the things in the culture that we need to work on redressing. And if we pretend, like, I'm just not racist, then we're never going to be able to provide models for those kids. And all of the same things will just continue happening and happening.

BATES: People who don't pay attention to history are doomed to repeat it.

WOODS: Yeah. And who don't pay attention to themselves. I feel like it's no accident that the refrain of the racist Confederate song is, look away, because there - it is almost an injunction or a command to look away from the truth towards this imagined version of how things were.

BATES: Thank you very much.

WOODS: Oh, thanks so much. It's so great to talk with you. And yeah, I appreciate all the time and thoughtfulness.

BATES: That's Baynard Woods. He's a writer, journalist and the author of "Inheritance: An Autobiography Of Whiteness."

DEMBY: So, Karen, you know, obviously we've talked about this before on the podcast, but there are very few circumstances in which white people will regularly find themselves as the one or one of the few white people in any social space. We've talked a lot about how white people are the group least likely to even have close friends of another race of any of the groups in the country, of any racial group in the United States. But for so many people of color, we are in the minority all the time. Like, that's just what it looks like to go to work every day.

BATES: Even here, Gene, even here.

DEMBY: Absolutely.

BATES: So I was listening to Baynard as he described living in South Carolina, Gene, where he moved in very white circles and lived an essentially white life. But when he moved to Baltimore and reported from that city, he lived a much more integrated life. And because Baltimore is a predominantly Black city, he felt like a minority for the first time.

DEMBY: Yeah. And it's funny you say that, Karen, because South Carolina is one of those states, like a lot of states in the South, where Black people make up a critical mass, a huge part of the population. I think is like 1 in 4 in South Carolina. And so it speaks to the depth of segregation that he could live in a place where 1 in 4 people in the state are Black and he had very little occasion to be in their presence.

BATES: Yeah. And I think that was eye-opening for him. I think he thinks it'll be eye-opening for other white people if they contemplate their whiteness in juxtaposition to everything else.

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show.

BATES: We want to hear from you. You can email us at codeswitch@npr.org. My Twitter is @karenbates. Gene's is @geedee215. That's G-E-E-D-E-E-2-1-5. And just wanted to give a quick shout-out to our CODE SWITCH Plus listeners. We appreciate you and thank you for being a subscriber. Subscribing to the CODE SWITCH Plus means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor break, and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch. This episode was produced by Diba Mohtasham and edited by Dalia Mortada.

DEMBY: And shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive. That's Jess Kung. That's Kumari Devarajan. That's Christina Cala. That's Summer Thomad. That's Alyssa Jeong Perry. That's Leah Donnella. And that's Steve Drummond. As for me, I'm Gene Demby.

BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

BATES: See you.

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