The Whitest Thing I’ve Ever Done

Being born into a pioneer stock Mormon family really gives a gal a leg up on rarified Caucasianess, to be sure.

And then there was the time that the drug-addicted heiress I was working for gave me a $100k vacation for four to Tanzania. You REALLY feel white when you’ve passed Massai herders all day and then you end up in an Ewok-style palace and are assigned an African butler and guard who is sworn to kill water buffaloes for you should they cross your path on the way to the fantastical dining room that overlooks herds of zebras, elephants and rhinos.

Also, let’s not forget that in a week’s time, I’ll be leaving for a two week yoga retreat in Bali.

But if I’m honest with myself, the thing that really got my white guilt meter shooting past levels pearl, ivory, and cotton ball, all the way up to the apex of freshly fallen apline snow, happened this weekend.

A friend and neighbor of ours is a viticulturist and enologist. She worked for years at wineries in France, but moved back to San Francisco last year to start a few wine businesses with her best friend (also our friend and neighbor).

They’ve worked incredibly hard and after a long search and much negotiation, they secured permission from a private land owner to use an unused hillside here in the city, along with an okay from the city’s parks commissioner and mayor to use water and refuse clearing from the adjacent community garden, which happens to be adjacent to one of the city’s projects (yes, as in city housing for the poor).

I don’t mean to undermine anything things these friends of mine have done or are planning to do. They’re doing a good thing. They’re taking underutilized land to grow an organic crop for profit and non-profit purposes. They’re turning a trash-filled hillside into something beautiful, adding to local food diversity. These are good things. This is a project that I believe in…but still.

On Saturday, Jack and I took the kids (I admit freely that we listened to NPR on the way) and walked past the projects, a scene of stereotypical inner-city poorness. Black kids played barefoot with old toys. Some were naked except for a shirt. The common areas they played in were covered in litter. Empty malt liquor bottles, menthol cigarette packs, and fast food wrappers clung to broken chain link fences, while tired women sat on their stoops. It’s a place that’s invisible to those who live on the “right” side of the hill and go to the newest restaurants, and worry about the curriculum of their private co-op preschools. It stirs anxiety about one’s privilege, and shouldn’t it? And yet that very feeling of self-examination in the face of poverty is a privilege in itself.

We left the gritty thoroughfare and entered a beautiful and large community garden. Volunteers were weeding and tending to crops that are given to members of the projects. I think they’re supposed to trade some labor for fresh produce. 98% of the volunteers at the garden there were young white and asian folks who biked in on fixies. I’m not denigrating the “hipsterness” of their endeavor or their dedication. These people work very hard, and have created an oasis. They show up every weekend and do selfless and physically taxing manual labor for the greater good. I found myself judging the members of the projects who showed up for produce at harvest time without doing any of the work.

Our group worked on clearing the hillside in preparation for planting of the vines. It was undeniably fun. Our kids loved playing in the dirt, and when you’re income isn’t tied to manual labor, it’s a novel, fun thing to do. When do my friends and I get the chance to clear out dead trees and clean out hubcaps from a hillside? Never. But there’s was an uncomfortable pit in my stomach as I prepped the hill to grow a pinot noir varietal that will grow above the project housing.

It’s almost as if we were contemporized versions of Marie Antoinette in her Hameau de la Reine. (Yes, I also realize how “white” making that comparison is.) Were we play-acting at being farmers for folly and diversion? Our friends had set up a lovely table for snacks with cured olives and Pellegrino and a glass dispenser of lemon-cucumber water with mason jars and vintage paper straws and reclaimed floral-printed sheets cut to make cloth napkins. It was wonderful and hilarious and heart-breaking at the same time; a magnification of the vast ocean of culture that separated our plein air table from the boarded up windows and metal-barred doors beyond the fence.

And yet, we were doing A GOOD THING. Our kids were being exposed to sun and food sources and community effort and hard work. I think it’s easier to give into the shame of white guilt and self-segregate ourselves into places where we don’t have to confront inequality. It’s harder to push through those feelings and get on with doing something that is healthy and beneficial. It’s harder still to recognize the feelings of judgement that one has about the poor and examine them, and then to think with love and kindness about the difficulties and challenges that people there experience.

I want the vineyard to grow and flourish. I think it’s a wonderful thing. Our friends are incredibly resourceful and creative and dedicated. We’ll take our kids back there and work more.

Still, I can’t ignore the gap that sets apart an urban micro-yield wine co-op from the world of the projects below. And those thoughts, while uncomfortable, are healthy to face. I’ll examine my motivations to “fix” things for people. Does it come from a humble place or a place of superiority? But I’m not going to stop contributing and thinking of ways to improve our city for all inhabitants, no matter how “white” that urge is.

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