Seems Pretty Easy to Me:
One White Man's Experience Driving Around America
1: The trailer I didn't build
I spent most of this past summer building a teardrop trailer while I drove through the West.
Since the beginning, I've thought of the trailer project as a way to demonstrate how much it takes to make anything—a way to show, literally, the energy embedded in objects. This essay is an attempt to expand that analysis by looking at myself as an object, too. The trailer is the hardened confluence of huge energy systems. And, it turns out, so am I!
I was aware of what I looked like, driving around with my dog in my red truck (there's a skull on the front), towing my little wooden home. It was cool. I felt cool. When I explained the project, people often responded, "Oh, kind of like an On the Road thing." The project (that is to say, me) was described in terms of freedom, independence, and doing it on one's own. I got a lot of positive feedback. Usually this praise felt great, of course. Other times it made me uncomfortable.
For instance, I felt uncomfortable when Yale gave me $9,500 towards the project. That's a lot of money. I felt compromised by it, in some vague way. I certainly didn't want to give the money back, but at the same time I worried that this would be the dark secret of my project. I felt guilty of getting something I didn't deserve. And I worried that if I told someone about my funding, it would be like a magician's reveal: "Oh. That's how you did it." Later in the trip, my cousin Sarah would point out how that money was just the tip of the iceberg. "Do you see how you have all these people saying, 'Do you want this beautiful piece of wood, or this one? Do you want to stay on this bed or this nice bed? How can we help?'" she asked. "Do you see how that's a tension within your project about independence?"
In 2012, Barack Obama made the mistake of picking at the same sore spot that my cousin's question pushed on. He was explaining the place of government services in civil society (sort of a remedial lesson about the value of cooperation). He noted, "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help...Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive...If you have a business—you didn't build that." He was of course attacked for suggesting that we are not all ahistorical islands. His basic point—that we shouldn't hog credit for our success—applies to me, too. I think this is what Sarah was helping me see. I didn't build my trailer.
This is my point: The trailer, like everything else I've ever made, is the way it is because I am the way I am. It was made possible, materially and conceptually, by the things I've been given. How am I to feel about that? In this photo essay, I want to worry at this cognitive dissonance that is a grating constant in my life: How can I love my project (which, yes certainly, is a stand-in for my self), while simultaneously feeling guilt and revulsion at the systems that create and sustain it? And, what are the implications of naming this conundrum of most white male experience? What comes next?
2: It's not an accident that we're not self-aware
What does it mean to say that the trailer is the way it is because I am the way I am? That statement can be played in different ways, expressing two different visions of a self.
Claudia Rankine writes in Citizen:
A friend argues that Americans battle between the "historical self" and the "self self." By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning.
When a person like me makes something, "the way I am" refers to my "self self." The questions asked of my project are: What unique vision and skill is expressed in this project? What are my ideas? It's like me and my work are floating in a vacuum, forever on our own terms. It assumes a neutral starting point, and focuses on everything that follows. My history is personal, my own.
When anybody else makes something, to say "this project is the way it is because you are the way you are" means something different. In this case, "the way you are" refers to a "historical self." How does this work reflect where you came from? For instance, almost without exception, art made by a person who is black will be talked about as "art made by a black person." The artist's inherited history will always be part of the work's identity. The same is true of art made by women, by queer people, by immigrants, etc. It's the same thing when I'm called a "friend" while someone else might be "my black friend" or "my friend in a wheelchair" or "my old friend." I'm a person and everyone else is a qualified person.
The one group that almost never receives this scrutiny is, as always, my group. (It's not an accident that so many of us aren't self-aware! We're never asked to be).
None of this is new thinking, of course. (Ha! The point is exactly this; I'm the last one to the party). But what happens if I look at my own work in the same way that I would look at work made by anybody who isn't of my set? That is, I want to examine my trailer project as a kind of tissue sample: a little plug of representative material to analyze that contains condensed traces of all the social and historical forces that have shaped me. I want to explain this trailer as an object made specifically by a rich white straight man as a way to visceralize privilege.
This trailer is the embodiment of a lifetime of winning the lottery (social, economic, etc.). It required almost absolute freedom to enact this fantasy of spontaneity.
And to be clear, this isn't a public self-shaming exercise, or a way to "work off the guilt." I'll always carry an un-repayable debt. I'll never get ahead of that debt. I can work to make it a more peaceful part of my life, but I won't ever erase it. And besides, I don't resent my privileges; I enjoy them. Instead, my intentions are:
first to acknowledge this debt,
second to look at the trailer project itself in order to explain the false paradox of loving myself while hating the oppressive systems that have made me (yes I think it's possible and good to do both), and
third to wonder what comes next.
3: The debt—some things I was given so that I could build the trailer
The title of my project was "Slow Design: The Teardrop Trailer" and my plan was to build it as I went, following my nose for the entire summer. It was born out of my frustrations with an architecture program that encouraged students to indulge in grand fantasies of control, at great personal cost. I wanted to show how much time and energy it takes to build anything by slowly making an object that is the record of thousands of touches. I believe in that project, but first: What does it cost to go this slow?
In the trailer, "the way I am" does mean my preferences and abilities. But far more, it means the things I've been given. A loose and fast survey:
I'm white, male, straight, and American. I speak English and have been in some kind of elite higher education for 7 years and my married parents both have advanced degrees (also from Ivy League schools). I have access to some of the largest institutions on earth. Yale gave me $9,500 and a thumbs-up. I have friends with houses, ranches, apartments all across the US. They're all financially secure and could host me for free. My family could spend $700 at Costco before I got home so that I could feed all the friends who came to help me build.
I can pass for a good old boy. Do you know how good that feels? It feels amazing. In Colorado, rumbling back to headquarters in the back of a pickup after riding all day, wearing full cowboy regalia...it's like slipping into a warm bath. I really might deserve everything I have, is the feeling, and nobody else on this truck is going to fight that. I'm going to fully enjoy the burger and beer waiting for me back home. I'm not entirely proud of this, but the allure is real.
Or watching the room light up back in Yale while I sold this project as a design experiment to the fellowship committee, leaning across the table, this time in full Yale architect regalia. I have so many looks! We could all see my ideas and they were glittering and great and I had a model with a real steel chassis that I'd made in the shop the day before. Again, the warm bath, feeling like I'm on the right path and everyone is listening. This sounds like I was being duplicitous, selling something I didn't believe, and it's not that. I do believe in the project. I just think that a lot of the time the part I'm acting fits so well into the world around me that I don't even realize that I'm acting.
These advantages bubble to the visible surface in surprising ways, popping with a burst of sweet-smelling air into my ordinary life. I made a friend (Josh) in the shop for the architecture school at Yale. I told Josh I was looking for materials for the trailer. He referred me to a sailing friend (Chris) who owns a plywood company (Boulter Plywood). I had the time, so I drove to Boston and sharpened a bunch of the Boulter's knives. In return, Chris gave me some slightly damaged but still beautiful sheets of marine plywood for half-off and a pile of free scraps that turned into the meat of the trailer. Just another low-friction encounter.
I felt safe on every street I slept on. I could ask for help from anyone. I don't have much income, but I don't need much: By virtue of who I am I will always be wealthy. Even if I didn't get the grant, I still would have taken the whole summer off from making money. And if I ever got into a tight spot, there are probably hundreds of people and institutions that could bail me out, who could give me a couple thousand dollars in an emergency. There were few worst case scenarios. When my brakes burned out, I just charged the repair to Yale.
Every part of this, all of it, is what I used to make the trailer. I'll probably never be able to fully take stock of what my layers of privilege have given me. But making the trailer this summer made one consequence of my inheritance tangible: I've been afforded a kind of unbelievable latitude in my life. Without being metaphorical hardly at all, I can say that I rarely have to worry about getting farther down the road, because I'm already pretty good where I am. This, literally, let me investigate other directions. To spread out laterally rather than climbing vertically. Which is essential in a project that's about trying to move sideways rather than barreling straight ahead.
Or in other words:
My cousin referred me to a Canadian organizer, Jennai Bundock, who points out that "Straight white cis men are in control of their day. You wake up in the morning and say, 'How do I feel?' Then you go out into the world, and you could have an entire day where you just deal with the things you chose to deal with."
In a nutshell, that was my process. I tried to sniff my way from one project to the next, every day, for about four months. I couldn't have done that if I wasn't who I am.
4: It's actually not a contradiction—I love the trailer even though it's made possible by harmful systems
This is kind of the heart of the issue for me. I really do love this trailer. And I like the way I make things. It's fumbling and sincere. I think that I'm a clear, sensitive, capable person who increasingly cares about the right things. I work hard. But none of that is the really point. This isn't an attack on myself, not in that way.
Look: this is beautiful! I'm not saying it isn't!
Instead of castigating myself, I'm trying to explore my relationship to the systems that I benefit from, and that have created me. Eula Biss writes:
Whiteness is not a kinship or a culture. White people are no more closely related to one another, genetically, than we are to black people. American definitions of race allow for a white woman to give birth to black children, which should serve as a reminder that white people are not a family. What binds us is that we share a system of social advantages that can be traced back to the advent of slavery in the colonies that became the United States. ‘‘There is, in fact, no white community,’’ as Baldwin writes. Whiteness is not who you are. Which is why it is entirely possible to despise whiteness without disliking yourself.
The same argument is true of masculinity. Or heteronormativity. Or the rest of it. White men like me get red in the face when we are told about this stuff because it feels like a personal attack. But it's not! Well, that's not entirely true. It is an attack on outsize egos, puffed up from a life of being on center stage, to be told that our individual experience isn't really the point. And, there are serious implications about the way we conduct our day-to-day lives just on the other side of listening to other people. BUT, we are not being asked to answer for generations of white (and every other kind of) supremacy. Just to acknowledge it, and then to do what we can to not replicate it.
And how does the trailer help understand this point—that despising prevailing systems of power doesn't preclude liking yourself? I think the trailer can be interpreted as a physical allegory for a pretty good way for white men to act, an okay way to deal with this contradiction. It's not all that we might aim for, but it's at least a first step.
Specifically, it's politically significant (sadly, maybe) for white men to just shut up and not try to control everything. We can relax because, no matter what, we'll still pretty much be in control. This realization was at the center of my process for building the trailer. I aimed to deliberately resist taking control. To do everything I could to not default to an assertive plan. To enjoy being buffeted around by chance encounters, delays, and broken parts.
This, I hope, is like listening to other people instead of talking over them. I didn't want to force a specific vision of a finished project into the world, come hell or high water, just because I could. Rather, I wanted to let myself feel tired whenever I noticed that I was trying to make some project happen that was just too much, and then to quit freely. To use exhaustion and excitement as arbiters of what I should or shouldn't do next. To get over my specific plans for how things should go. I didn't want to know what the trailer would be like when I finally dragged it back to my home driveway in New Paltz.
For me, this slow approach is a wonderful way to do things, full of surprising and delightful and instructive turns. It lets me pay attention to other people because I don't always have to be busy executing my plan. It's more than how I'd like to build; it's close to how I'd like to live. And it's also made possible by the systematic advantages I have in America. It's fucked up, and it's also beautiful. It's both. Feeling both of these things at the same time is like being in hot and cold water at the same time. Painful, special, invigorating.
This project has often felt slippery, so ripe for analogy that I would lose track of the thing itself, even while building it. Living in the trailer was like living in a metaphor, which was both exciting and disorienting. Now, re-reading the project with this new lens, I'm afraid I'm doing it again. Which is unfortunate, because the force of this project has, for me, always been that the trailer is such a real thing. It makes noise, has a smell, breaks, is made out of all these real parts that I've touched, etc.
So to return to the thing itself, here's what my process looked like, literally, in the trailer. (And there's a straight treatment of what I was trying to do, here).
Then I spent the rest of the summer towing it along a 7,000-mile loop. This is roughly the route I took. The points plotted are all (or most) of the gas stations I stopped at along the way.
The whole time, I kept adding new parts to the trailer and fixing things as they broke. I trusted that I'd know more about this little living space after being inside it for an hour than I would after 6 months of planning. So I waited until I knew where a shelf would fit, and what specifically it would hold, and then built it quickly out of whatever was on hand. If the roof seams leaked, I'd find the leaky spot and plug it.
By most measures, this is an inefficient way to build a house, yes. But for me inefficiency itself was a goal. In a system built on the efficient extraction of value, deliberate inefficiency is a form of protest, or at least a relief. Checking out from standard operating procedure instantiates an alternative value system.
For instance, I'm sure my trailer is the most luxurious place I've ever lived. But this opulence isn't reflected in the price per square foot (though it did cost a fair amount). Rather, it's the touches or maybe time per square foot that matter to me, that I invested in. Here I valued the kind of fit that comes from just spending vast time fiddling with an object over the kind of fit that comes from spending lots of money, and that reorientation let me behave in new ways.
The back of my truck was full of tools that I brought with me and materials I found along the way. When I left, the trailer weighed 1,080 pounds. By the end it weighed 1,800 pounds. The tools and materials probably weighed another 1,000 pounds.
Here's how the trailer looked at the beginning, the first night it had a real shape.
And by the end, it was very different.
I love it. Really, it's like climbing inside myself to get in. The smell and everything.
I want to look at this warm busy interior as happy proof that not trying to control things pays surprising dividends. In this case, the return is a house (or a sculpture?) that invites people in and fits me well. And even more, it's been the space for thinking about my identity. So many good things have happened since I decided to slow down, it almost feels like cheating.
4: So what else is there to do?
I've told a few of my white male friends about this essay, and we're pretty much in sync until I get to the end, and then there's this blank-faced moment where we look at each other and they say, "Okay, so that's it? What are we supposed to do?" I've gotten flustered at this point, and not made a satisfying response.
I think that my answer is just to take a break from doing things. I so often go back to my grandpa's favorite saying, "Don't just do something; stand there." It's alright, really, to take a vacation from asserting ourselves. Nothing bad will happen.
For me, taking honest stock of my privilege, as uncomfortable as it is, also has exciting implications. That is, the thing that I am free to do, more than almost anyone else, is to not assert myself. I won't disappear. In fact, I'll always be a large presence in the room (in every way; I literally take up a lot of space). Nor do I need to worry about hustling to make money or accrue power. I already have those things, and almost certainly always will. When I was born, I was already at a place that other people might never approach, even after a lifetime of work. Pretending this isn't true helps exactly no one. Acknowledging it provokes new kinds of work.
So what else is there, in the absence of asserting and grabbing? A simple first answer is what I said earlier: it's good work for a white man just to intentionally not assert himself in the standard ways prescribed by masculinity and whiteness. To shut up, in other words. To separate the option-to-do from the reason-to-do. There's more that could immediately fill this absence—listening to other people is probably first. But literally just not trying to always control things is worthy work for a white man. A low bar, maybe, but still hugely important, and beautiful. I was excited to read George Saunders, who offers that we might think of the whole point of having power as having a way to access the "higher registers of gentleness."
It's like learning to orient our bodies in space. Jazmine Hughes explains why it's not funny when white people make white-people jokes.
When a white person tells any white-people joke, the humor can go from subverting whites’ status to rubbing it in. The jokes themselves aren’t necessarily less funny; it’s just that the bitter pill goes down easier when not delivered by someone benefiting from the privilege they’re trying to lampoon.
Comedy, she says, should punch up, maybe sideways, and never down. This spatial awareness is probably broadly useful to people like me, even when we're not trying to be funny.
Here's another way to say what I'm trying to say, maybe. I remember taking a walk in the woods with my friend Dan, last February in New Paltz. He had his little sweet hairy dog, Maggie, and I had Lola. Maggie doesn't usually go further then 20 feet away from us but Lola likes to blast around. I was letting her run out of sight up hills, do whatever she wanted. I love watching her run. She came back to us, happy and stupidly panting, and then suddenly saw a squirrel and blasted off again. I kind of cheered her on, but didn't pay much attention.
I was surprised, then, when Dan said, "Oh no! Don't let her do that...The squirrels have to work for every calorie they get, and Lola is basically a petroleum fueled machine." The snow was old and grey and had been on the ground for a long time. Everything edible had been covered for months now, and there still wouldn't be new growth for a long time, and everyone in town was remarking on how terrible the deer were looking. They came out in groups, stumbling into public areas that they usually never dared to go. Their hair was falling out in mangy clumps. The squirrels were in just as dire a situation as the deer.
I had been celebrating how beautiful and pure and basically free Lola was, running in the snow, and Dan was pointing out how cruel "play" can be when the players are coming from such different starting points. Lola could come home with me to a fire and a bowl of rich diesel-powered dog food. The squirrel didn't want to play chase.
Lola isn't bad for living on nice fatty dog food. She's still beautiful when she runs. But that beauty is contingent on external supports, and her exuberance can easily, thoughtlessly hurt others. Dan was pointing out that she (as an extension of me) needs to be careful.
Trying to be careful, shutting up, saying thank you for what I've been given. Nice. Good. Getting excited about the things that happen when I stop holding so tightly to the reins. Yes. Fun. Seeing how listening to other people is in my best interest. So easy. I explained my idea for this essay to my classmate, Anna. She responded, "That seems like a very good first step."
This essay is written in thanks to the many people who helped me with the trailer, talked with me about it over the past few months, and sent me relevant reading material. Like the trailer, I didn't build this essay. It's the record of many interactions with a huge and wonderful group. This includes my family in New Paltz, the members of the documentary studies class taught at Yale by Matt Jacobson and Rebecca Jacobs, as well as all the loving people who let me sleep in their front yards all summer. Please look in the photo archive to see some of their faces. Particular thanks to my readers Eve O'Connor and Joel Keehn, whose insights I greedily cherrypicked.
Hope and the Artist, Ta-Nahisi Coates. The Atlantic, Nov 2015.
How Many White People Does It Take to Ruin a Good Joke? Jazmine Hughes. The New Republic, Feb 2015.
White Debt. Eula Biss. The New York Times Magazine, Dec 2015.
The Will to Change. Bell Hooks. Washington Square Press, Dec 2004.
Slow Death. Lauren Berlant. From Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, Oct 2011.