What will be a gut reaction for the poem "White Lies" by Natasha Trethewey?

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On first reading “White Lies,” without knowing much about its context or its poet’s identity, my instinctive reaction would be that the poem’s speaker is a child who pretends to be someone other than who she is in order to feel safe and acceptable. The sharp focus on color in the first stanza itself suggests that the white lies she tells have something to do with the color of her skin.

The lies I could tell,
when I was growing up
light-bright, near-white,
high-yellow, red-boned
in a black place,
were just white lies.

The speaker describes herself as “light-bright,” “high-yellow,” and “red-boned,” which means she is pale-skinned, but she is “near-white.” The lines suggest she is of mixed race, and lives in a “black place,” or an area dominated by black people. Yet, why does she need to tell “white lies” about herself? My reaction on reading these lines is that she is aware of the social privilege which goes with being white and perhaps also feels lost at having a biracial identity. Going along with people’s assumption that she is white helps her fit in better with a world that favors white people and also helps her stick to one identity. Her lie is “white,” or innocuous, because her intent is not to harm anyone or be deceitful; she is simply a child trying to protect herself in a biased, unfair world.

I could easily tell the white folks
that we lived uptown,
not in that pink and green
shanty-fled shotgun section
along the tracks. I could act
like my homemade dresses
came straight out the window
of Maison Blanche. I could even
keep quiet, quiet as kept,
like the time a white girl said
(squeezing my hand), Now
we have three of us in this class.

With the second stanza, the speaker's preoccupations with skin color spread to issues of class as well. Passing off as white, the speaker can also pretend she lives in a nicer part of town and that her clothes are from an expensive store. Ironically, even though whites are in a minority in her part of her town and her grade in school, she complies with the assumption that she is one of them. The girl’s behavior may make her appear confused and ashamed, but I think her actions are perfectly human.

But I paid for it every time
Mama found out.
She laid her hands on me,
then washed out my mouth
with Ivory soap. This
is to purify, she said,
and cleanse your lying tongue.
Believing her, I swallowed suds
thinking they'd work
from the inside out.

The girl’s mother does not think of her lies as harmless. Perhaps to teach her a lesson about being truthful and also about taking pride in her identity, Mama manhandles the speaker, literally washing her mouth with soap. The reference to the punishment of washing a child’s mouth with soap suggests the poem is set in the past. The soap is “ivory,” because that is an old-fashioned popular kind of soap; it is also ironic, because it’s meant to purify the girl’s “lying tongue.” However, the speaker associates purification with whiteness, so she swallows the suds, hoping they will turn her white from within. Alternatively, she could be hoping the soap washes the whiteness out of her, so she is all black and can confirm to one identity. Either way, the mother wants the child to display perfect behavior, and she does not acknowledge the social pressures that made the speaker tell lies to begin with.

I think it would be interesting for you to research the poet Natasha Trethewey's background and other poems to see if "White Lies" fits into a larger conversation about race and class. Good luck!

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