In James Baldwin’s “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies,” the prolific author argues that “[n]o one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.” (177). In the process of oppressing primarily Black and Indigenous populations, white Americans made “a moral choice” to become white (Baldwin 180). According to Baldwin, this choice has made white Americans “as speechless as Lot’s wife—looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt” (180). Re-reading the essay, I was struck by the parallel between Baldwin’s description and another wife of Lot: Mrs. Dalton from Richard Wright’s Native Son.
Wright makes a concerted effort to emphasize Mrs. Dalton’s whiteness. Mrs. Dalton’s “face and hair were completely white; she seemed to [Bigger] like a ghost,” and “her grey eyes looked stony” (49). Mrs. Dalton wears “flowing white clothes,” and often keeps a “white cat” by her side. Truly, the woman is entirely blanched of pigment. Above all, Mrs. Dalton––a living pillar of salt––is allegedly the most sympathetic character to Black Americans.
Like Lot’s wife, Mrs. Dalton is unmoving in her whiteness, to the point where she is incredulous to her maintenance of systems of oppression. Bigger is clear: even Mrs. Dalton only “wanted him to do the things she felt that he should have wanted to do [emphasis added]” (Wright 61). Although Mrs. Dalton prompts her husband to donate millions to charities, sends a single Black man to college, and is generally amicable towards Bigger, she is blind to the fact that her wealth is exploited from Black families. She and her husband employ Bigger at a wage of $25 per week, which is ostensibly generous until the reader realizes that their daughter has a discretionary budget of thousands of dollars (equivalent to hundreds of thousands today).
It is easy to read a novel like Richard Wright’s Native Son and talk about Blackness. It is harder, yet equally necessary, to talk about the construction and preservation of whiteness in the novel and in our own society. One of the most important lessons that we might draw from Wright’s characterization of Mrs. Dalton is that even the most well-intentioned white Americans uphold and profit from systemic anti-Blackness. It is not enough to merely post anti-racist infographics on Instagram. Black activists have popularized a number of vital ways for white Americans to be more ethical: donate to mutual aid funds; buy from Black-owned businesses; etc. While heeding those calls, white Americans might also learn from Native Son and investigate the sources of their income.
If white readers like myself and many of my classmates do not turn our critical lens inward, we make the grave error of being blind to our own actions. However, as we know from our novel’s introduction, Wright’s overarching project in Native Son was to speak with “forthrightness and independence” to both Black and white Americans, whom he believed “continued to cling to a range of fantasies about the true nature of the relationship between the races.” Even today, many white Americans cling to the fantasy that implicit bias trainings and a Democratic President will automatically undo centuries of oppression. While these liberal projects (like Mrs. Dalton’s) are well-intentioned, they are not enough. We must ask ourselves probing questions. Are you invested in a real-estate firm that profits from red-lined neighborhoods? Do your parents own a business that pays starvation wages to POC? Does your University invest in private prisons (hint: it does!). These are just examples, but my point is simple: we must not be frozen in our privilege. We must break free from the salt that encapsulates us.