In ‘White Lies’, the speaker recounts childhood memories and the seemingly innocent lies she told. As the narrative progresses, however, the lies uncover a societal divide along a racial line. The speaker, who is mixed race, straddles this dividing line and struggles with her identity as a result. This struggle is manifested in the lies she tells.
Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1966 to an African American mother and a white father. Because she grew up in the American South, with parents in a bi-racial marriage, ‘White Lies’ can be viewed as autobiographical in nature.
Explore White Lies
‘Whites Lies’ by Natasha Trethewey was published in 2000 and explores a girl’s struggle with her identity while growing up mixed-race in the American South.
At first, the title ‘White Lies’ seems to symbolise innocent or harmless lies. Because this poem is a reminiscing of childhood, it seems as if the speaker will recount some innocent lies that all children tell. However, it soon becomes clear that issues surrounding racial identity are at play. The three lies in the poem are set against this racial backdrop, showing the reader that the lies aren’t so innocent after all.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘White Lies’, Natasha Trethewey covers themes such as identity and opposition.
- Identity. Identity is the most obvious theme in the poem. The speaker is mixed race and lives in a black neighbourhood, but her light skin means she can also tell people she is white. The three lies in the poem centre around this. Through the lies, however, questions surrounding identity arise. What race is the speaker? Her struggle comes from being between both worlds, one of which is seen as better than the other by wider society.
- Opposition. Opposition is another prominent theme, with four identifiable areas of opposition: within the speaker herself, between black and white, difference in socio-economic status, and between mother and daughter. There is opposition within the speaker as she struggles with her identity—black or white? Opposition exists between the colours; black and white are opposites. Between the ‘white folks’ living ‘uptown’ and the blacks occupying the ‘shotgun section along the tracks’, there is clear socio-economic opposition. Lastly, there is opposition between mother and daughter, the former expressing anger regarding the latter’s lies. This is because the mother is black, and the speaker’s lies deny her own blackness. Thus, as an extension, the lies deny her own mother.
The title ‘White Lies’ itself is a symbol that relates to the other two symbols in the poem: Maison Blanche and Ivory soap. In our society, white lies are seen as harmless lies, almost pure lies, to a certain degree, good lies. This association of white with goodness and purity is seen in the other two symbols as well.
Maison Blanche—or ‘white house’ in French—was a department store in America. This store connects whites with upmarket goods, mirroring how the speaker identifies whites with ‘uptown’ in the poem and further cementing them with a good socio-economic status.
In the poem, the Ivory soap is used to cleanse and purify. Ivory is a shade of white. Again, there are connotations of good and purity attributed to whiteness.
The lies I could tell, / when I was growing up
Taken with the title, ‘White Lies’, these first two lines position the reader to think of the lies as the innocent and harmless lies of a child. Lying as a child is part of growing up, so it is natural to think of the white lies as harmless.
The third line, however, draws the attention of the reader. It will be helpful to take a closer look at the third line:
Trethewey uses spondee here to draw attention to this line; it is important. The four stressed syllables make the content jump out, and the reader can see that identity—colour or race in this case—is important to the poem.
in a black place,
This fifth line works to confirm the attention given to racial issues and show that there is some struggle with identity going on. The speaker is different to those in her neighbourhood.
were just white lies
The last line of the first stanza attempts to restore the innocent or harmless nature of the lies. By drawing attention to racial identity, however, Trethewey sets it as the backdrop against which the lies should be viewed. This alerts readers to issues of race and identity, positioning them to view the rest of the poem through the lens of racial identity.
Now, with the reader alert to the issues of race and identity, the second stanza outlines three lies.
I could easily tell the white folks / that we lived uptown,
This is the first lie. As previously mentioned, ‘uptown’ has connotations of high socio-economic status, goodness associated with the ‘white folks’.
The truth, however, is that the speaker lived ‘…in that pink and green / shanty-fled shotgun section / along the tracks…’ This highlights the opposition in the society, with the tracks signifying a dividing line, a line that the speaker is on the wrong side of, a segregating line. It all fits with the speaker’s struggle with identity.
The second lie comes when she pretends her
‘…homemade dresses / came straight out the window / of Maison Blanche…
This department store signifies a place where white people shop. By pretending her dresses are from there, she shows that she is white. This second lie is a lie of action. The speaker pretends to be white, acts white, and shows that she can pass for white.
Thirdly, the speaker keeps quiet
‘…the time a white girl said (squeezing my hand), Now we have three of us in this class.
In this lie, the speaker withholds information, as if she’s happy to be mistaken for white. Although she will be only one of three whites in the class, she keeps quiet because she views being white as better, even if there are fewer in the class. It is interesting that the white girl holds the speaker’s hand, like she is leading her to whiteness. This action signifies the struggle within the speaker; she is pulled between two worlds. Through her lies, however, she becomes white in the eyes of society.
But I paid for it every time / Mama found out.
As shown in the first two lines of the third stanza, the speaker might be able to fool wider society, but her mother immediately catches her lies. And punishes her by washing her mouth out with Ivory soap.
There is opposition between mother and daughter, because by denying that she is black, the speaker is denying her mother, who is black. So, the way society has normalised whiteness leads the girl to deny her heritage. It is easier to lie about being white, pretend to be white, or withhold information about being white (or not).
Her mother says that the soap is to ‘purify’ and ‘cleanse’ and the last three lines of the poem state:
Believing her, I swallowed suds / thinking they’d work / from the inside out.
These last three lines confirm the speaker’s desire to be white. She wants the suds to ‘purify’ her from the inside out. In her eyes, as she associates whiteness with purity, that means whitening her skin. This is the final stamp on her struggle with identity as a person of mixed race in the American South. She wants to be white because the society values whiteness.
Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1966 to an African American mother and a white father. This was during the American civil rights movement, a mass protest against racial segregation and discrimination.
Mississippi was known as one of the Southern states that vehemently opposed the civil rights movement. In 1964, just two years before Trethewey was born, three activists were abducted and murdered in Mississippi in what became known as the Mississippi Burning murders. Racism would still have been rampant in Mississippi during Trethewey’s childhood.
Therefore, as ‘White Lies’ can be viewed as an autobiographical poem, it can also be framed in that racially-charged atmosphere. Against such a backdrop, it is clear why the speaker wants to be white. The privilege afforded to whites would look appealing to a child. Passing for white would afford her better treatment in the segregated society.
Although progress has been made since the civil rights era, recent events—such as the murder of George Floyd by a police officer—show that issues surrounding race still remain. Moreover, Black Lives Matter continues to protest against systemic racism. In that light, ‘White Lies’ is still relevant today.
Racism was rampant in the American South at that time. Whites were treated better than African Americans, and being white was normalised. The myth of white people being better than black people was prevalent. Positioned by society to view whiteness as better, seeing the privilege afforded to white people, the girl wanted to be white.
Racism was rampant in the American South at that time. Whites were treated better than African Americans, and being white was normalized. The myth of white people being better than black people was prevalent. Positioned by society to view whiteness as better, seeing the privilege afforded to white people, the girl wanted to be white.
This refers to a street in which the houses have a particular layout. A shotgun house is a narrow residence of only one storey, and each room is set directly behind the other. So, the rooms are situated in a single line. The term refers to the ability of a bullet to enter the front of the house and exit the back of the house in a single line. This gives an image of being able to move in a straight line from front to back.
No, not really. However, the poem is more about the view of identity in a societal context. The society sees only white and black, with both being labeled with certain stereotypes. Therefore, it is the societal pressures and norms that make the girl choose between being white or being black.
For those who liked ‘White Lies’ by Natasha Trethewey, her poems ‘Incident‘ and ‘Enlightenment‘ may also be of interest. Both of these poems explore issues of racism.
Other poems that explore themes of identity are ‘Jamaican British‘ by Raymond Antrobus and ‘Identity‘ by Abhimanyu Kumar.