Reading Moby Dick, Chapters 4 and 5: Ishmael learns to see Queequeg as a human being.


I got some interesting responses to my last post on Facebook.   A fellow wrote to complain about my usage of the term, “White privilege,” which he then proceeded to equate with paying taxes.   He then wondered if I had every paid any taxes, and asserted that if working hard and paying taxes affords one “White privilege,” then he would be happy to stand accused.

The writer is right on one point: Whiteness does have something to do with paying taxes, since we live in a society in which it is easier for a person with White skin to get a job and to earn money.  The writer is wrong, however, to maintain that White people pay more in taxes than Black people because they work harder.  The argument is patently racist. 

It seems a more precise definition of White privilege is required.  White privilege is a system that arises as a consequence of racism.  For a definition of racism, go here:  White privilege is a system that arises from and perpetuates racism.  As Jennifer Holladay explains,

White skin privilege is not something that white people necessarily do, create or enjoy on purpose. Unlike the more overt individual and institutional manifestations of racism described above, white skin privilege is a transparent preference for whiteness that saturates our society. White skin privilege serves several functions. First, it provides white people with “perks” that we do not earn and that people of color do not enjoy. Second, it creates real advantages for us. White people are immune to a lot of challenges. Finally, white privilege shapes the world in which we live — the way that we navigate and interact with one another and with the world.

Holladay observes a number of perks that she recevies as a White person in a racist society

• When I cut my finger and go to my school or office’s first aid kit, the flesh-colored band-aid generally matches my skin tone.

• When I stay in a hotel, the complimentary shampoo generally works with the texture of my hair.

• When I run to the store to buy pantyhose at the last minute, the ‘nude’ color generally appears nude on my legs.

When I buy hair care products in a grocery store or drug store, my shampoos and conditioners are in the aisle and section labeled ‘hair care’ and not in a separate section for ‘ethnic products.’

 I can purchase travel size bottles of my hair care products at most grocery or drug stores.

White privilege is not limited to perks like band aids and hair care products,” Halloday continues. 

“The second function of white skin privilege is that it creates significant advantages for white people. There are scores of things that I, as a white person, generally do not encounter, have to deal with or even recognize. For example:

• My skin color does not work against me in terms of how people perceive my financial responsibility, style of dress, public speaking skills, or job performance.

• People do not assume that I got where I am professionally because of my race (or because of affirmative action programs).

• Store security personnel or law enforcement officers do not harass me, pull me over or follow me because of my race.

Ishmael enjoys White privilege.  When he goes to apply for a job on the Pequod, no one asks him about his religious views.  Yet when Queequeg, a far more experienced sailor, appears, the captain objects to having a “son of darkness” in his crew.  Melville wrote Moby Dick at time when most White Americans and Europeans utterly denied the humanity of the Africans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans, and for this reason subjected them to cruel working conditions and slavery.  As many fine historians have demonstrated, our country was founded on brutality and bloodshed.  The original settlers sickened, slaughtered, and stole from the original inhabitants.   The United States became an industrial powerhouse based on the enslavement of Africans and the near enslavement of Asians during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Irish and Italian people were not considered to be “white” until just before the 20th century. . 

Melville examines racist prejudices in his countrypersons as well as in himself via Ishmael, who is White, poor, and not nearly as capable or valuable a seaman on a whaling ship as his dark-skinned, tattoed companion, Queequeg, who becomes his bedfellow.

Ishmael refers to Queequeg frequently as a “savage” and an “infidel,” betraying his common assumption that anyone who does not share the same cultural practices and religious beliefs as the majority must not belong, cannot be “civilized,” and actually requires the alleged improvements that the dominant culture would impose upon him– a correction of his diet and a conversion, by force, if necessary, to the approved God and dogmatic system.  By making Queequeg a cannibal, Melville locates him outside the pale; he is the Other, the not-me, the absolute antithesis of White, Protestant, bourgeois American culture.  And therefore Ishmael’s adoption of him is a stunning feat.     

Queequeg terrifes Ishmael at first.   But he becomes beloved, the bosom friend, the bedfellow of our hero, because his morality and decency exceeds that of  “civilized” White people whom Ishmael encounters.  Is he a noble savage?  Does Ishmael romanticize him?  I haven’t decided yet.  I haven’t finished the novel!!  


Author: Kimberly Latta, Ph.D.

Psychotherapist, writer, artist, and independent feminist scholar.

One thought on “Reading Moby Dick, Chapters 4 and 5: Ishmael learns to see Queequeg as a human being.”

  1. Enjoying a very different take on the usual “Sailing Blog”! Not really surprised you received the email about white privilege you mentioned, as it seems to be an often misunderstood concept, but you offerd the best explanation of the malady I’ve heard yet. Well done! (Nect time, set the second anchor sooner! ;-))


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