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!!  


Reading Moby Dick, Chapter Three: Ishmael Goes to a Bar

If you are really into small-town Christmas, and are White, heterosexual, and maybe also an alcoholic, consider spending the holiday in Hopetown.  It’s very nice, very safe, and very…as a new friend observed, “it’s the way small-town American used to be 40 years ago,”…  Norman Rockwellian.  Think, for example, about race relations, attitudes towards homosexual and transgender people and atheists and people with mental illness and women in the United States 40 years ago. Not pretty.

I suppose my friend was right to observe that homogeneity and the illusion of social equality is a pleasant experience.  It’s pleasant to be White and relatively well-off in a society where White people control most of the property and businesses as long as you don’t think too much about the Black people who live here, too, and who have lived here just as long.  My friend is not a bigot but, like most of us White people, he may not always think about the White privilege implications of things that he says.

What I enjoyed most about the Christian winter holidays here in the Abacos was getting to know many interesting new people, most of whom come from Canada and the UK and the Northeastern US.  I have so far met only two women who sail solo, one a psychotherapist from Chicago and the other a salty beauty born who just brought her schooner up from the Grenadines. 

When you go to a bar here, you will find yourself among a lot of people very much like yourself, White, well-off, and heterosexual (which I am, for the most part).  As long as you avoid politics and religion, you will probably have a very nice time.  If you are lucky enough to meet with someone who shares your political point of view, then you will probably have a better time.   There are Black people here, of course, but you will usually encounter them behind the bar or on a fishing boat or behind the register at the Post Office or raking the grounds of second home on a lovely beach.  Race relations do not feel very different to me here than they do in the US.  They trouble me. They troubled Melville, too. 

Ishmael enters the Spouter Inn because it looks like a place he can afford, and there he finds that the only bed he will get that night is one with a “harpooneer.”  Here Melville has a bit of fun with his readers, I suppose, by cracking a sexual joke in which Ishamel declares that if he must sleep with another man in a bed,

it would depend upon who the harpooner might be.”  That this particular harpooner happens to be a dark-skinned man does not worry our hero so much as the  thought that he he “should tumble in upon me at midnight—how could I tell from what vile hole he had been coming?  Landlord!  I’ve changed my mind about that harpooneer.

But Ishmael soon agrees to share the bed after all, since he can’t sleep on the hard chairs in the  bar, and admits that he might after all “be cherishing unwarrantable prejudices against this unknown “harpooneer.”  After a number of furious questions to the landlord, Ishamel finds out that this harpooner is not only dark-skinned, but not Christian, and business of selling shrunken human head..  Still he agrees to share his bed.  After the landlord shows him to the room and shuts the door, Ishamel tries on an article of his clothing, views himself in the mirror, and throws it off. 

The Harpooner himself, when he finally appears, frightens his future bedmate with his all-over body tatoo, yellowish-purple skin, bald head and long, black pigtail, and his oblations before a “black mannikin,” which he also calls a “Congo idol,” and “little negro.”  Not only this, but the “savage,” and “wild cannibal,” as Ishmael calls him, also possess a “tomohawk” pipe.  Queequeg displays characteristics of various diverse peoples oppressed in Melville’s time: Africans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans.

Ishamels’ attitude towards him seems refreshingly tolerant:

For all his tatooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal.  What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thougth I to myself—the man’s a human being jsut as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.  Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. 

Perhaps its not very nice of Ishamel to assume that Queegeg is a cannibal—he has learned that he only eats red meat, but has not yet found definitive proof that the man eats human flesh. Does his assumption proceed from his White perspective?  I wonder how the White folks of Abaco would have read this scene, where Ishmael, the protagonist and hero of this strange epic, finds being groped by dark-skinned, tatooed, tomahawk-wielding, yellow-skinned, pigtailed man.  It’s so juicy!  So exciting, so funny, so delightful.

I wonder if my son got this joke right away?  He probably did.  His generation is so much more forward thinking than our own, as evidenced by the LGBT group he joined in junior high in mainstream, Arlington, Virginia.  The members came together not necessarily because they had identified as one type of sexuality or another, but for quite the opposite reasons—-because they understood that sexuality is something that culture imposes on us, and that it takes time and open-mindeded and listening to the body and spirit to understand how one really feels, sexually, which is also to say spiritually. 

Normative sexuality is not all that different from normative religiosity.  It is a way of being that parents, schools, communities, courts, and governments impose on us—by making it easier to for those who agree to behave in a certain way, and harder for those who don’t fit in to the normative, heterosexual, “faith” adhering mold.  There is no evidence that our universe was created by a god.     And why should have have to identify as one way or another any way, if not to conform to an institution—the family, the educational system, the juridical system—that insists on this particular ordering of society? 

Society is not simple, not orderly, not easy, as Melville knew. Through Ishmael the outsider he seems to be exploring the viewpoint of the insider, the White, heterosexual, Christian man, sympathizing and communing with the people that his society had defined as “outside,” outside the same system of justice, denied the same rights and freedoms that Ishmael, and Melville himself, enjoyed.