The Common Good
January-February 2001

Honkey Payback

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | January-February 2001

Honky, by Yale sociologist Dalton Conley, is a memoir of growing up during the
1970s and 1980s in the projects of New York's Lower East Side.

Honky, by Yale sociologist Dalton Conley, is a memoir of growing up during the 1970s and 1980s in the projects of New York's Lower East Side. Anybody who has lived in an American inner city will recognize the turbulent urban environment Conley describes: the concrete sidewalks strewn with broken glass; the blocks of boarded-up, bricked-over, and burnt-out crack houses; the dread of walking alone at night; and the threat of intimidation by gangs. For those who haven't lived in the inner city, Conley offers an intimate view of what it is to grow up poor in one of America's most destitute neighborhoods.

Yet, as you might have guessed by the book's rather sensationalistic title, Honky has a twist: Conley and his family are white, while everyone else living in the projects is African American or Latino. Though the term "honky" only appears a few times in the book, it is clear that the issue of race creates an environment of perceptions and projections—both their own and those of others—that must constantly be navigated by the Conleys. Race, he writes, is something most white people in America never have to deal with personally. "Ask any African American to list the adjectives that describe them and they will likely put black or African American at the top of the list. Ask someone of European descent the same question and white will be far down the list, if it's there at all."

The awareness of class is another issue that constantly confronts Conley. He writes that his childhood was like a social science experiment that tries to "find out what being middle class really means by raising a kid from a so-called good family in a so-called bad neighborhood." He is always aware that, though his family survived on food stamps, his grandparents' relative wealth served as a "security blanket in the event of a major catastrophe." This, he says, was an "important but silent way in which my family differed from others in the neighborhood."

Honky is an entertaining read, but what makes it an important book is Conley's acknowledgment of the privilege he gains simply by the color of his skin and his family's connections to the middle class. Thankfully, Conley never wallows in white guilt or self-pity; rather, he seems both bewildered and ashamed of the fact that he is treated differently because of how he looks and the opportunities he enjoys because of his family's background.

While Conley's admission of white privilege is brave, something substantial is missing from this book. Honky seems to entirely overlook the responsibility people have for the community in which they live. It is an especially important question for those who choose to live in the inner city. Unlike their neighbors, Conley's parents could have lived elsewhere, but chose the projects, it seems, so that they could afford to be artists in New York City. There's nothing wrong with this per se, but Conley never gives an indication that his family thought they might have a role to play in making their neighborhood a better, more humane, place. This is a serious issue in the crucible of the inner city where, as the saying goes, you're often part of the problem unless you're making an effort to be part of the solution.

Growing up in the projects gave Conley—who also wrote Being Black, Living in the Red, a sociological study on race and economic disparity—the benefit of a first-hand look at the way America treats those who are poor. Perhaps Honky, with its clear acknowledgment of white privilege, is a way of giving back to the community he came from.

Aaron McCarroll Gallegos is a writer living in Toronto.

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