Natasha Trethewey is a mixed-race girl. Her father is white and her mother is black. Her parents got married in state were interracial marriage was illegal. In “white lies”, Trethewey writes about a little mixed-race girl. The girl’s skin is so light that she looks white. Since her skin color makes her look white and not mixed the girl chooses to pretend that she is white. She wants to fit in the society thinking that being white is better than being black. She says “white lies”, innocent lies, just because she wants to fit in the society.
She lies about her racial heritage, her childhood and where she lived. She pretty much lies about everything related to her racial heritage, her identity and who she really is. Trethewey uses a lot of color imagery in the poem. We can deduce that Trethewey is the girl in the poem due to her background and what the story is about. The speaker is saying all these lies because she is struggling to accept her racial identity. In the first stanza of the poem, Trethewey uses a lot of color imagery to refer to the little girl skin. The readers can see that the girl skin color is really bright.
It is so bright that she looks more white than biracial. The readers can also see that although the girl looks white, she lives in a black community. We can see that when the speaker says “in a black place” (5). In the second stanza, the speaker talks about all the lies she could get away with about where she lived. She lived in a “shanty-fied shotgun section/along the tracts” (10-11). She lies that she lived in an upper-class community instead of a very poor community. The speaker lies about the clothes she is wearing. She wears cheap, home-made clothes but she is ashamed them.
She pretends that she wears expensive clothes by acting. When people think that she is white, she chooses to go with it. In the last stanza, the speaker says that she did not always get away with her lies. Her mother washed her mouth with soap to “cleanse her” from her lies. It seems like the mother wants her to embrace her racial identity. It is like the mother is aware of all her lies and she is upset about that. The mother is where the child black heritage comes from, so she wants her child to be proud of that and not try to hide it by pretending to be someone she is not.
Trethewey choices of word at the end of the poem, “thinking they’d work from the inside out”, shows that the speaker wanted to be cleansed from all the lies. White symbolizes purity. Throughout the poem she plays a lot with color imagery and her conclusion can mean she wished the soap made her white not in the denotative meaning of it, but instead in the sense of purity and innocence. The diction of the poem is great. Trethewey’s skin color is very bright but it is not completely white; it is “near-white” (3).
She chooses all these words to describe the speaker skin color who we deduce in our introduction is her skin color so that the readers have a better understanding of racial significance during that era. Black people had been oppressed for many years in the United States. Even after slavery ended, black people were still considered as a lower race. All these oppressions and discrimination made most of them feel inferior. Being born in the 1960s, Trethewey has obviously seen some of that. So, she does not want to be associated with a race that is considered inferior.
She refers to the place where she lived as a “black place”. There is a lot that can be understood with her choice of word. By “black place”, we can see poverty and a life style that is not considered normal by the society. A lot of her meaning can be understood by the words she used. White lies are innocent lies that do not harm anybody. They are usually told to hide something that you do not want people to find to about. They are lies that are not important. However in “White Lies”, there is a lot of irony. The white lies that the girl is saying might be innocent but detrimental at the same time.
She is not accepting her racial identity. It is so sad when people do not accept who they are. A lot time, when you do not embrace your identity you start lying about your childhood, upbringing, family life, etc. The lies keep on building up that you end up by not knowing who you are anymore. Your personality can be influenced by that. The girl starts by lying then she feels bad about her lies. Trethewey also means that the girl is lying about being white. We see that the girl is not who she portrays to be in front of people. Trethewey uses the word “acting” to show that to the readers.
The color imagery used by Trethewey better helps readers to understand the message of the poem. It helps us understand that the speaker is not embracing her black heritage. Her “near-white” skin makes her look white thus she only embraces that part of her heritage. Her mother is more mature than she is because she is not ashamed of her racial heritage. She punishes her daughter when she finds out about all the lies she is telling people about her racial identity. She washes her mouth with “ivory soap”. Ivory is considered a pure color. She wants her daughter to stop lying about who she is.
We can still see that the girl is still immature. She wants the soaps to make her white from the inside out while her mom wants the soap to make her daughter pure. All these imagery symbolize how much the speaker wants to be accepted by society and she thinks she has a better chance if she is white. Trethewey says that the lies were “just white”. It symbolizes how the society think that white is better than black. The lies were “white” so they did not mean any harm. Trethewey also uses color imagery when she talks about the girl’s clothes coming from the “Maison Blanche”.
She means the white house. It does not necessarily mean that the clothes where coming from where the president lives. It seems like she means that they are expensive clothes made by the “white men”. The speaker does not embrace her black heritage until the end of the poem. Her skin looks white so she has no problem hiding that she is a mixed child. When people thought that she is white, she chooses to remain silent. She chooses to ignore her black race. She lies and acts because she does not want to be associated with her racial identity.
It seems like the author wished she did not have that heritage. Instead of embracing both her racial heritage, which are black and white, she just chooses one. All the lies she tells could be the things she wished she had or how she wished she grew up. The speaker sees the white race as superior from the black race that’s why she is struggling or does not want to accept who she is.
- Trethewey, Natasha. “White Lies”. Literature for Life.
- Kennedy, X. J. , Gioia, Dana and Revoyr, Nina. 1st Edition. Upper Saddle
- River, N. J. : Pearson, 2013. 803-804.