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A writer chronicles her “time among the whites”

Jennine Capó Crucet talks to Vox about race, college, Disney World, and her new essay collection.

Fireworks explode over Cinderella’s Castle as visitors look on at Walt Disney World in Florida.
Fireworks explode over Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World on October 10, 2018, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

There’s a moment in My Time Among the Whites, Jennine Capó Crucet’s new book of essays, that sticks with me.

It’s the year 2000 and Crucet is sitting on the floor of her dorm room at Cornell, sharing pizza with her fellow students. The pizza is a splurge for her, a first-generation college student and child of Cuban immigrants, in a way it’s not for the other girls, most of whom come from affluent families. The talk turns to plans for the future. What will the girls do for work after they graduate?

“I was quiet during this whole exchange, listening for clues as to what I should say when the question inevitably came my way,” Crucet writes. When it does, she says, “I want to be an English professor.”

“The minute I said it,” Crucet writes, “I knew it could be true.”

It’s a moment that exemplifies the nuance of Crucet’s work, one that shows a young person speaking a dream into being and the way that dream can both transcend and be influenced by the circumstances into which it’s spoken. A moment later, one of the other girls responds: “Well, I guess they make OK money.”

My Time Among the Whites is full of exchanges like this that lay bare the ways power and money and race and class work in America in a way that’s serious but that can also be bitingly funny. In one essay, Crucet — now an associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska Lincoln — chronicles a visit to Disney World, a beloved destination of her Miami youth that, she realizes, is selling a whitewashed, misogynist fantasy to eager families (in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride, she notes, “animatronic men hold chains attached to animatronic women, who are shackled by their wrists as they are sold off to other waiting animatronic men”). In another, she writes about buying her first house — a four-bedroom home in Lincoln that she and her partner call “the Miami Embassy” — and everything that means.

Crucet’s 2015 novel Make Your Home Among Strangers is about a young woman who leaves her home in Miami for college in New York, and My Time Among the Whites tackles some of the same themes in nonfiction. But it’s also, as the title suggests, about the complexities of whiteness — in the Cuban American community in Miami, in Nebraska, and in America as a whole.

Crucet talked to me by phone about those complexities, about climate change and children (I’d spent the moments immediately preceding our interview cleaning up my son’s barf), and about how she creates space for her students to imagine their own futures. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Anna North

Can you talk a little bit about how you chose the title of this book? The parts of the book where you talk about whiteness, and Cubanness and whiteness, and Miami and whiteness, are really interesting. And I’m curious what your time among the whites means.

Jennine Capó Crucet

As I was writing these essays, the working title of almost every piece was, “My Time Among the Whites.” I realized I could have a million subtitles. “My Time Among the Whites: My Years in College,” or “My Time Among the Whites: Observations From a Ranch in Nebraska,” or “My Time Among the Whites: What It’s Like to Have a Career in Academia.”

But another significant portion of my time among the whites — when I was, in a sense, one of them — was growing up in Miami. Living there and having not yet left, I remember thinking, “I’m white. I’m Cuban, but I’m white.” And then my college years really changed that sense, because of how I was perceived by white classmates. My partner’s mom, who has lived her whole life in Cuba, Miami, or Puerto Rico, has said to me, “I didn’t know we weren’t white until my son came back from college in Boston and told me so.” And my mom — who has never lived anywhere but Cuba or Miami — has said something similar: that it was me, coming back from having lived outside of Miami, who filled her in about how she wasn’t white either.

As far as deciding that My Time Among the Whites was the right title for the whole book, I remembered reading a lot of historical narratives in college (and since) where an intrepid white explorer character would set out to “discover” some land and its people and then report back on what they saw, painting the places they’d visited as exotic and dangerous. So I see the title as a sort of send-up or reversal of those efforts.

It’s a book that can help white people understand how they are seen. So if you’re the kind of white person who’s never really interrogated your whiteness, it’s sometimes more useful to learn what that looks like from the outside. Much like how I didn’t really know what growing up in Miami meant until I left, this is one way of looking at whiteness from someone who has experienced being part of a dominant group and then not being part of that dominant group, and seeing how that feels and what it could mean.

Anna North

In the book, you talk about your ambivalence about your college education and how it changed your life but also brought you further away from your family in some respects, both literal and figurative. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how your decision to go away to school ended up affecting you and your life in ways that were expected and also unexpected.

Jennine Capó Crucet

I didn’t anticipate the confidence in my writing that going to college would eventually give me at a really fundamental level, deep down. I would have never pursued a writing career if I didn’t really believe that I could do it, and I think going to college gave me that. And I don’t think I would have felt as sure of myself in that particular arena if I’d stayed closer to home for school, because there would have just been more things to discourage and distract me.

The other thing that has surprised me is how much I use my education every day — how much my college education, even all these years later, still impacts my day-to-day life. And college provided me with incredible role models in the form of my professors.

But the biggest thing I hadn’t anticipated was how college changed how I felt about home. I thought I could return to Miami and fall very easily back into the dominant Cuban or Latinx culture that sort of envelops the city. And that was not the case. I felt as if I had brought a piece of American whiteness back with me that I couldn’t shake off, and that made me newly critical of things I was seeing, things that I had totally been okay with, like not using your blinker when you change lanes. That’s an extremely small example, but it’s a very Miami thing. It never bothered me. But post-college Jennine thought, Hey, that’s actually really dangerous. We should let people know if we’re going to change lanes. But now, in Miami, if I do signal with my blinker, everyone else driving assumes that I don’t know how to drive down here. It’s really small things like that that just come up every day and make me feel a little disoriented in the moment.

Anna North

To take a bit of a left turn, can we talk about Disney? I grew up in LA and I spent a lot of time at Disneyland, and I now feel sort of a deep dread around Disneyland for a lot of reasons. I thought your essay on Disney World did a really good job of talking about the indoctrination that’s happening at the parks, but also a lot of love that it feels like you still have for them. So talk a little bit about that. What disturbs you about Disney World, and what do you still love about it, if anything?

Jennine Capó Crucet

When I knew I was writing a book of essays, I thought, “I’m going to write an essay that will get Disney World to give me a free lifetime pass because I love it so much.” And then I started writing the essay and I was moving through all these wacky threads and I started thinking, “Oh, no, no. This is not going to get me a free lifetime pass, is it?” And then, by the end, I’d written myself into this place where I was like, “Maybe I should never go back to Disney World.”

There’s a lot to hate about the experience of the parks themselves. All the lines, for instance. And in my memories of the times I’ve been, it’s always extremely hot and I’m sweating. I’m always a little hungry, everything’s too expensive, and there’s usually a child making a lot of noise near me. But then there’s this completely irrational pull the parks have on me where I also think, “But I love it. It’s Disney World!”

That contradiction turned out to be a really productive place to write from. I wondered if I could write about misplaced loyalty for a place and see what kind of bigger metaphor or meaning could emerge from that.

I once asked a friend who is a loyal annual pass holder and die-hard Disney lover what the appeal was. She has two young children. She told me, “It’s all just kind of done for you. You know the bathrooms are going to be clean; everyone you meet is going to be nice; there’s going to be something that the little one likes to eat at every restaurant. It’s just easy.”

I could understand that, and I could also hear the danger in something like that, the tendency toward ease. Not that vacations should be hard or uncomfortable — they are vacations, after all — but in going back time after time after time because it’s easier than doing or planning other options … could that be a symptom of a kind of complacency that could prove to be dangerous? And that was something I wanted that essay to unpack.

Portrait photograph of author Jennine Capó Crucet showing head and shoulders.
Author Jennine Capó Crucet.
Monica McGivern

Anna North

Can you also talk about your house a little bit? I always appreciate it when people, especially writers, are willing to talk about real estate and money in an open way. So I’m curious: Do you still live there? How do you feel about it now?

Jennine Capó Crucet

I still live in it, yes, and I love it more and more every day. It is the place that I always want to get back to, and I’ve never really felt that way about a space. You can get a lot of house for not very much money in Lincoln (at least, when compared to Miami or LA, where I’ve also lived).

One of the things I try to tell myself is that it’s okay for me to take up space. But it can feel very selfish, and also very destructive to the climate for two people to live in an old house and not in a more energy-efficient space. So there’s some guilt that comes with that, as well.

I haven’t figured out an easy answer or solution to that. I just have to accept that I have that guilt and accept that I’m doing damage to the environment by living in a space that’s bigger than what I need. I try to tell myself I’ve offset that impact by choosing not to have children and avoiding the massive carbon footprint that comes with kids.

I’m sorry because I know you started off by talking about your own kid, and now I’m like, “Oh, hey, you’re killing our planet.”

Anna North

I think about my climate guilt all the time, so don’t worry.

Jennine Capó Crucet

I guess I just come back to realizing it’s not enough for us to think about it or accept it. We need to act on it.

I love this house, and I also think I won’t live in it forever. It’s just the space I have right now, and it’s teaching me to be really present and to pay attention to how I feel in places. It is such a privilege.

Anna North

There’s a moment in one of your essays where you talk about this conversation with classmates in college, where you’re able to articulate your desire to be a professor for the first time.

When you talk to students now, are you part of conversations where they’re articulating for the first time what they want to do? And how does that feel for you?

Jennine Capó Crucet

I see it as my job as a professor to really push my students to imagine themselves anywhere. They’re so driven to find a well-paying job by the time they graduate — to get a job, to leave college with a job. When a job is the (understandable) goal, there can be a sense — when that job isn’t waiting for them when they graduate — that college failed them or that they failed. And I think my job is to say, “What if you are a poet? What if you are meant to write about rivers or volcanoes? What if you wrote the books you wanted to read?” What I never admitted to myself in college was: “I want to be a writer.” That was what I really wanted, but that didn’t feel like something I could really accept completely until I was a few years out of school.

So I try to push students to get to that moment as quickly as possible, so that they can sit with that feeling in their body, and be like, “How does it feel to imagine myself doing insert-wild-dream-here? Can I do it? How do I get to a place where I can imagine myself doing that?”

That’s especially important for first-generation college students, who I think come with an extra dose of that pressure to earn a living quickly, to find a job that validates the sacrifices they made and that their families can recognize as “worth it” very quickly. But it can take a while to build that career, especially if you’re doing something in the arts.

And I know that encouraging students to take all sorts of classes and try out all sorts of experiences comes with a price: that it can cost them literal dollars for them to try things out. There’s often no way around it.

It’s a tough thing to sit with, and that’s sort of the theme of not just this conversation but the book: The easy answers are false ones.