Formative Experiences in Whiteness: The Water Fight
February 1, 2018
It was the water fight to end all water fights.
The year was 1977, in the late spring. It was exam week my freshman year at Western Reserve Academy, where I attended high school.
The way it went out of control has kept me thinking about it for over forty years. Squirt guns. Water
balloons. Cups of water. BARRELS of water.
This was in the days before the invention of the Super Soaker. But we drenched each other. Flooded—no, INUNDATED Harlan N. Wood House, the freshman dorm.
High school-age boys are prone to pranks. So we all saw our share of shaving cream on sleeping faces,
sugar-water poured under the door, wedgies, and “pondings,” where a small, unsuspecting underclass
kid is thrown fully clothed into the hockey pond.
But the way I remember The Water Fight was different.
Having grown up in a physician’s family in a quietly segregated Ohio town, I had been conscious of race and what we now call “privilege,” although we didn’t talk about it much in our household. My dad saw white and black patients, some of whom could not pay, regardless of their race, and his patients held him—and by extension, his family—in high regard for the services he rendered for many years.
But at school, because it was so close to the protest era of the 1960s and 70s, the consciousness of racial inequities was present and active—long before any talk of a “post-racist” society or politics.
Whether or not The Water Fight was fought explicitly along racial lines, I don’t know. But the fact that I remember it that way says more about me than it does about what the “sides” actually were.
No matter: The Water Fight was a coming-of-age in my race consciousness: I had never been on the
receiving end of as much anger as I felt that warm, humid spring morning.
Maybe it was just a stress-releasing study break. But maybe it was, in fact, more than that. As the
amounts and frequency of the attacks and retaliation escalated, the way I remember the sides forming
was along racial lines.
More important to me, I remember feeling my whiteness, for the first time, as Otherness. The feeling
that people were mad at me not just because I got them back with that waste basketful of water under
their door, but because we had different color skin.
Conscious, for the first time, of being a different race as a negative feeling.
Conscious, later in my life, of what writer Eula Biss calls “white debt.”
And of needing to repay that debt, in one way or another, for the rest of my life.