March 24, 2010

Searching for Whitopia Book Review

REASON READ: ARC Challenge, New Authors Challenge, TwentyTen Challenge
PUBLISHER: Hyperion New York, 2009
GENRE: Nonfiction, Sociology
FORMAT/PAGES: Hardcover/368
RATING: 4 Stars

It is a book about one big nasty prejudice- Racism.

In Searching for Whitopia, Rich Benjamin relates the two-year journey he took across what he calls "white America." He lists every city in the U.S. that is "whiter than the nation, its respective region, and its state," and he lives in three of them for roughly three months apiece- St. George in Utah, Coeur d'Alene in Idaho, and Forsyth County in Georgia. He shows what these places, "Whitopias" he calls them, are like, why they are actually growing not shrinking (as I naively expected) and he explains the implications of this phenomenon. What makes this all the more interesting? Benjamin is African American.

So the question I most wanted answered by reading this book is why are people moving towards whitopias and not away from them like I am inclined to do. Well, Benjamin discovers the reasons are not cut and dry.

"Most whites are not drawn to a place explicitly because it teems with other white people. Rather, the place's very whiteness implies other perceived qualities. Americans associate a homogenous white neighborhood with higher property values, friendliness, orderliness, hospitability, cleanliness, safety, and comfort. These seemingly race-neutral qualities are subconsciously inseparable from race and class in many whites' minds. Race is often used as a proxy for those neighborhood traits. And, if a neighborhood is known to have those traits, many whites presume--without giving it a thought--that the neighborhood will be majority white."

This is absolutely fascinating to me. Because in my line of work I have met just as many whites that I wouldn't touch with a pole vault pole than people of any other race. If I am prejudice in any way it is probably against lazy people (lazy by choice, not because they are physically or mentally unable to do something) and dirty people (don't mistake this for homeless- they are not interchangable)- no matter if they are rich or poor, black or white or purple. In fact, I am repulsed by the idea of Whitopias. Perhaps because of my age or my life experiences or where I was raised or went to school or the fact my family is now racially diverse, but people who are all the same bore me to tears. I didn't even enjoy working in a small town that was right outside of a city because everyone thought the same way and mostly acted the same way. I could never live in a small town away from a large urban area or out in the country and be truly happy. But that is just me.

If you are looking for a truly engaging look at this new sociological phenomenon, then I really recommend Benjamin's book. It is very enlightening and will have you re-evaluating your own sets of prejudices.

So what about you, readers? What do you think of these "whitopias?" Do you live in a predominately white area? What do you like or not like about it? (In case you are wondering whether you live in what is considered to be a "whitopia", click here to visit Benjamin's website where he offers up a short list. A longer list is available at the back of the book.)

More Reviews on Searching for Whitopia:

If you have read and reviewed this book, please e-mail me or leave me a comment with the URL and I will add you to the list!


  1. I started this book on a road trip and then when we got home, somehow I never finished it. But not because I wasn't enjoying it. We have stopped at some "whitopias" to look at the houses, and it is very eerie. It seems like you're on a set for The Stepford Wives. And they keep saying coded phrases to you so you know there aren't any blacks there. It makes you feel like taking a shower right then and there!

  2. I'm pretty sure I don't live in a whitetopia--either the perceived kind (cleanliness, etc) or the racial kind. I'm not really surprised people gravitate towards them, though--most people are incredibly unimaginative, when it comes right down to it, and want to live in a place where they feel safe. And, as Stephen Colbert puts it, white is the default race. So what could be more safe than default.

  3. What a fascinating book! I don't think I've ever lived in a whitopia and have no desire to do so. Carl's brother does, though and when we went to our niece's high school graduation, Carl said, "Where's the diversity?" His question was met with strange looks. I'm with you - it's our differences that make us interesting!

  4. I live in a very urban neighborhood... nothing predominately white about that.

    Great review!

  5. I live in a suburb that would like to be "whitopia," I think, but it can't quite achieve it and I'm grateful. This book sounds fascinating - thanks for putting it on my radar!

  6. Wow, this sounds like a fascinating (and scary) book! I live in a big city, which like you suits me much better than living in whiter suburbs or the country (which is where I grew up). Thanks for putting this book on my radar!

  7. Hmm... When we bought our house, I was deliberately looking for a racially mixed neighborhood.

  8. Jill- I had the same thought that it would be very Stepford Wives/Mississippi Burning or something. Just gives me the chills.

    Tasha- What gets me is why is it the default race? There are less white people in the world than there are other races. Is it just default for America? I hate default. I am too much of a rebel and a thinker for that unintelligent, boring nonsense.

    Kathy- I would have said the same thing as Carl! Good for him for at least speaking up about it!

    Freda- Urban neighborhoods rock. I used to work in the ghetto and live just on the fringes in Charlotte. I loved it, though. I think I would feel more at home there than in white suburbia. That is a horror movie in the making if you ask me. Very Laramie Project.

    Florinda- I don't get the trend at all. I buck trends, though, and feel more at ease being one of a handful of whites than a town full of them.

    avisannschild- I would be curious to learn if you grew up in a sort-of whitopia. I am with you- scary stuff.

    Stephanie- I knew I liked you for more than just your awesome taste in books. :)

  9. Rebecca, there are few whitetopias in Texas -- it is a very racially diverse state -- but that doesn't mean that there is true interaction. Austin prides itself on being a hip and happenin' city, and I enjoy that. And I live in a neighborhood with lots of Hispanics nearby, and I can take advantage of some of their great businesses such as bakeries, etc.

    But the reality is that Austin has had a huge influx of immigrants. They're in service roles, everywhere. Whites get waited on, Hispanics do the waiting. The black community is relatively small and professionals few. I can easily go for days without meaningful contact with any one significantly different from myself.

    Provocative post -- thanks!

  10. I grew up just outside Quebec City, which is a pretty white and conservative town (funny how I associate the two!). I don't remember there being any POC in my local elementary school. For high school, I went to the city and there was a significant Chinese Canadian population (at least in my school) -- most of my friends were from this community. However, I can't tell you how much of a relief it was to move to Montreal, which is much more racially diverse and definitely much less conservative!

  11. I grew up in Maine which is not very racially diverse. Later I moved to the Washington D.C. metro area, specifically the Maryland side, which is very diverse. I was suddenly in the minority. I won't lie: it was an adjustment. In an unpleasant surprise for me, I discovered I still retained a few prejudiced perspectives - nothing overt or hateful - rather they were pernicious and incorrect assumptions that had been masquerading as something more benign.

    Now I've been living in this diverse area for about six years and have been shedding those views. I like the change I see in me and I like where I live. I think the preference for whitopias is in some ways a form of laziness, an unwillingness to work at changing views and challenge those assumptions.

    I wish more white people would talk about their own journeys for overcoming prejudice, making it something people feel more comfortable dialoguing about.

    Sorry for the lengthy response - I'll definitely be taking a look at this book - great review!

    - Christy

  12. I seriously want to read this book! I grew up in a Whitopia and will never go back! :)


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