When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985, I’d been immersed for eight years in the feminist women-in-print movement and the local (mostly) lesbian women’s community. Before that I’d been a student activist and an organizer against the Vietnam War. If I’d learned anything in those tumultuous 16 years, it was that we is a shifty concept. When people say we or our or us, who do they mean exactly? Are they hiding I behind the illusion of great numbers? Are they overlooking significant differences in an attempt to suggest unanimity?
People in power love to talk about we as though it includes everyone. Often they assume it does include everyone: they don’t know any better because they don’t have to know any better. It took the civil rights movement to prove that the white we didn’t include black people, and the women’s liberation movement to prove that the male we didn’t include women. I’ve long been partial to the old joke about the Lone Ranger (white) and Tonto (his Indian sidekick) riding through a narrow canyon. Suddenly armed Indians appear high on the canyon walls to either side, dead ahead and not far behind. “Oh boy,” says the Lone Ranger. “Are we in trouble now.” To which Tonto says, “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
As a new arrival I figured out PDQ that Martha’s Vineyard was much more complicated than it looked from the outside. I wasn’t surprised: wasn’t this true of every other place I’d ever lived? The place was fascinating, often frustrating as hell, but never ever boring. I listened to my friends talk, I eavesdropped on strangers at the post office, I read the island’s two papers, the upstart new Martha’s Vineyard Times and the staid old Vineyard Gazette. I tried to explain Martha’s Vineyard to myself, but I was so newly and tentatively a part of the island’s we that I didn’ t try to explain it to the world.
Back then grand generalizations about Martha’s Vineyard were most commonly made by occasional visitors and summer people. When they made generalizations about the Vineyard they visited or the Vineyard where they had a summer house, I usually didn’t mind. What I did mind was their generalizations about the Vineyard where I lived. If they were going to make generalizations about that Vineyard, they’d better get it right — and they very rarely did. They could look right at something and not know what they were seeing.
The idea that summer Martha’s Vineyard and year-round Martha’s Vineyard are different places takes some getting used to. Take a deep breath, because I’m about to push the idea further: Summer Martha’s Vineyard and year-round Martha’s Vineyard are different the way that the worlds of men and women are different, or the worlds of white people and black people. What’s similar about these differences is that they all have to do with privilege. If you are privileged, there are plenty of things that you don’t have to see, and plenty of things that those with less power won’t tell you. Think what kids don’t tell grownups, or what employees don’t tell bosses.
Longtime Vineyarders tend to be somewhat circumspect about what we tell summer people and recent arrivals, even the ones we like. This creates a problem. Pretty soon the summer people and recent arrivals think that what they’re seeing is all there is to it. Because they’re well-educated, well-informed, and well-connected, they assume that they are right.
They’re missing something. Something big. To paraphrase Tonto: “What you mean ‘we,’ summer person?”