A Different Kind of Childhood: Getting in Touch with “Honky” Getting in Touch with “Honky”

MiMi Yeh

Imagine shades of brown from every point on the spectrum, surrounding a single streak of white. Welcome to the Lower East Side of New York City, home of Dalton Conley. This is the non-fiction autobiographical account of growing up a member of the supposed majority that, for once, is a minority within a neighborhood largely composed of peoples of African, Asian, and Hispanic heritage.

Appropriately titled “Honky,” this tale starts out with two middle-class Greenwich Village artists who, for the sake of saving money, decide to raise their only son and daughter within the working class projects of New York City. This is no hard-luck, tearjerker or a novel of a self-made man. Instead, “Honky” discusses how, even where white is not numerically dominant, white privilege is.

Conley, now a well-known Yale sociologist, examines his childhood from a clinical and analytical academic angle, but manages to infuse his account with the emotion that sets it apart from merely being a chronological rehash of childhood memories. His feelings flesh out the experiences that help us to understand the multi-layered storytelling.

In the course of the novel, we follow Conley from birth to adolescence, from seeing his best friend shot and paralyzed to getting away with nearly burning down a building. Experiencing the harsh reality of this and other incidents shaped his understanding of racial identity.

In an essay written after the publication of “Honky.” Conley stated that “people belonging to oppressed or minority social categories are ‘generally’ more aware of their group membership than are the majority. It’s the same notion as feeling intensely American (both proud and embarrassed) when traveling abroad but forgetting all about national identity when at home.”

More than anything else, Conley strives to make the reader understand that, had his skin been a different shade, he never would have gotten away with much of what he unwittingly did. Despite illusions that the world is, indeed, an enlightened place, Conley’s memoirs demonstrate that once the cushion of money and location are removed, the truth of racial differences remain.