Discover more from Hugo Schwyzer
"Covering Up the Gal in the Daisy Dukes": WASP families and the Paradox of Making Everyone Feel Comfortable
I get many requests to write about WASP culture and my family’s values. Perhaps this is because I find my family endlessly interesting, and I write about them with particular enthusiasm and that comes across to the reader. Perhaps it is because class is somehow more taboo even than sex; I sometimes get a greater thrill of transgression in writing about the family than I do in reciting a doleful litany of sordid escapades.
In my family, we spoke of “Our Kind of People.” I imagine that many families all over the world deploy that dichotomy, dividing society into the relative few who are like them, and the many who are not. The phrase was so familiar in my childhood that my brother and I developed the acronyms “OKOP” and “NOKOP” (Our Kind of People; Not Our Kind of People) when we were teens. We used these terms to poke gentle fun at ourselves, but as often happens, what began as satire somehow became serious.
In 1998, I invited a woman whom I was casually dating to a Fourth of July gathering at the family ranch. I made the very discourteous mistake of forgetting to describe the dress code, though I did tell her to bring her swimsuit. Pam heard “Fourth of July barbecue at a California ranch,” saw that it was nearly 95 degrees, and not unreasonably showed up in gloriously short Daisy Dukes, a halter top, and cowboy boots, all topped with a hat that read “Porn Star.” She brought a six-pack of Coors Light as a gift. Alas, our family was slightly more formal than I had conveyed, with the men in plain-front khakis and patriotic polos, and the women in red, white, and blue sundresses.
I saw Pam’s Jetta park by the barn, and I saw too the outfit that she was wearing as she climbed out of the car. I knew what I had to do, and intercepted Pam as she walked towards the houses. I guided her towards my room, explained the situation with a whisper, and supplied her with items from my own wardrobe. (Pam was more than a little stunned, having assumed that I was waylaying her for a quick and intimate rendezvous, not a makeover.) In two minutes, we had WASPed her up with an old seersucker jacket to wear over her previous outfit, and swapped her x-rated cap for one that said “Jackson Hole.” The boots were exchanged for some madras flip-flops that were only two sizes too big.
After a couple of strong Maker’s-and-Cokes, Pam was brilliantly game with the whole clan. She spent the night in my bed, but left at dawn the next day. “I don’t think I can bear to see the outfit you’d wrangle me into for breakfast,” she said.
At that breakfast that Pam missed, an aunt told me that she found my date to be delightful. Eagle-eyed auntie also let slip that she had spied the initial outfit. “I want you to know, Huglet, we would have made her very welcome even if she hadn’t changed. I’m glad you helped the girl, however, as we would hate to have had her feel uncomfortable. In the future, I hope you will remember to be clearer with young ladies about what to expect when they come here.”
A cousin slapped me on the back, and told me I had dealt well with a “NOKOP emergency.” As is so often the case in families, it was both jest and serious observation.
Let me be clear. It was indeed “NOKOP” to wear a “Porn Star” hat and butt-cheek revealing Daisy Dukes to our Fourth of July. But for my family, the problem wasn’t that Pam’s outfit upset us. The senior members of my family would have found it vulgar, but they would have considered it infinitely more vulgar to let Pam see even a glimpse of displeasure or judgment cross any of our faces. Of course, Pam was a bright person, and would have instantly sensed that she had misjudged the occasion. The whole thing about being Our Kind of People is that we use manners to make everyone feel -- however temporarily -- that they are ALSO “our kind of people.” Manners are to include, not exclude. Nothing is more base than snobbery and condescension.
To review, according to family code, it was imperative that I tell Pam the following:
1. Her clothes might make her feel out of place among some 75 guests, none of whom were remotely attired as she was.
2. This was all my fault, not hers. I owed the apology for failing to communicate exactly how my family celebrated America’s Independence.
3. There was nothing objectively wrong with Pam’s outfit. Daisy Dukes and halter tops are the height of alluring, and just perfect for some other occasion, just perhaps not this one.
4. The offer to help Pam change, or at least cover up, was for her comfort, not ours.
A few weeks later, Pam and I debriefed over the phone, and I shared the four points listed above.
Pam was silent for a moment. Then: “What if I hadn’t wanted to change?” she asked. “What would your family have done?”
I assured her we would have been just as welcoming. “If anyone had said anything to you, or even looked at you askance, it would have been unacceptable to us.”
Pam sighed. “So, what you were doing was taking care of me because you gamed out how I might feel. You just assumed that I would feel out of place, and you assumed that all I wanted was to fit in. You never considered it remotely possible that I might be dressed differently from everyone else, and still be okay in my own skin? Really? Hugo, what would happen if you were dating a Black girl? How the hell do you make her look like everyone else? Do you have a Brooks Brothers jacket for that?”
I stammered something about there being a distinction between race and class. Pam allowed it, but brought up the family secret I had shared with her. “You assume that everyone wants to feel “OKOP,” if only for a day. What if I’m okay being “NOKOP,” even around your lovely family?”
Pam had revealed to me something of a paradox. My family assumes that the height of manners is to make everyone feel comfortable. We also assume that feeling comfortable is the same thing as being able to fit in. (We always try to blend in wherever we go; if the dress code calls for kippot or head scarves or saris, we don them with enthusiasm.) If someone doesn’t wish to fit in, or wishes to be different, then to try and force the issue would be to make them uncomfortable, which would be ill-mannered of us. Perhaps I had made Pam self-conscious by trying to make her “comfortable” rather than by merely letting her be.
I asked the question men always ask women at moments like this. “What would you have wanted me to do?”
Pam laughed. “Given the situation, given who you are, you did the best you could. You want to be told you were a perfect gentleman? I’ll grant it to you. But for the love, Hugo, think all this through.”
Nearly a quarter century later, I still am thinking it through, this time with my readers.
Those who have thoughts are welcome to share them!