Gonna talk about my people again. White people. It has come to my attention that some of you out there are still living in a pale white bubble, and you’re just not comfy when the demographics shift.
Before we start, let’s again review my bona fides.
- As a child I was so pale and blue eyed as to be practically translucent. I spent my summers being alternately burnished to a rich lobster red or hiding under a convenient rock (sunscreen hadn’t yet been invented).
- I had never heard of James Brown until I was in my late twenties.
- I’ve been known to use words such as “gosh” and “geeze louise” in the same sentence.
- I thought “shake your booty” was a pirate song until someone set me straight.
- I have a recipe for “Mexican Cheese Dip” involving velveeta and canned peppers (mild).
- I get a panic attack if it looks like I’ll be more than 5 minutes late to a dinner party.
- I’ve been to a Rotary Club pancake breakfast.
Seeing White People – A How-To Guide
When you look around in your daily work and life, do you see white people? They’re hard to spot when everyone around you is also white. You may be living in one of those places where you go from home to work to church to the supermarket to home again and all you see are normal people.
Well, those people are white.
This may be obvious, but ask yourself: have I been thinking that white people are normal and everyone else is “exotic”?
So – can you see white people? My people tend to come up with one of these answers:
- “Of course!”
I’m discounting white people in Steve King’s corner. These are the ones who sincerely believe that “western civilization” means them, but wouldn’t know a Palestrina cantata if it kicked their ass. These are the ones who say things like “if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you”. They wear ignorance and hate like a badge of honor, and think that genocide is always a good idea. I know they make a lot of noise, but they’re going to be leaving soon, so let’s keep an eye on the situation without overreacting.
Group One: “No. I don’t see white people.”
Those of us in the first group are pretty sure we know what time of day it is. We don’t see white people, and we think white privilege doesn’t exist. That’s because we have nothing to compare it to. Although we like to call other people “exotic”, there’s hope for us. If we can learn to figure out who is NOT exotic, we could see white people! They’ve been hiding in plain sight all along. We thought all those white people were in the “regular” category, so we didn’t even question that maybe our perspective is a bit skewed. It’s like that person who lives in a hut on a mountain in a forest and never goes more than a mile in any direction. For that person, mountains are normal. If you take that person down the mountain, they may suddenly realize that they’ve actually been living on a dormant volcano in Hawaii, and that a new feature called “ocean” is a vastly larger feature than their beloved mountain.
Same thing with us white people in Group One – we get a little overwhelmed when asked to comprehend, for example, that most people are Asian, and we’re not. Like that person on a mountain, we tend to take the position that “mountains are normal, common, and good for everyone and there’s just too damn much ocean.”
Group Two: “Of course!”
We’re lying. Oh, I know. We don’t WANT to be that white person that thinks of themselves as different or better or whatever. We don’t WANT to be like my Grandma (god rest her soul) who once noted her approval to an interracial dating situation by replying to the question “is Grandma upset about Taylor’s new boyfriend?” with “you don’t mean THIS grandma, do you? Of course I’m not upset! Black people are just as good as normal people!”
The problem is that racism has what we in the analyst business call “a long tail”. You try your hardest to root it out, but it’s like bamboo – pops up where you least expect it.
I’ll fess up to an example of my own: I remember being unexpectedly surprised reading a picture book to my kids in which the dog’s owner is a black man. I had to stop. I had to examine what’s called “unconscious bias”. Why did a black dog owner surprise me? Now, it’s not like I jumped out of the chair and yelled “a young black man is the owner of this dog? How can that be?” No, I merely paused for a nanosecond to let it register. Then I had to ask myself….why did this surprise me? Is it because all my life, dog owners were white? Because I don’t know anyone who owns a dog who isn’t white? Maybe. But like the use of the word “articulate”, there may be an even uglier explanation lurking in my id : because dogs inherently obey the alpha male in the pack – and that couldn’t be a black man, could it?
I didn’t want to think that way, but there it was. All you can do is just keep dredging that swamp whenever it rears its ugly head, stop mixing your metaphors, and challenge your own assumptions. Thank God we had a black president for 8 years, because media started to include black families and interracial couples in the “normal” category. A mere 10 years after the election, and we got “Black Panther” – a blockbuster that didn’t even have ONE white love interest! That percolates through to the subconscious after a while, but don’t expect miracles.
Group Three: “Whaaaaaa?”
Those of us in this category are good hearted, fine people. If we were characters in a novel, it would be “Emma”. If we were characters in a movie, it would be “Clueless” (yeah, same thing. I knew that). We combine a charming insouciance with a blinkered view of society, history, and our place in it. We also embarrass easily, and get all pink in the face when we figure out that someone views us differently than we see ourselves. This is called “cognitive dissonance” and it’s not fun for anyone.
I may be foolish, but I think the people in this category are currently climbing up a steep learning curve. The invention of the smart phone means that we can see clearly for ourselves that there’s a double standard. We can see injustice, and it bothers us even though we’d rather just forget about it and go see a movie (Black Panther, perhaps?) Maybe all this injustice will just go away if we ignore it.
And you know what? Maybe it will. But don’t be afraid to help nudge it out the door when you get a chance.