Waking Up White: Chapter 16

Chapter 16: Logos and Stereotypes

The Reading

The author discusses symbols, subconscious sorting, and snap judgments – the tools our brains use to order and interpret our world. As an example of how this works with systemic racism, she notes that when someone says “slave,” she automatically thinks of a big, strong, black man. (I found that weird at first. The Romans took slaves from among conquered peoples. Biblical salves were similar. American slaves included Native Americans.  But I guess if your main source of info on slavery effectively begins, visually, with Gone With the Wind and Roots – then this would be exactly the visual you had been taught.)

Of white people, she notes “no label is needed because it’s a given.” She goes on to recount how she automatically adds descriptions when speaking of non-white people (for example, “I spoke to a black man named Tom” vs “I met a girl named Debby.’).

The only times I can remember referring to someone’s race are either in physical descriptions (used similarly to “you know – David, the carpenter.  The tall red-haired guy that you met at the pub.” “George, who lived next door to us when I was in high school. The Chimney sweep, with the really dark black skin.”).

The idea of referring to George in general conversation that way – “The mailman was late again. I talked to my black next door neighbor about it and he said the same thing” – seems ridiculous and unnatural. But then, I come from the west coast. When I visited my mother’s family on the east coast, closer to where the author grew up, I remember one house that still had a “black jockey” statue out in front of it.  So maybe it really is a way people talk in that part of the country?

Whistling Vivaldi

The author discusses how we “file away” racial stereotypes , and tells the story of a black man who use to smile at people as he walked down the street – and one day came to the realization that many of those white passers-by found him terrifying. He began to whistle classical music, and found that this somehow made them more relaxed. (I guess a black man who knows highbrow music is perceived as somehow “civilized” and less threatening….)

But here was my real lesson in this chapter.

I’ve learned that people of color do in fact see me as white.

In a meeting a year or two ago, I made the comment that “I really have to make an active effort to remember that I’m the boss.”  The person I was talking to was aghast – she interpreted that as an assertion of power/control.

Fortunately, I saw that in her reaction and was able to immediately continue – to explain to her that as the Director of a technical group – I often find myself discussing technical problems, and have to remember that, although it may feel to me like ‘a group of techs around the table trying to figure something out,’ the team can never wholly forget that I am their supervisor, not their peer.  If I argue for a position – it becomes a command and stifles discussion. It’s not that I have to remember that I am “in charge” but that I have to remember that to them I am never “one of the techs.”

The author here pointed out to me that no matter how it feels to me – to people of color in the room, I am always “a white person.”

The Study Question

What have you filed away? Create a column that for each of these labels. Next to each, write at least five stereotypes that come to mind for each. Do not pause, censor, or correct; rather, let emerge what will. Now look at what you have written. Does it surprise you? If you are white, do you have any stereotypes for whites? Why do you think this is?

African American Asian American Native American Latinos Whites
Gang bangers Studious Drunks Gang bangers Explorers/invaders
Welfare queens Math/programming Mystical earthwardens Low-riders White trash / rich snobs
Foods (fried chicken, watermelon, chitlins) Martial Artists (Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan) Reservations / hostile to outsiders Catholic/big families The Man
Musical Zen/mysterious/ unknowable craftsmen Sexy dancers (salsa, flamenco) No Rhythm
Athletic Hierarchy/ formalized Respect naturopaths Conqueror- explorers / conquistadores Christian (usually extremists /hypocrites)

[Noted: The original instructions also included Jews and Muslims.  These are not "races" but religions. I object to these things being conflated, as they often are in the name of hate. Since this blog challenge is based in racial awareness, I have chosen to omit them.]

Waking Up White Blog Challenge

Stephen’s Chapter 16 post

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3 thoughts on “Waking Up White: Chapter 16

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  1. Do you find that you are ever conscious of the stereotypes and logos that you apply subconsciously? I know that sounds contradictory–but I catch myself falling into the stereotypes, and sometimes I catch myself nearly simultaneously at the same time as I deny the stereotype.

    I do know that for me I grew up hearing the stereotypes, but some of them just never “took.” Some members of my extended family, for instance, sincerely believe that Mexicans and black people are “lazy.” I never met anyone matching that description in real life beyond the ordinary range of people you’d meet in real life. I don’t want to disparage the departed, so I’ll just say that some people in my life have had long relationships with me and have held the most vile prejudices.

    But other stereotypes did get picked up, and they are there until I notice them. I mentioned in my own blog post of my stereotype that certain areas of Seattle are scarier and more dangerous than others, and I check my car doors when I drive through. And yet at every stop light in downtown Seattle I am an easy target with my unlocked doors. I just don’t expect to be attacked in downtown Seattle. Where did that idea come from in the first place? I know of no one who has been attacked & know of no circumstances where it’s happened..

    Is it something that started off small and secret in me, and then was gradually strengthened by small encouragements towards stereotypes in the manner of microaggressions? I don’t know.

    One thing I am finding useful in this series is the idea that even if we do harbor stereotypes and even if we feel sympathetic to the stereotypes (“Certainly you can agree that all people of this category are alike in these behaviors,” says my lizard mind), I can, as I see them, face them and stare them down.

    I haven’t read ahead in the book to know where this is going. In some ways, the current set of chapters seems to be almost meandering.

    1. So many of the stereotypes that i heard growing up fall into that category for me: “I heard it, I just never seriously considered that anyone would believe* that bullshit.” I am sure others have lodged in my consciousness as well. Funny thing – you don’t know they are there til you find yourself staring at them, so I don’t know how to judge what may be hiding there.

      I don’t find myself “surprised” by them much – that annoying habit of wanting to tear everything apart and deconstruct it to understand it serves me well, overall – but certainly that process results in my “changing my answers” on occasion.

      I can still remember being 20 or 21, and having a conversation with a friend. we were discussing some local gossip about a couple rumored to be in an ‘open marriage.’ My attitude at the time was ‘neutral – not my business,” but I found myself playing interrogator to my friend’s strongly-held monogamous beliefs. “Why is it wrong? If neither of them is betraying whatever vow they chose to make, and both are in agreement, why is their way of conducting a relationship wrong and your way right?” We tore the topic apart, and i moved from ‘neutral’ to “defender of peoples’ rights to define their own lives.” You’ve heard that play out in my discussion of LGBTQ and Trans rights – though at the time, I would have been hard pressed to define some of those terms.

      So, no I don’t find myself “surprised” by them – but my own nature is such that I often encounter them in situations like the one above where I am not suddenly called upon to “defend” my belief so much as self-challenged to “examine.” I think that probably makes it a little less emotionally fraught for me…

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