Waking Up White: Chapter 14

Chapter 14: Zap!

The Reading

“True to any self-perpetuating system, the path of least resistance served to maintain the system.”

The author discusses how her automatic rejection of stories that didn’t match hers taught her friends that she wasn’t a safe space to confide those stories – thus reinforcing her belief that such things didn’t exist/occur. She presents it in the context of a canine eCollar – her rejection was a “zap” to her friends, eventually conditioning them to silence. Hence the “zap”

The author describes her pride in being informal, and the discovery that her black friend considered formality a sign of respect. She considers the times she has introduced her children to a person of color by their first name, and other ways that her informality might have offended her friends.

“I prided myself I my lack of concern about appearances, often going out in sweatpants with my hair done up in a quick and sloppy twist and thinking “this is what I love about Cambridge. No one cares how I dress.”  I didn’t see that having the choice to be more casual was a privilege that came with my skin color.

I am once again reminded how readily skin color and wealth overlay one another. And how quickly the author conflates the two.

The author discovers that her view of formality is different than her black friend’s – and therefore, it is a “black culture” thing to her. And yet…  I grew up with that same formality and informality.  Mom would allow us to call her by her first name – less as a matter of “feeling like equals,” I think, than because, as we grew up, it made it easier to deflect attention from her biggest problem and inconvenience: the fact that she was a mother. If we didn’t call her “mom,” then maybe others wouldn’t realize…  While we may not have had much “structure” growing up – and therefore, had a lot of informality in that way – we also knew full well to treat people outside our home “with respect” – which meant, “with formality.” That applied to anyone, of any color – because if you inadvertently got sassy (too informal) with someone that was “better than you” (and pretty much everyone was), then you’d get in trouble. There was no gain in insulting and pissing off the People in Charge, the People With Stuff, the People Who Ran Things.

While I don’t necessarily agree that is innately a racial-culture difference, I also recognize quite clearly that it applies differently based on race. The main difference is this: I am grown up now. I have enough resources to pass as a Person Who Runs Things. Which means I can get away with being casual. Popping down to the grocery in sweats (nice, clean, expensive, not-threadbare ones) without automatically tipping off the sensors. If my skin were black and I did that, it would still be just like it was when I was a kid.

Yes, I know that to be true. Even in my lovely, liberal, friendly corner of the United States, there’s no question that it would be different if I weren’t white.

My brother had a partnership with a gentleman named Henry. Dan is a savvy mechanic, but not well-resourced. Henry is a gentlemen of reasonable means.  Henry purchases used cars at auction and pays for the parts and supplies Dan needs to fix them up. They resell them at a good profit, and split the proceeds.

One Sunday, my brother drove their most recent acquisition to Henry’s town to deliver it. On his way out of town, a police officer* pulled in behind him, looked carefully at the temporary tag in the back window, then pulled up alongside to take a good look at my brother – a skinny white man in tattered and greasy clothes.  The policeman stared for a moment, then drove off. An hour later, Henry, the manager of a local city government department, pulled out of his driveway in the same car, in the town where he lived, and drove the car around the neighborhood on a test drive.  Henry – a black man in clean, well=kept sweat pants – was pulled over and cited, ostensibly for “improper display of the temporary tag. When asked, the officer could not explain what he felt would be a proper display, nor could the Sergeant at the police station. We call that “Driving while black.”

There’s only so far that Henry could go in complaining.  As Irving says:

“if the people with less power, in this case people of color, try to convey the way the dynamic disempowers them, they risk being seen as ungrateful, paranoid, weak, irrational, and unworthy.”

Ultimately, Irving gets to the important detail:

“The worst part of the cycle of segregation and avoidance is that is happens at the institutional level, with the consequences ranging from social discomfort to lack of access to survival basics.

Ultimately, these machinations make it harder for oppressed people to live and places the blame on them for not thriving.


[*Full disclosure: I am a supporter of law enforcement. I believe that people don’t live well together without rules and people to enforce them. I am married to a police officer and have known many officers over the years – some “very good” people doing a conscientious job, some “ordinary” people doing the best they can in a difficult job, and a few badge-heavy jerks that I am just as happy to stay away from, and whom I think should not be permitted to continue in the profession. I have seen excellent departments and good departments – and when my husband has changed departments, we have spent a lot of time discussing the departments he chooses not to consider. I believe that LEOs have a higher ethical obligation – and that those who fail it should be removed from the profession. I’m continually learning – but you can see my starting place here.]

The Study Question

Have you ever had anyone doubt, dismiss, or minimize an experience that was formative for you? How did it feel? How did it affect your feelings about that person?

While serving in the military, I was the target of what would be, under civilian law, a felony crime. Each person did the things that were legally required of them, as far as I know. But they did them in ways that capitalized on every opportunity to disrupt or derail the investigation, to protect the criminal, and to punish me for embarrassing the unit by reporting. Ultimately, the criminal was protected.

My feelings about the people – the contempt, the sense of betrayal and disgust at their lack of honor – is far less important to me than my feelings about the institutions – the military, the military justice system, the overall system of authority within my country. Those experiences not only caused me to “lose faith” – they resulted in my being actively cynical, and 30 years later I still start from the assumption that no matter how much it may seem that these entities are acting on the up-and-up, I can be certain that they are doing whatever best serves themselves and the people they consider worth protecting.

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Stephen’s Chapter 14 post

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One thought on “Waking Up White: Chapter 14

  1. Just wow.

    I’d like to think it’s getting better, and maybe it is, but it’s getting worse at the same time.

    Your experience is repeated endlessly, of being the grindable one in a situation. You might have a case, but what you didn’t have is a protector or a champion. We sometimes think that the Law or Principle is our champion and our protector.

    But Laws and Principles don’t matter when their are unfaithful people enforcing those laws and principles.

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