Waking Up White: Chapter 23

Chapter 23: Diversity Training

The Reading

The author describes how she “missed opportunities” to broaden her circle, continually and habitually surrounding herself with white people in places that did not represent the cultural diversity of her town. One example is signing up her child at the pre-school recommended by her friends rather than researching one with greater diversity.

I sat figuratively open-mouthed, wondering just how many options the woman has to choose from, and once again wondering if this is what she meant in the earlier chapter when she asked about “choice.” You choose from your available options, sure – but that’s not “all of the possible options.”  It’s “that group of options, minus the ones which aren’t practical for you” (cost, the certainty of not being accepted, proximity/travel time…) And then that list is narrowed by “the ones you are aware of.” In the case of daycare, “the ones who have room or will accept your child.”  Each of these makes that list smaller and smaller, til you choose from among the 2 or 3 options available to you.

“I had never been socialized to say what I thought or felt. Instead, I’d been trained to say what I imagined the other person wanted to hear.”

She gives several examples of “trained hypocrisy” – like the “social convention” that when someone asks how you are, they don’t really want an answer. I finally figured that one out on my own sometime in my adulthood – but I am still uncomfortable lying, so instead I came up with several neutral phrases that seem to answer the question without actually providing any content.  (Pro Tip: If you aren’t the sort of person who can lie and say you’re fine when you’re not – test it out one day.  You can answer “what a gorgeous day out there, isn’t it?” and people won’t skip a beat.)

She gives the example of being asked, in a seminar, what she would say if a child loudly inquired about the color of a black person’s skin. Sounds like the entire room had a pearl-clutching paroxysm and thought up various ways to shush the kid. Because, silencing perfectly normal questions is a great way to work…?  Multiple eyerolls-per-paragraph. But as I read, it seemed clear that hers was the majority experience.

She did describe a really great thing that I would love to see more of: an improv group, enacting scenarios in which audience members were invited to take actor’s place to change how a scene was playing out.  The scenario was educational and eye-opening for the author, who learned some social indicators she hadn’t realized would be heard differently by a person of color, but what stood out for me was the opportunity for people to step up and practice interrupting racism. We could do with a lot more of that.

The Study Question

Think about five rules from the “rule book” of social interaction that you grew up with. For each rule, can you imagine how it interferes with honest cross-cultural dialogue, given what you’ve learned from this book or from other sources?

I recently had an experience with a new staff member where we had a little disconnect in communication. It went OK in the end – but he had been trying to understand my “tone” in an email, having been ‘not quite able’ to decide whether a question I had asked was “seeking information” or “expressing frustration.”  Once we had sorted it out, we looked toward how to work forward in future. I laughed and told him I was “raised feral” and in the absence of parental guidance, I took to all that silly stuff they taught me in school – including all that “scientific inquiry” stuff. “When I ask a question like that – I’m really just trying to understand the answer to the actual question.” He laughed and said “that explains a lot” – and, in fact, our communications got more comfortable after that.

As I read Ms. Irving’s book, I am often struck by how true that statement is.  With a mom “as uninvolved as she could manage” in my life, and dad in another state, what parenting wasn’t done by my sister mostly just didn’t get done. I get the impression, from photos and such, that my mom was much more involved in my sister’s early life – which might explain why my sister is so much better a person than I am. But then, mom was married to my sister’s dad, and then to mine, for the first six years or so of my sister’s life. She was single when I was young. She married again when I was 8, and when I was 11 – I remember “family stuff” during each of those years. After that one, my sister left and my brother went away (to Dad’s, to the juvenile-jail camp in Arizona), and once I was the only kid at home, I don’t remember that stuff again, other than a brief period of a couple of months in high school where she decided to reclaim her youth by volunteering in our drama department, which was doing a play she had starred in in high school.

Wow, that sounds whiny.  I don’t mean it to be.  Just to note that – all this socialization  and parental training is something that just didn’t happen when I was a kid at home. Many of these “rules” that Irving describes are things nobody ever taught me. You’d think I’d have got some of it at school – but moving so much, we were always the new kids, and social pressure usually came in the form of bullying. I figured some out along the way – but even then, often only in rudimentary ways, or at least in terms that may reflect slightly differently than the way that Irving learned them.  Where her mom lectures her to just say “I’m fine” when someone asks how you are, my lesson was “people say that stuff but they don’t actually care how you are.”  I learned to not-answer not out of politeness but out of futility.

The rule book of interaction that I learned growing up is that the world is a hostile place, people aren’t interested in how you are doing, and when they do ask or show an interest, it’s pure hypocrisy. The best rule of interacting with humans was to do it as little as possible, and never believe their b.s. For a while, I believed the school was an exception to this – that there was an honesty in academia and science, where reverence for knowledge and fact was stronger than human nature – or where the exceptions gathered. Then I heard those teachers talking about what a waste it was to give me a good brain….

I kept small circles of friends – trying to find those ‘exceptions’ who were real and trustworthy. It’s a habit I keep to this day. I am not a believer that people of any stripe engage in “honest” dialog – though I am inclined to limit that assessment to Americans, and assume better of people from other places, perhaps because escaping to Europe was such a positive adventure for me. Although I experienced some terrible things during my time in the military, they were always inflicted on me by Americans. The Europeans were the ones I could rely on to treat me with decency and kindness. Having watched Americans (of many “races”) interact with Europeans, I am not convinced that most Americans have any interest in honest or cross-cultural dialogue of any sort.  Recent political trends have given me little reason to re-assess that.

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