Waking Up White: Chapter 8

The Reading: Racial Categories

“I grew up believing that all black people were great athletes and had a gift for rhythm…For all I know, my father was trying to impart into the household positive images about black people.  He most certainly never said a disparaging word. But whatever his intent, the impact was to create in my mind the belief that skin color signified inherent difference…except for the white race, of course, which seemed to be free of built-in handicaps.”

OK – this one made me chuckle.  I heard many of these same things – I don’t know how one could be exposed to media in the 70s and not hear them. But in real life, I heard them a little differently.

“White girl ain’t got no rhythm!”  (I don’t, and I am a terrible dancer.)  Apparently, my peers were able to identify some handicaps they thought were specific to white people…

We heard these things – but it never occurred to us that they might be true. They were just “stupid s%$& people say” – moreover, since there weren’t always a lot of adults in my life other than teachers, the only adults I heard say these things were usually on TV. They got filed away as “dumb jokes grown-ups tell.”  You know, the kind that aren’t funny but that other grown-ups laugh at because they don’t want you to feel bad for not being funny.

A polish kid in my “gifted” class told me a raft of Polish Jokes. We laughed ourselves silly at the jokes without ever thinking that they held any real meaning about polish people. My sister and were both very fair-haired when we were younger.  For years after I got out of the Army, if I called my sister and got her answering machine, I knew the best way to ensure she’d call me back quickly was to leave the first half of a blonde joke. (My sister is a very smart gal. Not as smart as I am, of course – but she is related….) We appreciated the humor without ever thinking that stuff related to actual people in any way.

And when I was teased about having no rhythm, it never occurred to me that the kid was making comments about “white people” – he was just ribbing me for being a living example of the joke/trope.

It never occurred to me that anyone would think that stuff was real.  I mean, maybe the odd conspiracy-theory nut case or bombastic teenaged know-it-all – you know, people that you know have no idea what they are talking about.  It wasn’t until I got into the grown-up world that I understood some people said this stuff and thought it actually meant something. At that time in my life, I was studying international relations and learning the workings of the Soviet Army. It was the point at which I began to think that Americans were an embarrassingly ignorant lot, and I was glad to be living in Europe…

Red-Headed Leadership

“What if, instead of categorizing people by skin color, hair color was the guiding physical attribute?…My brunette identity would be something that had been created for me, shaping my understanding of myself and my ranking among others.”

The  author theorizes a world in which social strata – intellectuals vs manual laborers, for example – are based on hair color. I thought it was a great illustration of how our environment can set our expectations.  She  imagines her brown-haired family as members of the “worker” class, and wonders what it would be like if she were, under those circumstances, even able to conceive of wanting to be “something more,” or just “something else.” Then she takes a moment to picture what it would look like if she managed it. The visibility and scrutiny, the pressure to succeed “for all brunettes,” and the people who might feel that this brunette had got a bit too uppity.

It was a terrific imagining, and I’d encourage anyone to read it – it asks good questions.  She did miss one – I guess you’d call it “imposter syndrome.”  What would it be like to be surrounded, every day, by people that you know you don’t really belong with? To know that you are “not really one of them” even though you’re allowed in the room?

“The Island Lake Exercise”

An organization I used to work for held an exercise at one of our managers’ meetings.  The idea was to give people a picture of how invisible  advantage had helped to shape their lives. Unfortunately, they didn’t explain that to us until  afterward, which resulted in it backfiring a little.

They lined all of the organizational leaders up in a single line at the middle of the hall and began to read off a list of “invisible advantages” – things people didn’t realize had an effect on their own opportunities and success.

  • “If one of your parents has a university degree, take a step forward.”
  • “If your parents owned their home, take a step forward.”
  • “If you are a person of color, take two steps backward.”

I reached the back wall about the same time as one of the other participants. As the questions continued on, we began to count on our fingers – the number of additional steps backward that we couldn’t take without going outside. We stood together, trying not to look as conspicuous as we felt.

About two thirds of the room bunched up in the middle section; if it were a football field, they would have been between the 40-yard-lines. A quarter were well into the opposing team’s territory, and one lone white male stood squarely in the far end zone.  About 10% of us were scattered between the near 40 and the “end zone” against the back wall..

At last, the questions stopped and they explained to us the purpose of the exercise. By then, of course, it was too late for those of us in the back of the room – we already felt humiliated and “identified” – singled out as imposters.

We were “invited” to say something to the room about how the exercise made us feel.  The man at the front of the room – a very nice gentleman whom I still regard highly – expressed his genuine shock to see the vast distance between himself and some of his colleagues, and his embarrassment at standing so far to the front. Then they came to the back of the room. The lady beside me shrunk away, so they brought the microphone to me. As I began to speak I was – and remain, a decade later – humiliated to find that I had to choke back tears to speak.

“I have as much right to be in this room as any of you.”

I’m not sure whether I was pointing that out to them or to myself. The lady next to me straightened her spine and stood somewhat defiantly at my side. I do know that, after a quarter century in my chosen profession, and two decades in leadership roles – it still feels like I have to constantly remind myself of this – and that I am never convinced that the people around me actually think it is true.

Even so – they assume that because I look like them and am in their ‘space’, my background is similar to theirs, and that if I am the “odd duck” who doesn’t “fit in” – that’s a different thing than “not belonging.”  That may seem like it doesn’t make sense – but there is a real difference between “thinking that someone in your group is weird and not relating to them” and “thinking that someone doesn’t belong in your group.”

Maybe that is just in my head, a projection of the “outsiderness” that I feel when I stand with them.  Maybe it’s the visible cultural differences – dress, style, language, body language, habits of interaction – that an attentive observer could easily spot, that marks me as “different” and leaves me always uncomfortable in the environment. Maybe some of them really are “judging and find wanting”, and maybe a majority of them do find me “off” or “not quite….”

I’d guess that the truth is a mix of all those things.  But the one thing that doesn’t happen to me, now that I have “made it,” is people don’t do that stuff openly. That’s the difference  (well, a difference) for a person of color in a room like that – people are willing to be much more open about the “you don’t belong here” aura.

Not Quite the Same, but Similar, Perhaps…

I can’t claim to know all the ways that manifests, but I know that some of it, at least, is similar to what I encounter at tech leadership gatherings. There are generally very few females at those events, outside of the vendor booths, and more than once I have had men walk up and start a conversation – with my conversation partner, on a totally different topic than the one we are discussing, while I am in the middle of a sentence. In fact, I once had that happen twice in the same five-minute period.

Even so – I was one of three or four female “Technology Leaders” in the room. I only saw one black man.  When I got into a conversation with one of the other women, I observed how great it was to see a few other women in the room.  She quickly explained that she leads a development team, and they never have gender issues, and she has never encountered any in her career.  She spoke, adamantly, on the subject for a minute or three, and I wondered how bad it must have been, for her to be so rapidly and emphatically defensive. She moved quickly to close the conversation and create some physical distance.

Why, I wonder, was she was afraid to even be seen near me. Was she afraid that she would be perceived as an aggrieved female if she seemed to sanction my “hysterical observations” about the number of women in the room? Was she afraid to be seen “huddling with the other women” rather than “working the room” as she ought? Was I, as a female, simply a low-value target in her networking goals for the event?

I wonder if people of color, standing in a room where there are few of them, are also so afraid to be seen “huddling” rather than “integrating into the larger group.” And whether they are hesitant to even “seem to know one another” lest it somehow be interpreted to reflect poorly on them for an unknowable and illogical reason based in a powerful observer’s biases.

At least when it comes to gender bias, tech knows it has a problem being decent to “half the human race.” What must it be like for that lone black man in a room full of people who are convinced that their “diversity problem” doesn’t actually mean him?

He was far from the only non-white man present – tech is visibly populated with Indian and Chinese men, after all.  It gives the illusion of diversity, which allows the white men who lead it to tell themselves that diversity issues don’t apply to them – see how not-totally-white their companies are? But the percentage of American citizens that is black is five times the percentage of tech company employees that are black.

I wonder if, sometimes, he feels like grabbing the mic and reminding everyone that he  has just as much right to be in that room as they do? Or does he just whisper it to himself, under his breath, like a mantra…

The Study Question

How have you understood racial difference?  In terms of biology? Culture? Have you given it much thought? Why or why not?

As a child, the idea that racial differences were “real” was ridiculous to me. No – that’s not right.  It would have been ridiculous, if I had ever heard it presented as a thing.  The differences between the kids around me were real – but they were grounded in temperament (is she a bully?  Is he the kind of person who will help you find your classroom?), family (“her mom does not allow her to have friends in the house, but you can play in her yard” while “his mom will treat you like her own kid”).  These things were often grouped culturally – the differences relating to where they were from (other countries, other regions of the US, even other parts of the state) rather than what they looked like.

Skin color wasn’t a logical data point – heck it wasn’t even necessarily constant.  In sunny California, some of my Latina and Portuguese friends looked different enough from winter to summer that acquaintances didn’t even recognize they were the same person. I remember being so jealous of people who tanned so readily…

We laughed heartily at Lone Ranger reruns, wondering whether Tonto was a special needs kid, with his stunted vocabulary. We wept with the TV “Indian” about the pollution and how white men were burying America in garbage – but we knew he wasn’t a Native American. And because it was the 70s, we laughed even harder at the sudden plethora of new-age “white indians” with their Dr. Doolittle-and-granola “at one with the earth” thing that seemed to exclude huge swathes of native history. Cher’s Indian Outfit was “cool looking” but she looked ridiculous in it; that was just crazy Hollywood BS, with no relation to real life.

The new-age stuff was all the rage, and it all seemed either silly (“white indians” going into sweat lodges with their magic crystals), an excuse to take drugs (peyote used in pseudo-native ceremonies, yoga used as an excuse to smoke pot or worse), or “really interesting new-old stuff.”  I was a voracious consumer of “In Search Of…” and anything that purported to explore “overlooked science.”

In my 20s, I discovered James (“The Amazing”) Randi, one of the founders of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP – now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry). Randi famously debunked spoon-bending psychic Uri Geller, and taught me skepticism about the ancient astronauts and Atlantis theories that abounded in my youth.

It wasn’t until much later that I would realize the more insidious assumptions behind this pseudoscience: that ancient astronauts made sense because there was no way that all these brown people could possibly have done this next-level stuff. Then one day I realized that nobody had proposed any astronauts for Stonehenge…. I read more about Yoga and Yogi and understood how jacked the western version of this practice was.

It wasn’t until I watched Race: the Power of an Illusion that I made the connection between some early scientific efforts (like phrenology, which even 12-year-old me laughed gently at – it was so cute the way these early scientists tried to figure out what real science was!) and the so-called “science of race.” When I read about those early scientists, they were a curiosity – people still trying to figure out how scientific method worked, and doing ridiculous things in the process because they didn’t yet know what wasn’t ridiculous. It never occurred to me that they knew exactly what they were doing, or why.

The Blog Challenge: Waking Up White

Stephen’s Chapter 8 post

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9 thoughts on “Waking Up White: Chapter 8

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  1. There are so many questions that I have, but they don’t feel right for a public blog!

    I appreciate your stories. It’s fascinating to me to hear the worlds we all inhabit. None of us is ordinary, and all of us have our rivers and bays and harbors, mountains and deserts and jungles.

    1. 🙂 I knew where I was posting. Please don’t hesitate to ask all the questions. If I am not comfortable answering them – I’ll either choose not to do so, or choose to do so privately.

      Part of our agreement with this challenge was the understanding that it’s a vulnerable topic and sometimes these things would be very personal. All a part of the exploration. Can’t do the work honestly if we are not willing to be a little uncomfortable, or dig a little deeper than we normally would “with someone else watching.”

      1. Okie dokie:

        1. “It never occurred to me that anyone would think that stuff was real.” – this to me is key to my own misunderstanding. I’ve changed in fits and starts. I have mentioned how I had the discovery early on, somewhere around the beginnings of my primary schooling, that certain racial descriptions were hurtful slurs. I don’t recall anyone telling me that–I just recall putting the pieces together that these words were meant to hurt people. But for me, I think I let stuff happen because in a way similar to you, I didn’t think the stuff mattered–no one really believed it. It is still a shock (and I’m still greatly subject to white innocence) to hear or see things and realize These monsters really believe these awful things are good and really believe these awful actions are sanctioned for the greater good. My innocence leads me to doubt and deny the words of my friends who tell me stories because of course no one is really like that–you must have misunderstood. I’ve been a poor friend in those situations, and I’ve attempted to be better. The experiments that are being done, such as the one on Oprah or the ones in classrooms or even the ones where fast readers are the giraffes and slow readers are the elephants don’t disguise the idea that certain groups are favored, sometimes for good reasons, and sometimes for arbitrary and cruel reasons. (When we did the SRA stuff in grade school, I was such a quick reader that they put me in a slower group just to give me something to do–my teacher actually admitted this, that I read faster before the program than anyone could be expected to read by the end. It’s one reason I’ve been able to change careers so easily because I can bone up for a new direction in life.) So I’m curious if you have ever reached a time in your life when you became aware that the innocence was something that might give space to those around you to damage others because you believe that “oh, people wouldn’t really do those things.”

        2. “What would it be like to be surrounded, every day, by people that you know you don’t really belong with? To know that you are ‘not really one of them’ even though you’re allowed in the room?” I’m really wide-eyed at this, because I thought that was my experience only. Like I said, I read super-fast, loved to read, and thought everyone was like me. The first day of school, every grade from first through high school, I’d take my textbooks home and read them cover to cover. I almost never opened them again the rest of the year. I thought this was just how it’s done. It wasn’t until I was in a gifted program in school that I realized my abilities were not matched by anyone else. And that I was also alone a lot. I just survived and made do. I don’t know how you survived. I’d be interested to find out more how you navigated it and how you managed the hurt and rejection and those feelings that yes, indeed, you are, at best, being humored.

        3. “I have as much right to be in this room as any of you.” Goodness. This is the rawest thing I’ve heard about you. I’m interested in how you got from there to where you are today, or if you still are there. Funny how I see you externally, I guess. I’ll be personally revealing here in that I think you & your beau are the center of every party I end up being in with you. Your genuine affection and interest in other people makes me think you have always been surrounded by people who love you–and now I see a bit that you’ve survived some terrible, awful things. I don’t know if there’s more you can share here, but this was such a revelation about you. I don’t have any questions here…

        4. “She quickly explained that she leads a development team, and they never have gender issues, and she has never encountered any in her career. She spoke, adamantly, on the subject for a minute or three, and I wondered how bad it must have been, for her to be so rapidly and emphatically defensive. She moved quickly to close the conversation and create some physical distance.” — I loved this story because you reveal so much about your own eye for detail and for character. I sense that you wonder that people who’ve achieved much attempt to hide the difficulties they went through, and seem to want to be safe and successful and accomplished. If you remember the latest short story I wrote, this is exactly the kind of person I was revealing in my descriptions of Dr. Mirembe Okello. And so I’m wondering that with what you saw here–what did you feel about her as a person, and did you think about what she might be missing in her displayed opinions?

        5. “I wonder if, sometimes, he feels like grabbing the mic and reminding everyone that he has just as much right to be in that room as they do? Or does he just whisper it to himself, under his breath, like a mantra…” Gotta tell you, you’re on to something here. Your eye for details about circumstances and people is spot on here, especially in the situation you mention. For me, it has helped me to become more aware of people and their presence. When you don’t see people who are like you, especially in a professional environment, it is very, very hard to be anything but shut down and hard. And so I’d like to know more if you think your insights here have influenced your style of social communications, and in what ways?

        There. There are my observations and questions.

        Oh, one more thing: I try to be good at is listening and watching, and I try–very hard–to form opinions that give grace to people. Even the ones who are displaying hurt and anger and rejection and puzzlement–there’s a reason for that. This book is helping me by encouraging me to want to listen more and to judge less. And I’m wondering, with you into this book for 11 chapters, whether you see a difference in your awareness and your opinions.

  2. 1. So I’m curious if you have ever reached a time in your life when you became aware that the innocence was something that might give space to those around you to damage others because you believe that “oh, people wouldn’t really do those things.

    We misunderstood this in different ways. 🙂

    I knew racism existed. I knew people were total assholes and used skin color as an excuse to be dicks. I just didn’t think they actually believed the bullshit they were spewing. People who wanted a fight would grab the first thing – skin color and words designed to insult were easy. If they didn’t have that, they could pick on your sports team. And if they couldn’t think of a passable excuse at all, they’d just call you some name that was innately insulting because it was female. Y’know, when you can’t think of any other insult to hurl, you can always call someone a pussy, a cunt, a cocksucker – universally insulting across all races, those. And if you can’t even do that well, you can always pick a physical feature. Like if a kid has one eye that seems to stare off into space. (I assure you, “One-eye” was as horrible a taunt to me as the race-based ones my schoolmates hurled at me).

    Think of it more like the parent who tells you that if you don’t go to bed, the boogeyman will get you. Everybody knows the boogeyman isn’t real. it’s just a scary thing parents use to threaten you into bed. It’s a threat – imaginary, but a way to convey that if you don’t do what you’re told the consequences will be worse than normal angry-mom.

    The revelation for me was when I got out in the world and discovered there were people who really believed that stuff was more than a way to verbally spit on someone. I knew that systemic barriers existed to keep poor people in their place. And I knew that many of those were aimed especially at people who weren’t white. But I had always reasoned that (a) this was “the system” – always set up to let the Man win, and (b) scooping people into it by color was a convenience – an easy way to sweep mass numbers of people into the bin. I knew that the words existed, as a tool of enforcement – just like identifying and calling prisoners “Prisoner” so everyone was sure who they were.

    I knew it was hurtful and harmful. I just assumed this was a cynical and orchestrated effort to keep the rich guys rich. It never occurred to me that anyone BELIEVED that propaganda. Politicians spew crap about loving and honoring veterans so they can stay in office. Rich people spew crap about races so they can stay rich. And then, out on the street, regular people pick up the terminology. “Thank you for your service.” “Fucking wetback.” Each carrying about the same amount of meaning. Just phrases like “thank you” and “your welcome” and “how are you” – shit people say all the time without thinking and without meaning.

    Or, you know, like religion. People go to church and talk about the same stuff – but they never actually *do it. It’s just a thing they say, not a thing they actually believe or live…

    2. I’d be interested to find out more how you navigated it and how you managed the hurt and rejection and those feelings that yes, indeed, you are, at best, being humored.

    As a kid: I taught myself to read when I was 4, and lived in a book til I could escape my parents’ homes. In the military I found a place where I actually belonged as a member of a group, a community, and an extended family. Having the rug pulled out from under on that one was permanently life-altering. The betrayal there was existential. It taught me the permanent lesson that I am not “one of us” no matter who “us” might be, and that humans are a malicious, dangerous species who can’t ever be fully trusted. That even the few you really let in will eventually turn on you, most likely, so be cautious in letting anyone closer than arm’s length.

    3. “I have as much right to be in this room as any of you.” Goodness. This is the rawest thing I’ve heard about you. I’m interested in how you got from there to where you are today, or if you still are there

    Can’t remember ever being anywhere else. Maybe it’s a cry of conviction – or maybe just one of defiance. I may never “belong” in this room – but all that bullshit folks are spewing includes the meritocracy stuff. If I have to live by all the other crap that has been thrust downward on me, then they have to live with the fact that sometimes, some undeserving “lesser” person is going to manage to legit get in the room. I got here by your rules. Now your rules say you have to let me stay. Clutch your pearls and suck it up.

    You’re not wrong in what you see with m’love and me. It’s just a little to the side of your interpretation. That’s what it looks like when someone who has never known with certainty that they are loved, wanted, and appreciated (and has experienced the certainty that they are not) – finds someone who makes them confident, every moment, that they are.

    4. what did you feel about her as a person, and did you think about what she might be missing in her displayed opinions?

    I didn’t think she was missing anything. I think she finally got into the Big Room and was scared that somehow being around me was gonna puncture her life raft.

    “Good to see another ‘one of us’ in the room.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about. “Us” is the tech people. Whatever issues you may have, I haven’t had ANY issues about gender. It’s all about the tech.”

    And I heard “i can’t afford to be seen as whining about it, or blaming gender for my failures, and if people even see me having that conversation I’m gonna get thrown in that bin and I can’t afford to be there!”

    What I thought about her as a person is that she was still fighting the fight, and was afraid to be seen ‘on the wrong side of it’ lest she get cast out again.

    5. And so I’d like to know more if you think your insights here have influenced your style of social communications, and in what ways?

    Most of what I have learned so far specifically in reading this book – is how oblivious the rich people are. 🙂 I have long known that my social skills aren’t up to the task, and sought out people who can help me address that. The problem is that most of the people who know how it’s done are people who grew up in it – so they skip a lot of basics and “just expect” that i should know this or that. It’s like trying to learn algebra from someone who doesn’t realize you’ve never had basic maths. In recent years I have found a wonderful and generous mentor who has been a real gift to me.

    There’s more to that, but putting it in writing would truly be a wall of text – and this ain’t short, as it is. 🙂 I’ll be happy to delve further into my shortcomings when I see you again. For now – the short answer to your question is that my “style of social communications” is, was, remains, “inadequate” in most situations (and is indeed greatly improved if m’love is holding my hand).

  3. I appreciate you and sharing your experiences. It’s amazing when I read something and it hits me – hey i felt that way too…wow I never thought of it that way…was it really like that? It is providing me the opportunity to reflect on certain periods of my life that, at the time, I thought was pretty normal.

    The asian jokes have been thrown at me for so long and I still get hit by them constantly – I’m a terrible driver, I’m good at math, my eye sight must suck because of their shape, do you know where Godzilla is? Yes – that clearly defines who I am and the members of my family (enter the sarcasm now). I used to think (until the last couple of years) that I my life growing up was pretty normal and I didn’t experience much racism at all. I used to think that my family (my parents, grandparents) most likely did not face any of that racism stuff either. I see things differently and feel things differently. I notice things in a different way. I am aware in a different way. Thank you for sharing your story and providing the space for me to share mine as well.

    1. That’s really the center of this whole exploration isn’t it, Krissy? That so much happens that we just think of as ‘normal’ because it doesn’t meet a specific definition – in this case, of racism. The eye/vision jokes aren’t racism – they’re just friends’ way of ribbing me/strangers’ ways of being obnoxious. The thing we are used to becomes our baseline, and as such it is invisible until something makes us pause and examine it. Just as the folks in our blog challenge are trying to stare at their baseline and understand what has been invisible to them that might be expressions of racism and oppression, we all have an opportunity to examine how our baselines reinforce and allow our own oppression. Celebrate that – the fact that you have reached a place where, rather than accepting an unreasoned judgement/comment on yourself, you can challenge it, and recognize it as coming from invalid places.It’s an important leap. <3

  4. the ability to joke about things comes, in my opinion, from either safety, ignorance, or cruelty. my daughter has a diverse friend group that loves each other so much. i hear them periodically laughing over their differences in “white girls can’t dance” ways. sounds like maybe your friends were similarly safe?

    I’ve heard the converse as well, of course. it’s a tricky line to figure out what is baby and what is bathw water.

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