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…
“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.