I made a rookie mistake recently, offering an African American woman I’d just met an umbrella to protect her hairstyle as we ran from a building to a bus in the rain. I did this based on conversations with other African American women about how unconscious most white people are about the damage rain can do to particular hairstyles, but I didn’t know her and she did not like my offer.
Because of the context in which I met her, there was an opportunity later to have 1-to-1 conversations about race. She sought me out to let me know how my actions hadn’t worked for her. She told me that I had generalized about Black women and had assumed that she couldn’t take care of herself. I owned that I had made a mistake and thanked her for calling it to my attention so I could avoid it next time. She then leaned in, softened her tone, and told me there was this thing called implicit bias and I had acted out of it.
Though her tone and body language were that of supportive educator, this did not go over so well with me. What I tried to say next was that I was familiar with the concept, but that my mistake (which was real) was rooted in different issues (applying to her what other Black women had told me about themselves). She dismissed my attempt to share my experience as whitesplaining* and I shut down, said I agreed with her, thanked her again for her feedback, and waited for her next conversational move. That move was to gaze at me sympathetically and ask me how I was.
This is the point at which I need to mention that our collective day of talking about race had done its job and I began our conversation already in deep grief about the impact of racism. I didn’t mind this (I think it’s important to let these feelings change us) but I knew that if I opened it up I’d fall into howling sobs. I didn’t think it would be good white anti-racist behavior to pull attention to my process in a room full of People of Color in the middle of their own work. When she asked how I was, I was one thin onion skin away from totally falling apart and committed to NOT doing that there. Also, because she had just told me I didn’t understand my own experience I didn’t trust her with my messy material. Instead I said that she and I didn’t know each other and – though I was in the middle of some deep work – she wasn’t a person I felt safe unpacking that with. She then told me that she was a good person and her white friends trusted her.
Now I get on a deeper level why that doesn’t sell from the other side either.
I again declined to share my process and we moved on to safer subjects. She and I didn’t speak to each other the rest of the four-day training. Maybe at the next one we can use this experience to build more meaningful connection. Or maybe we don’t get to trust with everyone. And that’s okay.
*When white folks try to explain away racism and its consequences.
Tali Sharot wrote a good bookabout how brain patterns influence our behavior. In it she unpacks the “marshmallow” experiment, that one from the late 80s in which kids were asked to postpone eating the one marshmallow in front of them in favor of eating two later. This was taken to show which kids had better self-control. The ones who waited did better later in life. So, the study concluded, if you have the psychological structure to resist short-term satisfaction you can improve your final position.
Sharot, however, offers another way to think about it. Based on the work of other researchers, she suggests that it is not self-control that dictates people’s choices, but our faith in the future. In one study the kids were given a cool project and bad crayons in a hard to open box. After they’d had time to figure out the crayons were substandard they were told they’d get a better box if they waited. So they did, and one group got a new, easy to open box full of crayons with sparkles. The other group was told, sorry, we don’t have anything better for you after all. Then they were given the marshmallow test.
Two guesses who waited for the second marshmallow.
Now think about people who’ve never caught a break and never seen anyone who looked like them catch a break, and tell me again about how buying that nice car instead of saving for a home shows that they “lack self-control.”
I gave a short speech today on dialogue and accountability and being gentle with each other while doing what we can. The quality of this recording is poor, but I’m parking it here until I find something better (runs from 0:06 to 7:12).
Lately I’ve been hanging out with someone when they watch Third Rock from the Sun.
For those who don’t know it, it’s a comedy television show which ran from 1996 – 2001. The premise is that a group of aliens are sent to earth, disguised as a human family, to experience and report life on the 3rd planet from the sun. The cast includes John Lithgow, Jane Curtain, and a young Joseph Gordon- Levitt, and the observations about the silliness of human culture is fun, but….
Wired deep into the humor of the show is a fundamental assumption that men will assertively sexualize women (and girls) and it will be (1) assumed to be normal and (2) deflected and laughed off (or (3) welcomed.)
The first scene here (to 1:19) is pretty representative
It seems to happen at least once each episode. I wonder if the writers and actors even noticed.
Whatever we call it, we should do what we’re asked. I was asked today by a long-time friend to write this.
She asked me to write a post to which she could direct the earnest, well-resourced people who want to support her work but do not see that she IS her work. She wants me to tell them that she is really good at bringing racial consciousness to her peace work because she lives it every day. She wants me to tell them that this also means that she can’t always pay her rent, and doesn’t always have enough to eat (like, there is no food in the house until payday, and then only if she shorts the landlord again or BEGS the phone company not to cut off the way people reach her to give her paying work.)
She asked me to write this because she’s tired of exposing her financial insecurity to people who ask where check should go and then tell her that she “can’t expect people to give her the money directly!”. Better, I guess, to give it to an organization that will take the admin fee and then give some of it to her as less salary than she is worth (or if she proves personal need to their satisfaction). Better, I guess, not to trust the person you KNOW works full time on a part time salary to craft peace to know what she needs to continue that work.
In this post I was asked to write, she asked that I tell people who want to make the world better to reflect on what they are able and willing to give. We all have limits on how much of our privilege we’re willing to do without. Just be clear about it. (And maybe don’t talk about your trip to Paris while apologizing for not being able to do more.)
Finally, and this may be a subtle point, she is NOT asking for reparations for historic imbalances. She is trying to answer the question asked of her, “What do you need to bring your unique skills to solving an important problem?” Telling her that her need to eat is not part of the equation is not helpful.
It’s a journey of layers, understanding the impact of this Skin I’m In.
Though I’ll never call myself “woke”, I know I’m making progress when I bump into questions I can’t answer. Then I live next to them for a while. Sometimes the right knowledge will drop and a barrier will shatter and I will see more depth in the pattern. Glass shattered this week when I listened to an amazing podcast series on racial politics, Scene on Radio’s Seeing White. (The first of the 14 parts can be found here.)
The questions I’ve been holding recently concern Structural Racism. I’ve been studying on them and get it that, for example, a group of people kept from using the GI Bill and cheap mortgage rates after WWII are unlikely to be in the middle class a few generations later. I get it that African Americans have a harder time getting jobs and finding apartments. I know bias and/or racism means that African American, Native American, and Latinx people are in more danger at the hands of police than I am. I was not surprised by last month’s events in Charlottesville.
However, I did not grasp the concrete ways White people have been constructing racial identity to permit the violent exploitation of specific groups since the 1400s. I missed the unavoidable truth that the people we now call White created the idea of race identity so we could rationalize forcing other people to do our work for us, killing them, and stealing their homes. Whiteness exists for the purpose of supporting injustice. Whiteness isn’t a by-product of the problem, it is the problem.
Not sure how I missed this, but there it is.
Though we are all literal cousins to each other, a vile 600-year-old story has been woven around evolution based on where our ancestors went when (if) they left Africa. It is a story that holds each of us apart from our full humanity. For White people, our racial identity is the material composing the bars that exist to constrain our family members.
As Chenjerai Kumanyika (a collaborator on the Seeing White series) says at the end of Part 2, this makes “good whiteness” a contradiction. Accepting this and moving on, I’m just working out how to navigate over broken glass.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Very few of us want this state of things, but if we want to join with Mr. Langston’s commitment we’re going to have to dig a little deeper into our meditations on why it’s not better yet.
I’ve been reflecting on what privileges I am willing, and not willing, to give up. I’ll surrender social capital with my family and friends, am willing to be arrested, and even willing to be physically hurt. The line I’ve identified for myself is that I’m not willing to lose my home. It feels crappy to say out loud that there is a place beyond which I will not go as an ally in this work, but I’m pretty sure it’s better to own it so that the people I’m working with know how far they can trust me.
(Trust me, they know there is a limit. I’m just trying to be honest about mine.)
In that spirit I offer this disturbing game to identify the ways we hold on to privilege and never even notice. (Hint, will you deny your kids their maximum possible opportunities?)
Maybe someday we’ll be celebrating Interdependence Day instead of Independence Day. Then giving up some of what we each have so we all are better off will lead to a more satisfying answer to the little girl’s question.
Welcome: I have created TheOther.Azzi in order to archive, in one location, all of my Op-Ed commentary - and some other pieces - in one location where I can introduce myself to new readers and to those interested in engaging my views on the Middle East, on Islam, on being Muslim in America, and on what I believe it's important for people to know about the world in which I'm engaged and which I love. Please Note: All content – writing, photographs – is copyright Robert Azzi 2016, All Rights Reserved, and may not be used or republished without permission......... ________________________________