Talking about race, part 2

Continuing the conversation about race which I started here, I finished reading Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism“. There were many points in the book that easily rang true. And there were many other points that challenged me to stop and think – and to think differently. Let me share a few of them here.

I invite you to share your thoughts and engage in a constructive conversation with me.

The first thing from the book that challenged me, was the idea that two key ideologies of western culture are individualism and objectivity. And because of these, we (White people) are hard-pressed to step back, recognize and critique the way we are socialized by society.

Individuality is the belief that each of us is unique. And objectivity is the belief that it is possible to be unbiased.

Because of the ideology of individuality, we believe the efforts and merits of the individual outweigh the effects of being a member of any particular group. Thus, we believe that any success we have is due to our own, individual hard work and merit. We do not attribute any of that success to our status or membership in a group.

“If I am successful, ti is because of me individually – not at all because I was born a middle-class, White American male.”

Likewise, individuality holds that a person’s failures are due to them, personally, and can not be ascribed to their being a part of any group. Even if that group has been historically, demonstrably disadvantaged.

“Your failure is because of you, not because you were born a poor, Black American woman.”

The insidious extension of this logic is to then see larger negative results (the drop-out rate of Black high school students is higher than of White high school students) as a consequence or failure in the effort or character of those individuals.

“Blacks must be lazy or unfit for school, otherwise why would their dropout rate be so high?”

Dr. DiAngelo writes, “Setting aside your sense of uniqueness is a critical skill that will allow you to see the big picture of the society in which you live; individualism will not.”

This was a big eye-opener because while I think I am pretty good about not drawing negative conclusions about groups by seeing their situations as a result of individual character flaws, I can see that I underestimate how un-level the playing field is for members of various groups in society.

So the thought “If you just try hard enough, you can achieve anything” needs to become, “Despite trying hard enough, you may still not be able to overcome the obstacles society places in your way.”

. . .

As I write this, I paused for several minutes to reflect how deeply this idea of individuality is wired in my brain and how much work it will take to unwire it. Just reading the previous paragraph, I have an instinctive, gut-level reaction that says I am letting people escape personal responsibility for their situation in life, by “blaming” society.

And that, right there, is White privilege. I cannot readily see that my own point of view is biased based on the advantages I am given because I am White. I assume that the playing field is the same for everyone else but cannot see how it is angled to my advantage.

. . .

And that segues nicely into the second western ideology of objectivity. Objectivity, besides allowing us to not see the advantages we enjoy in our society, also allows us to construct fictions like “I don’t see race” or “I am color-blind.”

There is no such thing as a single, universal, unbiased human perspective. Each of us is shaped by our experiences in life and those experiences are significantly shaped by the broader groups in which we have membership.

Your view as a woman differs from mine as a man. My view as an expatriate living in Thailand differs from my husband’s as a native-born Thai. And my view as a White person differs from the views and experiences of Black people.

Because these views differ, they they are inherently subjective. Objectivity does not exist. to maintain the pretense of objectivity does two things:

  • First, it provides cover to perpetuate racism (and sexism and xenophobia, etc.) If I deny something exists, how can I confront and change it?
  • Second, it absolves me of my complicity, however unintentional, in perpetuating systemic racism.

To put it simply: we view things differently and we are viewed differently, based on the groups to which we below. The ability to see myself only as an individual, and to claim objectivity about racism, is “a key privilege of dominance” as Dr. DiAngelo puts it.

People of color do not have the privilege of being seen as individuals. When a White person sees them, that White person will first evaluate them based on their group identity – the identity the White person assumes they have.

This is based in large part on familiarity. Those closest to you are the ones you will see as individuals. Those further from you, you will see first as generalizations. This has been well-studied and is known as the cross-race effect or the in-group effect.

My own experience confirms this: growing up in a high school where, despite having a racially diverse student body, most of the students in my classes were White or Asian, and after having lived and worked in East Asia for fifteen years, when I meet a White or Asian person, I quickly see them as an individual and don’t see them so much as a member of such-and-such a group.

But when I meet someone who is Latinx or Black, I find myself starting with generalizations. It is only as (and if) I make the effort to get to know them, that they start to be seen truly as individuals. And where do those generalizations come from? They are mostly based on ignorance, stereotypes, and impressions I have from the media.

Now, I’m sure that many of you would have a knee-jerk reaction that everyone you meet, you immediately start seeing them as individuals. That was my instinctive reaction, too. But if I’m honest with myself, if I reflect deeply, I recognize that when I meet someone from a group I am less familiar with, I am starting from generalizations (read: stereotypes) and then filling in the details.

So what does this all mean for me? First, I have to recognize my own bias, which is to see “others” as generalized perceptions, indistinct from the group to which I think they below. Second, I have to recognize that because of my ignorance and lack of first-hand interactions with “others”, my generalized perceptions are uninformed and, likely, wrong.

So I need to get a lot better informed and get to know more people from groups with which I am less familiar.

I will continue this conversation and invite you to join in.

I need to start talking about race

I’m a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, university graduated, middle class American man. Granted, I am gay, but other than that, I’m pretty representative of the dominant culture in the United States. And somewhere in the process of growing up, I learned the message that I shouldn’t be racist but also that it isn’t really my place to talk about race. After all, that’s something that African-Americans or Latinx or Asian-American people are better placed to talk about. After all, what do I know about racism? It would be racist of me to talk about race, wouldn’t it? I’ve come to realize that, quite the opposite, it is necessary for me to start talking about race.

The realization began with a question. After reading the news of the brutal, senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and then George Floyd, I asked myself, “What is it going to take for things to change?” And somewhere in the silence that followed that question, instead of just shrugging my shoulders and moving my attention to the next story, the first strains of an answer started to enter my mind.

These first strains started to unlock something in my mind. They started to stir my heart. And they started to dissolve the scales on my eyes. Because I realized that nothing will change, so long as people like me have the passing thought, “Oh, that’s a shame” in reaction to stories of racist brutality and then move on to the next story. Nothing will change, until people like me start to give a damn. Nothing will change until people like me really act like, if all lives matter then black and brown lives matter, too, instead of just saying it.

And by “people like me”, let me be clear that I mean white people.

So this is the start of my journey. In talking about race, I am going to make a lot of mistakes, to unintentionally insult people and to demonstrate my ignorance many times over. But that’s okay, because we don’t learn by staying in the comfort zone. I can already see that this journey will require a lot of courage, because it quickly becomes clear: I am part of the problem. We (white people) are part of the problem – a big part! And thankfully, we can also be part of the solution. In fact, we have no choice.

After I asked that question, “What is it going to take for things to change?” and started to realize I needed to look for some answers instead of letting the question be rhetorical, I found my first resource: Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a sociologist who for many years has worked in the fields of multicultural education and whiteness studies. Her 2018 book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” was revelatory and challenging.

You can watch an 80-minute talk she gave in Seattle where she outlines the book or you can watch this five-minute video that hits the key message. There is a lot to unpack in the book and I’ll start sharing my thoughts on that in my next post.

In the meantime, I’ve started with two steps: educate myself and start talking about race. I’m reading and watching and listening to new and different sources of information. And I’m speaking about race, asking questions and listening to the answers in conversations with friends, family members and others around me.

And I look forward to sharing my journey with you.