Leslie's Omnibus

Bus Fumes

In my post Monday, I promised a response to what to me is a particularly provocative op ed.

Down in the comments my buddy Nancy warns, "I'd walk away if I didn't know to whom I was speaking. There's no way to 'win' an arguement with a racist. It's like wrestling with a pig in the mud. All that happens is the pig gets happy and you get muddy."

And there, in a nutshell, is what pisses me off so royally about the whole problem of having a conversation about racism with a good many (not all, but a good many) black people -- that if you're a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American, you're automatically assumed to be on the losing end of this discussion. Wrong! We're just wrong:
Fear derails meaningful talks on race
For whom, Ms. Trice?
Say you are a white person who's at a dinner party and a subject involving race surfaces. The topic could be about anything: from the comments made by Barack Obama's former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright to Bill Cosby's cross-country tour promoting personal responsibility and self-reliance.

So what do you do? Engage in the conversation or determine where the booze is being served and cozy up to a cocktail in another room?
Aha! A white person!

How lovely of you to start off with the assumption that it would be unusual for a white person to be at a dinner party where this might happen. Or that we're all pansy-asses who can't and won't defend our own positions, but would rather walk away because it's too uncomfortable. Or that we'd necessarily disagree with your own position.

Mighty open minded of you, I must admit.

(BTW — Please don't lump Reverend Wright and Mr. Cosby together. I adore Mr. Cosby.)

Excuse me while I so grab myself a cocktail. (Make that a double.) When I get back, pull up a chair and sit down next to me.
A recently published Northwestern University study looks at white people who avoid racial conversations and even interracial interactions primarily because they are so afraid they will say something that's not politically correct and it will make them appear prejudiced.
Nice to know that such a neutral position was taken from the start. No preconceptions about white people and their prejudices. Nope. None at all.
That someone would avoid a situation that might make them seem racist is not surprising. What was striking about the study's findings was that the participants — taken from a pool of about 300 students — were so incredibly unnerved by these seemingly minor interactions that their responses mimicked those of people who felt anxious about weightier things, such as chronic pain.
That college-aged kids would go out of their way to a painful degree to avoid appearing politically incorrect? Unthinkable. That 300 white kids from an upscale University are any true sampling of the opinions in the rest of the population United States? Preposterous. That's not even close to a true litmus test of the WASP population of the U.S. at that age level.
Jennifer Richeson, associate professor of psychology and African-American studies at Northwestern, along with Sophie Trawalter, a post-doctoral fellow there, wanted to see how much political correctness — which we need to some degree in a society, right? — had fundamentally altered the way the participants process what they see. And, in a sense, feel.
Of course we need some degree of political correctness in a society — as long as it's your definition and not mine. Right? Given Ms. Richeson's and Ms. Trawalter's academic backgrounds, it's clear that there is absolutely no bias in their chosen areas of study. None at all.

Again, I question the validity of research that sets out with the assumption that all white people are prejudiced (and, by inference, that all black people are not).
After a prescreening, a group of students was tested using what's called the dot-probe test. The students sat in front of a computer screen that showed two faces on the left and on the right—that of a black man and a white man. The faces, equidistant from one another, were always similar, at times neutral or happy.

The participants were told to stare at a center spot and then find a dot that appeared behind one of the faces after both were removed. The speed at which the participants' eyes discovered the dot determined if he or she had inadvertently fixed on the black face or the white face. Everything happened so fast that students didn't know they had spent varying amounts of time on each face.
Black on the left. White on the right. I'd pay good money to see the artwork or photographs used. I'm confident that both models used were clean-cut, clean-shaven and had similar haircuts, too. Aren't you?
"We found that the participants instinctively looked at what is making them feel nervous [the black face] and then ignored it because they didn't want to deal with it," said Richeson, who won a MacArthur genius grant in 2006. "Social norms, or political correctness, have become so ingrained that it has altered their patterns of visual attention. This clearly shows just how deep and visceral these reactions are. The fear, the avoidance has, in essence, reprogrammed their brain."
Did they ask the participants if they ignored the black faces because because they were making them feel nervous, or did they assume that was the cause?

Oh! And it's nice to know that it's not our fault that just the sight of black people alone make us white people nervous because our brains have been reprogrammed. We simply can't help ourselves.
Richeson said this may mean that we need to reframe our thinking and separate people who are anxious about race relations from people who are simply bigots. This is helpful, if the goal is to keep people of different races engaged, talking and hopefully learning from one another.
It's good to know that we're either reprogrammed and anxiety-ridden or simply bigots. That there's no third or fourth or fifth alternative. Mighty decent of you. Makes me all warm and tingly and ready to reframe my thinking.
This study hits home for me because in recent weeks I've been hearing from many of you who may not be terribly anxiety-ridden in interracial situations but still worry about the price of missteps when dealing with race.
Worried about missteps when dealing with race? Clearly I'm one of those people who's worried about putting a wrong foot in that discussion. Quite frankly, I'm sick to damned death of worrying about everyone's delicate sensibilities but my own.
Richeson told me that the beauty of the study is that subtle changes can calm fears. For example, in some situations a simple smile can lessen tension. So can an invitation to converse about racial topics with the understanding that people will try not to get so defensive.
And why should we be defensive when entering into a conversation with people who assume we're either brainwashed sheep or ignorant bigots? You go ahead and smile to ease my tension. I still know what you're thinking.
A reader, who leads seminars on diversity, told me that she begins by telling participants that they will make mistakes. But it's how they deal with the mistakes that's important.
White participants or black? Because I'm pretty damned sure that it's only the white participants the reader is referring to.
Those missteps shouldn't be a deal breaker if they are sincere about opening up.
You want opening up? Here goes:

My mother's family are New England Protestants that go back far enough that I could easily join the DAR. They never, ever owned slaves, and in fact lived in an area of the country where abolitionism was rampant. I'm proud of that history.

But, according to you, I'm either anxiety-ridden or a bigot.

On my mother's side, I have relatives who fought for the Union in the Civil War. I'm proud of that history.

But, according to you, I'm either anxiety-ridden or a bigot.

On my father's side of the family, all my great, great grandparents immigrated immediately after the end of the Civil War, and all settled in the Ohio River Valley area. They were dirt poor, spoke little English, and never owned slaves. I'm proud of that history.

But, according to you, I'm either anxiety-ridden or a bigot.

I'm the child of a man who lost his father at the age of three and his mother at the age of sixteen, but he worked hard and received a full academic scholarship to an elite university. When that didn't work out, he joined the military, took on hazardous duty for extra pay, and then used his G.I. Bill to get himself a degree in chemical engineering. I'm proud of that history.

But, according to you, I'm either anxiety-ridden or a bigot.

I grew up in the sixties and early seventies. I learned from hippies and Woodstock and Coca-Cola and Dr. King and Archie Bunker and a whole host of other media influences that prejudice was wrong and that everyone should be treated equally. I took that doctrine to heart. I'm proud of that history.

But, according to you, I'm either anxiety-ridden or a bigot.

I was a counselor at a co-ed YMCA camp that accepted loads of Title IV kids from the Chicago inner city every summer. I taught them how to swim. How to start a fire and how to cook over it. How wonderful it is to sleep under the stars. How to fish. How to canoe. How to use a compass. Too see the beauty of lakes and forests and rivers, and not to be afraid of new things. I'm proud of that history.

But, according to you, I'm either anxiety-ridden or a bigot.

I've dated my share of black gentlemen. It disconcerted my parents, sure, but it never stopped me. Whatever their own prejudices, my parents taught me that prejudice was wrong and I should look for good character in people before I should see race or income or education. Yes, it was do as I say and not say as I do, but they tried. I'm proud of them and proud of that history.

But, according to you, I'm either anxiety-ridden or a bigot.

During the first Gulf War, when lots of people — black, white, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and more — wouldn't get into a taxi with a Middle-Eastern driver, I regularly did so and had great conversations about religion, life, the progress of the war, and more. More than once I accepted invitations to dine with a cabbie and his family so I could learn more about their faiths and cultures. Each one was a delightful experience. I'm proud of that history.

But, according to you, I'm either anxiety-ridden or a bigot.

I once attended a baby shower in the Chicago projects where I was the only white person invited. The shower was for the mother of a young lady I'd "adopted" through the Tribune's Santa letter program, and with whom I'd maintained a mentoring relationship for years. I'm proud of that history.

But, according to you, I'm either anxiety-ridden or a bigot.

A good (black) friend of mine invited me to her daughter's wedding shower. Again, I was the only white person there. My friend expected me to introduce myself and make myself at home, as she was busy with guests and gifts and grandchildren. I expected nothing less of her and she expected nothing less of me. The other guests, however, had no clue what to make of the fact that there was a white person in the room. Shirley's response to any of their inquiries? "That's Leslie and she's cool." I just did what she asked of me and acted like I belonged. By the end of the evening everyone was relaxed and we all had a great time. When the wedding and reception rolled around, I was welcomed with open arms. I'm proud of that friendship and that history.

But, according to you, I'm either anxiety-ridden or a bigot.

Here's what perplexes me — When I've had discussions with some of my black friends, especially the males, about cultural differences and political correctness and, for example, why it's okay for a black person to drop "n-bombs" all over the place but it's not okay for a white person to do it, and I invariably get the same answer. "You wouldn't understand. It's a black thing." And the conversation is ALWAYS abruptly steered in a different direction.

You know what? If I'm trying to understand, and I'm trying to deprogram myself, ease my anxiety by educating myself and straining to throw off the shackles of my bigotry, then who is it who's refusing to have dialog and who's open to it?

Here's another question for you. Why does the issue of racial discussions only focus on blacks and whites? Why not invite in Latinos and Asians and Middle-Easterners and more? Because you assume that all whites are prejudiced and then throw down the "you-wouldn't-understand-it's-a-black-thing" race card in order to maintain your own position of smug moral superiority. And that's a form of reverse bigotry all its own.

I'm open to discussion even though, according to you, I'm either anxiety-ridden or a bigot. I'll own what's mine here. I'm far from perfect and I've got a lot to learn.

But so, Ms. Trice, do you and people of your ilk whose prejudices against me and the rest of the WASP population of the U.S. are so blatant.

Until you're willing to put your own prejudices aside when you come to the table, I'm done apologizing for who I am. I have nothing to be ashamed of here.


Tammi said...

This. Is one HELL of a great post.

Well done Leslie. VERY well done!

Nancy said...

Well done Leslie!

Oh, a bit of trivia about me: I was once the only white memeber of a gospel choir...