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This is not a post about Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley. More than enough has been written about that incident. This post is an attempt to explain how I, a child of suburban white privilege, came close to understanding the subtle and insidious racism that people of color experience on a regular basis in the United States. I don’t think I would have developed this empathy if not for a visit to South Africa, which is still sorting through the aftermath of apartheid.

the thinker and his shadow

In July 2008, I spent a week in Durban, South Africa, while my spouse attended a conference. We set up housekeeping in a self-catering apartment in the Berea-Morningside area, where I could walk to shops to get provisions.

Durban has approximately the same demographic proportions as Seattle, Washington, but in photo-negative. In Seattle, 68 percent of the population is white (non-Hispanic), and 9 percent is black. In Durban, about 9 percent of the 3.5 million residents are white and about 68 percent are black. Although white folks are more numerous in the Berea-Morningside area, I still felt conspicuous in my pale skin.

Being of Midwestern stock, I am conditioned to being polite and smiley to strangers. I am especially polite and smiley to strangers when I am in a foreign country. Yet, my positive vibes were sometimes rebuffed, and I began to detect a pattern.

  • Once, I was in line in a grocery store and was the only white person in the building. The checkout clerk smiled and greeted each customer—until it was my turn at the counter. Her smile faded into a distinct chill. Why? Was she able to tell I was a foreigner? Or was she not seeing beyond the color of my skin?
  • Another incident, in a convenience store: I stepped up to the counter to pay at about the same time as, but just ahead of, a young, black man. We went through the “oh, were you first?” pantomime, and he indicated that I should go ahead. I smiled at him. The black, female clerk looked right at me, then stepped aside to serve the black man first. He looked at me, and I shrugged and motioned for him to go ahead. I was in no hurry. Maybe I missed some subtle cultural signals. Or was it the color of my skin?
  • A third example: I was walking back from the store, carrying groceries. I was crossing a street at a T-intersection where the cars had a stop sign before they got to the crosswalk. I was nearly across the street when a car screeched up past the stop sign, directly towards me, and halted with its bumper inches from my legs. I jumped aside, and the black driver glared and yelled something at me. Was this guy just a jerk? Or did he act this way because of the color of my skin?

Of course, not all black South Africans behaved in ways that made me question their motives, but, with a collection of incidents like this, I felt that there was something more than just individuals having a bad day. I detected a pattern of judgment by skin color.

When I perceived someone to be judging me by my skin color, I felt as though I was being stripped of my identity, as though I ceased to be “me” and became that person’s abstraction—a “shadow puppet” with an assigned set of motivations and attributes. One of the most difficult parts of this situation was that I could not predict whether the black South Africans I met would see me or the white-person shadow puppet.*

I reacted in different ways to this uncertainty, depending on my mood and level of fatigue:

  • In the Pollyanna approach, I would assume that everyone would see me as an individual, and I would risk being hurt by the people who saw my shadow puppet.
  • In the chip-on-the-shoulder approach, I would assume that everyone only saw me as the shadow puppet and keep my defenses up, ready for the next offense (real or imagined).
  • In the hermit approach, I would try to avoid interacting with anyone who might see my shadow puppet instead of me.

I realized that, over time, these day-to-day insults to my identity (and the strategies I used to cope with the insults) would probably build up a kind of psychic scar tissue that would affect all of my relationships with other human beings. I finally began to understand the emotional impact of minority stereotyping.

In recent readings, I have found two descriptions of stereotyping, which resonated more strongly with me because of what I learned from my experience.

Leonard Pitts eloquently described the shadow puppet of an African-American man as a criminal in a recent column.

I am your scapegoat. I am your boogeyman. Brown-skinned, kinky-haired, black man, me. . . .

I am the shape and size and sound of your fears. You know me on sight, know me before you know my name, know me before I even stick out my hand and say Hi. You know I have no feelings beyond your perception of me, no thought beyond what you impute to me, no purpose beyond your fear of me. I live in the shadow of your consciousness, do not exist outside of you.

But can you imagine if I did? Boy, can you imagine the ache and anger if I did?

In his book Always Looking Up, Michael J. Fox discussed the shadow puppet (complete with soundtrack!) of a disabled person as a heroic or tragic figure.

If society is encouraged to view you in a certain way, you come with theme music not of your choosing and perhaps not suited to your point of view. It’s something you have to overcome with each encounter and experience. (p. 144)

Putting these two shadow puppets together, here’s an exercise for you: imagine a scene in a movie. Two people are walking down the street towards each other on a dark street, one white, one black. Now, imagine how differently the scene would be set if either Girma Yifrashewa’s “My Strong Will” or a gangsta rap beat were playing in the background.

Which song do you think Chicagoland Wells Fargo mortgage lenders had going through their heads?

My experience has taught me that when I meet people of a different race or culture, I need to listen carefully, to make sure I’m hearing their songs and not mine.

* It wasn’t just black South Africans who gave me the puppet treatment. I found that when I was among white South Africans, they assumed that because I looked like them, I must think they way they do. About half of the dozen white South Africans I met felt free to let fly their low opinion of black South Africans. On a bus tour I took of Durban, the white tour guide spoke only of the white colonial history of the area and made more than one disparaging, patronizing comment about its black populace.

Text copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

Silhouette portion of image from krilm of scx.hu

Before starting this blog, I read several books and lurked in the blogosphere to figure out, first of all, what blogs are (since I didn’t own a cell phone until mid-2008, it’s not surprising I didn’t know this). I also wanted to know what makes a good blog.

jargon

I’ve distilled in this post some of what I’ve learned, which I’ll try to use in my blog posts. However, ancora imparo. Whenever I stray from my ideal, feel free to let me know!

Blogging is like the game Othello: it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.  (The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging p. 24)

What are blogs?

I once thought that blogs were mainly an outlet for political rants, personal journals, and marketing stunts. They are that, but they can also be a platform to foment change, a collection point for specialized information, a source of entertainment, a community of people linked by their interest in a subject, and much more. Blogs provide an equalizing effect, allowing more people to publish their opinions and news to the wider world without barriers of cost, geography, or editorial restrictions. Additionally, blogs allow two-way, active communication, not just a top-down, passive dissemination of information.

What makes a good blog?

Stick to one topic

The best blogs center around one general topic and are written for a specific audience. Each blog posting focuses on a single idea that is stated in the title and restated in the beginning of the posting. Each posting is more than just an anecdote and has a take-away lesson.

Help the reader

A glass of water from the fire hose

The Internet is chock-a-block with information. Good keywords, categories, and titles can help readers find a post and determine if they want to read it. To keep readers updated on new blog posts without having to check back to the site, include options for an RSS feed and an email subscription. To allow readers to refer back to a specific blog post rather than wading through the main site, include a permalink in each post.

Style

While a chattier, informal writing style is common in blogs, good grammar and spell checking lend legitimacy. Short posts and visual elements – such as photos, headers, bulleted lists, and offset quotes – that break up a “wall of text” will make a post more attractive to busy readers. A punchy, pithy first paragraph that states the point of the post will draw readers (especially when only the first paragraph is displayed in an RSS feed).

Build a readership and a community

The greater the number of readers, the better the chance of developing a blog community whose members will suggest improvements and help scout for relevant new topics.

Recruit readers through personal contacts via email, social networking sites, and old-school business cards. Links to social bookmarking sites on each blog entry will increase visibility. Sending helpful, blog-related information to local mainstream media sources can elevate a blogger to “hometown smartypants” on a subject and drive more readership. Commenting on and linking to other blogs (“trackbacks”) will also funnel more readers.

Drawing readers into a sense of community and ownership in a blog will suck them into reading regularly (“lurking”) and may spur them to actively contribute. Bloggers should encourage and respond to reader comments and ask for specific feedback. Because the openness of the internet brings out the snark and basest commercial instincts in people, a comments moderation policy is critical to control spam, trolls (disruptive or off-topic remarks), and flaming (personal attacks) that will drive readers away.

Keep it interesting

Regular posts (2-3 times per week is a common suggestion) keep a blog fresh, give readers a “fix”, also help boost the ability to be found on search engines. Tried-and-true journalism techniques draw interest as well: true personal stories, a sense of place (conjured by describing view, feel, taste, smell, sound), or a surprise or emotional connection.

Exploit the Internet

The ability to add hyperlinks to other sources of information makes a blog a rich medium (although too many hyperlinks are distracting). Links in posts can back up a point or add another layer of meaning. Links to previous posts on a topic (a “thread”) brings the richness of a conversation to a blog.

Books I read on this topic

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging. By the editors of the Huffington Post. Simon & Schuster 2008.

I wouldn’t call this book a “complete” guide to blogging. It gives a good overview of the big-picture how-to of blogging, but not a lot in the way of technical details. It is pragmatic about the likelihood of making money off a blog (not likely). A strength of this book is the number of comments contributed, which makes the book feely “bloggy”. A downfall of the book is its focus on the Huffington Post and its political leanings, which will likely turn many people off.

Blogging for Dummies, 2nd Edition. Susannah Gardner and Shane Birley. For Dummies 2008

This book has good information on the details of setting up a blog, though it sometimes includes too many specifics. Several topics belong in another book altogether (such as how to use Blogger and how to write HTML). Strengths of the book include deciding whether to blog, what to blog about, choosing your blog platform, and which features to incorporate. The book discusses making money from your blog, which I think is unrealistic.

Blogging America: the new public sphere. Aaron Barlow. Greenwood Publishing Group 2008.

This book was more of an academic overview of the phenomenon of blogging, and somewhat boring other than the final chapter, which provided examples of the scope of blogs within the genre of Christian bloggers.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Kate Hopper and Bonnie Rough, who fortuitously introduced me to the value of blogging during The Loft Literary Center’s  Memoir Festival.

Copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw