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Posts Tagged ‘United States’

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

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