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Unpacking a White Mind

I was talking recently with a white acquaintance, a man who has consistently sought to convince me that when it comes to racism, he’s clean: not a racist thought, loves all equally, knows some very nice Black people, etc.. We were talking about the G.I. Bill post-WWII. I mentioned that while white G.I.’s were able to secure life-changing benefits, only 2% of African-American G.I.’s received any benefit at all.

He immediately shot back, “Yeah, but how many of them tried!!”

The conversation was side-tracked, so I wasn’t able to ask him: “What’s your assumption about that?” But I believe I know the answer, because he and I grew up submerged in the same racialized soup. By osmosis (family, school, media), but with virtually no direct experience of Black people, certain images were imprinted in our forming filters:

  • Lazy
  • Unreliable
  • Dirty
  • Dependent on the government
  • Angry
  • Over-sensitive about race

86087341_customThrough this monochromatic (white) lens, his mind had immediately conjured up such images. He also had that knee-jerk defensiveness about a rigged system: there must be an explanation for such a dreadful statistic (2%), something other than racism. His comment paralleled charges like these:

  • “Well what was she wearing when she went to meet him!?”
  • “If she really stuck with it she could find work!!”
  • “Well he shouldn’t have tried to run!!”
  • “They” must be at fault somehow!

I came across this quote from a long-time commentator on the foibles of typical white minds, Anne Wilson Schaef:

“Each of us sees what we want to see. Because of this, we tend to ignore what we don’t want to see. Also, we see what we have been trained to see, and we tend not to see anything that our worldview does not explain.
Hence, we build a world of constructs and concepts that may or may not have anything to do with reality. And if we think about reality, whose reality are we considering?
One of the problems with ‘white minds’ is that we have come to believe that our reality is the only reality.” (“Native Wisdom for White Minds”)

18048297 - glasses and sunglasses silhouettesMy acquaintance often cites his experience as the proof for what he believes. He was in the service, and saw no discrimination there. He bunked with a number of Black men and never heard any of them complain about being mistreated because of their race! And he worked with several Black people along the way, never noticing any racial tension. THAT IS HIS EXPERIENCE! CAN’T ARGUE WITH THAT!

Here’s the problem with that: HIS EXPERIENCE IS NOT THEIR EXPERIENCE!

One story to illustrate this:

Recently in Rochester, a Black executive, part of senior management in a large company, decided to leave. He said that he was the only Black person within shouting distance of the apex, and witnessed and experienced racism regularly. When asked if the people there ever knew about his experience, he said,
“No!”
“Did they ever ask you?”
“No!”
“Did you tell them about this when you decided to leave?”
“No!”
“Why not?”
“Because my next employer is going to call them for a reference!”

Just an anecdote, and there is danger in raising anecdotes to the level of general truth. However, the research on dynamics like this is uniformly clear: People of Color experience racial bias on a daily basis:

  • Insults
  • Innuendoes
  • Insinuations
  • Accusations
  • Suspicions
  • Stereotyping

What so many find even more aggravating, however, is that WE DON’T BELIEVE THEM when they dare to speak up!

  • “I didn’t see it that way.”
  • “I didn’t mean it that way.”
  • “You’re being super-sensitive.”
  • “I’m sure she didn’t intend that.”

The research is rife with undeniable, documented evidence that we see what we want to see, and we see based on our own limited experience, our conditioned lens. For us white folks, this is particularly true in regard to race.

What to do about this:

  • Read the research (suggestions below).
  • Pay attention to the Black people in your own spheres.
  • Ask.
  • Listen.
  • No, I mean LISTEN!
  • Not just once, because it takes time to build trust.

I find that as I practice these steps myself, I’m inundated with truth that can be painful to absorb. I hear the experiences of people who, from the moment they wake in the morning, brace themselves for insults and accusations that can come in myriad forms, forms unnoticed by the sender. Then they face the dilemma of whether to speak up, to call us on what we’ve said or done – and to face the usual dance of denial – and the cost of appearing angry, of playing the race card, of not being a team player, and so on. I know too many who have backed off, and like that Black executive just decided to leave, hoping for better in the next white-dominated environment.

We see through a limited/limiting lens. Unless we change.

How do you relate to this? 
You can scroll to the bottom of the page to “Leave a Reply”

Resources:

A brief history of the G.I. Bill, post WWII: https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/gi-bill

4-minute video by Dr. Joy Degruy giving one example of example of treatment faced by Black people:  https://youtu.be/GTvU7uUgjUI

MSNBC Town Hall on Everyday Racism:  https://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/watch/-everyday-racism-in-america-watch-msnbc-s-full-town-hall-1244256835526

“Witnessing Whiteness:  The Need to Talk About Race and How To Do It”  Shelly Tochluk;  invites readers to consider what it means to be white, describes our attempts to avoid race issues, and identifies the detrimental effect of this.  Help on how to LISTEN.

“White Fragility:  Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism”  Robin DiAngelo.  This woman has been unpacking the workings of the white mind for about 20 years.  Straightforward.

Article by Robin DiAngelo:  “White people are still raised to be racially illiterate;  If we don’t recognize the system, our inaction will uphold it.”

Action:

Pay close attention to upcoming elections – research candidates’ history and positions on key issues, particularly on race-related matters. For this and future elections, get involved as a volunteer in campaigns that align with your values.

Provide input to City Council members about the need for a Police Accountability Board that meets the criteria sought by community members.  D&C review including comments from Rev. Lewis Stewart: Lewis Stewart re PAB – in D&C

Implicit Bias Project: Find out your implicit associations about race, gender, sexual orientation and other topics: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

“Controversial Issues: Skill sets for effective conflict resolution” Thurs. Oct. 4, 9:00am – noon, National Coalition Building Institute, Starbridge, 1650 South Avenue: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/controversial-issues-skill-sets-for-effective-conflict-resolution-tickets-49848210339?ref=ecount

“Understanding White Privilege” Tues. Oct. 9, 7:00 – 9:00, 540wMain Community Learning Academy http://www.eventbee.com/v/ceaton85/boxoffice/?mc_cid=984cbc0462&mc_eid=e984ddcba9

“Introduction to Gentrification” Tues. Oct. 16, 7:00 – 8:30, 540wMain Community Learning Academy http://www.eventbee.com/v/ceaton85/boxoffice/?mc_cid=984cbc0462&mc_eid=e984ddcba9

17 thoughts on “Unpacking a White Mind”

  1. While I understand that “osmosis” is defined as gradual/subtle absorption, I find it too weak a word in this context. I’d encourage us to use words that explicitly demonstrate that individual, structural, and institutional racism are TAUGHT. To me, “osmosis” is passive. I find that many white people are either not aware that we are actively TAUGHT racism, or think that racism or is something that we just passively absorb. In actuality, we (white people) are actively taught and deliberately conditioned to accept, believe in, and enforce racism. I think that the intention (regardless of whether it is individual, structural, or institutional) and active teaching/conditioning is more accurately described with verbs such as “condition,” “train,” “educate,” “teach,” “cultivate,” and “instruct.” I’m sure there are other, better words to use in this context, and would appreciate any additional commentary on this. Thank you.

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  2. Coincidentally, just watched a video by Van White. He made this point re complicity of well-meaning white people: when there are racial dynamics happening around us, and we are oblivious to them, we actually are sustaining the culture in which they occur. This underlines the responsibility to become more aware, to listen more to People of Color.

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    1. Van White??? What??? Are you speaking of the RCSD’S Board President? If so, can you please share the video??? Van himself is frequently guilty of complicity relative to the perpetuation and maintenance of individual, institutional, and structural racism within the Rochester City School District — not always by what he does, but definitely by what he does NOT do.

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  3. I had an interesting experience recently. I’m a white guy, and was playing golf at a suburban golf course with the grandson of friends. He is 22 years old and bi-racial. At one point a golf cart pulled up to us, and there were two people in the cart: an employee of the course, and a uniformed police officer. They explained that the local 911 had received a distress call that seemed to come from the golf course. We told them that neither of us had used a cell phone. Then the officer turned to my young, obviously African-American friend, and asked him his last name. It startled me. He politely gave him his last name.

    Although I was not asked, I said, “Oh, and MY last name is…”.

    When I asked my young friend what that was all about, he simply pointed to his dark skin. I asked if this type of thing happens very often, and he calmly replied, “All the time.”. ( he lives in a suburb of Baltimore.). I was upset at what had happened, and asked him if he was. He replied, ” Tim, I used to get burned about it, but it doesn’t do any good. It just causes more trouble”.

    I was left with an angry feeling that out of the blue, someone had asked him his last name, but not mine. And I was amazed that he was not angry at what had happened. For him, life goes on, and he has learned to survive by accepting this sort of invasion of privacy, and obvious racial profiling, as part of life. He is my friend. What happened was insulting and uncalled for.

    I’m still angry. But hopefully, a little more aware and awake.

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      1. Absolutely! Of course, Frank. But this was one of those ” I can’t believe this is happening” moments. Afterwards, I thought of many things I could have said or done. Unfortunately, hindsight is 20/20.

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      1. Oh? Really? I disagree. This was an eyeopening experience, that I wanted to share with others, especially other white folks out there, who may not want to see the subtle, covert racism that exists. If this does not meet your standards, well, too bad. And as for the impact, relevance or potential to get others thinking, I’ll leave that to them. Without prejudging the outcome.

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    1. It’s not too late to document the incident and send it to relevant parties. As a white person, when I realize in hindsight I should have done something and I didn’t, I feel it’s my responsibility to rectify my lack of action.

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  4. Until I was 22, I had no interactions with African-American people, except when they did the house cleaning and ironing. My interaction with a small black business owner on the South side or Chicago and through a car accident also on the South side taught me a lot. Fifty years later I am still learning.

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  5. Frank,

    At first I thought your blog was different — in the sense that I thought it would urge realistic, focused ACTION (designed to impact the tripartite beast and illness in significant, concrete, measurable ways — in our lifetimes — as opposed to the abstract, distant bye-and-bye).

    Months later, it appears to be just another instrument of abstract, gradualistic, rhetorical- Mess-Making.

    If you and/or your readers want to get involved in some action-oriented, anti-racist WORK — you ought to come to the Rochester City School District’s Racial Equity Advocacy Leadership (REAL) team meeting tomorrow evening (9/26/18) @ the Rochester City School District’s Central Office building —131 West Broad Street (corner of South Plymouth Avenue) @ 6:00 pm. For more information, you can email Dr. Cecilia Golden at cecilia.golden@rcsdk12.org and/or Dr. Idonia Owens at idonia.owens@rcsdk12.org .

    NO MORE RHETORIC.

    NO MORE EXCUSE.

    http://minorityreporter.net/the-tripartite-beast-and-illness-of-individual-institutional-and-structural-racism/

    http://minorityreporter.net/snake-oil-solutions-critique-of-novice-mess-makers-and-those-who-know-better/

    https://www.patreon.com/posts/episode-39-for-19427773

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