Assumptions, Biases & Irrational Fantasies

Michael Richards. Now, seriously. Come on now.

Poor, poor decisionmaking skills (I am, in fact, shaking my head).  I thought that by now people would at least know that they’re not supposed to talk like that in public.

I also think, however, that comedians tend to get a little carried away with themselves and what being funny gives them licence to say and do.  This is why it’s a problem when people try to write off offensive humor by saying “It’s only a joke.”  In this case, it’s “I was just so mad.”  Unacceptable.

When I get mad, I don’t randomly pull racial slurs and epithets out of my ass willy nilly.  To follow that reasoning, Richards must call everybody a nigger when he gets mad.  Something tells me that’s not the case.

What’s unfortunate, in my opinion, is that Richards was not able to do anything but fly the “I’m really not a racist!” flag.  Whatever he thinks he is or is not, his behavior was profoundly racist.  He needs to own up to that, at least, if he wants to regain any respectability.  And, as a friend pointed out, the power dynamic he was trying to wield was totally fucked up.  I mean, to invoke the idea of lynching?  “This is what happens when you interrupt the white man?”  You CANNOT go there without mutual agreement, in a public arena, with a microphone ON A STAGE, as a celebrity and expect anything but big fucking problems.  That history is too painful.  Too raw, and too volatile. 

I think that we’ve gotten to a point as a media-based culture where we should be prepared for things like this to happen.  Where we should be holding performers to standards based on their own personality and ethics, and not those of the characters they portray.

But then, up until now, did we really have any ethical expectations of Michael Richard the actor? 

I hope that people can take a lesson on celebrity idolization from this.  Celebrities have their own stanky shit.  Some of them are bigots and assholes, just like any other random sample of people from the population.  Many of them are priviliged and ignorant.  Many are poor decisionmakers.

That’s what I have to say about that.  For now.


Me and White Guys… Part 1

The problems happen most often on public transportation. It tends to play out like this: I am sitting on the train. A white guy gets on the train, approaches the place I am sitting. He may sit next to me, or he may stand close by. I begin to think things like “He better not hit me with his backpack [newspaper, elbow, briefcase, whatever] and think he can get away with it.” Then, slowly at first, I begin to seethe very quietly. If he does not impinge upon my personal space, the seething calms down and dies away, possibly without me even noticing that it ever started.

If I do get bumped, smacked or swiped with an offending extensor, usually it goes like this: I look at the white dude to see if he noticed his breach of personal space. If he does and apologizes, the seething begins to settle. If he doesn’t, I begin to try to catch his eye, making faces meant to communicate ‘Ahem – I think you owe me an apology.’ If that doesn’t work, then I start to stare at him pointedly, waiting for him to notice me, all the while thinking ‘See? I knew it! Look – I’m mister Center-of-the-Univers-White-Guy! I don’t have to pay attention to the world around me ’cause I’m mister Center-of-the-Univers-White-Guy, and everyone should just get out of my way.’ Obviously this is incendiary, and I start to really get upset. This is usually where I get my first glimpse of my behavior from a semi-objective point of view (I use objective in the very loosest sense of the word here), and I then begin to feel conflicted. While I’m having this imaginary fight in my head with this guy I don’t know, I start to realize that I have no idea what’s going on in his head, that it’s unfair to put my anger on him in this way, and that I’m probably as careless sometimes when my head is in the clouds. At the same time, I’m thinking ‘This guy’s probably had his whole life to be totally inconsiderate and never deal with consequences and he’ll probably end up being somebody’s boss, even if he’s totally underqualified and he’ll treat them like shit, too, and this is my chance to show him what’s what!’

So I have these arguments going on in my head. If my rational self wins, then I may glower at him a bit more, reflect on my issues, do some yoga breathing and let it go. If my non-rational self wins (and keep in mind, non-rational has the biological edge here with adrenaline pumping and the brain’s limbic system taking over) I’ll physically retaliate by bumping him back (never particularly aggressively – usually just enough to make my presence known), or deliberately pushing the offending extensor out of my face. Sometimes this garners a mumbled apology. Often not.

It’s a fight or flight response, because I feel threatened. It’s my internal class-warrior – a little black girl lashing out, fed up with being underestimated, overlooked and generally unseen (especially when standing next to white guys). It’s the girl in me who knows that boys and men are usually bigger and stronger and is pissed off at how unfair that is. It’s the little girl I’ve always been, being nice and quiet by default, ’cause that supposedly gets good results.

However I respond, I always spend some amount of time feeling worse about these encounters than I think I ought to. Wishing I’d said or done something when I didn’t say or do anything. Or feeling as though I overreacted when I let things go.

I don’t have the insight yet. But I’ll come back to it.

‘Til then…

Just to be clear…

I cover this a bit in my statement of purpose, but I’ll restate and expand a bit:

This is not any kind of anti-bias judgement blog. My goal here is to work on my ability to be a more effective anti-bias advocate. This involves asking myself a lot of questions, considering scenarios, dealing with my own inner landscape.

The scenarios I’m talking about here are not experimental case studies – they may or may not be fully resolved during the course of the exercise. I do not present people’s behaviors to judge them or make resolute determinations about whether or not they did or said something wrong (or right, for that matter), but rather to examine how it affects me and my ability to live out my ideals and do this work. This is, ultimately, about me.

This statement is not intended to discourage comments – I welcome comments. After all, this is a very public undertaking. Just keep in mind the purpose of my work when you share your ideas.

Peripheral Assumptions

So, before I looked, this is what I thought I saw:

Woman with long black hair, pouffed up in front, arranged into a tall, spiky style.  Wearing: blue nylon jacket with Adidas stripes on sleeves, and tall tan-colored boots.

What was actually there next to me:

A woman with long, wavy brown hair, clipped up away from her face, with blue and white extensions around her neck and shoulders.  Wearing: blue quilted jacket with a fur collar and grey sweatpants.  Dark colored shoes.

 Where does this invention of peripheral vision come from?  How did it get to be so detailed?  I’ve been doing this for years – I imagine lots of people do: thinking I see one thing when someone sits down next to me and realizing that something entirely different is going on.  Because how can you see if you don’t look?  I’ve had people sit down next to me and find myself surprised to realize that they are a woman, not a man, or that they are white, not black.

Sometimes, I’ve judged someone and am constructing all manner of ideas about them in my head, only to look and realize that they look nothing like what I imagined them to be.  And then I feel silly.  Embarrassed.  Kind of dumb.

 Partly it seems like a kind of trick of the light.  Partly, it’s me being complacent – falling back on the stereotypes that have served me in the past when I don’t need them.  This is lazy and careless.  I’m trying to curb this habit, to be more vigilant. The more I make it a part of everyday living, the easier it gets.  And I do feel like teeny, tiny parts of this journey are getting a little bit easier.  That’s encouraging.

 Until next time…

Inspired to endure less bullshit…

I had a great conversation with A. yesterday, talking about the assumptions that people make about children’s gender and race. I’m so inspired by how she doesn’t tolerate it. Not that I believe that less tolerance is necessarily the solution to our problems, but I have to admit that I wish I could draw the line the way she does about certain things.

I’ll back up a bit, give some context: A is my friend who provides excellent care for my daughter 3 days/week. She’s an outstanding care provider and a supercool ladygirl. So while I’m downtown shaping curricula and hanging out with other people’s children, A. is at my place, or in my neighborhood, guiding Babygirl through all kinds of journeys and adventures.

Stella is one of the sweetest-faced children you’ll ever live to meet, and leaving the house with her means hearing a lot of comments about said sweetness. Really, it’s like being with a celebrity sometimes. Of course, due to the rampantly huge-to-the-point-of-invisibility racism in this country, coupled with people’s natural curiosity, many comments that are essentially about her sweetness are mixed in with comments about her complexion, her hair texture and (if she’s with anyone but her father), tentative questions about her parentage (Babygirl’s skin is a nice honey brown, just like her Papa, whereas my skin is darker, like brownies and our nanny is white. I’m not sure what food to compare her to). She is also mistaken for a boy on a regular basis. This is mostly because we make no effort to put clear gender ID tags on her (e.g. barrettes, pink clothes, frilly whatnot). We seldom style her hair – it’s too short to bother, and I’m more concerned with it being clean than anything else. Though there have been times where she was wearing a pink dress and still was mistaken for a boy. I think it was lack of hair accessories.

I’ve long been decidedly against this society’s fetishistic gendering of small children through apparel. It’s not that I won’t dress Stella in pink, or put barrettes in her hair, etc. It’s more that I refuse to behave as though my daughter’s identity and well being are based on whether I adorn her with sexualized garments and accessories. I refuse to base her identity on something as changeable as colors and clothes. And I absolutely reject the idea that there’s something wrong with me as a parent for maintaining these ideals.

So yeah, back to the conversation with A: She described to me an incident where she encountered all of these issues at once in a woman who first complimented what a handsome boy Stella is, and then went on to bumble her way through comments on her possible biracial parentage. And A. had the wherewithall to just tell the woman to stop.

Now, I can’t say that I would choose to confront a well-meaning-but-clearly-inappropriate stranger in this way, but I do think that A. is pretty courageous in this. I’m more likely to either raise my eyebrows, smile stiffly and try to get away asap, then feel bad later for not giving the lady a verbal smack, OR I’ll posit a few gentle statements to challenge and discourage her assumptions and generalizations and offer a gentle lesson about race and gender. God – I hate being so gentle all the damn time!

But it’s the age-old question – Do you offer the lesson and possibly teach someone something they didn’t know (adding another brick to your tower of racism/whateverism-induced exhaustion), or do you react and leave them as ignorant as you found them (and possibly less open to learning due to embarrassment or anger)? Do you seize the teachable moment, or do you just go on with your day?

Many people of color take the stance that it’s not their job to teach ignorant people about race. My position is that whenever you are tired of ignorance, it becomes your job to do something about it. If you have knowledge, you have power and the associated responsibility.

I also believe that people of color (and any people who have knowledge that others do not have) are not “on-call teachers” as it were, meaning don’t think you’re entitled to a lesson on race, culture, whatever in the middle of the grocery store just ’cause you realized it’s time for you to learn something. That’s where the problem lies, I think – we have to be able to control when and how we respond to ignorance. Otherwise, it becomes another form of oppression. And we can only respond in the context of our own reality, i.e., it won’t be a universally applicable lesson.

This has got me to thinking that I need to be more in control of when and how I offer knowledge about my child and my self and my circumstances. Maybe that lets me off the hook for being so gentle all the time – it can be frustrating. I guess we’ll see. I’ve never been the kind of person to say “That’s none of your business.” Maybe I’ll try it – I don’t know. But A. has inspired me to consider that I don’t have to endure people making asses of themselves about my child’s race and gender every single time it happens. That’s kind of exciting.

Speaking Up Is Hard to Do…

Today, while I was at work, one of the teachers made a comment about wanting to choose a doctor who had gone to school in the United States. Then, she said “I’m sure that’s biased…” to me in a half-joking kind of way, since I’m the resident anti-bias lady, and I immediately responded, “Oh, that’s okay.” also in a half-joking kind of way.

But then, walking to the train station on my way home, I wondered should I have said something more? Did I miss a teachable moment? What if a student had heard her inadvertantly? How would a child from another country feel about such a statement? Would training in a European country be better than training in an Asian or African country? This brings up lots of questions.

In the moment, I immediately thought about my mother, and how she feels similarly. I started to share that, then decided not to. I think I’m kind of ashamed that my mom feels that way, though she states that her primary issue is whether or not she can understand the doctor’s speech if they have an accent. And I agree that it is important to be able to understand one’s medical care provider. Honestly, I think in my mom’s case it has more to do with having been frustrated about not being able to choose her medical provider due to HMO issues.

In the case of this teacher, I see her being overwhelmed at the long list of providers to choose from, looking for some way to narrow it down. But it does seem problematic to make such a judgment. But what really confounds me is this: when do I decide to speak up about something, and when do I let it go? When is it appropriate? Anti-bias work requires that you generally make an effort to confront bias more often than a person typically would. Now I’m wondering if I should mention it to her sometime.

I’ve spent my life attempting to cultivate some credit as a badass straight-talker who tells it like it is and calls ’em like I see ’em. Really though, I’m kind of a wuss when it comes to confrontation. I’ll do it, but first I’ll procrastinate and ignore the problem and avoid it and start to address it and chicken out and dance around it and see if I can get out of it somehow. Then, when I can’t avoid it anymore, when avoiding it will lead to clear and certain disaster, then I’ll deal with it. And of course, after that I’m totally relieved, wishing I’d done it sooner. Life’s funny that way.

But there will always be an excuse as to why I can’t confront bias. There will always be a reason why it seems like the wrong moment. Why it seems like it’s not such a big deal. Anti-bias only works if we stop making so many excuses, bite the bullet, and act. So I think I will say something to her about it. I’m not gonna pick a fight or anything, but I’ll just mention it, find some way to relate it to the classroom setting. This is the hard work, and if I’m not willing to do the hard work, then I have no right to ask anyone else to.

I’ll report back on what happens. Until then…

The Humiliation (is worth it).

I haven’t really written anything, because this process of introspection is humiliating. Internally humiliating. The things I find myself thinking about people, the things I realize about myself, the memories that rise to the top of my brain, and the million tiny ways I mess up and trip up and fuck up…

It’s like being sixteen years old and realizing that no matter how articulately you converse, no matter how elegantly you style yourself, you won’t be an adult until you’re an adult. The only thing that’s going to bring about maturity is time. Lots and lots of time. Like having to wait for some devastating heartbreak to stop hurting and bleeding out your energy. There’s nothing to be done but live through it. I know that doing this work and reflecting on these feelings is a positive thing, but it’s overwhelming to know that this is such a long, slow process and that I’ve barely even started.

Paying closer attention to my biases and interpersonal interactions has given me plenty of opportunities to feel thoroughly ashamed of myself every day. Facing my own internalized racism is a BITCH! It sucks! I catch myself thinking things about people of color that I’m not even ready to repeat here, ’cause I’m still shuddering at myself. And it’s not even anything unusual.

One productive thing I’ve gotten out of this so far is an appreciation for how scary this process could be for someone who has no interest in or awareness of anti-bias theory. As a willing participant, I’m struggling through all this crap because I am totally convinced that it is some of the most valuable work that I could ever do. And it still kinda sucks. I will keep this in mind as I deal with other people whom I’m bringing this idea to, to convince them that it’s the way to do business. It’s not easy to enter into, as important as it may be.

Anyway, gotta go get ready to head out. More later.

In the infant classroom…

Today, I had a couple of moments where I felt like these teachers in the infant room weren’t paying as much attention to my kid as the others, and my immediate assumption was that it was because she’s black.

Of course, then I went through the logic and the reasoning and rationalizations – for one thing, she wasn’t there as a registered infant, she was there with me because my childcare fell through. So she wasn’t their responsibility. Also, there were quite a few children in there and very busy.

Besides those things, I’m pretty accustomed to Babygirl getting a lot of attention, so I guess I notice it when people aren’t really noticing her or asking about her at all. Then I wondered about whether it might have something to do with my girl wearing orthotic leg braces. Disability makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and leg braces are fairly visible. Then I wondered if the other kids would pick up on that discomfort and end up internalizing it.

I have no concrete proof to back this stuff up. So what is it, then?

These weren’t the regular teachers, they were visiting directors from other centers. And actually, one of them would talk to Babygirl occasionally, but it seemed as though the other wasn’t even acknowledging her.

One thing I’m sure is affecting my opinion is that neither of these women acted as though they had much interest in acknowledging me when I first came into the room. I was put off by that, and I think it essentially set the tone for our interaction in my eyes. From that point on, I think I saw them through the lens of 2 strange women who didn’t think enough of my (or my daughter) to acknowledge that we exist.

I have to acknowledge that these impressions that I had could easily be mistaken, that I could have misread them. I get touchy about white people who aren’t particulary friendly. I guess I think that if they don’t make an effort to be welcoming, then they could easily be unwelcoming. I often wonder exactly how many people secretly dislike black people, and sometimes I put that on people whom I don’t know very well. It’s a survival technique, of course, but it obviously doesn’t serve me well as often as I use it. And I’m definitely a little more defensive about my daughter – she has faith in all people right now, and I hate to see her look and smile so big at someone and they don’t notice or acknowledge her.

What can I do about this kind of thing? I think that part of it is just stuff I’ll have to learn to live with. I have to be careful about being over-sensitive about people’s reactions to my girl – my mom tends to do that with me. Also, I can try to model what I want for her in my interactions with other kids. That way I’m not transferring whatever I’m dealing with onto them and not treating the well, and then I’m providing a reference for how I want my daughter to be treated, more or less putting my money where my mouth is.

I still don’t know if what I noticed was real or imagined. I’ll just have to keep on watching.

Anti-Bias Work…

I’ve got some really important, hard work to do that involves looking closely at my own biases and how they affect my interactions with other people. This blog is to document/chronicle some of my ideas and reactions.

The purpose of anti-bias curricula is to provide a structure to educate people to examine their feelings and treat each other compassionately and humanely, to minimize oppressive and discriminatory behaviors and to generally promote acceptance. This is hard to do, mostly because it requires a lot of looking at one’s self. It requires admitting to our own shortcomings. It means hanging out and smelling our own ugly, shameful shit to see why it stinks so bad, instead of immediately flushing it down the metaphorical toilet of social relations.

In spite of the public nature of this forum, the purpose of this blog is not to ask forgiveness for my prejudices. It’s a way for me to own them, observe them and work on them.

For more on anti-bias curricula, you can start by investigating these (I’ll provide links later – until then, a Google search should be sufficient):

Anti-bias curriculum/education
Louise Derman-Sparks
Teaching Tolerance
‘Words Can Hurt You’ by Barbara J. Thomson
‘Confronting Our Discomfort’ by Tamar Jacobson