Black-White Conversations We’re Afraid To Have

Northwestern University just put out a study which found that white people avoid dealing with black people or discussions of race out of fear of doing something which will cause them to be accused of bigotry. This is probably one of those “We need researchers to tell us this?” things.

As many of my readers know, I am married to an African American man, so we’ve had many of those conversations which most white people avoid like the plague. I’ll just say that it’s been interesting.

Over time, I’ve come to see the relationship between white Americans and black Americans as being like a bad marriage. Neither side trusts the other, each attributes the worst possible motivations to anything the other side does, neither is willing to listen to the other but continually demands that their concerns be taken seriously, etc., etc. The solution to a bad marriage generally requires the two parties to stop being so self defensive, listen to each other, avoid responding negatively at all costs, be willing to do the right things for the relationship irregardless of what the other person may or may not do, etc. I believe that it will take the same sorts of actions between white and black Americans to actually move past the distrust and hostility which we generally deal with each other with.

I think that one of the biggest problems with the black-white relationship is that we fail to understand or appreciate how things look from the other’s perspective and then insist on assigning the worst possible motivations to what the other group does (or does not do). I believe that if we are willing to start making a real effort to understand the other group’s perspective (not necessarily agree with – just understand that POV as sincere and real), it would allow us to stop being so defensive and hostile with each other.

I bring this and this study up because my husband recently shared an idea he has about just the sort of “white persons inadvertently messes up, black people go ballistic” interaction which seems to have made white people so nervous that they avoid race at all costs. The jist of it is that we have differing perspectives on what constitutes a “normal” and appropriate reaction to mistakes and mis-steps. The reality is that in America even today, but far more so in the not too distant past, there has been a tendency to react extremely harshly to the mistakes and mis-steps made by African Americans. Both studies and long personal experiences have demonstrated that we have a tendency to over react to mis-steps made African Americans. We view a little boy who is black and pretending his finger is a gun differently than a little white boy doing the same thing. Studies have found that black students receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts for the same behavior from the earliest grades. It has long been pointed out that white kids who take their friend’s dad’s car out for an unauthorized spin are “joy riding” while black kids who do the same are guilty of grand theft, auto. And the fact of the matter is that we rarely give African Americans the benefit of the doubt. My husband regularly has to deal with women who refuse to make eye contact and grasp their purses as they walk by, even though he wears business attire almost all the time. When an African American misinterprets something which is said as being racial, we assign the worst possible motivations to this misunderstanding (you’re playing the race card, or are overly sensitive, or just an angry black woman, etc). So on and so forth. The point is that from the black perspective it is quite likely that harsh, out-sized reactions to errors are what is normal.

IOW, when white people make a mistake and some African Americans react in ways that seem to be ridiculously harsh and over the top, it may well be that they are simply responding as they have always been responded to.

On the other hand, if an African American over responds to a real or potential insult, unless they are in some rarefied setting like some universities, some government agencies or other bastions of liberal PC mores, they are likely to receive a very negative response. They are ridiculed in public if the event involves high profile people. They are labeled as overly sensitive, manipulative, hard to work with, angry, etc. This makes sense from a white perspective because we expect that insults, slights and inadvertent errors will be dealt with in quiet, conciliatory ways – particularly when it is obvious that no offense was intended. A white person responding to this sort of thing with another white person by making a scene, going to supervisors, the police or the media, demanding punishments and apologies would be judged very harshly as well. This simply isn’t a normal way to deal with these sorts of problems in the white community.

However, from the black perspective, their experience has shown that if they or one of their African American friends were to make a similar error in word, judgement or action they would be met with just the sort of outsized response they themselves are now reacting with. This is what is normal in the experience of many black Americans. Since their actions are in line with what their experience has shown is a normal response to errors, when people respond negatively to them they may well perceive this reaction not as a sign that they are out of line, but as an indication of the persistence of double standards for blacks and whites. They may well believe that the negative reaction they receive is because white people hate to be confronted when they do something wrong. It can be confirmation that white people do not want to be forced to adjust their behavior in ways which forces them to relinquish their privileged positions.

Each side assumes the worst possible motivations of the other, responds accordingly and our national bad marriage lurches further and further into the land of dysfunction.

It is my opinion that unless white Americans want the sort of harsh, over sized reactions which African Americans have had to contend with over the years to become normal for them as well, we need to do a couple of things. First of all, we need to do a much better job of allowing for the idea that African Americans may well be acting out of a sincere sense of injury or injustice when they accuse others of being racially insensitive or bigoted. Generally speaking, white people seem to assume that the African American who is making such accusations is well aware that no insult is meant (and surely none is ever meant because that just isn’t an issue for people anymore! I have this great bridge for sale out in Brooklyn if anyone interested, BTW) and is therefore trying to shirk responsibility, just overly sensitive, angry, whatever. Even if this really is the case (and white people have no more cause to assume they can read someone else’s mind like that than black people making accusations of racism do), simply acknowledging the potential for a real grievance can go a long way to disarming the situation. Listen, mirror back what is being said, resist the urge to argue and correct. Once you have demonstrated that you understand the other person’s perspective, that you recognize that it is that person’s honest point of view and that you aren’t simply responding in a knee jerk defensive manner, then the other person is much more likely to receive what you have to say.

Something as simple as, “I understand that you were insulted by what I said. It seemed to you that I was implying (whatever). I can see where being told (whatever) would be insulting/hurtful/etc. I would hate for you to think that this was my intention. I’m sorry if I didn’t choose my words well, because that wasn’t what I intended to communicate. Here’s what I really meant” can go miles to finding our way out of these conflicts.

If you said something which you did not intend as an insult, but once you’ve actually taken the time to listen to the other person you can now see how it would be taken as such, be man or woman enough to say, “I’m afraid I spoke without realizing that my words might be taken in the way that they were. I’m sorry I said something which ended up insulting you. That was not my intention. I will certainly be more aware of how what I am saying might be taken in the future.” If you are willing to do this, what are the odds that the other person is going to continue being hostile towards you? A humble person is disarming to someone who is angry and expecting to be dealt with unfairly. And if they do not respond well to what you have to say, then you have shown yourself to be the better person and it will reflect badly on them, not on you.

The second thing we need to do is be more aware of and more honest about the ways in which we still tend to over react to the mis-steps committed by African Americans. If a white co-worker is pre-occupied and doesn’t respond when you say “hi”, you probably don’t create a whole narrative in your head about how he/she is an angry, hostile, aloof person. So resist the urge to do the same if a black co-worker doesn’t respond to your “hi” in the hallway. If a black man is walking a little too close behind you on the street or offering to let you enter an empty elevator before him and he’s dressed professionally and carrying a briefcase, resist the urge to clutch your purse tighter or avoid getting on the elevator with him. He’s going to work just like you and isn’t about to throw it all away to snatch your purse and rape you! If a black co-worker sends out an email with typos, don’t assume they’re dumb. After all, we all get fat fingers. I could go on, but I think you get the point. We just need to be more aware of what we’re doing and how we’re responding to people. Most of us aren’t genuinely bigoted people, but we all have gut level reactions to people all day everyday and sometimes we just aren’t aware of them. It takes a willingness to pay a little more attention and admit that sometimes our seemingly reasonable reactions to people may well have more to do with their race than we’d like to think.

Of course, this is a two way-street, and African Americans aren’t always innocent in their interactions with white people. There needs to be a willingness on the part of African Americans to accept the reality that white people often really are unaware of how they might be causing offense. We also are not used to being dealt with so harshly when we mess up. It’s not fair that African Americans have had to endure this sort of treatment, but the answer shouldn’t be that we deal with everyone equally badly.

The fact of the matter is that whether it is coming from African Americans or white Americans, hostility and anger while sometimes understandable are not getting us anywhere. It’s like a friend told me shortly after I got married, “sometimes you just have to ask yourself: would you rather be right? Or would you rather be married? Because you can be right all the way to divorce court.” Whether we like it or not, there is no “divorce court” option for the bad marriage between black and white Americans. We’re stuck in this together and it’s high time we decided to start figuring out how to make this thing work.

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4 thoughts on “Black-White Conversations We’re Afraid To Have

  1. Thank you for this post Rebbecca. My husband and I have talked about many of these issues so many times. Your husband’s perspective about the “normalcy” of a big reaction is a new idea for me, but it makes some sense. It’s been really interesting to be in a position to see the racial experience from my husband’s point of view, and that of his family. His experience is an immigrant experience as well, which adds another dimension. (And gives him his own unique encounters, both with white Americans and with African-Americans of longer heritage.)

    Maybe those of us in strong, honest, cross-racial relationships (marriages, friendships, etc.) should be finding some way to have these conversations publicly. I think we have a unique position from which to start the conversation.

    (Thanks also for your comment on my blog. I never got back to replying to the comments as I wanted to, but you said a few of the things I was going to say. I appreciated your input.)

    Stephanie

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  3. I don’t really know what to think about race relations, if the state of it will ever change, or any of that. The people who need to be reading these articles, blogs, etc. are not, or they are not willing to confront the situation. The people reading already have sympathy, empathy, or an affection for other races. I agree with a lot of what was said, for example, white people sometimes don’t even know what they’ve said or done offensively. I’ve been in many situations where I didn’t know what to think, but at least one I did know what to think. Good article.

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