In general, I find that white people tend to experience me as a "non-threatening" Person of Color. That is, they can tell I'm not all white, but feel comfortable relating to me more or less as they would to another white person. I'm pretty sure that if my skin were darker, or my hair kinkier, or my accent different, that people would react to me differently than they do. I suspect I've been given more opportunities in my work-life, because I qualify as a "person of color" and yet the hiring white management may feel more comfortable with me because I know how to negotiate in their culture, in a non-challenging way.
"Non-challenging" has been my MO for too long. I am increasingly aware of the ways I have previously let racial comments or dynamics slide, unaddressed, for fear of "rocking the boat" and offending people. I'd justify my passivity with empathy: "They didn't mean to be ignorant/uninformed, it's not their fault, they just don't know better/ it's for another person to speak up, not me, because I'm not ____ enough." (fill in the blank with excusatory adjective). The boat is now about to capsize, unless we start unraveling the long and tangled ropes of racism from around our feet. Do you see racism around you? Are you too tongue-tied to speak up about it? If we can't dialogue honestly and directly about race when the opportunity arises, here & now and with the person right in front of us, then all our efforts to work together and build a movement will fail, because we lacked the will to face the oppressor within.
It's by interacting with others, investigating our similarities and our differences, that we gain understanding and perspective on ourselves. However, attitude can make all the difference in terms of how we receive information about ourselves that we don't like, and use that information constructively. By concentrating on the connection, and our shared experiences, we can hold each other through the rough spots in our relationship, and come out the other side wiser and with more compassion.
Beyond Hula Girls, Loud Shirts, and Martinis
As we enter conversations about cultural differences, I think cultivating an attitude as an "invited guest" will help us continue to keep the door open. If your intent is to learn another way of seeing, it is best to set aside your own judgements, as you would set a pair of shoes by the door when entering another's home. However privately held, skepticism or condescension will show through your body language, word-choices, and attitude. If someone senses you are genuine about trying to learn about their perspective, they are much more likely to have the time and patience it takes, to educate you about your blunders and show you ways to interact that work better for them. If your desire for connection is sincere, that too will show in your body language, word-choices, and attitude. It is in this space of acceptance that the walls of division have an opportunity to melt, and be replaced with a calm and certain knowing: you are just as human as I, and we can work through this.
I recently participated in a study-discussion group on racism, with core administrators, board members, and artistic staff/affiliates with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater. I learned many useful things in the sessions I was able to attend. I have great appreciation for those who took the time to study, read, and attend the whole of this 3-month process, meeting weekly at 7am and conversing deeply, facing challenging material and talking it through, before starting a full work day. (I had a few previously-arranged work and travel, so only attended about half the sessions). One of the articles we discussed was the phenomenon of crying as a defense mechanism, or other defensive lash-backs that occur when racist words or actions are called into light.
If you are the person who's being called out or the one doing the calling, it's important to be aware that feedback about racially unconscious comments or actions often triggers a deeply personal response -- as though the feedback is an attack your character in general, rather than specifically about the comment or situation. This is especially true if you are part of an "oppressor"-class, or in any way benefiting from the privileges of being white/educated/middle class. It's a common and understandable reaction. You didn't mean to hurt anyone. You probably think you do "enough" to not be considered "racist." However, remember that your actions pointed out to someone listening, that there is a need for some awareness and education. Many women of color express frustration over always being painted as the Black/Asian/Latina B**ch, because they pointed out underlying racism out to a white woman, who then began to cry or accuse them of being oversensitive. Suddenly, the white woman with the inappropriate comment is a "victim", and the person who was offended now has to defend herself, again. So, there is a careful measurement that people of color learn to take, about whether or not so-and-so will be able to "handle" the information, whether it's worth it, whether bringing it up will damage their relationship with the project or group or job, and finding a careful, tactful approach to attempt delivering the information in such a way that it doesn't backfire. It means a great deal, to people of color, when white people learn to be allies, and begin to take on this arduous and ungrateful task of naming racism when it occurs.
"Poof! Congratulations! You are no longer racist!"
*"4 hands" photo by Amy Wurdock. Designed by Malia Burkhart for her performance art production, "BreatheLoveKnowRelate"; a collaborative performance with 4 women of different cultural backgrounds, using improvised movement and storytelling with live music. Presented at Dreamland Arts in February 2010.