Friday, April 8, 2011

Racism

I'm becoming an Ethnic Minority Mental Health Specialist. Because as a 30-year-old white male from the suburbs of Utah, there's nothing I understand more acutely than marginalization.

Yes, if there's anything that towheaded little The Weed in a blue suit is going to understand later in life, it's racial discrimination. 

No, but seriously, I'm actively working towards obtaining this specialization because I feel passionate about it. And for it, I had to attend a training yesterday. Now, one of my very first humor posts was this post about a mental health training I had been to that seriously almost made me kill myself it was so excruciating. Thankfully, yesterday's was actually really awesome and didn't make me yearn for a javelin to the stomach so I could welcome the distraction of stomach acid slowly eating away at my internal organs until I died. Quite the opposite, the workshop was presented by a sassy, funny mixed-race lady who knew her stuff, and it was really engaging.

One of the things that made her so good was that she was very real about some of her awkward race/gender prejudices, and instances when they showed up. Like how she automatically gets disappointed when a woman instead of a man answers an IT call because her internal prejudice is that men will be better equipped to help her. Or when she recently was in a Mexican restaurant and needed service, and automatically asked a Latino guy if he worked there even though he was dressed in a suit and tie.  (The bottom line of the research behind her philosophy if you care is that we ALL have prejudice, and being culturally sensitive is all about how we react to our own prejudices and not about being "color blind," which is A. impossible and B. doesn't take into account minor details like, hey, some people actually have different colored skin and different cultures which *gasp* they don't want people to just ignore in some kind of white-washed wonderland of active denial. (Reminds me of the episode of The Office where Michael Scott says he's color blind and then criticizes Oscar for calling himself Mexican saying it's a racist slur. And then he gets slapped by Kelly for mimicking an Indian accent. Is me describing a funny show funny? No. Am I rambling? Yes. Do I have a point? Yes. See post-parentheses.))

Point: her stories reminded me of some of my majorly awkward racial mess-ups where I completely made a FOOL OF MYSELF. And I'm going to share one of them with you.

Here it is: I am at BYU and I am in an advanced literature class with a professor, Gloria Cronin, who happens to also be in charge of the student society for blacks on campus. She has mentioned this several times, and has talked about how alienated some of them have felt on campus because they are seen not as part of the whole, but instead as some anomaly, while fellow-students insistently point out how they differed from the norm. (I think the black population of BYU is like... 5. That's an exaggeration. But not by a lot.) It made me sad.

One day I saw a black student sitting in the lobby of one of the buildings and I decided to be a hero and tear down the barrier of difference between us and let her know that I see her just as another student on campus. And I decided to do this by awkwardly walking up to her, sitting down by her, and striking up a conversation. About random stuff. In a small-talk kind of way. In a small-talk kind of way that had nothing to do with her as a person. And everything to do with the fact that she was a black girl on campus. Because that's so normal and seamless and exactly what I would have done had I seen a white girl sitting in the lobby. And nothing makes people feel like part of the mainstream more than random strangers starting conversations about nothing for no reason! Go me! Racial Hero!!!!

The conversation... did not go well.

Me: Hi there!

Black girl: (Looks up at me trying to place my face) Hey.

Me: Are you a student here?

Black girl: Yes...?

Me: Oh. Cool. (awkward pause) Me too.

Black girl: Oh. Good. (smiles then looks back at what she was reading)

Me: So, what's your major?

Black girl: (looking up again) What?

Me: Oh, I was just wondering what your major was.

Black girl: Geography.

Me: (excited face) That's awesome! My wife's a geography major. Have you ever met her? Her name's Laurel Weed.

Black girl: (squinty eyes) I don't think I've met her...

Me: Oh. That's too bad. I think you'd like her.

Black girl: I'm sure I would.

Me: Oh, well I'm sure you know Gloria Cronin, right?

Black girl: No. Who is that?

Me: She's the... (awkwardness rises up like a mist as it becomes very clear just how stupid that question was). She's a professor of mine.

Black girl: Why were you so sure I'd know her?

Me: Well... because... (the awkwardness is so thick it's palpable)

Black girl: (rolling her eyes) Is it somehow related to me being black?

Me: (beet red in the face) Yes. She's the adviser to a group for Black students on campus, and I just assumed... (looks for a pair of scissors to stab self in the face repeatedly in order to lessen the horror of this moment)(finds none)

Black girl: ....

Me: I'm really sorry.

Black girl: It's fine. I get this kind of thing all the time.

Yes. Yes that's right. In my effort to be a hero, I became the very thing I thought I was fighting against. Because that's how good I was at being culturally sensitive. And being aware of how to have a successful conversation with a person.

A few minutes later, a Caucasian serial killer appeared on the TV in the lobby and she turned to me and said "Isn't it strange how many serial killers are white?" And then she got up and left.

I'm not joking.

Anyway, the point here is that all people have moments like this. People of every race have moments like this. And that's okay. We just need to own it, not excuse it, and apologize when it happens. Because it will. It's only a distinct few however, like myself, who decide to write a blog-posts about how idiotic they are because they need the attention.

The Weed is a Racial Superhero!!!!

26 comments:

  1. Hahahahhahahaha!! She got you good!

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  2. That kind of reminds me of a girl I knew in the dorms at college. She was black (at least she still thought she was then, but that is another story) and from Namibia, which resulted in instant BYU popularity. Everyone was super excited to meet her and be her friend, because Africans are just kind of a novel idea to most white Mormons. Then, as the school year progressed, the novelty wore off and a lot of her new friends kind of drifted away, leaving her to deal with the fallout of being having been liked for what she looked like, rather than who she was. The sad part is that she was a really awesome girl too but a lot of people forgot to notice that in their excitement to have a real, live black friend.

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  3. At least you tried in a goofy way to be nice. it was not awesome but it was sweet that you reached out, and you learned a lesson. your blog is hilarious.

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  4. I once asked an Asian girl where she was from. She looked at me like I was crazy and said, "Beaverton." In my defense, I was 10. In my condemnation I then persisted I knowing where she was "really" from. Oy. In my defense, I learned my lesson when she basically refused to speak to me ever again.

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  5. It took a few falls off of my I AM NOT PREJUDICED pedestal before I stopped even trying to climb back on. Much safer here on the ground, where when it comes to being prejudiced, I can see that we're more alike than different.

    The hardest fall I took was when I learned I was prejudiced against me.

    My parents did what they were supposed to, they raised me to believe that I could do whatever I wanted to in life. (Within *reason*, like you, I'm not going to be asked to try out for the NBA. Or WNBA.)

    In 1982 - I was 17 years old - I found out the sky was indeed the limit, at least for m.

    I was buckling into my seat on the plane, heading home for spring break from college, and the captain announces HERSELF. I could feel my brow pucker a little in consternation as SHE started to tell us whatever captains talk about before take-off. I remember thinking "she's a woman, she's a woman, but so, so, so" and managing to calm myself down, until! she came out of the cabin for some reason and I saw that she was a BLACK WOMAN.

    As I told my parents, despite all their hard work, my first thought was "Oh my God I'm going to die."

    As soon as I heard those words fill my head, I felt myself die inside a little. If anyone had said that I harbored such prejudice against myself, I would have denied it until I was blue (ok ok ok) in the face.

    It turned out to be one of the best moments of my life. I was so glad to find that I felt that way. And that I lived to tell the tale!

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  6. hahahaha this made me laugh. The end of the story reminded me of this story I wrote a few months ago

    http://wasthatawkward.blogspot.com/2011/01/sexual-predators-are-usually-white.html

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  7. Ah Weed say it isn't so!!!...you need to specialize in Trauma and Dissociation...I have it on good authority ;). Trust me on this!

    By the way, my favorite training at RDCC touched on these things you mentioned, and other eye opening things. The training was "Race the Power of Illusion" It was based on this: http://www.pbs.org/race/001_WhatIsRace/001_00-home.htm

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  8. Well, you have the comfort of knowing your intentions were good.

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  9. At least you realized you were making an assumption. Most assholes wouldn't. So, clearly, you're not an asshole.

    There's nothing wrong with having prejudices, as long as you try to learn from them, and grow beyond.

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  10. This was cringey, good and cringey, just the way I like it.

    Once when we were little at a fancy restaurant, my dad leaned back and asked a passing busboy for a clean fork. Only he wasn't a busboy. He was Tom Bradley, the first and as of yet only African American Mayor of Los Angeles. True story.

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  11. Well, you did try...I think you get points for attempting. However you probably lost points for execution. She did zing you though!

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  12. Haha! Good one, super hero!

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  13. IT JUST HAPPENED AGAIN!!!!!!! I just went through and commented back to everybody, and didn't copy and paste, and then blogger ate my comment! I can use a computer, I promise. Not sure how this happened two posts in a row.

    I'm coming back later, and y'all are getting a response because your comments are awesome and make me feel less alone in my lameness, and also you guys are funny.

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  14. Of course I copy and past THAT one, and it goes through. Stupid technology...

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  15. I'm always a little trepidatious when I comment on a blog for the first time. It's like introducing myself to someone and hoping they'll be my friend.

    Anywho, this actually made me hide my face behind my hands and wonder if I wanted to keep reading. Your honesty is seriously praiseworthy, and hilarious. I always feel proud of how open minded and unprejudiced I (think) I am because I grew up in central California on the wrong side of the tracks and had a lot of friends of different races. Also, I watched a lot of Sesame Street. But I know that one day my self-congratulatory thinking is going to invite karma to bite me in the butt. I just hope that when it happens it isn't as bad as this.

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  16. Little known fact: I'm a white African. An anomaly my British friends found really really hard to get the hang of when we moved to England when I was 11. I had this exact conversation about a million times:
    Person: You have an accent!
    Me: Yeah.
    Person: Where are you from?
    Me: I'm South African.
    Person: No you're not.
    Me: Seriously, I am.
    Person: You can't be, you're white. Where are you REALLY from?
    Me:....
    A MILLION TIMES. Ok, so 400 or so years ago some crazy Dutch people hopped on a boat and decided that being practically translucent was an awesome basis for settling *on the sunniest place on the planet* but I'm no more 'really' Dutch than Americans are 'really' British, and it's super insulting to deny my heritage. If you're going to insist that who I am should be bsed on my ancestry, then which branch do I 'really' belong to? Am I a viking or am I Irish? I can't 'really' be both. I got particularly pissed off at the black girls who were second or third generation African. Most of them hadn't set foot on African soil but they thought the color of their skin made them more African than me. Racism at it's most idiotic.
    I don't pretend that I don't have prejudices, but being aware o those prejudices and watching out for them means that when they crop up I can think about them and work on wearing them down. It's important to care about the problem, rather than just deny it exists. Good on you for being part of the solution, Mr Weed!

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  17. I love that you write about awkward moments that make me laugh. I am not brave enough to share my cultural incompetent moments publicly (one of which I had recently and am embarrassed about).

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  18. This is great. Hooray for honesty. I agree with above poster. If you're worried about looking like an a-hole, you're probably already in pretty good shape. The real a-holes out there never give it a second thought. I think it is critical to accept that we do have prejudices, and address them head-on. Great to be reminded of that.

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  19. I am going to throw this out there (my own predjudices being glaringly obvious) and say that I bet A MILLION DOLLARS that other Mormon BYU coeds have done the same exact thing you did, thinking they were rising above and being oh so very socially progressive. OMG.

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  20. Brilliant conversation! Such a tough one to call, it's best to just be yourself and if you stuff up apologise. I suffer terribly with foot in mouth which covers this subject and a whole lot more faux pas, so I'd better not sign up anything in public relations :)

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  21. Here we go. (And yes, I will copy and paste.):

    @Laura--Yes, she sure did!

    @Tamsin--Well it sounds like, at very least, you did a good job of seeing her for who she was and befriending her for the right reasons. That's a very good thing.

    @Emily--Thanks! That actually does make me feel slightly better about it, ha.

    @Loradona--You're in good company. The lady that gave the presentation did that exact same thing. Except she was the race relations representative to a school district. And the person she did it to was a visiting superintendent. Aaawkward.

    @Karen--Hey, I loved this story. Thanks so much for taking the time to enrich the conversation with such a great reflection on the topic. Helps me feel like I'm not alone!

    @well this is awkward--Yeah, I can see why you made the connection! Funny story, btw.

    @Leslie--Don't worry. I plan on having other specializations, the one you mentioned probably being one of them. The Ethnic Minority Mental Health specialization will mainly be so that I can be a consultant for local agencies that need to do special population consults on their clients in order to comply with auditing standards. (Did you fall asleep reading that last sentence? Because it was so boring I almost fell asleep writing it...)

    @J.L. Campbell--That's true. It does make me feel a tiny bit better that I was at least trying to do something.

    @Matthew--Hey, very true. I agree, the important thing is to reflect realistically on our prejudices and try to alter our behavior accordingly.

    @Mr. Fob--That link was awesome.

    @Steamme--Oh man, that story was cringe-worthy as well. And also hilarious. Thanks for sharing. And, also, I kinda feel like I won the lottery every time you comment, so thanks for that.

    @Kari Marie--Yeah, not sure how all the points even out at the end, but I'm pretty sure she won with that zinger!

    @emily--Ha, thanks!

    @The Onion--Does an "A" in effort counteract about four million "F's" in execution? ;-)

    @phillipskt--Thanks so much for visiting and commenting, and consider it official: your introduction was appreciated and you just made a new friend. And without a doubt, when karma does bite you in the butt, it probably won't be as bad as this. I'm glad I could give you this standard to gauge your racial failures by, haha.

    @Arienette--Oh my, having to have that conversation over and over and over must have gotten so tiring! Good for you for not punching people in the face on a regular basis! Also, your "sunniest place on the planet" comment made me laugh.

    @Ashley--Oh come on! We're all friends here. Sharing racial-failure stories in this realm is like getting a nice warm hug.

    @KO--Yes, hooray for honesty. I'm a huge fan of just being real. And I agree with your sentiments completely.

    @Piper--I bet you two trillion dollars that you're exactly right. (Can I bet you on your bet being right, or is that cheating?)

    @catherine--Exactly, that was one of the things I got from the presentation, actually. When you mess something like this up, don't try to excuse yourself because of good intentions, because that doesn't change what happened. Just apologize for what did happen, and move on. And I can commiserate with the foot-in-mouth thing. Sooo many stories. Sooo many...

    All right, I have copied and pasted into another source, and unless my computer gets hit by lightning in the next 3 seconds, it seems as though I will successfully post... (lightning crashes, the computer explodes, The Weed is electrocuted to death)

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  22. I havent even read the post yet..too much goodness to ponder in the photo. The little blue suit with high waisted pants and matching bow tie, dad's bangs, the little brother's floods with top siders and little man tweed jacket. Seriously, this needs to be on a t-shirt. Its up there as one of the best family photos EVER!

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  23. This totally reminds me of a similarly awkward moment I had in high school. We were doing this cultural diversity activity and they asked everybody to get up and talk about what prejudices people have against them because of their race, ethnicity, religion, or whatever. It was supposed to help us listen to and understand others experiences and empathize with them.

    So a couple of black kids had made comments about how they hate to hear people try and justify themselves by saying, "I can't be racist, I have black friends." Then, when it was her turn, this Mormon girl sitting next to me said, "I hate when people say that Mormons don't like black people, because I like totally have a black friend."

    I literally palmed my own forehead. Several people just kind of stared at her open mouthed. She didn't seem to notice at all and just kept on talking.

    Listening/Understanding/Empathy FAIL!

    I guess I shouldn't judge her too harshly though. She was blonde. ;-P

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  24. Hilarious, this definitely a Dear Diary entry! It's nice for once to know what happens on the other end and what the other person is thinking. Hopefully all of our "racial heroes" are like you and know exactly where they went wrong and aren't making the same mistake again. So glad you can laugh about it cause that's what we do too. Thanks for sharing this it made our day!

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