A good number of Capitalized Things

The Angry Black Woman has put out a call for submissions for her Carnival of Allies, and I thought I’d take a crack at it. I know I personally have a lot of work to do when it comes to being an anti-racist ally, and for me that work starts with trying to check my own privilege and recognize the gaps in my education. One good place to begin: no more Dumb Questions.

What’s a Dumb Question? It starts something like this: “Why do black people do/think/act/dress…” (I could, of course, switch that out for Latinos, or Native Americans, or any number of groups.)

Now, I can’t recall actually asking a Dumb Question out loud, but I’ll certainly admit to  thinking up quite a few, and even discussing some among friends. (Because what’s more educational than a bunch of white folks talking about race, right?) We never voiced these Dumb Questions to anyone but ourselves because somehow, in our humble little reptile brains, we suspected this might just have been A Bad Idea. And I think I’ve finally figured out a few reasons why.

1. The thing you’re just dying to ask about? It’s not really the widespread phenomenon you think it is.

It’s actually pretty likely that the thing you’re thinking of is more commonly known as An Awful Stereotype. “But stereotypes are based in reality!” Ah, yes–the immediate defense of stereotypes. Aren’t you clever! Clearly someone somewhere has to have witnessed this phenomenon in real life. Nevermind the fact that you’ve mostly seen it in movies–this is totally A Thing. A Thing that is real and observable and you are just trying to understand the things you see! It is all so innocent!

Let me point out that for many white people, white folks are the default. “Normal” is white. “Regular” is white. “Stuff that happens every day and is totally unremarkable” is white. Seeing and hearing (or thinking you see and hear) black people do or say something, however, is A Black Thing.

2. But it’s probably not really A Black Thing.

I’ll fess up and reveal one of my unvoiced Dumb Questions: Why do black people take up way more room on the subway than they need to? Luckily, before I asked anyone, a few things occurred to me. I realized that I tend to ride a line of the subway where any given car often has more black than white riders. I was looking at a totally non-random sample. Next, I noticed that the seat-hogging behavior, characterized by the slouch and the legs spread out, seemed to be exlusively exhibited by men. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had seen plenty of men–even on trains and buses predominantly filled with white passengers–exhibiting this same behavior.

Now, I’m not saying that I’ve suddenly come up with a Much Better Question in the form of “Why do men take up so much room on the subway?” (The answer, incidentally, from reading elsewhere, appears to be “Balls.” I’m somewhat skeptical.) It’s still easy to ask Dumb Questions about different groups of people. But at least do yourself the favor of being precise, and figure out whose behavior or speech you’ve really been observing. Do you actually mean men? Women? People who live in Boston? Teenagers who wear red t-shirts?

Again, when “white” is your default, the behaviors of those whom your brain classifies as “not white” may stick out unreasonably in your memory. You may scrutinize these behaviors more closely than you would your own.

3. Okay, actually it might be A Black Thing.

Congratulations. You’ve found a behavior that actually carries a larger cultural significance. What this means, however, is that answering a question about the origins of this act or speech probably requires at least some examination of other factors–history, socio-economic trends, or politics, just to name a few. So unless the woman you just asked is a professor and you’re writing all this down for your midterm later, answering that question is not her job.

I had to learn this one the hard way. Listen up, fellow white people: it is not any person of color’s duty, obligation, or responsibility to explain race to us. Got that? I’ll say it again: we are the ones responsible for educating ourselves.

This is a tricky concept. This does not mean we can only trust other white people. This does not mean we should only read works written by other white people. This does not mean we can pick up one book and proclaim ourselves educated. This does not mean we can refuse to engage people of color on the topic of race and racism.

It does mean we don’t have the right to just walk up to any person of color on the street and say “Teach me about racism!” and then run away crying that he’s a meanie when he won’t answer. It does mean that when people of color bring up the issue of racism we can’t just storm in and ask “Well, what’s your solution?” and declare the matter done if no one offers an answer we like. It does mean that we can’t remain ignorant on the issue and wander into conversations claiming that we don’t see the racism so somebody better convince us or it doesn’t exist. (This goes for sexism and homophobia too, folks!)

4. But I am so incredibly well-intentioned!

That may very well be true. What do you want, a cookie? No one owes you the benefit of the doubt. Trust is earned. No matter how good the intentions, if you aren’t doing the legwork, you don’t deserve the props. You don’t get a pat on the head simply for being not that bad. We are extremely lucky, in that there are actually a lot of people of color willing to answer our questions and lead us in the right directions and generally help us get past our own stupidity. But none of that is their job, and it’s our responsibility to repay them by becoming better allies. (In that vein, expect a post soon about the paleness of my blogroll, which I hope to remedy.)

5. How would you feel if people were walking up to you all the damn time asking you to explain white folks?

No, really. How would you feel? The first couple of times it would probably be a little weird. You might even feel flattered. Eventually you’d start to wonder what made you look like an authority on white people. You might be confused at the way people said “white people” in hushed tones, as if they weren’t even talking about you at all, but thought you were somehow qualified to speak on the subject.

It is a peculiar thing to realize you’ve become some kind of an ambassador for Your Kind. I don’t mean to say that race and sexuality are at all commensurate, but I find I’m often interrogated about Queer Things the way I used to want to ask about Black Things. When you make someone an ambassador, you’re generally saying one of three things:

1. I know nothing about you, yet I have decided that my perception of you makes you capable of speaking on behalf of Your Kind. (Hello, black woman on the street–would you like to answer a few questions about Barack Obama for the local news?)

2. I have known you long enough to assume I can ask you rude and stereotypical questions. (Now that I’ve seen you at a few barbeques, could we talk about that whole baggy pants thing?)

3. You’re black, but you’re not really black. You know I’m not asking about you. (Because you’re so clean and articulate!)

Any way you slice it, folks, ambassadors should want the position, not be cornered into it on the sidewalk. And allies shouldn’t just be people who want to be better–they should be people who work to be better, starting with an end to Dumb Questions.


4 Responses to A good number of Capitalized Things

  1. Cindy says:

    Yes, we should discuss these things, specifically in relation to the black Bostonian project I’m working on at the cemetery. I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about being a white lady interpreting black history for an anonymous audience. On the one hand, I’m like, “I’m a homo! I know what it’s like to see people like me missing from a historical narrative when I KNOW they were there!” On the other hand, I know that being a well-off, over-educated, so-white-I’m-translucent lesbian doesn’t exactly qualify me to write history for Boston’s black community. We should talk over Le Sanweech.

  2. Cindy says:

    Also, your new layout makes me want to kill something beautiful. This is the seven deadly sins of resume design.

  3. pandanose says:

    I’ve been trying to tweak the template. There are only so many that will allow me to upload a custom header image, and I don’t know how to make things pretty on my own. Bite me.

  4. Cindy says:

    I will bite you.

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