Saturday, July 22, 2017

Social Work (Other-Race Effect, I)

NOTE: One week after I wrote about this, after doing it again (aargh!), I searched further and discovered it has a name: 
I am acting out the Other-Race Effect, which I posted about:
That-thing-that-i-do: it-has-a-name. 

Also related: Implicit Bias
"Implicit racial bias tends to work against the same groups that are the victims of the type of overt racism that you hear from white supremacists or the subtler bigotry of people who believe that racial minorities suffer from cultural pathology or who actively defend racial and ethnic stereotypes.
But it can also affect the minds of people who would say — honestly — that they are horrified by these types of attitudes. That's because the implicit associations we hold often don't align with our declared beliefs.

"As Cynthia Lee, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law, has explained,
'The social science research demonstrates that one does not have to be a racist with a capital R, or one who intentionally discriminates on the basis of race, to harbor implicit racial biases.'"
[End NOTE]

Last night, without thinking, I called one of my black coworkers by the name of a different black coworker. 
I caught myself as soon as the wrong name was out of my mouth, and apologized, but there was no taking it back, and yet another black coworker standing there laughed and commented on it incredulously, "You think she's A__?"

I'm embarrassed that my racism showed, and chagrined that I caused my coworkers some slight dismay (even if amused).

I feel a little awkward writing about this, but I want to record it, so I can SEE it. From the beginning at this job, I decided to see myself and my coworkers from the pov of an observer--like an embedded journalist.
I chose to adopt that not because of race and social issues, but because I wanted to avoid getting over-involved in how the place is managed, to avoid resentment. 

But I'm also getting to see at this job, in real life, how I am permeated by and play out the race divisions in my country, which play out in economics, like oil and water.
It's somewhat unusual, in my experience, for white people like me, from a middle-class, academic family, in a historically largely white part of the country, to take a low-paying job, once we're out of high school, at least, where we'd work with working-class people, which means a lot more people of color than there are in publishing.

[In the sixteen years I've been working with the children's book publisher, I've worked with.... zero people of color there.
Can this be??? 
*thinks hard*

People like me just didn't grow up knowing a lot of black people well (or at all), unless they were, like, the children of professors from Nigeria or something (or, now, of the president of the United States--ha, ha, I mean the former president! it's like I forgot...).

A white friend from South Carolina, in contrast, told me when he moved up here, he was shocked by the subtle racism, having grown up in a state with some of the worst race history.
[The Confederate flag flew over the courthouse until 2015---and is still a live issue:
From July 8, 2017---that's 13 days ago:
The S.C. Secessionist Party will host a flag-raising for an event marking 'two years since the initiation of the politically correct cultural genocide we have seen sweep across the Southland,' organizers wrote on Facebook".]
Racism was more overt there, my pal said, but he was used to black and white people constantly interacting--you wouldn't misname someone because you weren't used to seeing their features.

I'm not condemning myself here, but I'm under no illusions that I am "not racist":
How would that even be possible in this country? 

Of course I hold the usual white, liberal person's views about racial equality and all that, but in the USA, we live in a society so permeated with race divisions, it's inevitable that we all take them on, and I've done little to counteract that actively:
I don't know many black people, personally, and it showed in my unconscious misnaming, to which you could assign the horrible, old "they all look alike."
OF COURSE I don't believe that,
consciously, and the coworkers whose names I fudged have a slight similarity (short, plump, young women), but hey--the proof is in the pudding.

I pondered afterward if I've done the same to white people--called them by the wrong name.
Yes, of course. 
But I find in myself a difference:
I'm not great with names, and at SP thrift store there were several white, middle-aged women who looked very much the same, and whose similar names (Jane, Claire--not similar in sound, but similar in social feel) I confused.

But here's the thing:
I knew I wasn't sure of who was who, so I just didn't use their names. 

I truly don't know because I don't want to ask––most of my coworkers don't ask questions, usually, and I don't get the sense they welcome them either–– but I don't think most of my coworkers went to college. 
However, there's a young, white woman who dropped out of college recently. She and I have discussed books, travel, and other things that come with class privilege, a bit; I was reading Into the Wild, by Jon Karkauer, in the breakroom, for instance, and she asked me if I'd read Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which I had.

When it came up later with one of my black coworkers that this white woman and I were both from Wisconsin, she said, 
"Oh, yeah, you remind me of each other."
I don't think it's Wisconsin we have in common. In fact, we come from very different towns.
But you know, mixing up people who have more social power (simply by being white), doesn't have the same insulting sting, doesn't carry the same obliterating charge.

Meanwhile, I was happy last night to have a small conversation about religion with a Somali-born, Muslim coworker. 
He asked me what religion I am, which made me happy, and we had a tiny discussion--he was saying as a Muslim, he can't take loans with interest to pay for school---he's going to train as a med tech.
I told him I'd studied religion, and he was very interested---I got the sense he'd like go to the U himself--he knew they have a religious studies major--but I gather that's not practical for him now.
He's young. Maybe later.

That's a huge difference I sense in immigrants and children of immigrants: it's not money, it's that idea, "maybe later I will go on".
I saw that in my own father:
as the child of immigrants, he wanted to get up and out, and never thought he couldn't.

Ayayay, it's complicated. But it's fascinating, and even if I put my foot in it, for which I'm sorry, it's worth stepping into more closely.

Follow-up post: "Little Nicks to the Spirit" 

Quote from Cornel West, Race Matters:
“In these downbeat times, we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis; we must accent the best of each other even as we point out the vicious effects of our racial divide and pernicious consequences of our maldistribution of wealth and power.

We simply cannot enter the twenty-first century at each other's throats, even as we acknowledge the weighty forces of racism, patriarchy, economic inequality, homophobia, and ecological abuse on our necks. We are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation--and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately.

Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”
― Cornel West, Race Matters


The Crow said...

I don't think that mistake means you are racist. I think it means you mixed up names. I also think, though, that blogging about how you view what happened, analyzing the degree to which you might be race-conscious (different from racist) as a result of this innocent mistake says a lot about your thoughtfulness, compassion and sensitivity to the feelings of others.

Wait until you get to be 70! That's when you mix up EVERYbody's names, then stare at them blankly trying to remember not only their name, but to whom the name truly belonged!

Michael Leddy said...

There may be a detail that I'm not understanding, but I too don't see racism as obviously involved in mixing up names. But — if some pale person were several months into a job and still mixing up the names of the only people of color in the workplace, that could suggest a problem.

One of my grandmothers used to cycle through names until she found the right family member: “Jim, Michael, Brian.”

Anonymous said...

Yes Michael, my Mum used to cycle through names when we were children, including those of the budgie and the dog! I have three sons and frequently call them by the wrong name! my Mum never had that excuse as I have a brother and no sister. One thing that always strikes me as rascist about the US, is say I write a post about a castle in Europe. Some bloggers from the US will respond by saying they wished they lived somewhere with old history! I never do say anything, but the US does have the history of native Americans, the indiginous population who were there long before the Pilgrim Fathers turned up. Ignoring that history is weird to say the least. Muddling the names of co workers is not rascist, but thinking that it is if they are of color and not just because you don't know them all very well and ignoring that you don't yet recall the names of white workers, is. Does that make sense? Thought provoking post, thanks.

Fresca said...

Thanks for writing, everyone. I hope I've addressed these comments in the posts I wrote over the next (past) couple days.