[TW: discussion of racism]
Recently, my dashboard has been lit up here and there with some fast-flying reblogs of a video from one of Jane Elliott’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes workshops. In these workshops, she conducts an experiment in which brown-eyed students are separated from non-brown-eyed students, and the non-brown-eyed students are bullied, harrassed, and oppressed throughout the course of the experiment. In the particular video that was being reblogged, she conducted this workshop at a college (students could earn one credit). One student, a young white female, was in the “blue-eyes” group, the oppressed group, and after a round of prejudiced, stern treatment from Jane Elliott, she burst into tears and walked out on the class, refusing later to apologize to the people of color in the class for what she had done.
Some people on tumblr felt strongly about this. Some people were of the opinion that Jane Elliott was being too mean, and that it was horrible what had been done to the white female in question, and couldn’t they see that there was something more significant going on with her pain, her reaction? Look how upset she is: that’s how you know something just inappropriate was happening to her. This was somehow harder on her than on other people. See how she’s crying.
Other people on tumblr, rightly, didn’t accept this. The validity of someone’s suffering isn’t dependent on the crocodile size of their tears. I say this not because I believe it was impossible that the white female in question was genuinely hurt and in pain. I believe she was genuinely hurt and in pain. But to say that her tears are a validation of that is to belittle the many other ways in which other people feel and express pain. That’s saying that we should judge something as wrong or inappropriate not based on the action itself, but based on how the victim responds to it. That’s saying that someone who faces this treatment every single day, who doesn’t burst into tears anymore because they’ve had to learn the hard lesson that, for them, looking outward for support won’t yield any, is somehow not hurting as much. That oppression is less painful for someone who’s been dealing with it for twenty years than it is for someone who’s been under that strain for twenty minutes, who knows that eventually those twenty minutes will end. That’s saying “I won’t believe your pain unless you advertise it to me so clearly that I can’t possibly deny it,” and then creating a world in which you punish someone for trying to show you their pain, by calling them hysterical, histrionic, overzealous, uppity, playing the race card, self-pitying, always looking for a handout. Standing out will cost you your social standing. Standing out will make you one of those types. Keep your head down. Don’t cause a stir. But if you’re able to keep your head down, well, it can’t be that bad if I didn’t even notice it, right?
So there we are. That’s reality.
Do you know why I say that that’s reality? Because the truth is, we don’t live in a society where the majority of people will help, even if you do show them you’re in pain, if you’re not white. People were very quick to rush to the defense of the white female in the video. But I present, for you, Exhibit A, the video I’ve attached above. It’s part of ABC’s “What Would You Do?,” the first part of a two-part experiment series called Shopping While Black. Because there’s something about this video that I haven’t really seen addressed before when the video’s come up, but that’s very, very telling.
In the video, a black female actor portrays a shopper attempting to shop at an upscale women’s boutique in SoHo, NYC. She is confronted by two other actors: a white female store employee and a white male security guard. This scenario is played out both while she is dressed in expensive fashions and straightened hair, and while she’s dressed in casual clothing with a puffy jacket and non-straightened hair.
In the approximately 100 people exposed to these experiments, less than twenty people spoke up at all, and many didn’t try to help the woman, only argued with the store clerk after the woman had been thrown out of the store and the clerk was making further, blatantly racist statements to them at the checkout counter (they still intended to purchase clothing). Most of the people who spoke up, apparently, were not white, though I gather that most of the shoppers were.
Then, curiously, at the end of the video, there’s an encounter that catches my eye. Two white women are standing near the woman who’s being harrassed, and one actually steps in to help her, walking together with her out of the store (her friend accompanies her). Then, apparently suddenly feeling enraged and fired up about this, having seen the white woman stand up for the harrassed shopper, a large group of the other customers in the store, at least six or seven people, also all storm out in a huff and are eager to talk to the cameras outside about the horrible injustice that transpired.
It’s remarkable. Suddenly this was a gross injustice. Suddenly they were activists. Suddenly this was the kind of thing they simply wouldn’t stand for.
Suddenly. After long minutes of the harrassed woman decrying the injustice of what was being done to her, clearly, kindly, and sympathetically, after the clear anguish in her voice at being treated this way, they had stood by and done nothing, said nothing, and kept shopping. But after just one white person stepped up and said, “no, this isn’t okay, you shouldn’t treat her this way,” then suddenly they all understood that it wasn’t okay and that what was happening to the black woman was racist harrassment.
We are mostly deaf to people’s cries of pain.
We all are, but those of us in this country who are white — we are particularly deaf to them. Because we’re encouraged to be. Because even when we see someone projecting their suffering in the exact terms we require it to be as clear and unambiguous as possible (visibly, kindly, clearly, with long explanations, with no aggression) — even when someone plays the game whereby their problems are dismissed if they don’t present them in a certain, very specific way and a very specific tone — white people often have a particular sort of dis-empathy to these things that comes with our white privilege. We see someone being harrassed in a store and we think, “well, it can’t be because she’s black, I never see that kind of thing happening, and certainly not around here, there must be some other reason. Probably she did something I don’t know about, something I didn’t see. If they’re harrassing her, there’s probably something she did to bring attention to herself.”
We see this because of the part that goes “I never see that kind of thing happening.” And it’s because so many of us don’t. We don’t have to. No one treats us that way. We’re white. If someone stopped one of us, it was because one of us was stealing, and that’s justice. White people get stopped too, if they’re dressed like white trash. (classism exists too, therefore racism doesn’t!) Thus, when people are stopped for something, they probably stopped them because they did something wrong. Thus, when black people get stopped, it’s probably because they did something wrong, just like everybody else.
Only this does happen all the time, and we do, in fact, see it happening, but we’re so readily programmed to find other excuses for it that we’ll seize on any explanation for what’s happening other than racism, because we somehow believe that its being real, actual racism that counts is just so unlikely. (This is because racism doesn’t actually happen very often! Which — of course — is because we’re so good at finding reasons why so many instances of it don’t actually count, not, like, really really.) If it counts, then all those other things would have to count too, and that seems just so unlikely.
Besides, you had explanations for all those other times, didn’t you? His car got pulled over, but it’s so dirty, I’ll bet lots of people with dirty old cars get pulled over. Well, she really does have a tendency to sass off, doesn’t she? She just wants attention. He thinks he’s always the victim. Those checks are random, obviously sometimes they’re going to get Muslims in them no matter what, anyhow. You could fit a lot under a jacket like that. It was only a joke, everyone knows we wouldn’t ever discriminate against you! It’s probably just because of how they act, that wouldn’t happen to black people like the Obamas, so it’s not about race. It was only a joke, he wouldn’t joke about that if he really felt that way. It was only a joke, we were just laughing at stereotypes, she knows we don’t mean those things! It was only a joke, it was only a joke, it was only a joke.
And there’s a further statement that hides underneath those. That statement is, of course it’s only a joke, because no one would dare to say that out loud. I love this belief — it acknowledges the truth about racism that made the difference between buying a new shirt and walking out of the store for a group of six or so people. That truth is, I’m not motivated by my desire to fight racism, I’m motivated by my desire not to be seen as a racist. Because in this country, we don’t socially ostracize people for being racist. We socially ostracize people for not pretending not to be racist. Because the important thing is the lip service. The important thing is not giving people of color an excuse to ask us for anything. The important thing is making sure they haven’t got any proof.
And no, many of us don’t sit around thinking racist thoughts, or at least we live in ignorance of the fact that so much of our thinking is racist. We’re not all secret racists just hoping not to get caught. But America is. America, the white-privileging society, is racist, and just doesn’t want to be caught. So we create a system where we make sure that yes, there are definitely some kinds of racism that we do agree are real racism, and those are bad things! We create an incentive system where people live in fear of how awful it would be of them to actually be grouped in as a racist, because we’ve cherry-picked the worst, most egregious examples and defined those as being Serious Racism That’s Actually a Problem. And that seems very, very bad. But by doing so, we’re also creating a huge, yawning repository of all these other things that can happen that probably aren’t really racism and you’re just jumping to conclusions or making mountains out of molehills.
And we’re trained to look at a mountain, no matter how cruel and painful, and say, “Well, this country doesn’t allow people to be overtly racist, no one would stand for that. This is probably just a molehill. I’m sure if I get enough information, I’ll find a reason why this is really just a molehill. I won’t worry about it.”
Then we see a white female crying, and we know — we just know — that her pain is real. Her pain is a mountain.