Saturday, March 17, 2012

Conversations/March: Prejudice II

Is it Not so for You?
(see end of previous post)

(Image: The Hate Monger by Jack Kirby)

Happy St. Patrick's Day, from one Italian-Irish-American to anyone reading this!

Somewhere in the mid-nineties, while working at The Sacramento Bee, we were obligated to take a two-day diversity training course. This particular course was unlike any I have ever taken. The trainer was Asian, and I wish I could remember his name. It was a hugely eye-opening experience, probably best summarized by an exercise he administered within the first couple of hours. My class was hugely diversified, which represented The Bee at that time. My own department, Customer Service, where I was one of the people responsible for hiring, probably had a 45% "minority" workforce. The newspaper in general was pretty mixed, perhaps with the exception of the news room and the very white (and male) members of upper management (what a surprise, right?) I suppose my "willingness" to hire all types of people had its roots with my parents, as these things usually do. Despite growing up in such a very white neighborhood, I don't remember either one of them ever making a "racist" statement in my presence, and while we disagreed about many things, civil rights wasn't one of them. (I think I was also "lucky" to have spent my 9th thru 12th grades in a VERY mixed student population.) The racial diversity of people in my department also spilled over to how they chose to present themselves. At first, one of my managers was dead set against tattoos, piercings, dyed hair, etc., but luckily for many of our staff, I was able to convince him that these "peculiar" fashion choices did not necessarily indicate a poor employee. By the time I left the paper, the department looked more like a collection of record store employees than a white collar call center.

Anyway, back to that exercise in our diversity class. As I recall, there were about 25 of us in the class, close to half were black, and all of us from a very mixed bag of jobs/pay scales/etc. The Asian instructor was incredible in that he managed to convince most of us that we could freely speak in the class about some of the most sensitive issues that had shaped our lives. He asked the class for a show of hands for who had been stopped, at some time in their life, in a car or on foot, by the police. Just about everybody raised their hand. Then he asked how many people felt "frightened/intimidated" (he probably used a different word) when that happened. Virtually everyone who was not black pulled their hand down. He then went to each of the people with their hand still in the air and asked them to discuss their perspectives on this issue, and it was a real eye opener. Their stories about the police and that person's relationship to them, and their family's relationship to them, were quite a surprise to the non-black "students". And this was how the whole class proceeded, as he skillfully got us to "reveal" the cultural events that shaped our perspectives, and it was amazing how different the various "races" in that class looked at things.

So today, I still work in a very diverse work environment, but my friends are mainly white like me. My son married an incredible Hispanic woman. My neighborhood is mixed: it's mainly white, but includes Hispanics, Asians, and has in the past included blacks. About half the households on my block are gay couples, mainly white women. I think it is paramount that for almost anyone to begin to grapple with prejudice, there's gotta be some contact with different types of people. I'm very much for integration, though not so sure about "forced" integration. But if it's not "forced", how can it possibly occur?

Your thoughts?

(Spence replies)

Actually, the "intimidation" factor you relate from the nineties diversity session was an eye-opener for me.

I thought immediately of John Howard Griffin's book Black Like Me, and how profiling emerges between then and now. Questions leap out: Does the current Trayvon Martin case reflect an utter lack of change since your session? A CNN piece seems to say so. Would that author's appearance invariably produce a sense of threat in whites, particularly in a dark setting? But, further, what does it mean that most of us probably need to know that the victim was black before we feel like we _really_ know the story? 

Then, locally, why do stories like  this (hooded sweatshirts) and this (Onesto, Reyes...) and this (gang members) provoke such a weary here-we-go-again from the middle class where I live? Are the suspects somehow self-profiling, and have they always been? And what would happen if they got plunked into my neighborhood instead of a dense, decaying, and dark neighborhood near the strawberry fields or the Boardwalk?

And why does the Toulouse gunman Toulouse gunman apparently feel a similar sense of threat, but react to it more terrifyingly? 
Is there somehow a codified relationship between, say, these identifiers these identifiers , turbans, and tattoos that might be seen on the average black or brown NFL or NBA player?

I guess the good news is that, in contrast to Griffin's experience, that intimidation or exclusion is much more likely to be associated with police, as part of semi-sanctioned profiling, than it is to be with a clerk in a store, or a server in a restaurant, or a voting registrar. But even where the "markers" - tattoos, hoodies, shaved heads, even oversized jerseys or head scarves - don't effectively invite the stereotypes, it appears we have a long way to go. And I suspect that enforced integration might not be the answer, simply because it seems to be down to poverty in as many cases as not - the people with those looks just tend not to either be able to afford more racially monolithic middle class neighborhoods, or want nothing to do with them.

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