Our Species, Our Friends

I'm a white chick, and when I was a little kid, I didn't know I was supposed to be nervous about people who didn't look like me. I grew up in a pretty racially homogeneous community and only heard stories about people in other places killing other people because of petty differences like skin tone or facial features or nationality or such.

The stories always had a note of fantasy to them, like, really? Who would do such terrible things for such stupid reasons?

And then I found out, oh. My people, that's who. The people who look like me.

And that was profoundly unsettling. Honestly, I've been struggling with how to deal with that reality ever since.

A Little Bit Complicated

Of course, it turns out the picture is a little bit more complicated than that. People who look like me aren't the only ones who do terrible things to other people, unfortunately. Also, a lot of people who look like me have actively fought against and sometimes even prevented the doing of terrible things, so it's not like we're all mean. (Phew.)

It might have been easier for me to dismiss the terribleness of what people who look like me have done if we weren't still doing it, in both subtle and overt ways. Too often, we act with grave consequences, making choices we aren't even aware of, due to implicit bias and the habit of privilege.

This was a subject of great interest to me from the beginning of my legal career, and my interest deepened when it became my turn to evaluate the conduct of police officers in one of my professional roles. Thanks to the leadership of Judge Cordell (ret.), San Jose's Independent Police Auditor, we were encouraged to consider these questions as part of our work.

Not Whether Bias, But How Much

One thing that becomes immediately clear when looking at issues of race and implicit bias is that nobody is immune. We are all both perpetrators and victims of bias, in ways large and small. There are no exceptions, only degrees. Let me say this again: being biased is not the exception, it's the rule. For everyone.

This is not to say it is excusable: the greater our biases, the harder we must work to overcome them. And essential to overcoming one's own bias is recognizing that it exists. This is one of the reasons tools like Project Implicit are so valuable.

The Patterned Fabric of Society

Bias is so entrenched in patterned ways in our dominant culture in the U.S. that it shows up not only in individual, but also at society-wide, or structural levels. Here are a couple of the most obvious examples I've personally noticed over the years:

  • People running legal institutions tend to look a lot like me, while the poor and sick people I ended up working for as a lawyer tended not to look much like me at all.
  • The people in my city who do most of the real work — the hard physical stuff like building buildings and cleaning inside them and taking care of our vulnerable elderly and picking the delicious strawberries from nearby farms that I get to eat fresh nearly year-round — tend not to look much like me, either.

There is now a ton of readily available data to support the factual basis of observations like these. Personally, I find the explosion of interest in this subject by mainstream institutions (rather than "just" those individuals most impacted by it, who already knew about the problem but whose observations were for too long treated as unimportant) extremely heartening.

When I first started paying attention to these issues of race, ethnicity, and bias, they were discussions I could have with some friends and other lawyers and certainly with my affected clients, but the white culture at large was still reluctant to call it what it is: racism. (And, of course, a host of other "-isms," too.)

The Conversation is Moving Forward

While, unfortunately, racially-charged police brutality is nothing new in this country, being able to easily film it as it happens is new. It used to be just committed activist-types who would study up on police conduct through groups like Copwatch, and then go out and buy handheld video cameras and take them where protesters planned to be.

Now, nearly anyone with a mobile phone can film, without even planning to until they become an eyewitness, often by chance. And fewer information gatekeepers exist to limit the dissemination of whatever incident they capture, so the use of the footage has also changed.

Even so, a movement for change takes work on several fronts. We can't all ride the headlines, all the time. Without long-term, concerted action, we end up with a level of reactivity that can have adverse, as well as positive consequences. There's a saying that "bad cases make bad laws." There is a danger in writing community norms with only the extreme situations in mind. That's not to say extreme situations don't deserve immediate action — they absolutely do. But long-term policy fixes tend to require long attention spans.

That's why I take heart both because of the current groundswell of attention to issues of racial justice, and because we are in an era where other new developments, like mapping technology, make it easier to look deep for lasting reforms. Resources like the Justice Map are intuitive and easy to use and help us each explore the distribution of race, income, and other factors at both the granular and regional level across the United States, from the privacy of our homes. The information pops out at us, we don't have to go to it.

Here is just one slice of this tool's data set (click on the map and zoom in and out to isolate a location.):

Snoop around for any length of time with resources like these, and the patterns become just too evident to ignore.

If you still aren't sure race and ethnicity correlates with quality of life in this country, here are just a couple more of the many mainstream resources now presenting the data of inequality:

Cause and Effect

So there is this terrible history involving race, and there is this current reality involving race, and what gets really, really confusing is when people (usually people who look like me) assert that there is no relationship, whatsoever, between the two. That the past is irrelevant to the present.

This is confusing to me personally because I tend to trust people to figure out eventually that there is this thing called cause and effect, and accept that it is a pretty ubiquitous phenomenon. You know, cause = hand in fire, effect = burn. That kind of thing. And yet, for a long time we've resisted talking about the legacy of oppression in this part of the world, because we want to pretend that the past has nothing to do with the present.

The Amnesia of Shame

I think this is related to shame. We are social creatures, and deep down inside we fear we are beyond forgiveness because we have blood on our hands. And make no mistake, that is what we have, when we align ourselves with the attitudes of the past. The consequences of the genocide of this land's First People, the Native Americans, and the chronic exploitation of Latin Americans, and the internment of Japanese Americans, and, of course, the enslavement of Africans and African Americans, weigh on our collective conscience. As they should.

This is a huge, gaping, country-wide, festering wound that can feel pretty overwhelming when you get up close and take a big strong whiff of it. Nauseating, really. So of course it's instinctual to run the hell away in the other direction.

But just because these things were terrible that my ancestors did, doesn't mean I get to pretend they aren't relevant in my life, let alone the descendants of the victims who are alive today.

The Great Justification

Another thing is going on here too. I think of it as The Great Justification. It goes something like this:

I PERSONALLY did not cause structural racism, so I can distance myself from its effects. They simply are not my fault, and thus not relevant to my life.

Not so fast.

For people who look like me, it turns out that turning our backs on the problem and running in the other direction actually DOES make us complicit in the very thing we are trying to get away from. Why? Because it is only the very luckiest people who get to completely ignore the bad luck of others. Everyone else feels the weight of these disparities dragging them down.

Except, it's not called luck when we are talking about this topic. It's called privilege. As in, you have something you maybe don't entirely have a right to have, but you sure do enjoy it while you've got it.

Privilege Can Be Taken Away

Here's the thing about privilege that every former child knows: privileges can be (justly) taken away.

Yup, that's how it works. A privilege is something you may or may not get to hold on to, depending on what you do. You give a kid the privilege of a dessert, and it terminates when the vegetables go uneaten. The kid has no right to the dessert beyond the consent of the person providing the dessert (the parent, for example).

Here's what I think: ignoring structural racism and other forms of oppression is a dessert that has been afforded to white people in this country for far too long. The party is over. It's time we roll up our sleeves with everyone else and eat our damned vegetables, already.

Later, once we've done that, we can talk about dessert. We can talk about enjoying our relative wealth and luxury and safety and brilliant educations with a clear conscience.

But not now. We haven't earned it. We have a lot more work to do, first.

But, What About Me?

Here's another justification we use:

But my life has been hard, too. I've had to work hard for everything I've got. So don't tell me I have to start giving it away to people who don't deserve it.

This argument, if you can call it that, doesn't work either. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. You aren't in a good position to measure the relative difficulty of your life compared with others. You aren't objective. That's why data from larger data sets is more valuable than your perceived experience. Of course your experience is valuable, but it is a tiny fraction of the whole. Besides, the difficulty of your life is not in dispute here. You probably did deserve better than you got, and often, especially when you were young and had even less control over the direction of your life. But all of that has no effect on the worthiness of other people. So work on healing your wounds and bitterness so you can get over yourself. Find a path to empathy, instead.
  2. Everybody else has had to work hard for what they've got, too. Being alive is work. We have to eat and shit and everything else, every day. All of this is besides the point. As a white person in this country, you are standing on the shoulders of over two hundred years of favoritism toward white people. It has permeated our legal code, our property ownership, our available past-times, and our bodies. This doesn't all just disappear simply because you have also had to work for your food.
  3. Nobody is asking you to give away what you've earned to someone you don't want to give it to. Quite the contrary. The question is whether you will return what was stolen, sometimes by your ancestors long ago, and sometimes in the current moment.

    Because the thievery continues. Violence against people of color is one form of thievery. Unfair wages is another. Disenfranchisement through a backwards criminal justice system is another. A broken connection with the land, and the food that comes from it, and the peace that waits for us there, is yet another. There are more. These are things that transcend whatever you think you have achieved so far in life.

    It's not about you. It really, really isn't. It's about your relatively minor role in a very big whole, that is broken and we must fix together. Get some perspective. Look around. You are not the central figure of this story.

Earning Our Dessert

You know what? Vegetables are good for us, and once you get used to them, they are tasty, too. They really are. Righting the wrongs of the past and present, like eating our vegetables, is a path to more health and enjoyment for us all.

Creating Value as We Go

There will be more dessert for everyone if we all eat our vegetables first.

This is because people working together have a multiplier effect. One example of this is money itself. Money is essentially a collective fiction, a story we tell ourselves about value and worth. We can tell that story however we want to. We can change the narrative whenever we want.

Where I live, long ago, before people who looked like me showed up, ornamental shells found in the ocean used to be money. If you lived by the ocean, it was pretty easy to be rich. If you lived inland, it might be harder. Imagine if everybody decided it was the needles of pine trees that only grew 5,000 feet above sea level that represented wealth? Guess what? Everything would have changed for the mountain folk.

It's the same thing now. We pay for perceived value. We can decorate our clothes with anything we want: shells, pine needles, the Gucci brand — it doesn't really matter. What makes it valuable is that people think it is. We are profoundly arbitrary in this arena.

Dollars = Seashells

People assign value to things based on community norms. We choose to value money made on money made on money that has been invested in money. Banks and investors "create" money when they choose to circulate it. There aren't even seashells from the seashore to represent this money: it's just something everybody agrees to agree exists, even though it often has no physical form.

Then, when people stop believing those investments are "real," when, for example, trust in their value dries up, the money magically disappears. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The stock market crashes and peoples' savings get wiped out. The only thing that's really changing are peoples' collective perceptions of value, which, while fundamentally arbitrary, are exceedingly powerful. Just like every other shared delusion.

Divesting From Privilege

I think the same thing is happening with race. It's not happening fast enough, and it's hardly inevitable, but I think it's happening. Wearing white skin is becoming less of an advantage, and this is a good thing. The bubble is popping. We had a period of rampant inflation, so to speak, and the market of public opinion is finally, slowly, correcting itself.

Hopefully, we divest from white privilege, and invest in empathy instead. Or something close. Maybe some day, what employers will look for (implicitly or expressly) is not how closely you align with the power structures of the past, but how profoundly wise you are in your humanity. Why not? Deep value lies in timeless, shared human insights. If seashells and abstract figures on a stock-trader's screen can be currency, why can't kindness?

The current pattern of privilege is dug really deep into our cultural DNA, but it could change. We could change it.

How to Be a Responsible White Person

White people, we've got to do our part to shift this. In returning the value of our skin to its proper place. Here are some very small steps we each can take in this direction, no matter our station in life.

1. Learn your biases.

Stop pretending you don't have them. Take Project Implicit tests and pay attention to the results. Sit mindfully with what they suggest for as long as you possibly can.

2. Actively work to retrain your brain.

Brains are plastic. They are in this way like enormous, sophisticated self-healing machines. You can change your brain. So get to work.

Here's where I started: every time I saw a _____ person, whom I learned I had a subconscious bias against, I told myself "I bet s/he has a PhD in astrophysics." Or, "I bet s/he just played Rachmaninoff before a crowd of a thousand." Or, "I bet s/he just saved puppies from a burning building or gave everything s/he had to someone in need." The fact that I had nothing to support these assumptions is what makes them perfect: that is the nature of bias. It simply makes no logical sense to assume knowledge of a person's character based on his/her outward appearance.

We must divorce our negative, fictional stereotypes from the humans who surround us. Teasing our brains using positive, fictional stereotypes is one step in this direction (and has the advantage of making the world feel like a more hopeful place, replete with puppy-rescuers and humans achieving great things).

3. Educate yourself about the felt experience of "the other".

Let's not kid ourselves, this can be hard to do. Probably watching TV or movies, surfing the web, or even serious reading, isn't really enough, as valuable as these media can be.

Volunteering can be a great way to learn about the world around you, although it can also reinforce divisions when the "helper" cohort is demographically distinct from the "helpee" cohort. Volunteering in a community-based organization where the leadership is also part of the "helpee" class is one way to offset this.

The key thing is to get involved in community life in a way that is outside of your comfort zone. You will make mistakes and feel awkward. You will meet good and not-so-good people along the way. That's fine. It's all progress.

When I traveled in Sub-Saharan Africa, two decades ago, it really struck me viscerally that all the people, the heroes, the villains, the rich and the poor, the hard-working and the leaders and the weak, everybody, were all black. It was tremendously liberating for me to have this insight. To viscerally decouple black skin from any one thing.

I felt an escape from the net of racism my culture had ensnared my brain in. It was like breathing in a way I hadn't been able to breathe before. It was such a relief to have that point of reference. And then to know I could have it here, in the U.S., too.

The same kind of community exposure is so key for the rest of us, especially those of us in positions of power, like police, judges, and business and government leaders. This is one of the reasons the cry for community policing resonates so intensely. Cops must learn to distinguish "bad" from "other," and getting in deep with the "other" who exemplify what is "good" can help.

Thus, in the course In your de-privileging, focus on getting face-to-face exposure to a wider variety of people, in a wider variety of contexts, and be deliberately mindful to what you are learning.

You will need to be kind to yourself and to everybody you are clumsy with along the way. Know that you are doing hard and worthy work. It matters. It's beautiful and the only way forward.

4. Honor your own culture.

One of the most uncomfortable realizations in my own journey was how utterly I had viewed my ethnicity as the "default setting." I took it completely for granted, to the point that I had to admit I actually had very little consciousness of what my own ethnic culture was. Because I was blind to my culture, I was blind to the assumptions I made about other cultures.

One common example of this is the use of phrases like "I'm just another boring white person," or the conflation of "exotic" with "exciting," as in, "exotic adventure" or "exotic beauty".

But the truth is, being white is also exotic, at least to those who are not white. Whiteness embodies many subcultures, each of which is just as novel and unique as any of the world's other subcultures. They are neither more nor less worthy of exploration and study. It is not "normal" to be white — most of the world isn't.

We need to reclaim white culture in order to make the playing field more level. This may seem counter-intuitive due to the horrible connotations of phrases like "white pride" or "white power". Unfortunately, people with other agendas got around to honoring white culture first, so we have work to do here, too. Also, there are aspects to white culture that we might do well to leave behind. Our fanatical devotion to individualism, over all else, is one example. Our Calvinism, with its severe notion of morality and punishment, might be another.

Use Humor

It can help to use humor to poke fun at your own cultural qualities. An excellent, satirical example of racial satire from a few years back was the Stuff White People Like blog. The soaring popularity of satirical news shows, many of which trace back to Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, also provide needed antidotes to these grim topics.

If this kind of humor consistently offends you, you are probably missing the point. For example, try reading Stuff White People Like in the same way you might lovingly tease someone you have real affection for.

If it just makes no sense to you, it's possible that your subculture bears little resemblance to the one represented in the blog, or the comedy show, and that's worth noting and studying, too. Find other ways to lighten the mood by laughing at the things you have always taken for granted.

Note that I am not suggesting laughing at other peoples' cultures. That is not progress.

5. Find your own voice on these issues.

The first thing you must do to find your voice on these issues, is to shut up and listen. Really. Listen hard, preferably to people who rub you the wrong way.

Ask questions out of genuine curiosity, not a desire to persuade. Ask many, many questions in a spirit of humility. People can tell when you are trying hard, and most of them will be exceedingly gracious.

For the few who aren't, who lash out at you verbally, understand that this is probably coming from a place of pain so deep around these issues that the lashing itself is part of your vital education. Take it, for once. Just take it. Be as gracious as you can, and move on.

I guess you can say I have a lot of experience at this part. Spending a couple of years listening to people who are only speaking to me because they feel wronged by police, particularly police who look like me, is a good way to learn how to receive misdirected anger. Getting to be in that position was an enormous responsibility, and one I fervently tried to execute with the highest standards of compassion and respect. It can be hard, but it is profoundly meaningful work.

Once we can find that place of empathy and humility, where even the lashing out can make a kind of sense, then we can move away from only listening, and start to find your own voice on these issues, too.

6. Look for opportunities to de-privilege your community.

Posting good thoughts on Facebook is something, but it's not enough. Look for less convenient ways to take a stand. Integrate your values with your real life. Continue to check yourself and your latent biases, and find ways to help others check theirs, too.

What this looks like differs for every person, as it should. Use your strengths to live your values. Wherever possible, get behind movements that are already being lead by people of color. Don't self-aggrandize. Play a supporting role, as much as you can. Take the project of de-privileging seriously, and you will find your way.

Obviously, this list focuses on change at an individual level. The policy issues also need addressing. We need to rewrite some laws. We need to change community standards. There is a lot of work ahead. And we must proceed on all fronts, at once.

The Long Haul

All this will (already has) take(n) a long time. Too long, for some.

There may be more violence, but let's not pretend we didn't have it coming. Nobody deserves to be a victim, and also, nobody deserves to have rage locked in their hearts because of injustice.

We have a lot of healing to do, on every front. Let's try to keep the damage to a minimum, while healing us. All of us. Together.

The more we do our part to bring marginalized people in from the cold, the less paranoid we will need to be about the intentions of the rest. (And let's not kid ourselves. We can all be a little paranoid when it comes to issues of race.)

Life is better for us all when there is justice, and there is peace. Let's get there. Let's keep up the struggle, even when the headlines forget it.

Want more like this? Tell me!

Return to Balancing on the Brink