What does it mean to be white in America?
The differences in public opinion
about the Trayvon Martin verdict are stark. Eighty-six percent of African American’s are dissatisfied with the Zimmerman verdict, while 30% of whites are dissatisfied. Seventy-eight percent of African Americans, but only 28% of whites, say the Trayvon Martin case raises important issues around race that need to be discussed. These are glaringly different perceptions, reflecting two parallel universes in the U.S.
Juror B-37 said race wasn’t a factor. She subscribes to the notion that one can be colorblind. Yet a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll
shows 79% of African American’s disagree with the statement that American society is colorblind. Recent studies of implicit bias demonstrate that most whites have an unconscious bias toward whites and against blacks. Most whites believe we are colorblind while research shows we are not. Furthermore, laws and the legal process do not recognize or take into account the evolving brain research from the last decade on implicit bias. For instance, hypothetically, what would happen if the jury had been measured for implicit bias? Take the test
President Obama offered explanations to white Americans as to why the black community’s response has been so strong. He shared experiences from his own life of being profiled. He noted that when this experience and a history of being profiled are unacknowledged, or statistics are used to justify profiling, it causes pain.
To get the perspective of black America, we in white America need to lean into understanding and accepting the complexity of the situation. Resist the urge to oversimplify. There is a lot more going on than many of us recognize.
Most of us have incorporated mindsets that result in us seeing only part of the broader picture. Here are a few of those mindsets:
Our Individual Lens. We see everything through an individual lens. We might see blacks as a group but we see ourselves as individuals. We rarely recognize that we as whites collectively have a different daily experience than blacks. Nor do we explore this different white experience and how it impacts how we view others and whether we are able to understand their experience. What does it mean to be white in America?
Our Focus on Unity / Sameness over Difference. We believe that equality comes from not seeing differences but treating everyone the same. There is good intent here. But our definition of sameness is a (invisible to us) white male norm. Others hear this as, “I’ll treat you the same as long as you act like me and keep me comfortable.” How about noticing both sameness and difference? What would it be like to be colorblind and color conscious at the same time?
Future Focus. We tend to downplay the impact of the past and focus on the future. We don’t get how the past experiences of black Americans influence their present day experiences. What would you hear if you asked black individuals how their past experiences influence how they view the Trayvon Martin case?
Rationality over Emotion. We are taught to see rationality as signifying truth while simultaneously viewing emotions as potentially destroying rationality and truth. This leads us to want to keep emotion out of any dialogue. However, Thomas Kochman, in his book Black & White Styles in Conflict, describes emotion as an important signifier of truth in African American culture. What might you learn if you accepted emotion as a natural part of diversity partnerships and learned to be more raggedy and more comfortable being uncomfortable?
These mindsets have been effective for us in many ways but they shift from strengths to weaknesses when we overuse them. Then we lose our ability to see how others have a different experience in the world and to know how they are impacted by factors often invisible to us. It’s not that our view of the world is wrong, rather it’s incomplete. Stay curious and resist the urge to oversimplify.