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...not just a river in Egypt

Some while back, someone on Quora (a question and answer site on which I'm quite active) asked a question about encounters with racism and white privilege.

I told the story of something that happened to Eve and me at a Walmart in Florida. We were standing in a checkout line with about five people in front of us, when the cashier pulled us out of line. We thought she was opening a new register, but instead, she just brought us to the front of the line and rang us up. It was a little confusing, and it took a few minutes to register: we were the only white people in line.

This is, I think, a fairly typical example of everyday racism. There's nothing particularly weird or unusual about it; it's just part of the background institutional racism of life in the United States, one of the many small acts of racism that normalize racism on a larger scale.

What I didn't expect, and did find deeply weird, was the way people reacted to this story.

This, I think, is very strange. It's also very telling.

There are lessons in both the event and the responses to it, I think. Both Eve and I didn't recognize what was going on at the time it happened. As she wrote,

It was crowded and noisy. It happened really fast. We were stressed and distracted. Have you ever had someone pull you out of line because they were opening a new register? At first we thought that was what was happening. [...] We weren't even sure if everyone standing around us was actually in line. There was a lot of information to take in and respond to at once.

It was only after we checked out and were halfway to the exit that we looked around and realized that she was the only cashier open in her area and that the people around us had in fact all been in line - and were still there.

I mean yeah. We felt like idiots afterward for not realizing sooner what was going on. I certainly hope the experience will help us be more aware in the future if we encounter this shit again.

Neither of us recognized what was happening at the time, but we're now more aware of this kind of thing, and we're not likely to be taken by surprise in the future.

So that's the first lesson: sometimes, white privilege means being completely unaware of casual acts of everyday racism even when you're right in the middle of them.

The second lesson, though, is more interesting: it has become very, very common for people who are confronted with something uncomfortable to deny that it exists. And that's troubling.

To be fair, this is not limited only to racism. The same thing happened whenever people talk about any kind of topic where there's likely to be disagreement. I've written on this blog and elsewhere about the hysteria around GM food and how the machinery of fear of GM food is totally devoid of empirical evidence, and as sure as night follows day, every time I do, someone will reach into the attic of argumentative fallacy and haul out the tired old "you don't believe that, you're just being paid to say it" trope. It's happened both on Quora and, when a blog post about GM food made it to Reddit, on Reddit:

It hasn't always been this way. This reflexive, instantaneous denial--"You had an experience that makes me uncomfortable; I will refuse to believe it occurred," "You hold an idea I disagree with; you do not really believe what you're saying"--is new (at least to me).

Denial as an argumentative tactic isn't new, of course, but the fact that so many people reach for it as the very first response is.

This happens in politics ("You support Hillary, that's the only reason you're saying Jill Stein is pandering to pseudoscience"), in technology, in everything. It's pervasive. And it's gaslighting. It's built on the assumption that a person can tell you what your experiences were, what you believe or don't believe, all because he doesn't much like what you're saying. (I say "he" because with only one exception, all the responses I've screen captured above were from men.)

But when it comes to experiences of racism, it seems particularly deeply rooted.

I'm not sure if that's white discomfort at the idea of their own privilege, or if it comes from the fact that so many Americans truly want to believe that the election of a black President means we're living in a post-racial society, or what it is, but it's bizarre. What happened to Eve and me in Walmart isn't even that egregious an example. It's not like, just to use a random hypothetical that of course would never happen in real life, an unarmed black man was shot dead by police for doing nothing in particular.

Yet people really, really want to believe that it simply never happened--that it would not happen. They seem incredibly invested in that belief.

I would like to think that, had I been waiting in that line and seen what happened, I would raise a stink about that.

But here's the thing: I am white. I was born into a system that privileged me. I have never been on the receiving end of structural racism. If someone were to be brought in front of me in line, of course I would raise a stink about it; being able to raise a stink is part of my privilege. Many folks on Quora expressed surprise that none of the people in the line spoke up, but that's part of the problem. Being allowed to speak up about racism is not a privilege that those on the receiving end are permitted.

On Quora, several folks made exactly this point:

Talking about privilege is difficult, because a lot of folks who hold some kind of privilege (white privilege, male privilege, whatever) take the conversation as an affront. It's not always clear what we're supposed to do with the knowledge that we have these social privileges we didn't ask for, whether we want them or not.

I've heard folks become defensive and say things like "are you telling me I should feel guilty for being white?" or "are you telling me I didn't work for the things I have?"

And the answer is no, of course not. That's not the point at all. The point is to recognize these structures, so that you can point them out and you can help level the playing field for everyone.

Had someone in that line objected, he probably would have been seen as just another angry black person. Had we objected, that would have been a whole different ball o' wax. This video illustrates this nicely:

The right thing to do, had we recognized what was happening, would be to say "Excuse me, these people were in line first, why are you bringing us to the front?"

The wrong thing for us to do (which was what we did) was to be so unaware of what was happening that we simply allowed it to happen. The wrong thing for other people to do was to tell us that it never happened at all.

Of course, all this happens because racism is still a real and genuine thing, openly embraced by far more people than we are comfortable admitting (including, it must be said, a certain current Presidential candidate). Not everyone on Quora denied our experience. At least one person celebrated it. I'll leave you with this gem:


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 16th, 2016 11:58 pm (UTC)
Memory and Fact
Long time reader first time poster, because this interests me.
I'm not suggesting you're lying, but are you surprised that someone finds your experience both atypical and potentially misinterpreted?

You have, in this quote, said something that is quite interesting: "This is, I think, a fairly typical example of everyday racism." What you are talking about is on several levels an atypical event. For starters, it's not often that you find yourself as the only white couple in a line full of black people with a white cashier (was it a white cashier?). I've also never experienced a moment when a new line opened up and the cashier *personally directed* someone to be the one to transfer over. Every time I recall, they simply announce that they're open and they take the first comer. I've also never seen them pull from the back of the line unless there's only 3 'groups.' So for starters, assuming it happened exactly as you recall, it's most certainly an atypical experience (which, on the internet, invites skepticism).

Secondly, you identified all the factors involved with false recollection and post-hoc invention of meaning. You were confused, you weren't aware of your surroundings, and because you weren't cognizant, you never actually asked either teller why they pulled you out. Did you have just a few items while everyone else in line were in large family units with full carts? Did they grab anyone else in the line to follow after you? How many people were ahead of you in the line? Did the teller suggest others move first (how many times have you been in line with an opportunity to move and the next customer in line goes "meh, I'm already here")? These would all be useful pieces of information to know if you're going to mentally condemn the white privilege infusing this random Wal-Mart, but I doubt you remember it accurately (and it wouldn't be fair for anyone to expect you to because you weren't paying attention at the time... which is my point).

You were left having to co-construct a narrative (with Eve) using limited information to explain an atypical experience... and you chose racism. Are you surprised that others (on the internet, especially) might not agree with your conclusion?

If there's a lesson from this post, it's to (try) to maintain situational awareness and slow down when things become confusing before you (potentially) participate in something that repulses you... and to be careful about making judgments about something (even your own experience) for which you have little information.
Aug. 17th, 2016 05:16 am (UTC)
Re: Memory and Fact
There's an important detail you might have misunderstood.

The cashier was not opening a new line. She pulled us out of an existing line and brought us to the front of that same line.
Aug. 17th, 2016 05:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Memory and Fact
I appreciate the clarification because I did misunderstand, but does that substantively address my response? It's still an atypical event- in fact, even MORE atypical, I'd say.

There are other possible reasons why it might have applied (you only had one or two items vice whole carts, a courtesy which has happened to me a few times, or the family ahead of you lost their credit card and the cashier was trying to keep things moving while they looked for it, etc.)

I don't know if these were valid since I wasn't there, but to a degree, neither were you since you weren't cognizant in the moments leading up to the event. I follow your posts on science/relationships because you have a great style of communicating the nature of cognitive biases in other people, so I think you know where I'm going with this:

You could very well be right (about the incident being an example of white privilege)... but there are also very good reasons to suspect you might not be (or might not even REMEMBER the event accurately, since memory in conditions of confusion, violence, and moral revulsion is suspect, at best). More to the point, a perfectly reasonable human being could disagree with or disbelieve your narrative without being in denial about racism. Again, there certainly are racists in the world (as that final post made clear, trolling or not) but because of the circumstances, it's just not the smoking gun your piece here makes it out to be.

Keep fighting the good fight. I like your work- I just thought this one was a bit of a step into thin air.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )