Sunday, July 26, 2009

Beneficent doesn't mean unbiased; Bias doesn't mean bigot

Assalamu Alaikum,

Funny thing about words. Words can do so much. As kids my siblings and I learned that old chant early: 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.'
Untrue, untrue, my now-self calls back to my childhood. I've forgotten most of the scrapes, cuts, bruises I've had, but I clearly remember words and conversations from when I was three years old. And now the potential energy of words is coming to the face of the consciousness of my community and our country.

So the other night, I stayed up until about 4 AM discussing just such an instance of hurtful words. And during the conversation, my words were twisted, biased generalizations were drawn based on another's perception of who I am, and of course I heard my entire race- and then all of the males in my race- maligned and denigrated. I was told that my viewpoint was hurtful, that I insinuated that another person was racist, that I assumed that anyone against me must be racist- but that another's viewpoint was righteous and of course based in reality.

You could say I had a normal day that lasted into the wee hours, really.

I want to get back to that conversation in a moment. By now, since President Obama so graciously used his valuable time and remarked upon it not once but twice, nearly everyone has heard about the incident of Professor Henry Louis Gates' arrest by Seargeant James Crowley. It has been the topic of direct and indirect discussion around the country for nearly a week, now.

I normally don't watch TV at all, but was perusing various reactions and saw this (yes, I know, CNN. Better for domestic racial commentary than the BBC and other international news.)

Tim Wise makes an excellent point:

Is it possible that Sgt. Crowley, though he is not by all appearances a bigot in any sense of the word, may have perceived Prof Gates’ behavior as more belligerent than he would have, had this been a white person?...

...White folks whether they’re cops or just average citizens, will oftentimes view the behavior of black people as more negative, more dangerous, more aggressive even more criminal than they would the very same behavior engaged in by a white person. And they don’t do that because they’re bigots or racist or bad people, and they do that because of what are called implicit biases, they don’t make us bad, but they happen. ~ Tim Wise, author of ‘White Like Me’

I think for the most part Mr. Wise hit the target. What I did not hear him say, is that Black folk have biases, too. Everyone has biases.

I have to say that I knew of Professor Gates before the incident, and in my mind he was (and is, really), one of those 'Famous Black Americans'. Ar-um... how do I explain that? When I was a child, my parents and community really worked to instill a sense of foundation that was based on examples of education, determination, and pride from among Black America. I grew up in the '80s and then the '90s, so I really caught the tail end of being raised 'Black and Proud' in the arms of the survivors and the heroes and the children of the 1950's-60's civil rights movement. I have grown into an adult who knows how very very crucial that foundation was.

So I knew about Dr. Gates who was a great social scientist and researcher, and I heard about the news that he taught at Harvard (though to tell the truth, Dr. Cornell West is more famous in my perception), and I was delighted when I returned to DC from PR (so this would've been 2005 or 2006) to catch the first installment of African American Lives on PBS. I knew that man, and I loved that series. (The second series was just as good. Yes, he had Soledad O'Brien beat before she got started, in my opinion.) So yes, I was astounded to hear about the arrest... and at the same time, yes, part of me was about the least surprised person on earth. You see, I knew that Professor Gates is smart and acccomplished; but I knew he is Black as well.
Reference Tim Wise's quote above.

I know all about inherent biases. Believe me, knowing about inherent bias was a theme wherever grownups were from the time I was still young enough to keep my hand grasped in my mother's skirts (she didn't wear pants until I was twelve), still young enough to peek at my father's spades hand from his lap, not old enough to ask questions and be told to stay out of grown folks' bidness. Inherent bias didn't take that term, though. The theme instead was, 'We have to do twice as much to get half the recognition', or 'Got to walk on water; and still these folks will wonder why you don't make yourself a boat'.

As we grew older my mother would go on and on about the importance of being well-groomed and neat. "You're already taller and more noticeable"- meaning because of our chocolate skin- "so you need to look nicer and be more courteous than most". Heh, but she refused to (and probably couldn't afford to, now that I think on it) buy the Donna Karan, the Coach, the Guess, the Jordans to make us fit in- a clean appearance was what counted... sigh. That was my childhood. Then I became an adult, sat with the grown folks, and listened to my aunts and my grandfather trade stories of how "these white folks" would look for any way to get 'us' out of our own success stories. How paper trails are essential, how evidence is crucial; how the least offence can and will be magnified against you. 'Don't forget, you're smart, you're beautiful, and you're still Black', ran the advice of my elders. And then I had a couple of jobs where I found out the truths behind the family lore for myself.

That's not a story for today. Point is, the guests in the video are educating the uninitiated in something that is not a small fact of minority life (and certainly my life) in this country and heck, in this world. Most people act upon their biases; and if you're on the negative/minority/less empowered side of a bias you will see, eventually, those actions based on bias affect you negatively. You can work hard and avoid most of the craziness, but you will see those biases come out against you. Like it or not. The End.

Because I know all about inherent biases, and because of the frequency of their being acted out in the actions and perceptions of those around me, I become less outraged when I recognize them, and less invested in actively correcting the subtle biases. As my Aunt C would say: "I don't have the time." I see this kind of mess all the time, and it's tiring enough just to ignore the subtle bovine scatulation in my way, and stay about my own business. You train the children in your village accordingly, if you have the foundation I do, suck it up and do better than your best, and leave the rest to God.

Until you need to have the conversations that last all night, as I did the other night.
I overheard a friend of mine, a prospective taxi driver, say into his cell phone, "yeah, and I might have to leave Black people", in the context of his conversation, as if to say he wouldn't be picking up Black people. He didn't qualify the statement, didn't say scary looking Black people or thugs, or black and white crazies. He said what he said.

To be frank, I was stung. I was at the house of a very dear friend, and to hear him say that... took me out of my context, where I was comfortable, and into one where I was in a room with someone with those negative inherent biases who had no problem with putting them into play even though I was in his line of sight. Also, the man in question is a brown-skinned minority himself. So yeah, to have him say that pretty much in my face, if not to me, hurt. It was a very 'what the heck?' moment.

We were lucky to have just gone through Maidan's workshop on 'The Art of Prophetic Communication', so those things were fresh in our minds... yes, we used the concepts, especially those of considering the audience and how THEY hear our words.

What followed was an excellent example of what the entire country is doing and thinking and how we're reacting. Because what I said, when he was off the phone, was that for him to not pick up a Black person for the fact that they're Black, was racist. I immediately clarified- not that I thought HE was racist as a person, but that he needed to face the fact that what he said was racist, and that to take that particular action with no other basis, was wrong.

Ayyayyay. He was very hurt that I had called him racist. And he could never be a racist because people have been racist toward him. And he has Black friends! And then I had to say, no, you obviously didn't hear me say that I DON'T think you're racist. And then it became a discussion of words and how he wasn't into vocabulary. So he didn't see anything wrong with saying what he said the way he said it. And I had to sit down and explain it something like this:

Look, I told (my amiga) earlier, that I don't think I could be in the position of a cab driver for exactly that reason; that I KNOW I would have to judge people on their appearance and possibly not give them a ride again based on their appearance. I don't know that I could do that.

But I do know that I have been Black for 28 years now. And I can tell you how it feels to hear you won't pick up a black person. If it weren't for the fact that I wear hijab, I'd STILL never get a cab- I'm bigger and darker than most cab drivers like. And as the lone black person in the room, I have to say that I know that I'm more likely to be the victim of a crime committed by another black person than anyone else here. So yes, I even understand using race as one factor when you look at someone and ask yourself if they're a threat to your safety. I would never ever say that you should do anything against your own safety. You must look out for your safety first and always, and I recognize that.
I also recognize that we must all do that, and we use stereotypes to do so. That's not my problem here.

My issue comes when you don't realize that what you are doing involves racism, and that it's a racist act. One lie does not a liar make; but it's still problematic when a person cannot look at an untruth they've told and know that they told a lie.

AND, when you say for example, that "It's black people's fault that I have to think like that, they've put themselves in that position", first, you're generalizing, and second, you've got your facts incorrect. For you to say that your perception of black people and your acting upon it is the fault of millions of people who don't even know you exist, is racist. Having black friends, black babies, what have you doesn't make what you said any less racist. And when you say it, you're sitting here looking at my skin!

You said, 'It's Black people's fault,' you said, 'Black people put themselves in that position.' But you tell me that it's not the case for me. That's offensive, because my skin is still Black, and I am a part of that group about whom you speak. My skin color didn't change in the last five seconds. If you said 'Black dudes', then okay, great, you exclude me from your racism, but you included my brother and my father. And if you would exclude us, then I'd ask you to stop generalizing based on your stereotypes. And don't delude yourself that what you're doing isn't racist. You have to care about your safety, you have to look out for number one first. But don't tell yourself that just because you're being safe, or even if it is necessary, that you're not doing something that is racist. It is.

You don't have to listen to me, and you don't have to care what I think of you. Because beyond this moment, I don't care- you may very well never see me again, ever. But, I would ask you to take this conversation as a tool and USE your words better. You never know when what we're saying can help you. Because, yeah, I don't think you're a racist person. I also don't want you to believe that because you mean well or don't mean ill, that how you say things doesn't count. It does. And it will. And anything good I have said isn't from me. And if you have taken anything bad from what I have said, it is from me, please accept my sincerest apologies.

I was exhausted at the end of that conversation, but it was so very necessary.

If life were fair, after that very exhausting conversation, I'd've had a Racism-free Day card or something, but alas. I think it was on Racism 101 on the Resist Racism blog that someone said that people of color literally experience racism daily, and that we let 95% of what happens, we let it go.

So then the next day, I had to explain to one of my fellow students in the Fawa.kih program (we had just completed mid-term evaluations of the program) why it is that I was angry, and why it was that it seemed inherently unfair that I should have to go see the teacher after class, and take advantage of the study time, instead of the other way around. Why it was that a LOT of the time, I just 'shut down' and shut up instead of voicing my opinion. It's because I already know that I am bigger than most; that I'm perceived as louder than most (even when I'm not; I do have a trained voice, won't lie), that I'm darker than most. In the USA, in any given situation, someone is more likely than not to already have some perception of me as negative; as a threat, or a danger, or aggressive, or unintelligent. That last hurts me most because I'm here to learn. And I am not a stupid woman. To be dismissed based on the craziness someone has learned to carry in their heads is insane, and if you see me as vocal, understand that I automatically don't say half of what I could and would and ought.

That's my life.

This is a really long post. It's been a while coming, and I may have something to say later. Comments are open and I welcome your thoughts.



  1. As-Salaamu 'alaikum,

    To be fair to your friend, any cab driver is taking his life in his hands when working in certain areas at certain times, particularly at night. I'm sure you don't think all men are rapists any more than he thinks all blacks, even black men, are thugs, but you won't be taking any undue chances, particularly when it comes to letting people into your car or getting into theirs.

    You say you wouldn't be a cabbie because you'd have to judge people based on appearance. I wouldn't be a cabbie for the simple reason that you can't tell who's desirable and who's not in the time it takes, but I'm sure they do make snap judgements on appearance and race is one aspect of that, although not the only one. I could turn down a group of black guys outside a nightclub in an area known for trouble because they look like trouble, and then pick up a respectable-looking couple outside the opera house who turn out to be serial killers.

    Also, am I right in remembering you saying you were of Puerto Rican origin? Most Afro-Americans don't speak Spanish, after all. Did your friend know this? Perhaps he thought you "weren't really black" and wouldn't get offended. People might make the same mistake in front of Ghanaians (or people of that origin) in the UK.

    Sorry if I sound like a typical white person apologising for racism and saying it's not racism, but there's a difference between who you'd take for a friend and who you'd let into your car without knowing them.

  2. Wa Alaikum as Salaam,

    I completely understand where he was coming from, as a cab driver, and I'm saying that I know- that I fully understand- that racial profiling is a daily part of every cab driver's life. Aiight. Fine. I'm not going to say that phenomena is the best thing since pan de coco, but I get it.

    My issue is, still, realize that the reaction you have might just have race at its base. Here in the USA, if you don't actively discard your biases and judgments on any particular racial group, your reactions probably are based on race and not just the person in front of you. That's just how it is. It's hard to prove it, but it's nearly impossible to prove otherwise.

    I'm not Puerto Rican (except by 'adoption', which I am not counting right now). I was born and proudly remain an American Black. I do speak Spanish, and therein lies the rub. Had I been of Afro-Latino descent, should that remark, based on color and not culture, have been any less offensive? You cannot see what languages I speak by looking at my face, as I have learned by living in a different culture. I would argue that it remained motivated by racist thinking. And I'd ask you, how is there a visual difference between UK-born blacks and Ghanaians? Seriously. Change the dress, perhaps, modify the behavior, perhaps. It'd disturb me more that a Ghanaian wouldn't react to the same skin-tone-based remark. Here in the USA, black gets used as a visual classifier, and I for one have never been able to escape it, speaking Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, or not.

    No person exists without context. But in the USA, the first context (unless someone is blind) is racial classification. I've heard that first-hand from some Puerto-Rican and Arab and even Southeast Asian friends who found that out the hard way.

    MashaAllah, thank you for your thoughts.


  3. As salaam walaikum,

    Wonderful post and wonderfully put, mashaAllah. As you've mentioned, each person has biases based on their upbringing or their environment or personal experiences and no one can completely escape from it. I do agree that one has to recognise when they are biased and try to correct it. In most situations people feel ashamed to be proven wrong (probably an internal ego of sorts) and the easiest thing to do is to deny it. It's one of the defense mechanisms in psychology.

    I won't say I'm free of bias. Now I'm not sure if this would be considered racist but I feel uncomfortable around some African Americans. I don't seem to have that problem around African Brits. Or regular African Arabs/South Africans. It's something about certain Americans who are loud and aggressive in their behaviour. I'm recollecting an incident of a cabbie who was black and he was huge. Now that was not the problem (although it doesn't help to know I'm tiny) but the fact that he was too aggressive in trying to get me into his cab and his enthusiasm literally scared me. I'm sure my bias of how black guys can be dangerous was playing at some unconscious level. Anyway, eventually I got into another more sober, and to my surprise Muslim (Somali), cab diver's car. Although, I was still slightly nervous, I consoled by the fact that he was a fellow Muslim.

    A similar incident happened in the plane when I was accompanied by a black American guy whose behaviour made me uncomfortable. He was sitting so wide legged that his thigh kept touching mine and I had to literally squeeze myself into a corner. It confused me when I came to know he was a born Muslim (as in, why would he not take care to sit properly). There were a few other things that made me uncomfortable but it would take a while to write them down. Now, I am wondering if I'm actually afraid of loud/aggressive guys or was it because he was black. Or maybe it was both.

    As for why I didn't say anything about the legs touching, at first I thought he'd realize it himself when I kept moving mine and later he seemed to be asleep. I seemed to have noticed this specifically among Americans rather than dark-skinned people from other nationalities. What would be the least offensive way to speak to someone especially if you are scared of them or nervous around them?

    PS: I'm a hijabi.

  4. Assalamu Alaikum sr. Anon,

    First, welcome, and thanks for making a comment...
    as for your question, two points come to mind. The first is that American culture tends to be very complicated; outside of the country, I recognize that I may very well be viewed as American or Muslim first; within the US I have found (and I"m not saying this is true for everyone!) that race is the initial touchstone for judgment. It's more familiar.

    Loudness has been cited to me very often as a characteristic of Black American culture; and I have found that it often is a part of interactions, but not always. I wasn't in the situation and didn't see what was happening, so I don't know if the man was on a hustle, was inviting you to social flirtation, or was trying to intimidate you into his cab. Always always trust your instincts first with your safety inshaAllah.
    So, um, I have no idea what to say other than just that. I could go on about the differences between stereotypes of American vs Others in the black cultures I've seen; but eh. Another time perhaps.

    On the legs touching: culture or race or whatever, this has first to do with your level of assertion of your personal boundaries. The first thing that would have occurred to me was to ask the brother to keep his legs to himself. Especially if the seat you were in was the last one available, or if you didn't feel like moving. Sounds like the man wanted to know what kind of boundaries you had or how much he could get away with. Again, I wasn't there, so I'm going on what you describe and what I've felt traveling myself.

    That's kind of open and shut. You don't have to tolerate anyone touching you, period. Don't wait for someone to be courteous if they're invading your space; be direct, and firm; use courtesy as far as the interaction warrants.
    That IS an instance where being loud will help, because you want to attract a bit of attention so the person in question can have others exert social pressure as well. You're lucky to be small in that context, as others are more likely to come to your rescue. In the same interaction by myself, people look at me and figure I can handle myself.

    Now, again, I don't think the aversion to being touched by some random stranger should have anything to do with race. The fact that you didn't speak up just might have. The question is, would you have reacted in the same way to a man whose skin was paler or darker, but who was infringing your space in the exact same manner? The answer to that is your answer.


    ps Muhejebah Power!