Looking at Black people like you would any other people

[Just as a reminder that I’m a white person writing mostly to white people about working through and dismantling our racism toward people of color, particularly Black people, see my first BGIM post here for some background – Heather Denkmire]

There’s shyness. There’s social anxiety that trips us up when we encounter people. And then there’s racism, subtle but powerful, that makes us unable to simply look at a Black person without seeming creepy, dismissive or utterly awkward.

I’ve talked to a lot of white peers about this tendency we have. How we’ll be going along being normal and a Black person enters the sphere of our awareness and suddenly we feel awkward and kind of weirdly giddy, like, “oh oh oh here’s an opportunity to be a good white person!” A lot of that probably comes from a sincere desire to be good—but often it’s also overcompensation for our race-based presumptions—but even with good intent, all it does is make the interaction awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved.

I’ve known I do this for decades. I’ve known that part of it was because I simply didn’t have a lot of experience being around Black people. On the other hand, I don’t have a lot of experience being around people who speak French, people with freckles, or people with spiked fluorescent hair, and none of those situations turn me into a gibbering fool. What was going on?

I looked at my past. Almost every area of my life has been almost entirely made up of white people. My high school had some Black students, but as far as I know, they were all “bussed in” from Hartford and, therefore (I thought), seemed so foreign. I began looking back at that. Why didn’t I know any of those students well?

I remember walking through the hallways and being aware there was a big group of Black students, maybe some of them were in a circle? There was a lot of loudness and laughter. There was maybe sometimes even dancing? Is that possible? (Yes, it’s possible.) My memory of it was so vague because, as I’ve discovered, my whole life was fed by the need to try to not notice race. I needed to not see that someone was Black because…why? Why did I need to not see it?

I needed to not see Black people because I was afraid. I was afraid I’d find out that I thought “they all look alike” and, ultimately I found out I was afraid I’d find out I thought they were less than human. That’s the truth.

As it turns out I did think that Black people weren’t the same as white people. I thought Black people were different in ways that made them less sophisticated, less intelligent, and less worthy of respect. There was a loudness and a physical expressiveness, in the periphery of my life that I didn’t understand and was too scared to look into.

So, I mostly looked away when Black people were near me. I knew I’d feel uncomfortable, though I didn’t know why, so I avoided that discomfort.

It was much later in life that I would start to feel bad enough about these thoughts to not simply ignore them or try to stuff them down and instead to ask hard questions of myself, as I think almost all white people need to do. Did I really think they were (all!) not as intelligent as white people? Did I think Black people were less than human? Did I really believe their actions and the things they liked were so different from my own?

There are many studies showing that implicit bias http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40124781 affects people when it comes to racism. It’s been my experience that the implicit bias comes from an underlying belief that Black people aren’t as human as white people. This leads us to spend loads and loads of cognitive energy avoiding discomfort, avoiding situations where we might have to notice these disgusting beliefs.

But it’s possible to shed those beliefs and even not just look Black people or other people of color in the eye like anyone else—and to speak coherently around them without babbling—but also to move past the inability to talk about racism itself. I’ve made noticeable progress on that, many other white people have done the same, and almost all of us need to do more (and most still need to begin the process).

One of things I did to start normalizing blackness (rather than thinking only whiteness was the baseline norm) was to start looking at Black people. Not staring at them or anything like that but actually seeing them as individual humans. When I first started doing it, I felt many uncomfortable feelings, especially because I’d never done it before. Most recently, starting a couple years ago, I searched the tag #BlackOutDay tag on Twitter (More about Blackout Day here) and then other hashtags like #blackexcellence and #blackmensmiling and more. I didn’t have to feel awkward or nervous, because all of the photos were people who wanted to share their faces and their blackness. I felt a little uncomfortable at times, wondering if I was “using” them almost like they were an exhibit in a museum, but that was only at the start, in part because doing that was only meant as a start to stop seeing blackness as exotic or alien. To see Black people in all their humanity and difference.

The end result for me over the years—and I hope for you as well if you are having difficulty just looking at Black people like you would a white person, much less interacting with them on some level, if only to say “good morning”—is that I am so much better at being around Black people without feeling a need to do something that will prove I’m a “good white person.” Walking through the grocery store, I’m able to do the quick-face-scan I’d do with anyone—most of us avert our eyes, of course, with most strangers, but with Black people there was a sort of ‘double aversion” that I’ve mostly shed now.  that’s gone away for me, for the most part. I can’t say that I’m totally free of the awkward meeting of eyes and tight-lipped smile followed by looking away quickly, but it’s less a problem now.

More a connection of two humans, however fleeting, and less a thought about being two separate beings with nothing in common and relegated to segregated worlds.

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Photo by Yamon Figurs on Unsplash

17 thoughts on “Looking at Black people like you would any other people

  1. When the author states, that most of us “avert our eyes, of course, when meeting strangers” and this is doubled when meeting darker people — I can assure her that this is the Puritan legacy of New England and this averting is simply not seen outside of New England ! Its determinants are environmental, social or even maybe genetic — while my mom left Maine as a child of five, she never would learn to trust strangers that she meet in tidewater Virginia. And again until this so restrictive legacy is faced by New Englander’s – issues are going to continue on in dealing with the other !

    And I am so lucky to have been born and raised in the upper south, perhaps this explains why I am always smiling at the strangers that I meet regardless of their skin tone—did so in Maine, Connecticut and even now in Boston — and surprisingly most people – especially those with a darker tone – do smile back! Try it ! And maybe you will start on the path to learn that black people ARE JUST like any other !

    • I so hear you on this, Viola. It is partly a New England thing. I grew up in Pittsburgh, where you chat with everyone – the check out person at the grocery store, your neighbor while working in the back yard, the bus driver, the pizza delivery guy. It’s strange in Pittsburgh not to say hello when you pass someone. This isn’t to say there isn’t racism in that part of PA. There is, and it’s deep. But it’s somewhat moderated by the social norm of “just chatting” with people.

      When you first come to New England (and Maine is the worst, IMO!), you slowly come to realize that there is much less casual chatting with people you don’t know. My sense is that people can see it as “getting in their space.” It feels very weird to me. I, of course, chat with everyone anyway, ’cause that’s just me.

      I’ve also had the privilege to live in Liberia, West Africa, where minimal greeting rituals can last 5 minutes, with inquiries about how everyone slept, immediate and extended families, and everyone’s health status (with real answers – not just “I’m fine.”). It makes everyone pay more attention, and creates great opportunities for shared experiences and storytelling.

      So, I agree. Saying “hi” to and chatting with everybody really does help to get past implicit bias in how we perceive and respond to people of different races and ethnicities.

      • Hi Traci, thank you for reading and replying! Viola and you are talking about the various ways people everywhere interact, say hello or not, etc. What you’re talking about is really interesting, but what I was trying to address was the very unique way we white people frequently get awkward when we interact with people of color.

        Your response feels to me a bit like the “not all white people” response, y’know? Like, not addressing the issue (of white people not knowing how to interact with Black people in a comfortable way) but instead pointing out that there are other aspects of human interaction besides just race when we great each other. Do you know what I mean?

        • To answer specifically to Terri Bentley’s comment. The question is why those defined as “black ” are treated different by those defined as “white” . Obviously the skin tone differences are immediately noted, but why should the visual reaction be different ? I think the answer lies in the environment that the child is reared in – negative or positive to skin tone differences and a failure to counter this initial learning by additional environmental factors. In Maine , the “white” family like much of New England, does pass on their negative and LEARNED expectations to their offspring and their is little in the environment here to counter this initial learning. As an example, my mother – a white kid- left Maine when she was 5. Her last experience as a child in Maine was walking with her uncle, holding her hands, down to the pier in Portland to catch the Steam Ship at the start of their journey to migrate down to the upper south — to make a permanent home in Norfolk, VA. She always recalled this walk for as she approached the ship, her uncle told her “to watch out for those dark people in the south, since they like to eat fat little white girls”. I would assume that her first months in Norfolk were fairly traumatic one’s as she no doubt was exposed to the first “blacks” that she had ever seen in her young life and they could actually “devour her “. Norfolk before WW II was typical of the racist upper south, so their was nothing in the environment to counter this. Her church home, the newly planted Salvation Army had already adopted the racism as well around her. Her racist views were moderated in her adulthood mostly through her marriage to my dad – a white guy with a strong sense of justice and fairness. Dad was one of the first Moving and Storage Business owners in Norfolk to hire “black workers” . In fact, these were his best and most reliable one’s. My Dad’s mother, incidentally was ethnically a Jewish woman I was born into this environment and was forced to look at it and come to grips with this.

          Walking to the “white” school, I had to pass thru the shacks housing the black families living around me and wondering why I would see the stares of fear when I looked at a black face when passing thru. My first job was as a 16 year old working for my dad and wondering why my good buddies —his black workers who had to remain on the job until all of his trucks returned, would eat their meals out of tin cans of pork and beans rather than going over to the diner next door to eat. My education took me from the white environment of the south to Michigan where I for the first time in my life, interacted with black students. But saw the reality of the racism here as well when my white room- mate dated and then married a guy from India — who the school defined as “black”. I was forced to really confront my initial childhood experiences when going to graduate school in Atlanta, GA. I finished up my degree in the “hot summer” of 1964 where I lived and work as a summer missionary at the bi-racial Peace House on Houston Street. Our closest neighbors were the MLK, Jr. family. My finest hour was when I and a fellow worker- a black woman — at the Friends Headquarters in downtown Atlanta were credited with integrating the infamous Pickwick chicken chain and actually confronting its owner, Lester Maddox in the process. Through these years, I have had many friends that while they do share different skin tones from my own ; it is my black friends that are encountering the meanness that defines the United States much more so than are my white defined friends. And going back to my experiences of living through the “hot summer of 1964” , the most poignant one that I had was when standing on a corner of Houston Street when waiting to catch the bus to Emory, when a young black girl looked up at me and asked me pointedly— why are “whites” treating us this way ? I still do not have an answer. But considering our same “humanness ” , it is “silly” !

          Now living in New England and have been so for the last 18 years -first Connecticut, next Maine, and now Boston, I am very aware that my experiences- – unfortunately – are very different from most white’s living around me. However, I may add my own observation of “eye aversion” to yours in that a proper WASP where ever the location and again mostly seen in New England —- when meeting up with another proper WASP does avert their eyes since any eye contact would make them less than Proper. These I make sure that I smile at – although their “look” toward me at times can be very challenging !

          • Thank you for the wonderful reply, Viola!

            I’m curious to find out if any of the awkwardness I talked about seems familiar to you. Let’s move away from the “how do we look or not look at people as we pass on the street” if that’s okay with you?

            You’ve had much more direct contact with overt racism than I have. It’s been my experience that people who live in and around overtly racist people, when the structural racism is easily apparent to everyone, there’s a different kind of relationship between white and Black people. But, from my conversations with other white people — of all backgrounds, socioeconomic class, geographic areas, cultures — there’s a pretty common theme among those of us who are politically left or liberal. Almost everyone I talk to has found themselves inexplicably awkward when talking with Black people. Have you ever found yourself feeling strangely happy or extra-friendly when talking with a Black person? Or have you ever found yourself not sure what to say next because for some reason you can’t understand something you said made things awkward?

            I’m really curious to know about your experience, and I really appreciate you taking the time to discuss this with me!

          • Heather —- their is always a certain level of social anxiety when meeting up with another person. One of the most dominant factors, in fact the most dominant one, in the United States that undermines the experience of meeting others is sadly the persons skin tone – particularly that of having darker, black skin. This genetic DNA difference does and can lead to social awkwardness and the less the social interaction that you have had with those with darker hues than yours – the more that is so. And I would assume that looking away and not even acknowledging the humanness of black individuals by not even exchanging a good morning greeting — is used as a protective barrier to enable the white individual in the United States to not do that heavy work needed to address the historical and current issues of racism – that so infuses this nation.

            Since I come to the table with the experience of having had many genuine and good friendships with black individuals , I look upon such friendships as a positive thing and my approach in New England has been to signal out such individuals when ever I am in a new social gathering. My response has been so gratifying and particularly so since so many share my same upper south roots. And as well – surprises as I was elatedly to learn in Augusta, Maine that a black male acquaintance of mine, a Church pastor and Educator , had married one of my white cousins. As he said of his bride, she does not “have a racial bone, in her body”. Perhaps than that should be the end goal of all “whites”.

          • Hi again Viola! I can’t seem to reply to your latest message, so I’m replying here. (I can’t seem to copy-paste to refer to particular lines in your reply, either, so I’m just going to share my thoughts.)

            I think one of the most challenging things we well-meaning white people can do is look into our hearts as see ugliness. When we know (also in our hearts) that Black people are just people like we are, as worthy of respectful treatment as white people, I think we can do all kinds of verbal and emotional gymnastics to try to prove to ourselves that we don’t think bad things about Black people. I’ll be honest that it sounds to me a lot like you really want to convince yourself you don’t experience implicit bias, or any underlying racism. The way you are writing about it feels so familiar, it reminds me of me and other white people I know who were deeply committed to equality and justice, but still couldn’t really be totally at ease with Black people (though we’d never admit it, even to ourselves).

            You mentioned your friendships with Black people. It’s statistically true that cross-racial friendships are not very common. How are you defining those friendships?

            Thank you so much for discussing this with me! A lot of white people don’t like looking closely at their own perceptions and biases.

          • Honestly Heather, I think that you are attempting to project your own insecurity and conflict toward persons that have darker skin than you, that is black individuals , unto myself. A friend is a friend, and regardless of skin color a friend is a friend. I gauge my black friends just like any other but I am totally aware that they do face insults on their persons— as I have witnessed — that I as a white women just do not. In other words, I am saying that honest white and black friendships do develop and like all friendships do enhance the life space of both.

          • Hi again Viola! I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about this.

            It’s definitely true that I bring my own experience into the conversation.

            I’d like to point out, though, that Terri Ellen (not sure if you go by Terri or Terri Ellen?) responses to you and shared her life experience. She said the way white people look/look away is very different for her than it is for her white husband. In your reply to her, you shared a lot of ideas and information based on your life experience, but you didn’t seem to “hear her.” Your response seemed to say, “I know enough about race relations and what you say doesn’t count as much as what I know.”

            This stuff is really difficult, and, again, I think it’s clear you care about these issues (especially since you’ve stayed in the conversation!). I wonder if you might look back at the replies, especially including Terri’s, and notice how much weight and value you placed on the lived experience of a woman of color compared with your white experience.

            I understand it seems to you like I’m projecting, but I’ve talke to a lot of white people about this and your responses are very similar to responses I’ve heard before.

            You sound like you have friendships with Black people, and I’m glad to hear it — as I said, it’s nit all that common. But the response that “a friend is a friend regardless of skin color” is a wonderful ideal, but it feels like you’re deflecting the scary questions, like, “Have I, Viola, ever disregarded a Black person’s experience with racism because I believe I already know what’s true?”

            Again, I appreciate your messages! I notice you mentioned Friends. Are you a Quaker? I’m a member of Portland Friends Meeting here in Maine.

          • To further reply to you — since I have never had to be in the dark skin — 24/7 –of those so oppressed Americans, like Terri , their is no way at all that I could ever say, “that I know it all” … but only to reflect that for the United States to divide people and treat people merely on the basis of their skin color — reflects the immaturity and self absorbance of most Americans, whites much more so than those defined as black. I do have biases but toward those Americans who are in total denial of their role in relegating a significance number of Americans to an inferior status – based only on one parameter – the color of their skin and are continue to do so. Again another ‘ism, like sexism, ageism that confirms the fact that America – as the rest of the world is trying to tell us – has never really grown up !

            While I am not a Quaker, my New England heritage is strongly Quaker orientated. From my liberal Puritan family on Cape Cod that not only sided with the Quakers amidst them but converted over—- to meet with the same blind prejudice that still so defines the United States. To the extent that one, my 9th great grandfather, Daniel Wing of Sandwich, MA, had to declare himself legally dead in order to get the Saints off his back —-to those that bought Quaker ideals into central Maine when it was again habitable – that is after the Boston Don’s had crushed all – Catholic, Anglican and native tribal members that got in their way. And I am very proud that it was the Quakers in New England that were and still are deeply involved in human rights. You say that you live in Portland? I hope that you are a member of its NAACP chapter, if not, think about getting on board and helping this magnificent group of people – black and white – who, as a collective, are challenging the very ethos of the State of Maine.

          • Hi again, Viola! It sounds like you are saying that you definitely don’t respond differently to Black people than you do to white people, even though Terri said that it’s been her experience that just about every white person in just about every state of the country does the “look-away.” Because you have Black friends, I wonder if you might be interested in these two articles: http://www.upworthy.com/7-things-black-people-want-their-well-meaning-white-friends-to-know and https://theestablishment.co/how-to-talk-to-your-white-best-friend-about-racism-23b95b30985d They are both written by women of color about friendships and interactions with white people who really mean well, like you and me.

            I’ll admit I’m a little sad (and frustrated) that you seem to need to believe you aren’t racist at all, when white supremacy is insidious and nearly inescapable for everyone, but I believe understand where you’re coming from. And, if you feel like I’ve got you pegged wrong after reading that, I’m pretty sure that’d be defensiveness. I think the defensiveness reveals some truth you might want to look at. You have spent your life believing in equality and living it in the best way you can; it sounds like you’ve done it better than a lot of white people.

            You said you are in Boston, right? I go there frequently to visit my parents. If you’d ever like to get a cup of coffee to talk about this stuff, I’d love some face-to-face time. My email address is heather at grantwinners dot net (sorry for not just typing it out, I’m trying to avoid spammers). Or, we could keep exchanging thoughts here until the comments are closed. 🙂

  2. Hi Viola — I agree there are all kinds of ways we do or don’t look at each other based on environmental/cultural factors. What I was writing about was a particular kind of awkwardness that white people from all sectors of society can exhibit when they interact with Black people.

    It’s interesting to me as I read your post, I can read it as if you are white or as if you are a woman of color. It “sounds” different when I imagine it differently. Do you mind me asking, are you white?

  3. My mother’s genetic profile should have been your answer. Although migrating to the upper south as a young child she did continue to act very properly WASP. However since her mother had very dark skin and she was actually very friendly toward strangers (although she was 35 when she left Maine ) , I had always wondered if Grandma Small had a mixed heritage – either African — perhaps a cousin to the Talbot family who have family, like ours in the Vassalboro / China, Maine area or even native American aka Abenaki . So I took a genetic DNA test and the results as I was to disclosed to Maine’s fab—- Rachel Talbot Ross—- was a boring 100 % White European … at least for the last 500 years. But of course if I could trace my entire Female line backwards it would take me to my first mother, EVE the East African. Which actually makes this whole discussion very silly, actually, as it is based on “skin color” !

  4. I have to admit, I had a hard time understanding your reply. If I’m reading you correctly, you are someone who is white, yes? Or, at least, passes for white on a day to day basis?

    I’d love to know about your friendships. Do you have any close friends who are Black or brown?

  5. I love this blog and enjoyed your post. My work has me often one of few white people in a room of POC. I’ve learned the fine art of active listening and the value of friendships and professional relationships with people from very different backgrounds over the last 25 years. Your post articulated things that I haven’t been able to – thank you! You mention Hartford – I grew up in W.Hartford and attended a public elementary school where black and brown kids were bused in. I remember they all sat together in the cafeteria but I would occasionally sit with them. Lonnie Anderson always had penny candy to sell and would occasionally give me a discount. I also remember Victor, Vincent and Frankie and the fact that I gave them invitations to my birthday party but they didn’t show up and I was devastated. Recently I had Beverly Tatum’s book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” sitting on the dining room table and my 11 year old son snickered at it. “All the black kids couldn’t fit at one table in my cafeteria” he said and it struck me that his experience in a Boston Public School has been so different than mine in CT. I also realize that I work hard at encouraging and helping him to nurture relationships with his friends of color even if it means getting a Spanish speaking co-worker to set up a play date for us. For me that also means getting to know the parents of these kids which is sometimes awkward and hard but rewarding in the end…from my perspective but I wonder if they feel the same way.

    PS – Because I loved your post I clicked on all the links and found you went to Skidmore – I’m class of ’89! I look forward to reading your posts regularly along with BGIM.

    • Small world! I grew up in West Hartford and, yup, Skidmore class of ‘89.

      It’s great that your son’s school is not all white. My daughters isn’t, either. She tells me that while there’s lots of cross-racial communicating in classes, when it comes to free time, it’s still pretty segregated.

      I have a suspicion that the kind of ugliness I discovered in myself is so pervasive, there are probably lots of kids who will miss out on knowing each other because of unrecognized implicit bias and underlying racism. I mean, for me, it’s taken years of really regular work to get honest about it, and I (like you, I suspect) come from a liberal background.

      Thanks for reading and responding. 🙂 I’m always up for talking about this stuff if you want to talk more.

  6. Viola–no. Not silly at all. And as a Black woman living in Maine, I’m trying to find a way to respectfully and lovingly ask you to really think about what you have written. In fact that look-away is real. and when I am with my white husband the look is different than when I am on my own in the supermarket or the local coffee shop or whatever. As a white woman perhaps the look away doesn’t happen between white people, but it surely does by white people in an encounters with Black folk–anywhere I’ve been in the US (and I’ve been in 47 of the 50 states).

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