For several months now I’ve been avoiding a man I used to work with.
These days he’s the manager of the grocery store I frequent, and I refuse to drive an additional five miles to the next store just to keep from seeing him. Why have I been so reluctant to so much as say “hi”?
Because I assumed I knew why he was avoiding me.
The reasons for this awkwardness aren’t important, except to say, it has nothing to do with a failed romance (or any matter of the heart). We got along well when we worked together, but events transpired and each of us made an uncomfortable departure from that company.
Finally, I decided yesterday, enough is enough. The opportunity was right, so I started the conversation.
Turns out, he had no idea what had happened in my life. He thought I didn’t remember him, or worse. His discomfort had more to do with what he believed I thought of him than vice versa.
I’d seen him once shopping with his son, who’s adopted, and interracial. I asked if that was his son I’d seen him with, and he said yes, his eyes lighting up.
“He’s tall, like you,” I said.
He agreed, and smiled. Then I remembered what a friend had told me years ago: adoptive parents like hearing about nothing more than connections with their children, no matter how small.
Later I sent a text message to a friend who also had worked at the same company. “I completely misread his reaction,” I wrote.
My assumptions about what he was thinking were logical and consistent with what had happened with others, yet, they were completely wrong. How often do we assume we know what’s going on, even go so far as to say, “what else could it be?”
We don’t even have all the puzzle pieces of our own life, let alone others.
Perhaps some of you have been taught the communication technique of “echoing” or “mirroring.”
After listening to a colleague’s thoughts or explanation of a situation, you summarize what you heard and, in your own words, repeat it back to them, prefaced with something like, “what I hear you saying is…” I think it’s suggested for personal relationships, too, but that’s a different topic for another day.
I’d learned about this approach to understanding, but hadn’t truly had a chance to use it, when I began a new job at a major corporation in the southern U.S. I was learning, through one painful lesson after another, that the direct approach was rarely appreciated here. Instead, a passive-aggressive, read-between-the-lines method of communication was considered professional and respectful.
For example, if someone asked for my help with a project that afternoon, and I knew my own deadline would preclude me from being available, it was best not to say, “I’m sorry, the Acme project is going to keep me busy all day. I won’t be able to help you.” The preferred response was, “As soon as I’m done I’ll come over.”
To me, it was dishonest and disrespectful to imply there was a good chance I’d be able to pitch in when I knew full well it would never happen. What I didn’t realize was this was code for, “no way will I have time for anything but my own work” and those raised in this area of the South clearly understand this convoluted language.
The lesson slammed down on me one day when I was called into a meeting with other managers in my department. They wanted to discuss a program our superiors were enthusiastic about, but was difficult to make practical. It sounded good. For one week, a manager and an hourly worker would partner together and train each other in their respective responsibilities to help understand the highs and lows of the “other side.”
In practice, this idealistic program was fraught with problems. While my colleagues agreed on the surface it seemed like a good idea, the stories they told me illustrated how frustrating it really was for everyone involved. However, it didn’t matter what they thought, they were mandated to make it work, and they were hoping I might have some fresh ideas.
I mirrored back a summary of what I’d heard them tell me. “It sounds like you’re being asked to manage a program you believe has possibilities, but what you’ve been doing so far hasn’t been working.”
The meeting ended with that statement. Two of the women walked out in disgust at my “rudeness.” Another sat there staring at me, as if she didn’t know what to say. A fourth pulled me aside and lectured me on professional behavior and respecting the feelings of others.
As someone who always, always considered the sensitivities of my co-workers, to a point where one of my supervisors listed “too nice” as my greatest fault, this was a shock. I struggled to understand, tried to explain the method of communication, and asked what I “should” have said.
I never got a response to the latter, and they brushed off all my explanations. In retrospect I believe there was something else going on. There had to be. I said nothing insulting, my intent and manner were respectful, practically deferential.
Yet communication is different in various regions of the country, and for that matter, the world. Those women would have fallen flat on their rears if they brought their communication expectations to a company in New York, just as I would have been told to be more straightforward.
Minnesotans pride themselves on what they term, “Minnesota nice.” You drive a few hundred miles south, and people who hear that phrase will think you’re being facetious. “You know, he was (air quotes) ‘Minnesota nice.'” What’s considerate in the Upper Midwest is blunt and coarse in the South.
How did I handle the frustrations of this communication block? After two years of the underhanded words and behavior of others in my department, I quit. I didn’t have the strength or wisdom to fight it, or the savvy to appropriately adopt the same thinking. I didn’t even fully understand what was going on.
Experts will tell you that when indirect communication is used, a knowledge of the culture is essential for understanding the meaning. That’s a challenge when you’re unaware of the depth of the cultural differences, even in your own country.
What I saw as disrespectful in what I earlier called “underhanded words and behavior,” people whom I came to respect believed was considerate, putting the other person first. Of course you don’t tell them you can’t help them. That’s rejection. So they developed this method of (as they see it) kindly saying “sorry, I’m not available.”
Communication is more than words, although some try to limit it to such. It is knowing the people around you and the environment you are living in. It is understanding when the issue being discussed isn’t the issue you’re dealing with, when to fight for your rights and dignity and when to maintain that dignity by bowing out.
It is being human, and letting others be the same.
A 1965 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show shows Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) accepting an award on behalf of Rob’s boss, Alan Brady (Carl Reiner). The award, given by the fictitious Committee for Interracial Understanding, is for Alan Brady’s contributions to understanding and honesty between the black and white communities.
One sentence in Rob’s acceptance speech gets to me. “It seems to me understanding should be as natural as breathing,” he says. “And you don’t get awards for breathing.”
Understanding in the racial divide is hard work. I’ll be the first to say, I don’t get it, I don’t get what it’s like to be black in America. I’m white, I grew up in an almost exclusively white neighborhood and school district, although as an adult, I entered into much more diverse scenarios.
I have two things going for me in my desire to bridge the gap (well, hopefully more than that, but we’ll start with these two): I was raised in the 60s by parents who believed God made everyone equal, but fully recognized life didn’t treat them that way, and as an adult, I frequently worked with and/or lived in diverse neighborhoods that helped me be at ease with people of numerous ethnic backgrounds.
There was a small amount of interracial contact throughout my teenage years. In high school, out of approximately 2,400 students, only one, Tony, was black. Tony moved to my town in his junior year to live with his mom, and a year later, moved back to stay with his dad, where he could go to a school that was significantly more diverse. I was the same age as Tony, and he ended up going to my church, so I got to know him fairly well, in particular because he became close to one of my best friends.
When Tony moved, he didn’t tell too many people he was leaving, so we didn’t get to say good-bye. He did talk to my best friend, Carolee, and she told me he didn’t want a lot of fuss. You see, Tony was incredibly popular, wonderfully talented and in demand socially. He knew we wouldn’t understand why he would want to move to a small town in the middle of nowhere with a K-12 school that had fewer than 400 students. After all, our school ruled.
I didn’t understand. We liked him, and we treated him in the manner you treat someone you like. What I couldn’t see, couldn’t feel and didn’t live was the disconnect between the races, the incredible alone feeling Tony no doubt felt every day walking down the halls of our high school. I knew a lot of the girls stared at him because he was good-looking, but there was no way for him to differentiate between those looks and the stares that came because he was black. For that matter, a lot of girls probably stared because he was good-looking and black. That, I’m willing to wager, is a different look. The element of the forbidden, the socially questionable to a teenager is, well, what makes a simple crush a great romance.
At the church Tony and I attended, there were a handful of black families. Three of those families were related; the husbands/fathers were brothers, all very close in age. They also looked like they could have been identical triplets. Ever the blunt one, I asked my friend Alethea (also black) if it was a problem I couldn’t tell them apart. Did all black men look alike to me?
No, Alethea assured me, she’d known the family for years and the easiest way for her to tell these three men apart was through their wives. The wives were easy to distinguish. So I, too, got to know the families through the wives, as well as their children, who were all under the age of five.
At the same time I was working as a candy-striper at the local hospital. In case you don’t know, “candy-striper” is the nickname for volunteers who wear a red-and-white striped pinafore, white blouse, and in my case, white ankle socks and white tennis shoes. I worked Sunday afternoons, and the nature of that shift meant we spent a lot of time in the maternity ward.
One of the families I spoke of above had just had a baby. I was walking through the infant viewing area, and the man I thought was the new father was standing there, admiring the newborn, a thoughtful, musing look on his face.
“Congratulations!” I said. “I heard in church this morning you had a daughter.”
“Oh, it’s my niece,” he said. “It’s my brother’s baby girl.”
“I’m so sorry,” I apologized. “I’m always getting you and your brothers mixed up.”
“Everyone does,” he said, smiling.
“Belinda!” my fellow candy-striper, Karen, hissed at me as we walked down the hall. “I can’t believe you didn’t know he wasn’t the father!! He goes to your church!”
“Oh, it’s okay,” I replied. “They’re brothers. They all look alike.”
From down the hall I heard a deep, full-throated burst of laughter. I have no doubt that story was told time and time again in their family. I hope I came across as the girl I think I was: nice, kind, perhaps a little naïve and (please, please) not racist. Well, the story would be better that way, so maybe I did.
Was I ignorant? In many ways, yes. I simply didn’t understand.
No matter how funny that man and his family may have found the story, and I hope they did laugh, the underlying issue isn’t funny. Was I ignorant about racial issues? In many practical ways, yes. I simply didn’t understand. If you were black or any other minority and I was your friend, if I treated you as well (or poorly) as any of my other friends, what was the problem between us? If you were a complete stranger I passed in the store, a customer in my teller line at the bank, a sales associate at the cosmetics counter where I bought eye shadow, why would there be a racial problem if I spoke to you with respect and dignity? And yet, there was. I just didn’t always know it.
An offhand remark might be misinterpreted. That isn’t exclusively a racial issue, that’s human communication. Some of it is regional; terms that mean one thing in California have an entirely different connotation in Minnesota or Arkansas. I learned not to use the phrase, “jerk someone around.” In some parts of the country, it means to treat another person poorly, in other parts, it’s a very sexual expression. I had a hard time keeping it straight.
Some of it is coming into the middle of a conversation and hearing a phrase out of context. I’ll never forget when, in my late teens, one of my friends and I were talking about a third friend’s abusive relationship. Gina, the one I was talking to, was a literature major, and would use literary terms in everyday conversation (which drove us crazy), including the word “dark” to describe anything bad or evil.
We were waiting to be seated in a crowded restaurant, and there were two hostesses, one white, one black. Our name was called, and as we approached the hostesses, Gina, referring to our friend’s situation, was saying, “she needs to throw that dark dog in the river.”
Both young women tensed up. Gina, feeling passionate about our friend’s plight, was only making things worse. I don’t recall the rest of what she said clearly enough to recreate it, but it did sound bad out of context. I was uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say without further digging a hole.
Our waitress had no problem with it. Young and brassy, she, perhaps inappropriately, confronted Gina about the term “dark dog” as well as the rest of her rant.
“Did you mean a dog, or a black man?” she asked. “Because this is a nice restaurant, and we don’t tolerate bigots or puppy killers. Those girls,” she pointed to the hostesses, who were out of hearing distance, “are my friends, and they were offended. I just want to know why.”
Now I was incensed. “We were talking about a friend’s boyfriend,” I said sharply (and loudly). “Her white boyfriend.” That didn’t sound so good to surrounding diners, either.
Gina was perplexed. “Come on,” I said, “let’s go.” We left, both upset and confused. We weren’t racist, surely not?
I stopped telling that story after several people told me Gina’s statements actually were racist and we didn’t realize it. I’ve struggled with that one. So much of our language is indeed subtly racist, under the radar and pervasive. It is perhaps the most difficult to challenge and change. Gina, a typical college student, was under the spell of all she was learning. I’m willing to bet she was showing off more than putting down by using the word “dark.”
Is the term “dark comedy” racist? I do not know. I use it to describe movies such as “Arsenic and Old Lace,” in which two elderly ladies kill off their gentleman callers and bury them in the cellar, hence the darkness in the comedy, and I’m far from the only one to do so. I don’t even know what the racial connotation would be in the term (I get the correlation between “dark” and “black,” but it’s the further definition I’m unclear on). Maybe that’s the problem. I don’t know.
We are all equal in God’s eyes, but we do not live in a society that treats us that way, and our view of ourselves and our world is shaped in part by how we’re treated. Several years ago I attended an annual statewide convention for people who, like myself, worked with others with developmental disabilities. The keynote speaker was a woman who was black and in a wheelchair. I don’t know what her disability was, but I surmised it had been lifelong.
“When people ask me how I identify myself, as disabled, black or female,” she said as she summed up her talk, “I tell them I identify myself first as African-American, than as a woman, than, as a black woman with a disability.”
That was an eye-opener. I gained a much greater understanding about why the phrase, “I don’t even see [name of black friend] as black anymore. He’s just [name]” is so degrading. I had long ago realized how bogus it was to say that. If you can see, you see another’s race. What I hadn’t realized was if you’re black, it’s part of your identity. An essential part. If you’re white, it rarely is a significant part of the equation of identity.
When a white person says they don’t see race, they mean, “I’m not adding something to our relationship that would separate you from me.” As I understand it, if you’re black, you’re hearing, “I’m acceptable if I deny an essential part of who I am.” There’s a huge discrepancy in meaning there, and a cartful of issues to sort through.
I’m always timid about adding my comments. Will some barely disguised ignorance show through?
I have several blogging friends who are black, and I follow their blogs and interact with them because I like them. Some of them address race more frequently than others, and I’m always timid about adding my comments to their posts. Will some hidden arrogance, some barely disguised ignorance show through? I’ve had some people reply sharply to my comments, but fortunately, I’ve been smart enough to respond and try to work through any misunderstandings or subtle feelings of whatever I may be expressing.
I’m acutely aware of the danger of sounding condescending. Plus, when you’re leaving a comment on a blog, the context of Who I Am isn’t there. If you haven’t interacted with me, all you have is my little profile picture, little white me in my pink blouse, to give you any insight into who I am.
I can never fully understand the black experience. I want to be open, empathetic and supportive of all races and other minorities. Even as I write that, I’m reminded I was chastised once for using the term “races” synonymously with “minorities.” I felt like I couldn’t win, although I did have a decent discussion with that blogger.
I’m reminded of Rodney King, victim of terrible racial abuse, who, after his ordeal had been addressed by the courts and the public, said, “Can’t we all get along?” Some people mocked him for saying it, some called it simplistic and even foolish. I don’t want to brush over the evil or painful, but I do want us all to get along.
I know it isn’t that easy.
I’m asking my black friends to bear with me. I sincerely want to do better. I’m asking my white friends to seek understanding. For that matter, we should all seek understanding. The learning and growth are a strengthening process for all of us.
This is a turbulent time for our country, but it’s also a time of opportunity. I hope someday understanding is, indeed, as natural as breathing.
As the man said, you don’t get awards for breathing.