So I commute and I think. This morning, I was thinking about racism.
It probably started with this article on Buzzfeed. Someone looked at attraction using a mock Tinder interface. The most popular man and woman, based on swipes from a demographically diverse sample, were both of color. Getting into conversations with the people in the study, the author tried to uncover the reasons for identifying that particular man and woman as swipe-able.
As it turns out, the fact that they were attractive was only part of the issue. It was also in how they presented themselves: the setting of their picture and their respective clothing said solidly middle class.
Socially, we know we’re fundamentally tribal. For a very long time, we needed to be able to identify who was one of us in a hurry so we could either fight them because they didn’t belong to our tribe or get back to searching for dinner or danger. We like people who are like us. The good news is that, at least in certain areas, we’re moving away from identifying who is “like me” based simply on the color of someone’s skin. That is a kind of progress.
The trouble, of course, is that it makes the legacy of racism harder to address. Because a lot of us can genuinely say that we don’t discriminate on the basis of race, mean it, stand behind it, and defend it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t discriminate.
We’re here because our ancestors were good at making snap judgement about their environments and acting on them. The people who truly were without discrimination didn’t make the evolutionary cut.
This discrimination that we’re all guilty of is more complex than the color of people’s skin. Yet it disproportionately impacts people of color. Because of our collective history (that peculiar institution, to quote a ghastly monument at Harper’s Ferry), skin color is often a short-cut to class assumptions.
I started thinking about the class thing when I lived in Scotland. I was a volunteer with an organization that gave families in crisis a 10-day holiday in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. The volunteers and leadership were all distinctly middle class. Our families were all receiving public assistance. Everyone was Caucasian. Our families didn’t get a free pass from prejudice, assumptions, scrutiny, discrimination, fewer career options, lower expectations, diminished educational achievement, etc. simply because they were white. Culturally, the perceived path to real success was through sport or entertainment. Everyone knew of someone who had made it out of the poorest neighborhoods of Glasgow by being a kick-ass soccer player. All the little boys wanted to be David Beckham. They were not aspiring engineers, finance geeks, or doctors. For that matter, the girls weren’t planning on engineering, finance, or medicine either.
So here were the same conditions, the same limited opportunities, the same judgement, all in the absence of race. It made me think that maybe race wasn’t the issue.
Legitimately, I’ve got to wonder what difference it makes. There is discrimination, the discrimination impacts people of color disproportionately, why not just call it racism and be done?
The why not is because it doesn’t solve anything. There isn’t much to talk about once the word racism enters the conversation: it naturally devolves to a back and forth of absolutes. One party says they are not a racist, the other party says “yet I am clearly being discriminated against.” What can you do with that? If the only requirement is to not be a racist, one half of the situation says “done: I’m not a racist.” And the other half of the situation says “that’s nice, but I still have to change my name to get considered for a job, so I’m not buying it.” Everyone is telling the truth, yet nothing changes.
Can we all own the fact that we are built to discern between who is like us and who isn’t and just accept that as a neutral remnant of the brain structure that enables survival?
I’ll offer a potentially uncomfortable example from my life. I was dating a man who was transitioning from the military to civilian life. He wasn’t white, and he had the most god-awful taste in ties. I say this as a white person looking at ties that clearly said “not one of us.” How does something as simple as a tie say “not one of us”? Color, cut, pattern… It’s subtle and it is stupid, but I worked really hard to get those ties away from him. Yes, it is miserably wrong that a mis-chosen tie in an interview could be the difference between a job offer and no job offer. And it wouldn’t be because he wasn’t white, at least not directly. It would be because his tie said “you aren’t one of us.”
All the experience in the world can’t compensate for the fact that the workplace is a social enterprise and interviewers want people like them in their tribe.
So I’ll confess: I discriminate. I am a discriminator. I discriminate on things like garish hair: there was a woman in the cafeteria this morning with red and white hair. I mean chunky streaks of bleached out highlights on top of dyed red hair. White as white can be, but she wasn’t one of my tribe. I wouldn’t have hired her, simply because not knowing that the hair was in bad taste makes me think I would be risking something to put her in front of a client. I’ll be honest, her hair was a tell for class.
When it comes to class, I really do want people like me. I come from a lower-middle class upbringing with parents who had upper-middle class values. My earning power right now is more than what my parents made together when I was growing up. I had an aunt that sent us shoes because my parents didn’t always have the money. For romantic partners, I want someone who has made that journey. In my friends too… none of the people in my world came up with money. We all have a solidly lower-middle class intolerance for bullshit. But we also know how to present in the world we live in now, sort of winking and nodding at the younger versions of ourselves, the kids in high school that we were, when we didn’t care about makeup because a $6 mascara seemed super extravagant.
So is it wrong to be a discriminator?
Yes, when you are discriminating over things that people have no control over. Skin color, disability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.
But when it comes to presentation? I won’t rehash this entire argument because I’ve made it elsewhere. Suffice it to say, the way we present ourselves to the world is deliberate. We’re telling people we meet on the street our tribal affiliations. You don’t get a face tattoo because you want to tell corporate america that you belong in their tribe. You just don’t. The brands we pick, the colors we wear, our shoes, our hair… personal style is the visual story you tell to the world about who you are. When you buy a Coach bag, it isn’t the bag that you’re buying. You could get one of those at Walmart and be just fine. You’re buying what it says about you. Pragmatically speaking, it is impossible to get away from that.
Things like jobs are, for good or for ill, only partially about accomplishment, merit, or the requirements of the position. They are also about tribal affiliations. It isn’t so much that discriminating on the basis of tribal markers is wrong, but that it is subjective. If we can be neutral and admit that we all do it, can we then be neutral and recognize when we’re doing it so we can then ask objective questions to determine if our subjective tribal assumptions are helpful, or fair, or legitimate in the context we’re in? Does the more nuanced perspective on discrimination make it easier to counter our instincts with an approach that is more inclusive?