Today's description of a common white tendency comes via email from M, a regular reader of Stuff White People Do who self-identifies as a black woman. In response to last week's post "forget the names of non-white people," M wrote to ask why so many white people she knows act like they don't know her when she encounters them in public.
First, to review the common white tendency that I described in last week's post, the forgetting of the names of non-white people stems from the more general tendency of white people to see themselves and each other as individuals, and on the other hand, to lump together other, non-white people. As a result of this tendency, white people often switch the names and faces of non-white acquaintances, such as neighbors, colleagues, or fellow students.
M (who said it would be fine to post her message) wrote to ask about a similar white tendency that she's noticed from her social position, as an African American woman:
I'm currently a lurker who enjoys reading your blog. Your blog has helped me understand that a lot of the things that white people do arise out of ignorance and the ability to be oblivious, and not always malice. I have just read your entry on confusing POC and not knowing our names.
I know that you are not the spokesperson for white people, but I would like your view on the deal with white co-workers and/or classmates not saying hello when walking on the street. This may be most relevant in big cities where people walk. But ask any black person in a big city, and he/she will tell you of the countless times he/she has smiled, said hi, waved or somehow acknowledged a white co-worker/classmate on the street--just to be ignored.
It breeds a great deal of resentment, and I don't think that most white people are even aware of it. I have told my fellow black people that the white person honestly does not see them and is not ignoring them. In my experience, most white people only deal with black people in certain contexts--work, school, etc. However, the street is not one of those contexts. Therefore, white people are not seeing individual black people, just BLACK PEOPLE--and are not expecting to know any of THEM. The street is outside of the zone where they feel comfortable around BLACK PEOPLE .
What do you think? Am I way off base? I just cannot believe that white people who I, and others, spend considerable hours working with on a daily basis willfully ignore me while walking on the street.
I stopped saying hello first--so no longer feel slighted.
I think M describes this common white tendency well, and also some of its causes. Here's most of what I wrote in return to M, in an effort to further spell it out. If anyone has further thoughts or experiences with the common white failure to recognize people they know, your comments are most welcome:
It's good to hear from you.
Right, I'm not a spokesperson for all whites, and I'm also a "typical" white person in that black people tend to know more about my own whiteness, and how I tend to live it, than I myself do. I'm not being humble or whatever in saying that. I just think I've been trained to be oblivious to what my training into whiteness has done to me, and that black people know about it because they have to study it.
I think you're right about this common white unfriendliness on the street. It's sad, but black individuals are not being seen in those moments by whites AS individuals. They're just "black people." I think you're also right that it's not a malicious slight--it's just a kind of socially induced blindness.
You might really like Lena Williams' book [It's the Little Things], which I quoted from in the post. In fact, one of her black interviewees says this:
"Don't be caught out of context. As long as you're at your desk in the office or in the classroom or doing your professional thing, they know you. The minute you're one of the masses, or someplace they think you shouldn't be, you become this faceless blur of blackness."
But yeah, that's another black view on this, and you asked about my white view. Well, again, most white people are not used to seeing all that many black individuals on a daily basis. They thus often don't see them AS individuals, even when they work with them for years. They've been trained into that oblivion by a racist society, and by their sheer numerical preponderance.
So maybe it's not quite right to say they're "blind" in such moments--it's more that they're seeing and feeling "blackness," and the associations it has for them, rather than the black individual before them, whom they actually KNOW in another context.
Hopefully, if Obama is elected, the mere presence of that brilliant "black" INDIVIDUAL in charge will help to change that.
My white-conscious view on my fellow whites' rudeness toward you and yours is that yes, as you said, it's not a malicious slight. I completely agree with you--they just don't "see" you.
Their loss, right?
Well, yours too. This sort of behavior is plain disrespectful, as I've been trying to tell white readers of my blog. Another sad thing is, though, that most of the blog's fans, so far, are non-white people! I'm glad you and they like it and find it useful--that's great.
But I wish more white folks would stick around, and learn some things. I guess it makes them uncomfortable--which it should.
Thank you for mentioning this literally street-level issue. Again, it's good to hear from you, and I'm so glad that you find the blog useful,
(Hmmm. . . "Ask the White Guy"?
If anyone else has questions or observations about common white thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, and so on, please write to me about them, at unmakingmacon @ gmail . com and I'll try to do a blog post about it.)