(This piece has been re-posted at Siddity. Also, Not Like Crazy and The Debate Link have incorporated it into their own discussions of the topic, and The Blog and the Bullet, Alas! A Blog, and Anthropophagous have excerpted and recommended it . . .)
I don’t imagine the man in this mug shot looks trustworthy to you. If you were to meet him on the street, or in a bar, what features or characteristics make him untrustworthy? His tattoos? His broken nose? The desolate look in his eyes?
How about the fact that he's white?
If you're a white person, you're unlikely to list his whiteness as one of the characteristics that would keep you from trusting him. You might cite the "white power" sympathies suggested by his tattooed swastika, but not the simple fact of his whiteness itself. However, if you're a non-white person, there's a better chance that you would list the mere fact of his racial whiteness as a suspicious characteristic.
Unlike a lot of non-white people, most white folks think that the world sees them as trustworthy, reliable, and honest, unless they do something to prove themselves otherwise. White people can dress in a variety of ways or wear a variety of adornments or tattoos that will lower the level of trust other people are likely to place in them. What they rarely realize, though, is that their whiteness itself often provokes mistrust. And that it does so for some good reasons.
Now that’s a strange thing to say, isn’t it? Most of the people reading this blog believe that it’s racist and unfair to mistrust a black person, simply because he or she is black. And I agree. But as I’ll try to show here, in most cases it’s actually realistic, not racist, for a black person to withhold trust from a white person. This is because black people tend to know more about white people than white people do about black people. And what they tend to know is that white people who haven’t untrained themselves can be annoying, and even dangerous.
A problem here is that white people usually spend very little time thinking about what their own race means to them. In a pioneering 1988 article on white privilege, Peggy McIntosh wrote about her early sense of herself as she navigated the world, especially her lack of racial self-awareness as “white.” Instead of understanding that her whiteness had all sorts of significance in her life, McIntosh writes, she was taught to see herself as merely an individual, a sort of free-floating being “whose moral state depended on her individual moral will."
It was only after thinking about parallels between male privilege and her own white privilege, and then writing down a list of 46 examples, that McIntosh began to realize that she is not merely a free-floating individual whose life is pretty much her own to make or break:
If these [white privileges] are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own. These perceptions mean also that my moral condition is not what I had been led to believe. The appearance of being a good citizen rather than a troublemaker comes in large part from having all sorts of doors open automatically because of my color. . . My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make.
Like most other white people, Peggy McIntosh had been trained into oblivion about the significance of her own racial status. One result for such people is that they usually fail to realize that they’re often being taken as white people. Especially when they interact with non-white people (and almost never when they interact with other white people).
If Peggy McIntosh or another white person were to interact with a new black person, they may not realize that while their skin color is often an asset, in this situation it may be counting against them. At least initially, until they prove themselves atypical. For many non-white people, white individuals need to prove that they’re not going to enact an array of common white tendencies before they can be trusted. This can take time.
In an article on the resurgent racism she sees emerging among ordinary white folks during the current campaign season, African American journalist Karen DeWitt recalls her distrust of white folks during her childhood, in Dayton, Ohio: “I was wary of strange white people, assuming them to be unpredictable and potentially violent. I didn't think of these people as inherently evil. I knew they were ordinary human beings, accustomed to a skin privilege they refused to—and continue to refuse—to acknowledge."
At DiversityInc, Yoji Cole (whose race I can’t determine) wrote a column entitled "9 Things NEVER to Say to White Colleagues" (“You’re a carpet-bagger.” “You’re just a typical white person,” “I don’t get white people,” and so on). An anonymous black woman wrote an email in response, pointing out the columnist’s lack of interest in why non-white people might say such things. She also wrote, "As a Black woman I will admit that the typical Black person does not trust any white person (our history nurtures this and it does not help that institutional racism reinforces it)." Cole's response is brief and defensive, and it fails again to acknowledge where "the typical Black person" might be coming from with such distrustful comments to white colleagues.
In another example, from a starkly honest memoir called Makes Me Wanna Holla, another African American journalist, Nathan McCall, writes of his own lingering distrust of unfamiliar white people during one of his early newspaper jobs.
It was obvious that many of my co-workers had had little exposure to blacks. They seemed overpolite and unsure how to relate to me. Likewise, I was guarded with them, remembering lessons learned from others' pain: Keep them at arms' length and out of your personal business. . . . They seldom knew what I really thought and felt about things, and I made sure they got few chances to find out.
McCall remembers being especially wary of invitations for drinks. He’d seen alcohol turn white co-workers into intrusive curiosity seekers, obviously on the lookout for favorable features in him, and for less favorable ones. McCall did feel better about one white person, Ron Speers, a “portly, gregarious editor” who was “one of those rare bleeding hearts who had given a lot of thought to the damage his people had done to the lives and psyches of blacks.”
Nevertheless, as McCall writes, “I sensed that Ron and the others were sincere, but still, I didn’t open up to them. I couldn’t. They were white, and I was convinced that the dumbest thing a black person could do was trust a white man. Ron and the others got surface rap from me, and nothing more.”
As McCall’s career progresses toward a job at the Washington Post, his reservations about white people decreased, but they never went away, and instead lingered in his "psyche."
What I'm getting at with examples from three different black writers is that it's not difficult to find them—examples of something about white people that very few white people know about themselves. And that something is that they aren’t as automatically trustworthy as they tend to think they are. Just as white folks tend to size up new black individuals in racial terms, waiting for the black person to prove herself better than "other black people" (and I believe that most whites do this, whether they realize it or not), black people often do the same thing to white people.
But as I said above, there’s a crucial difference—these mutual sizing-ups occur with different racial yardsticks. I believe that the one in a black person's hand usually takes more accurate measurements. I say that because I've learned to remember something that my white training encouraged me to forget, which is that white people have been in power for a long, long time.
Since white people still occupy most positions of power in society, there's often much more at stake for the black person sizing up a new white person than there is for a white person sizing up a new black person. Black people have to be careful around white people in all sorts of ways that white people don't have to worry about. That was of course an even bigger problem for their black ancestors, and the generational transference of teachings and warnings about the dangerous reality of white power tend to sink in (just as a history of white beliefs and tendencies still manifests itself in common white feelings and behavior).
Because black people have had to live and work with white people, and because they’ve had to be careful while doing so, they’ve gotten used to sizing up white people on the basis of reality, rather than stereotypes. They’ve learned and taught each other how most white people think and act. On the other hand, white people usually have little or no extensive contact with actual black people, so what they learn about them from movies, TV, books, education, and their families and friends tends to be stereotypes.
So again, when they meet each other in person, one usually uses a more accurate measuring stick than the other does. And because white people aren’t usually aware of themselves as white, and thus as typically white, they can’t be trusted not to look for confirmation of their false stereotypes.
I sometimes hear white people complain about being treated differently by black people, different from what looks like the more friendly ways that black people treat each other. “What did I do to deserve such cold treatment?” these white folks sometimes say. To me, such questions reflect a lack of effort—what they’re saying is, “It’s all about me!” What I wish they would say instead is something like, “Now why would a person of another race act like they don’t trust me? If it’s so common, might there be a reason for it?”
Black and white people don’t talk together much about racial issues, and even when they do, I’m sure that this issue of racial trust rarely comes up. I think it’s an issue that black people know a lot more about than white people do. But that doesn’t mean it’s the job of black people to teach white people about it.
What white people should learn, and somehow tell each other, is that when people of color they don’t know seem guarded, standoffish, or even rude, it may be because they don’t trust you. And it’s up to you to show that you can be trusted. Which can take time.