Tuesday, May 20, 2008

fail to recognize non-white people they know in public

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:

Hi Marcia,

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,

macon d

(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.)


  1. I remember doing this once, when I lived in New Orleans. Some (black) guy was calling to me out the window of his car and I did the usual stare-straight-ahead thing that I do when guys in cars are trying to talk to me at intersections. When I glanced over, though, he said "Hey! Don't you recognize me?" It was my next-door neighbor.

    In my own defense at that time, I was avoiding eye contact with a guy being what I saw as creepy, not avoiding eye contact with a black guy. But this post makes me wonder how many other times I may have done this.

    Now I feel like an ass.

  2. Thanks for this post. It's cleared up a few confusing situations for me. I just moved to a new city and several times in the past few months have run into one of my white neighbors on the street and she has consistently ignored me. I say hello, I wave, I call out her name but she just stares straight ahead and keeps walking. Yet when I see her in the hallway of our apartment building she is always very friendly. For the last few months I've been trying to figure out her erratic behavior but perhaps it is the 'sea of blackness' that she is seeing me in on the street that keeps her from recognizing her next door neighbor. Strange.

  3. Gulp. Yes, I've caught myself doing this too. No, it wasn't malicious. I just, didn't, recognize the Asian American woman that I was in a class with, and talked to in class. It's sad that it happens with Asian faces too. Well, wait. . . not like, more sad.

    There's a lot to learn here. Thank you reader M for pointing this out.

  4. hey macon--
    so i have a couple of questions for ask a white guy. i know i could have emailed them. but i didnt.
    1. why do white folks assume that my race trumps my gender? why do they assume that sexism dos not really affect me but racism does? why cant blacks be women? is it because black women are seen as the anti-feminine? just wondering as a women of color.
    2. why do progressive anti-racist white folks who have a wide amount of anti-racist theory (i mean they quote peggy mcintosh) refuse to acknowledge or see racism that is happening on a daily basis. i worked as antiracism trainer for a couple of years with progressive white ngo's and i was amazed at how white folks could not apply theory to their life situations. (btw i am not calling you out. i dont know you personally) or minimize the role of racism. or justify the racism as being necessary.
    3. white do progressive white folk talk about using their whtie privilege to undermine their white privilege? i have blogged about this tendency some and yet i am still flabbergasted by the need to recenter their personal white privilege in order to undermine someone else's white privilege? for instance iahve known plenty of white folks who say it is their job to talk to other white folks about racism because when a poc talks about racism they are not taken as seriously. okay. but if the only reason that you are taken more seriously as an advocate of antiracism is that you are white and thus more trustworthy, arent you re-inscribing a 'white club' even if it is an 'antiracist' white club?
    anyways, i could ask more, but i am thirsty.

  5. those are tough questions, maia! but i'll do my best to answer them:

    1. I don't know. (How's that for doing my best?) Doesn't it depend on the situation, and on who's looking at you? For instance, my understanding is that there's a long history of expectations within the black community (such as it is) that black women suppress their gender concerns for their racial ones. As for white folks, yes, as you know there are contexts in which your race trumps your gender. As you again probably know, though, for some white feminists, your gender trumps your race--you're expected to get with THEIR cause in terms of sisterhood, downplaying in the process the significance of both your race and theirs. So I don't know if I can give you a single, or even useful, answer on this one, because your question applies so differently in different contexts.

    2. Because racial training is so powerful. Most white folks especially have been raised since at least the 1950s to think of themselves as individuals, rather than people for whom their own racial status is significant. Thus, even progressive, anti-racist white folks can have a hard time seeing the effects in and on themselves of their own, largely subconscious racial training. Another part of this--the word "race" is associated with "people of color," and so, working on racial issues often means working on those that affect people of color. Again, doing such work, without adding consideration of one's own whiteness, can seem like plenty of work already.

    3. Interesting question--I plan to look for your blog posts on this one. Yes, I think the attitude you speak of here can recenter whiteness and reinscribe a White Club. If any anti-racist white person insists that they're more suited than an anti-racist non-white person to address racial issues, they should be told to stand back. On the other hand, it is unfortunately true that white people are more likely to listen attentively to the same words out of a white mouth. This is because whites individualize other whites, failing to see the white training undergone by themselves and by other whites. As a result of this individualizing perception, they falsely think that white individuals are less biased than non-white ones. However, white individuals cannot speak from experience as a person of color on issues of justice related to people of color, so white audiences should realize that they're getting a less objective AND less informed perspective than they think they are when they're listening to a white person address racial issues.

    So, if a white person does manage to replace a non-white person to talk about race in this manner, hopefully that person will say that he or she should not be taken objectively just because of his or her whiteness, and that whatever he or she has to say about the lived experience of non-white people should be taken as second-hand information. Tim Wise does this all the time, as well as acknowledging that pretty much everything he has to say about race, and about whiteness, has already been said before, and said better, by non-white people.

    I hope that helps, though I suspect I'm telling you a lot of things you already know. Let me know if I might get any further than this with your questions.

  6. dear macon
    okay i know i am responding late. but frankly i have a 1 year old,a crazy life, and too many ideas swirling around my lil head.
    so i gave a kinda response to your response to question #1 in my blog
    as to question #2...hmmm...i am considering deeply if when white folks hear the word 'race' they exclude themselves. i have thought that white folks did not like to be reminded that they had a race, because it destroys their sense of individuality. (especially in the us where rugged individualism and bootstraps economic advancement are considered crucial to persons sense of subjectivity) it did not really occur to me that white folks when they hear the word 'race' consider themselves to not have a race. i mean really not to have a race. i really need to think about the implications of that. and so now i am pondering how antiracist whites do not see themselves as having a race and how theoretical alot of white antiracism sounds to me. perhaps this is because white antiracists see their own whiteness as a theoretical construct they have learned late in life rather than as one of the first ways to identify oneself. although i have to say that as antiracist trainer we did an exercise where we would have all the folks share when they first realized they were a 'race'. i would often be amazed that some of the older folk would talk about being 12 or even 16 years old. where i remembered being 2 and 3 yrs. even white folks of my own generation would talk about being 7 or 8 yrs old.
    so macon when did you first realize you were white?
    blog post referencing question #3.
    peace and love

  7. Maia, my earliest memories of realizing I was white occurred when I was six or seven, and they occurred in the presence of black folks (specifically, black kids bussed into my elementary school). My whiteness was just a presumed, unmentionable part of me before that; I hadn't been directly asked or told to be aware of it, so I wasn't. As many whiteness studies scholars point out, whiteness is ironically dependent for its identity on figurations of non-whiteness, and this is another example.

    Thanks for the direct links, which make it a lot easier to find the posts you mentioned before. I'll see if I have more to say about them in their comments (even though the last two are pretty old posts--it's sad how writings get so quickly dated and almost forgotten on blogs).


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