Tuesday, June 3, 2008

believe others consider them trustworthy

(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.


  1. Pretty good.

    History is a powerful teacher. Let a white person know you bought a new house or car or scored higher on the exam than they did and watch out! You might be on the next layoff list, find yourself with the crap assignments or find a whole classroom of people no longer speaking to you...

    Better to be polite and keep your business to yourself.

  2. Most white people I've encountered aren't too concerned about earning my trust or why I may not trust them. I think I would make an extra effort to reach out to those who were concerned about this matter because it demonstrates some level of caring. Unfortunately, I have to agree with McCall that most white people I know don't put themselves in a position in which they can know me on a more personal level. So, yes, I do find myself placing whites into categories of typical and atypical, albeit unconsciously. The behaviors that I regard as typical are when white people speak to me authoritatively and condescendingly, no matter their expertise on a subject, and when whites (particularly white women) overdo it with the politeness thing by being sickeningly sweet. It's painfully obvious in such exchanges that the white person I'm dealing with is essentially performing an act. White Canadian author Margaret Atwood has a great short story that chronicles the kind of act white people put on when faced with a person from "another culture," as she puts it. It's called "The Man from Mars" and is part of a collection called Dancing Girls.
    Macon, some of your readers have asked about identifying admirable white people, and I most definitely give a head nod to M. Atwood. She's a social activist as well as an author and very on point in her descriptions of women, race, masculinity, etc.
    Lastly, I want to add that maybe the most painful thing about being able to see through the performances whites put on for people of color is that it can be incredibly alienating when you feel that you're the only one who is aware that such an act is being performed, that someone is being condescending, duplicitous, etc., to you because of your race, and the witnesses to the act seem completely blind.

  3. What about Asians and Latinos? Racial communication isn't a two way street with black people and white people on opposite sides of the double yellow line. It's a conglomeration of multi-lane highways, often fraught with bumper-to-bumper traffic or high-speed car chases. Or maybe that's just in LA.

    Aside from that, good observations!

  4. Thanks Bianca, good question! I know less about mistrust of whites from other racial/cultural perspectives because I've never heard or read anyone other than a black person address this issue. Maybe you or others could fill us in on that?

  5. It's definitely Los Angeles, bianca. I like to think I have a (one of a million) unique perspective on this. See, I'm one of those half-whites who looks white. So from the system, from education, and from social prejudice, I'm treated as white male. So I benefit from the privilege. However, I also know what it's like on the other side of the spectrum, being raised by my mexican american mother and occasionally seeing how my cousins live. So I'm equally racist in my prejudices to whites, latinos, blacks, and asians. That type of equality allows me to distance myself from the prejudicial mentality and get some objectivity.

    One thing I've always noticed is how no other white people I know are not afraid of police officers. This confounds me, as I always have been. Doesn't matter how nice they are or how ambivalent they are to me, there's just a built in fear.

    There are plenty of other examples, but also, pushing this article as "white vs black" instead of multi-racial relations is probably what makes people think you're anti-white.

  6. Macon,

    I do not know if you covered it in a previous topic, but there is a wonderful movie called Color of Fear. It is a documentary that is powerful and discusses the experiences of individuals from different cultural backgrounds and how we all exist in a society that privileges(sp) whites.

  7. Okay, that whole description you wrote of the man at the beginning of the article was priceless. I'm still laughing now. Like, I just can't with this one; I didn't even read it I just came here to type this while laughing my ass of. Imma go read it now though.

  8. As always, a wonderful topic to ponder, stretch, and grow from...

  9. Great post, Macon.

    Been reading for a while, and this one has probably hit closest to my experience at a predominately white college. While I'm a very friendly and personable person, I'm not quick to become close friends with people and I do often keep white people at arms length. I had one of my white guy friends try to tell me that I shouldn't make assumptions about others in such a way, and at first I agreed with him, and then I decided that his stance was rooted in his privilege because he doesn't have to assume things about white people to protect himself.

    Anyways, thanks for the insight!

  10. Macon, a question please: Do you trust white people?

  11. I'm a light complected white man with light colored hair. When I was a kid, someone showed me that all of the villains in Mexican comic books looked like me. That has given me a lot to think about.

  12. I will admit to having a certain level of distrust of whites. Even those that I have chosen to call my friend I always suspect that one day they will disappoint me and show that they still internalize many negative things about black or other POC. It has been my experience that they often due. This is also a conversation that I never have with any of my white friends. I find that they are quick to see racism in others but slow at owning their own.

  13. Renee,

    Your post is heartwrenching.

    The circumstances in which I have disappointed black friends or acquaintances have been heartbreaking to me and to them...

    Sometimes it's due to a misunderstanding, and I try to disentangle the threads of how the misunderstanding got all knotted up.

    Sometimes that brings clarity for both, and sometimes it knots things up more.

    I will always keep untying knots to see whatever ugly truth, or misunderstood lack of truth, is being seen about me, if the other person will keep untying the knots also.

    At the last volunteer job I had, I was one of two white people and three black people tutoring there, and I said to the two black women when just women were talking --

    "please tell me if I ever do or say anything culturally white supremacist/racist. I want you to call me on anything. I have been burned and hurt recently by some experiences of being I think misunderstood, but it has made me want to say this."

    The older woman looked at me incredulously and said, "believe me, I will tell you."

    It was awkward, and I didn't know if it seemed racist to say it, or good to say it.

    I'd never done that before. I don't know how she felt about it.

    I really came to respect her in so many ways, and she was really straightforward. She never told me I said or did anything culturally white supremacist/racist, but I do know she would have -- and with honesty between us, we could have worked anything out, I felt.

  14. In my travels, I have found that the best way for me to not offend people of color with my whiteness is to not associate with them at all in social settings, etc.

    This greatly reduces the chances of being misunderstood or mistrusted. People of color love being accommodated, and I don't mind sacrificing interaction with them by accommodating them when I can.

    Like when I'm walking down a sidewalk and there is a black fellow walking towards me from the opposite direction, I will gladly cross to the other side, so as not to inflict the situation with awkwardness of my being white-this way he can maintain his sense of well being. Or if I am leaving a store, I will try to hide my purse so that a black fellow can't see it, so he doesn't think I'm high and mighty trying to have a nice bag. His feelings are spared in this situation, which is paramount above all else.

    Sometimes I will see people of color who walk around in numbered night gowns and their pants belted to their knees. I try not to make eye contact out of worrying that my whiteness may cause me to feel mistrusted in that situation-again this should be avoided if necessary.

    Thank you so much for such a fine article. :)

  15. Bianca asked a few comments back about other poc perspectives, so I figured I'd offer my own two cents as a biracial Pinay woman.

    I don't trust white people in some very specific areas. Having been raised by my white father in a largely white-dominated environment, I suspect that I don't harbour quite the same level of mistrust other poc do of white people - I generally expect that they'll be nice and polite, and that they're probably good people.

    But I do not trust them not to be racist, simply because most white people do not understand race as a concept or poc as people. Society has taught them that being colourblind is the best they can do, and so they never explore the ways in which skin privilege and cultural differences can lead to a system of race-based oppression and a completely different way of seeing the world than the way they see it. And of course, when faced with the fact that their perspective, while privileged, is not the only one - they insist that everyone else must simply be wrong, because they've never had problems, etc., and aren't we all just overreacting? Gosh.

    I mean, I like white people. Half of my family is white. My primary partners are white, their families are white, etc. There are a lot of them in my life. And yet, each and every one of them, even the people I love best in the world, can still be racist. And that's why I don't trust white people, on the whole, to not be racist.

  16. LOL @ anonymous.

    I feel the same way as saraspeaking.

  17. You are all close minded, ethnocentric idiots whose lives revolve around being black and proud! You aren't the only minority group in America, and minority groups don't only consist of people of different colors, there are different religions, GLBT, and the list goes on, no one fits in so suck it up and by god, remember that we are all individuals and just because you met a white person that wasn't trustworthy, that doesn't mean we are all the same, everyone is different and you seem to forget that when you put people in categories. So go make some white friends or something.

  18. Spruce, a LOT of us here are white, including the author of the blog (me), and otherwise non-black.

    Please read more carefully. No one's hating white folks here. Not to speak for non-white people, but if a lot of non-white people have learned that it's best to withhold their trust from new white people, wouldn't you (if you're white) like to know why and how they've learned that?

  19. As a woman of color, I'm somtimes been approached by white guys who I in turn felt an attraction an towards. But I can't help but wonder if he's just interested in me because of my race, or because he sees me as "exotic," (or a fetish) or even if he does or will associate me with racial and sexual stereotypes. I also wonder if he would eventually leave me due to him perceiving me as inferior.

  20. I just discovered your blog and you are doing a great service by speaking to your people on these issues. I know you said that you're taking a break. I encourage you to come back. The salvation of some of your people will depend on people like yourself who are trying to uncover the truth and show others things they do not normally see or even want to see. For you (being a white person) having come this far in your personal journey of awareness is indeed a breath of fresh air!


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