Before I Explain What I Mean
First, let me tell you why I’m writing about this. This is a post about people not knowing what they don’t know. When you don’t know what you don’t know, it really gets in the way of being effective. If you are completely unaware of something, then you are missing out on a whole world. If you are basing your understanding of the world on the assumption that everyone thinks like you, you CANNOT communicate effectively because you are starting from the wrong place.
Now Let Me Explain
I have to be careful how I explain this. I told a close friend that white people don’t know that they’re white–several times–and years later a conversation made it obvious that not only did she not understand what I meant, she didn’t believe me either. I have always thought I was pretty aware of the issues of race relations. I know now that I really didn’t have a clue.
A few years ago, I worked for a large minority organization. I was one of two white employees. I was aware of my “whiteness” all the time. My mind did that to me. It made me think about it all the time. There are lots of studies about this–we notice differences. Most importantly, we notice how we’re different. I was aware of my difference. It was a new experience for me. Minorities feel this all the time–wherever they are in the minority–in the grocery store, at movies, at restaurants. That awareness–that you are different–and the assumptions you make about what the others are thinking shape your interactions with people.
A Fish In Water
If you never have a minority experience, though, you never become aware of your “whiteness” or your “otherness-of-any-kind” (this doesn’t just apply to white people–it applies to all majorities). If you never have that experience, then you never really “get” it. Being white in many communities in the United States, is like being a fish in water–the fish isn’t aware of the water. It just exists in that environment. There is a lot of baggage that goes with that water–privilege, history of mistreatment, institutional racism–that many white people are not consciously aware of. That doesn’t mean it isn’t there, though.
The hyper awareness that minorities experience helps create the assumption that white people are equally aware of minorities. They aren’t. Of course there are situations where what I’m saying isn’t true. And certainly, there are racists who are more aware. Most white people, though, are not only unaware of their own “whiteness,” they are pretty oblivious to non-white people, too. They don’t walk into a grocery store and notice all the minorities. At a conscious level. There is stuff happening at the subconscious level, though, for everyone.
I learned from one of the best professors I ever had, Dr. Martin Gooden at Wright State University, that there is a thing called in-group favoritism. People see members of their in-group as having positive characteristics and members of their out-group as having more negative characteristics. This applies to OKC Thunder and Dallas Maverick fans, to Democrats and Republicans, and to majorities and minorities. This happens without our thinking about it, at the unconscious level. It has very far-reaching impact though. It gets in the way of openness to getting to know each other.
Let’s Make It Better
So, why is this important? Because it plays out all over the place. Non-white people don’t experience the freedom of not thinking about being a minority. They also aren’t aware of what they experience at the unconscious level–their unconscious assumptions. White people don’t understand that non-white people have a difference experience. And all that unspoken/not understood stuff plays out at work, at church, in politics, everywhere.
Until we understand this and pull it out into the open, it never gets any better. That means that we need to talk about it. We need to understand the tricks our brains play on us. We need to understand the water we swim in.