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Why the Samuel Jackson Mix-Up Matters

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For those of you who didn't see this painful on-air blunder, watch here to see KTLA entertainment reporter Sam Rubin mistake Samuel L. Jackson for Laurence Fishburne. I wouldn't have understood the significance of this event prior to Waking Up White so I thought I'd share this chapter in case some other white people out there are feeling a little confused. For those of you who want to get right to the 'mistaken identity' part of the chapter, I've highlighted it in light green. That said, the whole chapter contextualizes the white role in the hot mess that is racism.

(Waking Up White ~ Chapter 42 ~ pages 222 – 227)

Solidarity And Accountability: Sharing The Burden Of Racism

Somewhere early in this journey, a man of color signed a note to me, “In solidarity, James.” The word “solidarity” jolted me. Here he’d just extended to me the honor of being “in” something with him, and I was feeling uncomfortable about it. It made me feel like a fraud and a jerk.

Why did I have such a strong reaction to that word?

As I reflected on my jumbled feelings, I realized that along with the terms “antiracist” and “activist,” the word “solidarity” had lived in my imagination as a radical ideal and piece of vocabulary best left to rebellious, armband-wearing, angry people. Recently I looked up the definition of “solidarity” and found descriptors such as “union,” “fellowship,” “common responsibilities and interests.” In a thesaurus I found the antonyms “enmity, hate, hatred, partiality, unhealthiness, unsoundness.” How on earth did a concept as compassionate and life affirming as solidarity get misconstrued in my head as angry and aggressive?

So what does solidarity really look like? Here’s a great example. Years ago I heard a story about an elementary school girl whose classmates had teased her and pointed at her bald head; she had lost her hair as a result of chemotherapy. The girl’s teacher tried to explain to the class that Suzy had leukemia and was receiving chemotherapy. The teacher also tried to convey to the students Suzy’s courage in enduring the medical treatments and their side effects while also maintaining her academic schedule. Still, the teasing continued. After a few days of trying to get her students to understand the cruelty of their teasing, Suzy’s teacher took a different tack, showing up at school one day with a scarf tied around her head. She stood quietly before the class, removed the scarf, and revealed her own bald head—shaved clean the night before. As the class sat in stunned silence, she explained that as long as Suzy had to live without a full head of hair, she would too. Within a few days all of Suzy’s classmates had also shaved their heads.

 I find it interesting that in the past, when I was able to fully grasp this teacher’s powerful act, I would have bristled had someone used the word “solidarity” to describe it. When I think of the example Suzy’s teacher offered by replacing the disempowering behavior of bullying with the empowering behavior of solidarity, I realize how much I’ve lost by not understanding these concepts earlier.

In the same way Suzy’s teacher stepped up to demonstrate that Suzy was not alone, white people have the opportunity to be in solidarity with people of color. There are many ways I’m learning to do this. Some are small. For instance, because my friend Bill doesn’t feel comfortable collecting his newspaper from the driveway unless he’s fully dressed, I am practicing changing out of my PJs before taking out the garbage or fetching the paper. I no longer open food packages in the grocery store to take the edge off my hunger, something for which friends of color have been brought to the manager’s desk. If I get stopped for speeding, I no longer try to sweet talk my way out it; I put my hands on the steering wheel and do exactly what the officer tells me to do. When I hand over my credit card, I automatically hand over my driver’s license with it. All of these things require me to do what my friends of color feel is standard practice for them yet is very new to me. None of these will change the world, but they serve to keep alive in me a sense of purpose.

As for what solidarity looks like in a racial and/or systemic context, consider the Montgomery County Public Schools example (pp. 207–9). In that case, a huge range of perspectives was sought before any policies were created. In the end, the predominantly white communities became invested in doing what was right for the whole county, not just for their children or their town. The white superintendent and the white towns’ school communities stood in solidarity with the historically marginalized towns’ school communities.

In addition to being prepared to stand up against institutional and political decisions that advantage white people while simultaneously disadvantaging people of color, I need to commit to bringing a new level of care into my relationships with colleagues and friends of color. Before this journey, I didn’t understand how easy it is to screw up in this department and how vigilant I would need to be. In the film Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, a black woman describes her feelings about friendships with white people. “For you, wanting to be my friend is like a simple stroll across the room. For me, it’s like crawling on my hands and knees across a room of broken glass.” Putting in extra effort in recognition of this inequity is something I’m learning to do—which doesn’t mean it’s easy.

One Friday afternoon, in year 1 of my journey, I’d been enjoying a new friendship with Rebecca, a black woman whose daughter played field hockey with my daughter. We gravitated toward one another on the sidelines at games and talked about everything from our kids to their schools to politics to racism. After the last game of the season, as we were standing in the field house, I asked Rebecca if her daughter was planning to do a winter sport. Instead of using her daughter’s name, however, I used the name of the one other black girl on the team. The second I said it, I questioned myself, wondering, Oh my God, what is her name? I had known her name before the conversation, but now I was so flustered I couldn’t even straighten myself out. In the moment before she gently corrected me, a look flashed across Rebecca’s face that let me know I’d mixed up the names. Though I continued to chat as if it were no big deal, inside I was horrified. I knew how much mistaken identity means to black people.

As I drove home, I felt sick. I’d just jeopardized my status as a “safe” white person in Rebecca’s life. On top of that, I was chairing the school’s diversity committee, organizing workshops about racism, writing a book about race, and I’d just mixed up two black girls. The weight of my offense sat on my heart like an eight-ton elephant. I vacillated between the pain of knowing I’d hurt my new friend and the discomfort of having humiliated myself. I knew I had to face up to my blunder.

When I got home, Bruce was in the kitchen preparing dinner, all chipper and ready to hand me a beer.

“Welcome to the weekend,” he crooned, arms outstretched for a big hug.

I walked straight past the kitchen into the living room. “Oh my God,” I dropped my bag and started pacing around with my head in my hands. “I just did the stupidest thing.” I told him the story.

“What’s the big deal? I mix up the white girls all the time. They all look alike, for Christ’s sake, in their ponytails and fleece jackets.”

 It’s true, I also mix up my daughters’ white friends from time to time. But as a result of America’s uneven playing field, experiences across color lines can’t be compared, and trying to do so is insulting. The context is entirely different. Mistaken identity, especially in the black community, carries unspeakable history. If I didn’t understand its backstory, I too would have underestimated the seriousness of mixing up two people of color.

It starts with understanding the phenomenon of “own-race bias.” Because white people have dominated my life in terms of interpersonal relationships, schoolmates, neighbors, colleagues, TV shows, movies, media images, and history books, I am exceeding familiar with the full range of white faces. Not so with people of color. Because of exposure I am more able to identify people within my own race than in other racial groups.

What’s interesting is that this is often less true for people of color, because most are all too familiar with white faces. Whereas I can chose to live in a white world, most people of color can’t isolate themselves within their racial group because the white group controls the resources needed to build a life. Everyone in America is exposed to the same white-dominated world of media and politics. White is the face of the dominant culture, where bosses, government officials, and teachers can make or break one’s ability to achieve.

The long history of white people mistaking one black person for another is one of those unintended consequences of racism that deepens the divide. Mistaken identity has caused everything from a “Do my coworkers even know who I am?” feeling of invisibility among people of color to false accusations resulting in retaliation, incarceration, and death. In 1971, for instance, five white eyewitnesses positively identified five black men, labeled the Quincy Five, as perpetrators of a murder in Tallahassee. Despite a lack of any physical evidence, the five were charged with murder based on the accounts of five live witnesses, all of whom insisted these were the guys. Years later, the five were exonerated when a new trial introduced physical evidence pointing to three other black men. Mistaking one person of color for another is a red-hot button, and when I screwed up with Rebecca’s daughter, I knew it. I explained all of this to Bruce and then asked to be left alone to call Rebecca and apologize.

“But what if she didn’t even notice it?” he asked. “Then aren’t you creating an issue out of nothing?”

“It’s not sitting right with me,” I said. “I doubt it’s sitting right with her.” I closed myself in my bedroom, the school directory in hand, and stared at the phone. I paced, imagining how to apologize. I finally settled on being as direct as possible. I dialed and waited.

“Hi, it’s Debby, “ I said when she answered. We’d never spoken on the phone before. “Listen, I feel sick about mixing up Janet and Nicky.”

“Oh it’s okay. It’s no big deal,” she said. I didn’t buy it.

“Well, I feel like it was a really stupid white-person thing to do, and I’m so sorry if it hurt you.”

There was a long pause.

“I wish you could talk to my coworker,” she said. We both laughed. She told me how she’d been struggling with a white coworker who repeatedly made racist remarks and then chastised Rebecca for suggesting the comments were racist. We went on to have a long conversation about a wide range of topics. We were on solid ground again, and I felt it. If I ever mix up two people of color again, I hope I’ll have the courage to fess up and apologize sooner. I still regret my friend had to sit with my unintended slight for the few hours she did.

Tolerating the discomfort of owning up to my blunder gave me the opportunity to share the discomfort caused by racism and send the message: “This situation stinks, but I want to be in it with you so I can get out of it with you.” By holding myself accountable for what I knew was a misstep, I was able to stand in solidarity with Rebecca.

Vernā Myers, a black attorney, has worked since 1992 with white law firms that are scratching their heads about their lack of success in attracting and retaining lawyers of color. She’s learned how microaggressions on the part of white employees have driven away employees of color. At a talk I attended, Vernā gave an example of how a “polite” behavior can play out for a person of color. She told a story about an Asian lawyer largely ignored by his coworkers. When she asked his firm’s white lawyers what they thought might be behind this behavior she discovered that they couldn’t pronounce his name, so they avoided him. They didn’t want to be rude.

Vernā is a fabulous public speaker and as funny as any of my favorite stand-up comedians: Steve Martin, Chris Rock, Jay Leno, and Jerry Seinfeld. So try imagining that kind of humor and tone as you hear what Verna then said to the crowd full of Boston attorneys.

“Not want to have to learn his name? Are you kidding me? That’s what this is about? Man, we black folks have been learning everything about you for years! We know your TV shows; we know your hair products; we know your names; we know how you like to do things. We have to! Is it really that much to ask to meet us halfway?”

I don’t think it’s too much to ask to meet another person halfway. Best of all, it is something I can do because it’s in my control. Surely I, living on the advantaged side of the racial equation, can expand myself to be a part of a more inclusive and united America. All things considered, it feels like a fairly small request to meet people of color on common ground by sharing the burden of being uncomfortable and out of my element.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Why the Samuel Jackson Mix-Up Matters

  1. Kathryn says:

    Your anecdote about Verna’s work with law firms is one that I often refer to when talking to friends about this book!

  2. Ellen says:

    What a fabulous piece. Learning how to be accountable and how to stand in solidarity, as Debby has done, are as important life skills as any I can think of. My own learning will continue every day that I’m lucky enough to keep my mind open and find the opportunities.

    1. Debbie’s writing is an inclusive as anything I have read. Bravo!

  3. As a gay transgender married to an African-American male, I was horrified to see the racially-insensitive fopaux. If the government would mandate compulsory sensitivity-training to privileged White offenders, the world would be a better place. I hope Mr. Jackson has recovered from this unintentional, yet harmful attack.

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