Friday, December 12, 2014

A Tough Subject

What's this? A self-portrait scribbled on my iPhone for my phone's 'wallpaper'. I think it looks just like me. In fact, when I drink my face gets red enough that people ask if I've 'gotten a lot of sun.' I'll say, "No. It's the wine." or whatever.

Other people don't think it looks like me. Go figure.

So here's my actual picture. Not the pinup at the bottom but that reflection...the one to the right of the camera.

I snapped this in a junk shop when I first got my iPhone. And, yes, I'm sure I intentionally included myself.
And this one? Maybe that's a reflection of my feet and legs.

What do we see when we see ourselves? In pictures? In the mirror? In the reflection in a shop window when we are passing by. I'm often a little shocked a what I see. ("Stand up straight!" I say to the passing image in that window.) In the mirror or photo I see the extra chin, the wrinkles, the imperfections, the hair going everywhere and going a little gray. (I'm inordinately proud that it's not ALL gray. After all a lot of my friends are completely gray. And truth be told, I like when it is going in multiple directions.)

Here's what I really look like. Well, not really. The picture is a couple of years old. I look older. I have more gray. The photo was taken (and retouched perhaps) by a professional.

Well, I am now. Last week.

My right eye looks a little wonky. My hair is suitably weird. See the gray? I keep it short because that de-emphasizes the gray. I'd had a drink, maybe two. Red cheeks. This is just a snapshot FFP took and I cropped it out to show my face.

So who are we really? How do we perceive ourselves and, of course, others? Do we make instant judgments based on age and skin color?  Sex? Dress? Do we hear someone speak (articulately or not, accented or bland) and make judgments about origin and education?

These perceptions are much in the news. People are protesting deaths of blacks in police shootings. A young girl shot in the head for being in favor of education for girls is receiving a Nobel prize. There are ancient wars between and among religious sects and ethnic groups outsiders would find difficult to define. The world is full of this hate. Stereotyping. Prejudice. There's no doubt about it.

Amid the protests over police shootings of blacks and, let's face it, before that, there has been a call for whites to confess to their privilege if not their prejudice. I'm not sure what one is supposed to do once this privilege (and perhaps prejudice) is acknowledged. Perhaps the hope is that one will become less apt to make an instant assumption about someone. Or maybe become less opposed (assuming one was opposed) to affirmative action.

From the pictures above (well maybe not the drawing!) one can see that my skin is the 'white' associated with Northern Europeans. I confess that the rhetoric which demands that I admit my privilege is a little off-putting for me. I am a woman (the short hair sometimes confuses people on this point but I am) and I grew up in the lower middle class. My privilege is hard-worn assuming I have it. I could go on and on about male privilege in college and the work place in my era. I will not.

In any case, I'm white. I check the Caucasian box when asked. (What does that even mean?) I haven't done 23andMe although I'm considering it. I think it might find some ancestry that would be surprising. But the fact is that other people see white skin.

Which brings me to a thought experiment that I began about two months ago. I decided that when I interacted with others or just saw them on the street that, in addition to noting how they were dressed and making assumptions about who they were and what they were doing, I would note their race, the color of their skin, the distinguishing facial features of race, first and foremost.

Wait, you say...that's what you always do! No, I found, it really was not. I had to force this fact to the head of the line in making assumptions. A guy with a backpack and earphones? I'd internally say a person of Asian origin who is probably a student or a high tech worker. Before I would not have added the racial aspect although certainly I would have probably remembered it later. A group of people speaking another language taking up the entire sidewalk looking back and forth at phones? A group of Asian foreign visitors. A male runner with no shirt on and a great body? A black athlete. The scary homeless man we see a lot who stands straight up and makes threatening gestures? A white man who obviously has psychological problems. The homeless guy we see a lot lounging on a particular park bench never asking for anything or speaking? The black homeless guy with dreads.

I could go on and on. I learned a lot of things from this exercise. I learned that I wasn't always sure about race. Hispanic? Or black? Mixed race? I learned that in Austin many construction workers appear Hispanic but blacks are few and far between. (Our Hispanic population is four times that of blacks here, however.) I learned that though our black population is less than ten percent that I see lots of blacks in many contexts. (We'll talk about the elitism of the blacks who are my friends and the economic, education, cultural implications of that another day.) I saw blacks headed to work, homeless, shopping, having meetings in coffee shops, running the trail, dressed like bankers, performing musicians, street musicians. For some reason I didn't see many black families on the walking trails but mixed race families seemed to abound. This isn't a statistical study, of course, but a personal one. What assumptions was I making? And the number of people in Austin identifying as two or more races is fifty percent of the number identifying as black.

I love watching people. Sorting them into types and ilks. Skin color and facial features denoting origins is one way. And I found that making myself identify it at the forefront when encountering strangers rather than emphasizing my own prejudice probably adjusted it. These strangers covered the spectrum in all the other ways we have of distinguishing people: dress, seeming economic status, age, sex, fitness, way of speaking (if they spoke), what they carried, etc. Race identification didn't really tell one much else. Which may be why I didn't put it first in my people-watching before. Which is not to say I didn't notice racial characteristics.

For those who aren't on the front lines of the battle against hate of the 'other' I recommend a thought experiment like this as you encounter strangers. If you make assumptions based on race or age or sex alone then you might ask why. I certainly make assumptions. Particularly when I see drivers of a certain age or race. I think it's worth taking these out and examining them honestly. I don't know if this constitutes a contribution to the conversation we are told we are supposed to be having about race. But it's always good to take a good look at oneself. Outside (OK, I'm not that red and I'm getting old and a bit fat) and inside (what are you really thinking and from where does that thinking arise).

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