For several days now I have had a conversation going on the actual data that we have for what is referred to (to the chagrin of many) as “white privilege.” As I noted yesterday, much of that conversation has turned into white people discussing whether or not the term “white privilege” is acceptable, but the original article that I shared was about the data–actual measures that we have of how, in general, white people benefit over People of Color in this culture. You can read that article here.
Last night, a different sort of thing happened. A man whom I do not know and have never met joined the conversation (I post almost everything on FB publicly). Shortly into the conversation, he posted this: “Bob, I’ve met people like you before. You’re an easily recognizable type. You don’t seem to have much in the way of substance to offer.”
Those were the opening three sentences of a 6 paragraph post most filled with all that he knew about people like me. I tried several times to bring him back to a discussion of the issue–the ways that we treat each other in this culture of ours, but that didn’t happen.
He left me with this “gift.” How we draw up in our minds and hearts a “type” that we stick people in. I understand that certain sectors of our brains are and have been far back into pre-history built this way–to help us recognize our clans and our enemies, to escape danger and defend our turf. I also know that the human brain as well as the human experience of the inner life has evolved beyond that as our only take on life and one another. We have the capacity–if we choose to use it–to look at another and think: I have no idea who you are, and I want to know more.
It struck me last night as I read those words (paragraphs!) written about me as someone that I didn’t recognize–written so quickly and easily by someone who did not know me–that this is what we as a culture do, and we do it all the time. “I know your type . . . ” and then we pull black drivers over; we follow black shoppers around the store waiting to catch them shoplifting; we refuse people of color loans for homes in certain neighborhoods; we see the large black man coming and assume danger. We see a white person and allow possibility, goodness, the possibility of friendship. We see a scarved woman and assume that she is abused and has no rights in her religion and home. We see brown people and think “day laborers” and brown children and wonder if they speak English or run drugs.
“I know your type . . . ” whether those words come our of our mouths or from our typing on screen, they tend to rule our thinking and ACTING. They pretend that we can reduce another human being to a type and that once the type is named there is nothing else to know. That’s also, by the way, at the root of certain objections to the term “white privilege,” but that discussion is for another day.
Typing people strips them of the mystery of their own creation. It’s a deadly, dehumanizing activity, and it threatens, these days, to destroy human community.