Saturday, May 29, 2010

Text and Subtext in White Conversation

There have been so many little incidents lately with a racial subtext and I wish I had more time to blog about them all! But alas, I am so tired after work (and lazy). For now, we'll delve into just one little conversation, which occurred on the way home from work the other day.

Some background: I am in the field right now, staying in a (company provided) hotel. Every morning the crew meets and travels to the field together in a company vehicle (and, um, we all come back together in the evening too, obviously). We have a half hour drive one-way, so there's plenty of time to talk with coworkers.

One of the crew chiefs is someone I'll call Bobby. Bobby is older than your average field tech, in his early 60s. He clearly loves doing archaeology and is very good at it.

Bobby is also a racist.

I originally wrote above in my description of Bobby that he was white, but honestly I have to admit that everyone on the crew is white, all 15 or so of us, as well as disproportionally male. Although the gender makeup is quite unusual (crews are generally gender balanced or even disproportionally female), the racial makeup is sadly very common. Crews are often mostly or entirely white, and I have never worked for a crew chief or project investigator who was a POC. Basically, this is a very white, very male environment.

Bobby is a storyteller, and he usually spends most of our car rides telling (and re-telling) his favorites. He also loves bad jokes. For example, here's a great one he regaled us with a couple weeks ago:

"So there's this colored woman."

(Oh dear)

"So there's this colored woman, and she's been poor all her life. But she finally makes a little money, and she goes into a pharmacy to buy some feminine products. She goes to the pharmacist and asks him to help her, because she always was so poor that she couldn't afford any, and they're confusing - wings and pads and strings and so on.

" 'Of course I'll help you.' Says the pharmacist. 'What's your flow like?' "

" Says the woman 'Mah flo? Mah flo's linoleum.' "

AH HA HA she thought he said FLOOR in an ignorant backwoods accent! She's so dumb and colored!

"Bobby." I said. "Why does that woman have to be colored?"

"Well, because that's the way they talk." He said.

"Couldn't it be just any southern woman?" I asked.

He said, "I just think of them all as living in the South."

"That's the problem!" my friend yelled, but the conversation was dropped.

Why does the woman in the joke have to be black? The punchline relies on the woman being poor and ignorant. There are plenty of poor, ignorant white Southerners (and I guess this could easily be a poor white woman joke as well), but we stereotype blacks as 1) from the South; 2) poor; 3) dumb. Making the woman black adds another dimension to the joke because of the hidden context provided by the stereotype. It's not just any woman, it's a 'colored' woman! My prejudices are confirmed!

The other day coming home in the car Bobby set off several of these verbal bombs. Something about being Asian and having tiny feet, and then this choice statement: "There are a bunch of people from the city who step in front of buses. Mostly black people from Philadelphia on work release."

First of all, what? Why are they stepping in front of buses? Secondly - I guess I don't have a secondly. The problem with that statement should be pretty obvious.

Being a white person, there is always the option not to respond to blatantly racist statements like these. This is a component of our privilege. As an anti-racist, I feel that it is my responsibility to say something. But I have to admit that I haven't been exactly getting on Bobby's case in any kind of a consistent way. I have made comments that gently suggest my disapproval, but I have not come out and said "knock off that racist bullshit."

What I did say was, "Bobby, do you think you could go a whole day without saying something offensive? How about racist? We'll just work on one ism at a time."

"No." He said cheerfully.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I said that, because some people react very strongly to anything that sounds like an accusation of racism. Nevertheless, his reaction didn't exactly surprise me.

Here's the interesting part of the conversation, the text/subtext that I wanted to unpack a little bit.

Another crewmember, John, riding in the car with us heard what I said. ("Do you think you could go a whole day without saying something racist?") This is how he replied: "Aw, why do we have to?" (Why do we have to try not to be racist, that is.)

This entire exchange (my comment, Bobby's response, and John's reaction) was done in a joking tone (although I was furious). The text and tone of this exchange was light and non-serious. The subtext of John's comment reveals something else entirely.

On the surface, John was joking.

Right below the surface, John was giving me a warning: "Don't be that guy." John was asking me not to spoil his day by dragging race into the conversation, by being all serious and stuff. We're just joking around, having a good time! Just us white people in this car! I could almost hear him saying, "I'm sorry if you were offended, but I think you're just being too sensitive."

Buried more deeply was a more serious accusation. "Don't censor me." John wanted, perhaps, to be able to use Bobby's casual racism in order to make the types of racist jokes that are meant to be ironic. "I'm not really a racist, so I can tell racist jokes! It's so ironic and funny that I tell these jokes!"

People who ironically tell racist jokes are often the same people who tell me "I don't see race".

John may also have wanted to protect Bobby. Bobby is, after all, of a "certain generation" - old enough to get a free pass on being racist, allowed by others with a sigh or a roll of the eyes to say pretty much whatever he wants. Telling an old white person that they're racist is taboo in white conversation. I was committing a faux pas by labeling Bobby's speech as racist because the common belief is that people over a certain age will never change. This is admittedly one of the reasons that I have ignored Bobby's racism to a certain extent.

But I am pretty tired of that rationalizing. So what if Bobby will never change? He might, and even if he doesn't it's good for him to get a reminder that not every white person shares his worldview.

This is the problem with racial discourse in our society. Every statement is so layered with context and meanings and warnings and insults that it can be impossible to tease out. John would have done anything in that moment to avoid a serious discussion about how POC are disadvantaged in our society, while Bobby probably just wouldn't have believed it. No one wants to have this conversation openly. Why talk about something depressing when we can just make our little white people jokes?


  1. thank you for starting to repost a white guy yours is one of the blogs I read regularly while I try to figure this stuff out.

    So keep posting please...

  2. Thanks, Lincoln! Nice to know people are listening.