If you don’t notice racism in your daily life, you should read this book. It is not heavy. It is not intended to make white people uncomfortable. It is funny in spots. It is easy to read. You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism by Amber Ruffin, Lacey Lamar.
It is written in a humorous tone because these were stories retold by a skilled humor writer. Therefore, “JC Penney” becomes a laugh line. But there is nothing funny about being detained for shoplifting when you have not stepped into the store. Yet it happened to Lacey.
It should not be funny that a supervisor has a half-hour conversation with Lacey without knowing who she is. Yet it happened to Lacey.
It is not funny that a white woman married to a Black man makes racist jokes in mixed Black-white company, and her husband laughs along; as the author, Amber, says “they probably have f-ed up children by now.” If you want America to be less f-ed up, this is a book to pay attention to.
Dominance in animals
Social dominance is hard-wired into social animals. Dogs know, monkeys know, birds know, human children know.
The dominant group member has more access to the tools of survival: food, territory, and sexual partners. The less dominant members are dependent on the dominant members for food and protection from predators and sometimes for territory. The non-dominant members must pay attention to the dominant ones; their lives depend on it.
For the dominant members, the lesser members do not hold the power of life-and-death; attention is optional. That’s why the silver-backed gorilla does not generally interact with any members of his troop that are not part of his inner circle. It is why dog trainers show people how to be “alpha” so their dogs will listen to them.
Dominance in people
This social dominance is built into American culture. People who are white and Christian and have a north/western European heritage have been in a dominant position socially and economically throughout the 500 years since Europeans began colonizing North and South America. This dominance was absolute enough that enslavement, forced deportation, and acts of genocide were perpetrated by government and “legitimate” authority.
There is a growing trend to question the history text book glorification of America’s conquests over “the Indians” and how it fulfilled its “manifest destiny” to tame the American west. Columbus’s mission from Spain is no longer being stripped of its economic motives and the bloodshed in wrought. Momentum for a less Eurocentric view of history picked up momentum since the 1995 publication of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen and A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (2005).
Yet, the day-to-day awareness of the extent and persistence of social dominance lags behind any books we may read. It takes a conscious effort to pay attention when we are interacting with people outside white, Christian, European-heritage American culture.
Metaphors for our country
When I was in elementary school, I was taught about the Great Melting Pot. It was an image of America where everyone was melted together into a unified culture. This all sounded good, like the Italians would add garlic, and the Jews would add chicken soup, and it would make some yummy stew. At some point, it became clear to me that there was a dark side to this stew. The idea was that there was a base flavor, and the Italians and Jews were going to melt in and never be tasted again.
I was out of school when I heard that Canada used the metaphor of the Mosaic. That there were all kinds of colors and texture and they held together with the mortar of being Canadian. That seemed a little less like cultural oblivion to me.
However one pictures American culture in terms of the different people who share the country, we all start from the experience of our place in America. Therefore, we always have something to learn about other people who live here.
What’s a white person to do about microaggression?
If your intention is to be fair and respectful, but now you are afraid of doing the wrong thing, you are not alone. The biggest single thing you can do to be your best when you goof up is to be open to learning from it.
Microaggression is when a person consciously or subconsciously makes negative assumptions or uses language that is insulting about another person. Microaggression also includes ignoring people who you consciously or subconsciously do not find important enough to notice (or remember the name of). Microaggression is noticing negative things about people, based on some stereotype or prejudice that you expect the negative behavior from people like that.
People can do or say things that insult others without being aware they are doing it. If you are a person who does not intend to be insulting, take heart, because there are things you can do:
- Pay attention to moments when your assumptions could be hurtful.
- When you notice, ask questions to find out if your assumptions are negatively affecting the other person.
- If someone questions a remark you made, listen. There is no need to defend yourself, if you are open to learning. If you learn, and understand the nature of the hurt, you can become a better ally. Refusing to change gives the message that you do not respect the other person enough to make an adjustment to your speech.
American culture is changing around us. There are growing pains that come with it, especially for people who grew up in white communities. We (I include myself here) don’t know what we don’t know about people of color. The only way we are going to find out is by remaining open to seeing that America looks different to people who grew up with more hurdles because of government and “legitimate” authorities that have made daily life harder for them. Lacey and Amber are two of them. Read their book.