As I mentioned in an earlier post, my UCC church asked me to lead “conversations about race” I described the first week in my earlier post. The second week I did a short version of my presentation on race and criminal justice. Today I began by showing clips of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, first a clip from ABC news “exposing” Wright (the clip starts with a commercial you cannot avoid) and then a six minute clip from the 2003 sermon which places the “God Damn America” line in its context in the sermon, which is about how nations come and go and don’t always follow God’s law, but God’s law endures.* We are a pretty liberal congregation and folks mostly laughed and enjoyed Wright’s political references, as well as saying they appreciated the way the sermon had clearly been planned and was making a point about history. I mentioned why some people objected to the sermon in web comments, even in its longer context, stressing both its political content (as many Whites are unaware of the long tradition of political commentary from Black pulpits) and its “angry” tone, and mentioned that this difference in cultural style is a really big problem. I also commented that there is a similar problem on the other end, with typical Asian interactional styles being considered by many Whites to be too polite and reserved and not assertive enough.
In response, one White woman said that Wright’s angry tone bothered her and she worried about its lack of “solutions” would that just incite racial animosity. Then the one Black participant (the same one from last week; everyone else was White) said that Wright was not angry, that he was just expressing himself passionately and forcefully. She elaborated on this point, talking about her own style and about Black mothers who come in to talk about their children and the White teachers code them as angry when they are just being assertive. She said, “If I’m angry, you’ll know it.” (Not saying I’m some kind of cosmopolitan, but based on my experience, the Black woman’s style was on the very mild and soft-spoken end of the range of Black expression I’m familiar with – well within the range of how I would express myself – and I coded her as warmly and compassionately making the effort to explain a standpoint.) Then the White woman said that the Black woman sounded angry and aggressive to her, and that she was bothered because the Black woman had interrupted her to make the point, and that the expression “If I’m angry, you’ll know it” sounded like a threat to her. Then the Black woman talked some more, saying she was not angry, that she is the conservative “Republican-type” in her family, that her mother and sister are much more aggressive than she is. Then she told us she had actually had to resign her job as school principal over this issue, because the White teachers complained that it made them feel “threatened” when she used wide arm gestures while speaking to them; the district supervisors told her that when she spoke to teachers she needed to keep her hands clasped in front of her and soften her voice and smile. She had decided to resign her position because she felt she had to be herself and it was just too stressful to try to deal with this requirement. We talked some more about styles and then it was time to quit and go into the worship service. I realized the Black woman was near tears. Another White woman and I talked to her for a few more minutes before going into church. She was in so much pain about this interaction: she feels she tries so hard to fit in and these things keep happening. She is signed up to lead the discussion next week (I’ll be away visiting my son) and is now feeling even more nervous about talking about herself and her feelings and experiences.
We are in community. The two women involved in this know each other; they are both lesbians and part of the gay/lesbian support group in church. A lot of us noticed they were not in the church service and were worried about them. Turns out the White woman had gone looking for the Black woman and the two of them had spent the hour talking out in the lobby. The personal issues got worked through, although their standpoints were still very different. The White woman was insisting to me after church that the whole thing is about personalities, not about cultural difference, which seems to me to be a flat denial of the evidence. Of course there are always individual personality variations within cultural groups, but there is tons of cultural stuff about norms of polite and rude speech, the level of disagreement that can be expressed, how loud you talk, etc. The Black woman was still feeling shaky and upset even after the hour conversation. Because, of course, this wasn’t just about the one interaction with one person she knows, but about a problem that has affected her whole life and her career and cost her a job she wanted. (I guess I have to repeat that from my perception, she is a very mild and friendly and genteel person. I was shocked to learn that she had lost a job because she was perceived as threatening. Shocked.)
And that’s where structure comes in. Because what matters is who is in charge and whose cultural norms have to be followed to get ahead. Some people have to learn to adapt to other people’s culture, and some people get to insist that their culture is the only correct one. Part of this is a natural consequence of majority-ness in the simple numerical sense, just as it is natural that the dominant language will be the one that the most people in an area speak. Savvy people know that if you travel internationally, you have to learn what the customs are in other countries so you do not inadvertently insult people. But it is hard when people treat you like a gauche foreigner in your own multi-cultural country.
And there is real racial bias in this on top of the simple cultural styles issue. White Easterners, Jews in particular, also have a relatively aggressive and confrontational cultural style. (And, yes, I know a lot of New Yorkers who resent this stereotype.) After one “diversity” session, a Jewish woman from New York said to me that in her culture, you interrupt people as a sign that you are really interested in what they are saying, but she realized that the Midwesterners she is working with probably really hate it when she interrupts them. As far as I can tell, it costs White New Yorkers/Jews a lot less than it costs Blacks when they violate the norms of more reserved cultural groups. It seems like White Easterners do just fine, even in the Midwest. Or at least if they are men. Hmmm. I wonder as I write this. I do know that as a relatively assertive and confrontational White woman (from the West, not the East), I have been coded as “difficult” by a lot of people, have had my personal style criticized by both men and women, and maybe have paid a price I don’t even know about in career advancement.
Despite having muddied the waters a bit wondering about the impact of cultural clash among Whites and issues of gender politics, I’m sticking by my assertion that this “cultural styles” business is a really big deal that has a huge negative impact on the life chances of racial/ethnic minorities in White-dominated areas. It is especially bad for African Americans, who are likely to be inappropriately coded as hostile and aggressive and angry. Over and above cultural and personal style, the truth is that lots of Whites (and Asians) are simply afraid of African Americans, afraid because they have absorbed all the cultural and media images of dangerous criminal Black people, often transmuted into fears that Black people will try to make Whites feel bad for their privilege. Black people who are trying to get along with Whites have to go way overboard in friendliness and niceness to be accepted; the ordinary reserved standoffishness of White people is often coded as hostile if a Black person does it. Of course, there is nothing like being treated as hostile, aggressive and angry to make you feel that way. It makes me want to cry.
* You may be interested in the large number of quite hostile comments on the UCC’s “conversations about race” web page if you imagine that the degree of racial hostility among Whites is overblown. For more information about Trinity UCC from its own point of view, see the Trinity Chicago UCC page or the blog TruthAboutTrinity. This church has been harassed and threatened since Obama’s campaign heated up. I think there is less stuff on the web site since I looked at it a while ago. FYI there are other churches in other cities named Trinity UCC.