Confronting Racial and Other Types of Bias On the Spot
As a black, feminist, homosexual person, I am made to be uncomfortable almost every day of my life. It takes tremendous courage to address subjugation, as we (those of us from marginalized groups) are made to ensure those in positions of power (i.e. heterosexual, white, male, elite, etc.) remain comfortable. Aligning with status quo means self-sacrifice and not addressing conflicts directly related to our cultural differences.
As someone who worked in corporate America for almost 20 years, I endured this every day of my career (multiple times per day); suffered relentless self-betrayal, making myself small as the result of not confronting degrading conflicts of cultural differences head-on; specifically issues of racial, gender and sexual orientation biases (as the result of being non-binary conforming, black and gay; as well as in support of women of color and white women who endured disenfranchisement at the hands of leaders who reinforced systems of inequities and micro-inequities).
However, in almost every environment I have navigated, unresolved conflict and the continual emergence of additional issues begin to take a toll. For me, it has manifested as isolation, shutting down, anger, frustration, anxiety, sadness and depression.
I have learned and continue to learn how to effectively address such conflicts immediately. It has taken many years of lived experience, practice, developing language, practicing, mistake-making and role-playing - to develop the skills to do this. I have had many great coaches and friends who have helped in my journey along the way.
The story I am about to share is about a situation I experienced during a trip to DC (to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture). It centers around race, yet can be adopted and contextualized in a variety of ways. In sharing this, my hope is to help others be able to identify ways in which they have been, are and continue to be marginalized and subjugated in similar ways.
Happy reading! :-)
Today, while on my journey across the country, I was provided with the opportunity to gently and carefully impart knowledge and love into someone's life. Upon meeting Carol (An American Airlines flight attendant), I asked if the plane had Wi-fi. Carol impolitely cut me off and told me that she could not hear me. Upon repeating the question, Carol responded "No" in a harsh and frustrating sounding tone. The look on her face solidified her expression.
In any case, while I took notice - I did not allow it to thwart my peace. Approximately 30 minutes later, Carol appeared along with another attendant; to serve drinks. Upon approaching the row where I was seated, she initially took orders of the people across the aisle; starting with the Asian woman who was seated across from me on the aisle seat. Next, she took the order of the person in the middle and then the person by the window.
Upon Carol turning to serve the side I was on, she started with the woman in the middle and her husband on the inside (who happened to both be White). Using a very engaging and polite tone, she asked "What type of beverage would you like to drink (the same question she asked to the people across the aisle)?" Additionally, she asked "Would you like to order something from the menu?" After Carol finished with the other passengers, she turned to me, pointed and said - "And You?" Her tone was extremely apathetic and dismissive, and she did not make direct eye contact.
At this point I became a bit moved, bothered. Although Carol was doing her job and was not quite doing anything that could be deemed as discriminatory, semblances of differences in treatment were stark.
Approximately an hour and a half later, the same process was repeated. This time, I was heavily engaged - hoping and almost presuming things would be different (considering that maybe I misread the initial situation). To my surprise and dismay, the exchange was even worse. The only difference the second time around was - rather than Carol pointing and dryly saying "And you?" - she looked at me without a smile and asked, "Beverage?"
At this point, I asked to share feedback with Carol. She obliged.
I began my statement by recapping everything I noted above, politely sharing that it appeared she has more comfort, patience and acceptance with White and Non-Black People. I shared with her that although her behavior was not egregiously racist (in terms of how it is defined in mainstream dominant culture through white social and societal norms), evidence of her racial bias appeared in the following manner: lack of interest, dismissiveness, apathy, frustration, indifference and impoliteness.
I explained that the element of engaging, enthusiastic and willful service she provided to my neighbors was driven by the fact that she identified with them racially/ethnically which has much to do with mannerisms, disposition, body language, etc. Carol immediately began explaining to me that she was extremely apologetic and that no one in her life had ever said anything like that about her. She also began telling me about the fact that she has black friends and she's worked with NFL players who were black.
I assured Carol that I did not doubt that she has had pleasant experiences with people of color; yet that does not and has not rid her of racial bias - and will not absolve her of her responsibility with confronting racial bias when provided with opportunities to address it within herself. I explained that she might not understand exactly what I am referring to because most of it is unconscious; heavily influenced by socialization. I shared a few examples about age and gender to make the point.
After speaking with her for about 10-15 minutes, she finally got the point. She was extremely apologetic, and continued to come by and share with me several times throughout the duration of the flight. She shared some things about her past and told me how she was going to work to be more aware of herself and past influences.
Upon exiting the plane, she hugged me and thanked me. I was surprised, but grateful all at once.
No matter what, whether one person or 1,000 people, I will continue to lovingly share and help people be accountable for the part they play in perpetuating unhealthy racial attitudes and bias – which are the tools for separation, subjugation of black and brown people (and various other non-white identified groups), and the continuance white supremacy/superiority – privilege and racism. The same is true for gender, sexual orientation and endless other ways groups and individuals experience oppression.