Saturday, June 26, 2010

What is Your "Be Better Than White People" Story?--Discrimination, Prejudice & Racism At The Office And Workplace in the 1950's

I can't even begin to imagine what the trailblazers in the Black Freedom Struggle endured. I know that our honored ancestors--many of whom were doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like-- had to pursue careers much less than they were capable of in order to put food on their families' tables and a roof over their folks' heads. But, the abstract of this history does not capture the tangible and real pain of what that lived present must have felt like. In total, what pride these honorable men and women exhibited as they persevered, fought, and resisted so that others would have more freedom and opportunity, even if decades later.

Does the spawn of the post-Civil Rights, Hip Hop generation (and exclusive of the outliers of course) have even a tenth of this comportment and dignity? And whose fault is it, that they may not?

So what my friends, is your quintessential (as I affectionately label it) be "X times better than White people" story? For me, it was my godparents, two professionals, one who could pass for white but found the thought dishonorable and disgusting given the history of White supremacy in this country, and another an impossibly brown in skin tone, never to get into the brown paper bag club brother, telling me that I would have to be at least 20 times better than white folks to get the same job.

I also remember my father, a sort of dark skinned, Sicilian-Italian looking negro in his youth, who as you know from a previous post wore a stocking cap to hide his "nappy" hair while a Sergeant in World War Two (lest he be sent out of his White combat unit in North Africa...yes, my family tree is both nebulous and fascinating), telling me to be 50 times better than white folk to get just as far.

My mom also told me about her experiences during the 1960's when she was one of the first black women to work in plain clothes security at a Macy's department store. She would fret about every detail--her hair, makeup and dress--because it was understood that all of the minorities had to be "better" than their white coworkers. And frankly, I have been told a version of the same story quite recently by mentors in the professorate who deeply understand that to do this "race stuff" successfully, one has to be damn better than your White colleagues studying "serious things" (as deemed by some traditionalists who hold the reigns) in order to get half as far in the business.

Is it no wonder then, that the real killer which is racism remains immune in so many ways to legislation because it remains a common poison in our society's ether, and semi-visible to all but those who choose to look honestly at our "democratic" project?

This is the reflexive. White privilege encourages white mediocrity, while also providing White folks' disproportionate power. Ironically, I wonder how many White folks, especially White men, ever look in the mirror and have a moment of critical self-evaluation where they ask themselves, "what have I gotten because of my skin color and gender?" A few? None? Many? Or do they fall into a white gender privileged induced haze of White victimology?

Most troubling to me, is that at present we have a post-Civil Rights generation of black and brown kids that while still suffering under a more closeted, backstage racism, this is a cohort that is robbed of a language to even discuss and frame their own experiences with racial inequality. For the Obama kids, even when staring them in the face--where race is real and a powerful variable in terms of their life chances--they choose to deny its power.

This reality burns too much. To have to admit that race may in fact impact the course, hem, and hew of one's future life trajectories is perhaps too heavy a burden for some to carry. Thus, in a brilliant inversion of language, morality, and responsibility by the Right, "playing the race card" has become a sin exclusive to people of color confronting racism, as opposed to the label on the deck we/you/they/us have been dealt in American society.

Per our tradition, some questions:

1. I am struck by the tone and cinematography of this educational video from the late 1950's and/early 1960's. It is more of a horror movie than anything else. Am I alone in being surprised by how critical the movie is of its White "villains" and how integration is implicitly a noble goal?"

2. Related point: White folks so often do find a way to rehabilitate their own image. Do they not? Why is the sister reduced to being such a helpless lamb before the slaughter?

3. How many of you have a "white" voice for phone interviews because it is understood that this tone is necessary to get a foot in the door? How many of you have shocked and surprised a potential employer by not being white--especially if you removed all those "black" or "minority" activities from your resume, i.e. the Black Student union?

4. Am I immoral because I told a student of color to "whiten" her resume, especially because in this economy employers will be making all sorts of unfair and subconscious judgments about who to interview (or not)?

5. Finally, in the 1950's White elites finally began to realize that they had to exercise positive leadership regarding "the race question," especially in the context of the Cold War and the stain of Jim Crow on America's image. Question: How many"regular" Americans to this day do not have proper a context for The Civil Rights Movement? And why the adherence to simple stories of tired old ladies like Rosa Parks and superhuman visionaries like Martin Luther King Jr., as opposed to a full, complex, rich, confusing history of real people and real struggles?

6. How can you not dig the jazz undertones and that Nixon spearheaded the commission which produced the video?


Cecily said...

I wasn't able to watch the videos because I am at work, but I this post really struck a cord with me. I attend a majority white institution on the East Coast (primarily because the HBCU I wanted to attend would barely give me $100 for financial aid). I consider myself an intelligent black person but throughout my life my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc have always told me I need to be twice as good at everything I do. As I approach my final year of University, I have found that I avoided such things like the Black Student Union, Caribbean Students Association, and other extracurricular activities that would automatically label me as black on my resume. I have perfected my 'white phone voice' to the point where white people who meet me after hearing me on the phone are shocked that I am black. It saddens me that I have to do this but on the other hand, I want to be able to find a good job and be successful. And if that means "whitening" my resume and voice to get the part then so be it. Unfortunately we still live in sad times.

(Most) White people just don't get it. They will never look in the mirror and ask themselves has everything they've achieved been because of their white privilege. Most of them will act shocked and appalled when they are called out on it. They can sail through life while putting mediocre effort into everything while we have to work 3x as hard just to get into the same positions, the same places, etc.

It pisses me off, but if I let it bother me too much I'd probably be a very violent person and the embodiment of the 'angry black woman' stereotype. I will comment more after I get a chance to watch the videos. I like this blog, found it by chance and will be reading daily!!

Your driver said...

I liked this post. I'm in a hurry so I wasn't able to watch all of the video but I will come back to them later. In the meantime I wanted to share something slightly off topic. I'm white. I've spent my entire working life in the transit industry. Back in the early '70's when I got my first real job I was hired and trained as a bus driver by the First Negro Bus Drivers in Detroit. They didn't tell what that was like because they knew I couldn't understand but they asked me point blank, "Young man, are you prejudiced?" and they didn't settle for a simple "No". When I explained myself, to the best of my ability as a 20 year old white boy they decided I was OK.
Almost 37 years later I am semi retired and working part time in administration. When people ask me how I learned to be safe courteous and professional, I tell them about the First Negro Bus Drivers. (Always capitalize the first letters)
They could and should have been pilots or psychiatrists but they did everything to the highest possible standards. I didn't always live up to those standards. I knew I could get away with more than them, but they taught me what the standards were. They also made it clear that I was being done a favor and that I was expected to pass that favor along to a young Black woman or man in the future.
It really was an honor to have known those men.

Lola Gets said...

Im going through some crap at work that deals with some of the same issues you raised here. Maybe I suffer from bourgeois Black entitlement: I never felt that I had to be better than whites to get the same things. But, unfortunately in the real world, I find that that is true.

I dont feel too well, so Im not going to answer all of your questions (I gotta go lie down). But I will answer a few:

3) Of course I have a "white voice". What upwardly mobile person of color doesnt? Folks are usually shocked to see me, because I dont sound Black. Most of the time. But then again, I have a tendency to adopt the lingo of folks Im around, so sometimes, due to the community I work with, I sometimes sound really "urban".

4) No, youre not immoral. Its effed up that you have to tell somebody that in this day and age, but you were giving that student sound advice on how to make herself more marketable in this economy. Hell, I do it too, but it only works but so much cause I majored in Afro-American Studies.

5) MOST reglar Americans dont get it. I used to work for an organization that brought thousands of kids to DC from all across the US, and I discovered there is a LOT of ignorance out there. Black history in America: We were brought here as slaves, then the Civil War happened, we were freed, then the Civil Rights movement came along and gave us all the same rights as regular Americans, and thus leveled the playing field. Riiight.

Great post - I love this blog!


jacked UP jazz said...

I agree with your premise and your frequent postings on the subject of white privilege have served to further sensitize me to the facts of life in America and many other places around the world. Having to be twice as good to get half as far is real. I look forward to the day that such things are a distant memory.

But what about the black privilege that comes with dark skin.

Oh come on now don't tell me you have never pushed ahead in line when folk came down to your neighborhood to see the show.

Or gotten loud on a store clerk who wasn't "ringing it up right" just because you felt you had the crowd on your side.

Or my personal favorite, milking that bleeding heart, ex hippie, liberal, 5th grade teacher for a better score on your homework because she bought into the whole disadvantaged youth thing. When the only disadvantage you had was that the TV you were watching, instead of doing your homework, was black and white and not color.

And surely more than a few of you have pulled the old black militant kill my landlord thing to get excused from jury duty.

My only point is that every coin has two sides. When life gives you lemons you know...

chaunceydevega said...

@Cecily--You got's to chill and exhale.

@Jon--I love hearing from real folk. the story of race is one of heroes, villains, and regular folk doing the right thing. I would love to hear more about your experience. As always, if you want to write a guest post send it along.

@Lola--I like complements. Alot ;)

@Jacked--I think you are trying to make me laugh!

Anonymous said...

Your site is nothing but thinly veiled racism, masquerading itself as 'journalism' and 'respectable' opinion.

Race isn't an issue for most people. It's an issue for a handful of crooked cops, Washington politicians (who are pitting both sides against the middle), and black people who feel they've been wronged.

99% of blacks in America today have not directly experienced even a fraction of what their ancestors endured. The opportunities to better yourself (no matter what 'color' you are), are there for anyone to take advantage of.

It's just a lot easier to blame someone else for your shortcomings, than it is to actually do something about it.

Don't take "the easy way out". That's what everyone else does, and there's too much competition in it. Instead, take the road less traveled by; It will make all the difference.


A Man (S.K.D.N.A. - Skin color does not apply)

Your driver said...

PS. Not that much has changed. A few years ago I went to a talk by Randall Robinson. I kept thinking, "This guy should be somewhere very high in the State Department. Maybe even Secretary of State", and there he was lecturing to a small room full of state college students. Still too many way overqualified people of color who are working below their level.