Different Experiences

I don’t have as much time to comment on the Obamas’ remarks on their own experiences with racism as I wish I did. I think their relating of their experiences constitutes what somebody or other referred to as a “teachable moment” that I wish more would heed. I’ve seen quite a bit of smirking about them in the right-leaning blogosphere and punditry.

The reality is that many black folk experience events differently than white folk do. I don’t know what happened at Target that day but I have no doubt of the reality that Mrs. Obama experienced it as she said she did—as racism.

Young black men experience their encounters with the police differently than I, an old white man, do even when the same things happen to us. So there are two distinct things going on: some of their encounters with police are actually different from mine and even when our encounters are the same they experience them differently.

One size does not fit all. There’s no single solution to both of these issues and both need to be addressed.

15 comments… add one
  • CStanley Link

    The thing about the Target story is that the First Lady told the story contemporaneously in a different light. She apparently recounted it soon afterward on Letterman as a funny anecdote that showed humility- she thought when the woman approached her that her cover was blown and that throngs would be approaching her as a celebrity, but instead the short lady was approaching her because of her height.

    So (sneering aside) it does seem disingenuous to now present it as a situation in which she perceived racism.

    I agree with the broader point that it is healthy to air these things out. I think if people could put aside defensiveness, whites would see that many encounters really are different for blacks and blacks might see that they sometimes perceive racism where it doesn’t really exist.

  • jan Link

    I think people can find what they are looking for by interpreting nuances in ways that augment a certain POV. For instance, at 5′ 7″ I’ve had much shorter women come up to me in stores and ask me to reach a higher item. It is only when they see my purse that they say, “Oh, I thought you worked here.” My response is usually kind of humorous, something along the line of my height being put to good use. Could it be that the FLOTUS, being asked to reach something, had less to do with her color than her height?

    My husband being a dark-skinned Greek has had similar instances of people thinking he was a laborer. Again, rather than being insulted or taking it as a “racially motivated” comment, he just takes it as a variable of life, where people mistakingly think they can judge a book by it’s cover rather than it’s content.

  • CStanley Link

    I think the history of severe institutional racism against blacks in our country makes any analogies to the experiences of whites invalid (or at least inadequate.)

    The closest I can come in personal experience to misjudgment was the reaction of some of my clients when I was a very young newly minted veterinarian. I was 23 and looked even younger, so I was sometimes mistaken for the vet assistant and often had to overcome skepticism. I recognize that this kind of perception is different though than dealing with people who might doubt your very humanity,

  • Piercello Link

    Dave, If I may, I might expand on your pair of statements thusly: “Each _human being_ uniquely experiences events, whether they are the same events or different, and that is the shared reality.”

    The only way out, IMO, is to seek out the shared drivers that create that uniqueness of experience, understand them, and attach there the notion of individual human dignity and worth, where it belongs.

    Racism is a red herring. Look past it.

  • steve Link

    About 25 years ago now, but crossing the middle of Florida (Deliverance country) with one of my junior officers, who was black, we couldnt get service in a restaurant. Only about a year ago I had one of my older patients in coal country tell me “we may have let the Puerto Ricans in but at least we kept the niggers out”.

    There is no doubt that things are much better. There is no doubt that sometimes blacks see racism when it does not exist. However, I think those kinds of things stay with you. I can see how an older black person would have a hard time letting it go, and how it would not be hard to have a single incident bring it back.


  • gray shambler Link

    I don’t know anything so I’ll shut up.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @steve, I think that’s right, but I think it goes further. When Michelle Obama was first campaigning with her husband in Iowa, she commented about how big the country was, she said that if she lived out on a farm she would want a gun too, because it would take forever for help to arrive.

    Assuming this wasn’t just political BS (and I have no reason to think so), I thought it was pretty telling. I took it to mean she had not spent much time in rural America, and likely avoided it like the plague.

    When African-Americans started heading North during the Great Migrations, they used books to steer them away from dangerous communities to places they knew would serve them. They avoided the pain of ambiguous and hurtful situations. Maybe these kinds of things stay with you even if you’ve never personally experienced them.

  • Racism is a red herring. Look past it.

    Unless you have been radicalized with respect to race. Then everything will be attributed to racism. It will have become all-important.

  • steve Link

    “Maybe these kinds of things stay with you even if you’ve never personally experienced them.”

    Or maybe they were universal, even if less common, wherever you went. Alternatively, I suspect that hearing those stories from your parents, aunts and uncles is also influential.


  • ... Link

    Which part of the middle of Florida?

  • Piercello Link

    “Unless you have been radicalized with respect to race. Then everything will be attributed to racism. It will have become all-important.”

    I agree, Dave, but the point still stands. Replace “race/racism” with homosexuality, or religion, or political party, or any other identity orientation at all, and you will get the same radicalizing effect.

    Worse yet, the powers that be are busily trying to create and exploit just those types of identifications. Radicalized people are so much easier to maneuver…

    I think the only tactical solution with any chance of succeeding would be to counter that sort of identity balkanization explicitly, not by affirming or denying the identification in question, but by continually shifting focus back to our common ground.

    Of course, that in itself is a bit of a radical approach, is it not? 😎

  • jan Link

    “I think the history of severe institutional racism against blacks in our country makes any analogies to the experiences of whites invalid (or at least inadequate.)”

    Yep, there is no prejudicial comparison to what people deem to be racism against blacks. Those with gender differences, medical problems, deformities, family shame, mental illness, and so on, take a back seat to anything dealing with color. Even those with color who show caustic prejudice towards whites are excused from racial labels because of historical “severe institutional racism” towards African Aericans. Never mind that such racism is in fact ebbing. Forget that we are governed by a bi-racial mix of officials. Instead, we must never forget, never forgive, never move on, and never, never become equal…….in the eyes and minds of some.

  • TastyBits Link

    There are different experiences at different class levels. I use class to capture more than just income. A middle or upper income person lives in a world that is mostly post-racial, or at least, there are few actual racists. There may be bias and insensitivity, but it is usually due to ignorance.

    At the bottom, the experience can be much different. Even if there is not actual racism, the encounters with prejudice and bias are so frequent that it is difficult to believe it is not racism, and then there is actual racism which is mixed with poorism.

    In many cases, being poor and white is one strike against you. In many places, being poor and black is two strikes against you. This is true when applying for a job or a place to live, but it is difficult for middle and upper class people to understand because it is much different from their experience.

    What is happening is that middle and upper class black people are trying to connect their experiences with the lower class black people. The idea that a racist is going to toss his car keys to any black guy because black guys must be valets is ludicrous. Everybody knows what a valet looks like, and few black guys dress like valets and wear a nametag. Racists do not trust black people, and they damn sure are not letting just any n*gger drive off in their car.

    The middle and upper class black liberals do not want to live around poor black people any more than their white counterparts. The difference is that if they get too close to the poor black areas they will be treated the same as poor black people. White people do not have this problem.

    Here is a Christmas present for all the good boys and girls. When the snot wads start talking about “white privilege”, you need to explain to them that it is really “racist privilege”, and there is no way they can “check it” while still living the “racist privilege” lifestyle.

    Unless they can establish that their lifestyle has not been built upon the oppression of black or other minorities, they must forego the racist lifestyle, and they must begin to live as they would had their relatives not killed, maimed, enslaved, brutalized, etc. (use as graphic words as possible) the still oppressed minorities.

    Explain to them that their very birth was an oppression and that every inequality is an addition oppression of the minorities they have already oppressed. They should be enrolled in a Community College, and they should be working at a blue collar job. They should be living in the same area where poor minorities live.

    If you want to have some real fun, spend the next few days studying Minister Farrakhan’s speeches, and you might learn something. (Disregard the UFO stuff.) You might not like him, but the snotwad will dislike him even more. He is radical, but he is not a liberal. He does not trust them, and he has little use for them.

    Never argue against the snot wads. Learn about their crap, and then extend it. They only want to use it to make you uncomfortable, but you should embrace it, extend it, and make their heads explode. Your goal is to get them to the point where you can ask them, “Well, are you a racist or not?”

  • CStanley Link

    Jan, I recognize that some people use the phrase and concept that I used for divisive purposes, but it is not an inherently divisive statement. In fact it would go a long way toward healing if white people could let down the defensive posture and acknowledge the real grievances, even if we personally are not responsible and even if we are appalled at the racism of the past. It is fine to empathize through shared experiences, but at times it can be like a person complaining about a stomach virus to someone who is going through chemo. Both individuals experience nausea but it would be wrong to expect the cancer patient to think the other person really “gets” what he is having to endure.

  • jan Link


    What you’re saying is similar to paraphrasing the old Indian saying regarding “Walking a mile in their moccasins,” in order to truly feel the nature of another’s trials and tribulations. I also understand the underlining sensitivities people have, which compassionately travel with those recognizng the hardships someone else has had to endure in their lifetime. However, another way to look at it is how do you heal an old wound, creating an environment for new tissue to grow, when the wound is continuously being exploited (usually for political advantage), tearing the scab off and having it bleed all over again? At best only scar tissue will then replace such a painful lesion.

    Furthermore, perfect understanding of anything — in the present or the past — is usually impossible to manifest. However, when efforts and advancements are made, those seedlings should be recognized, watered and allowed to grow. IMO, racially speaking, we are only hindering that process by the injection of racial animus by our leaders, leading to greater racial hostility and unrest in this country. I find this disturbing and not conducive to any of the political platitudes calling for “more healing.”

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