A White Man and a Black Woman Talk About Race
This analysis shows us why the race conversation can go so wrong.
Posted Aug 02, 2017
I recently read an article that was utterly captivating. It was, in fact, so captivating that I had my phone up to my face, reading the tiny print, while on a coastal road trip. So engrossed was I, that I completely ignored the charming beach houses and endless sea, opting instead to read the play-by-play in a conversation about race as it went disastrously awry.
But I get ahead of myself.
The article is titled Post Mortem: A Conversation Gone Wrong. In it, the author, Tad Hargrave, picks apart a conversation thread about race that occurred on his Facebook wall in response to an image he posted. As the title suggests, the conversation was doomed from the first comment to the last.
The image depicts a Caucasian man being served by a variety of individuals from marginalized backgrounds, the intention of which was to make a statement about white privilege, the ways in which some groups have reaped disproportionate benefits due to the disenfranchisement of other groups of people.
Or, well, that’s what I saw anyways.
And, this first moment of interpretation, is where the conversation between the commenters goes off the rails. Hargrave takes up the back and forth that occurs primarily between “White Man #1” and “Black Woman,” with a smattering of other characters playing bit parts, characters including, but unfortunately not limited to, “White Man #3” and “White Woman #1.” With remarkable insight and clarity, Hargrave analyzes the complexity of the conversation around race relations in America by examining the text line by line, elucidating for us, the reader, why it is that these discussions between individuals from different ethnic backgrounds - particularly white individuals and black individuals here in the ole USofA - unravel so very predictably.
If you haven’t read the article yet - what?! Get on it and then come on back here. In the remainder of this article, I’m going to add another layer to this conversation using a bit of magic from my old buddy Thomas Kuhn, author of the 1962 classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
[Author’s Note: Here is the moment where you yawn as your cursor casually drifts up to the “funny cat videos” bookmark.” Stop right there! This won’t be as boring as it sounds. I’ll make it swift and painless. And, I guarantee, you’ll be 12% more brilliant by virtue of reading on.]
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn makes a riveting argument about how scientific discoveries occur, an argument which runs counter to the thinking up until that time. As part of this argument, Kuhn relies heavily on a new concept, which he refers to as a paradigm.
Think of a paradigm like a circle, the boundaries of which are based on a particular theory or set of assumptions. In this instance, let’s say the basic assumption is that apples are the best fruit.
This paradigm provides a boundary within which are all rational and emotional arguments that stem from that first foundational set of assumptions:
Outside of this paradigm’s boundaries exist all other facts, ideas and perspectives that do not fit with the starting assumptions that form that foundation of this paradigm:
Paradigms are incredibly helpful for a couple of reasons:
- Paradigms help you, the you, the scientist of your own life experience, narrow your range of focus such that you can get really good at understanding the ideas and objects that make sense within your framework of assumptions.
- Paradigms allow you to ignore all of the stuff outside of that paradigm, which decreases the overwhelm and anxiety that come with limitless possibilities.
In our Paradigm A example above, if we have an individual who wants to get an extensive knowledge of the nutritional merits of fruit, he may start with the assumption that apples are the best fruit and then the remainder of his investigations will branch out from there.
If our apple loving friend had to start out with the idea that there are hundreds of different types of fruit, all of them equally delightful, and, even more than that, that there are other important questions like "Where does our soul go when we die and WHAT IS A SOUL?!" he would likely end up shaking in a corner.
When we have too many options, it's hard to get any one thing done. We humans work best when we are given a single point of focus that contains a limited number of options. This is why we do really well in the world when we have a few fundamental theories or beliefs that we start with and then branch out (or not) from there once we have a firm grasp on the few items that we started with.
While paradigms are incredibly useful to help us focus and move through the world with ease and comfort, they can also be incredibly problematic for a couple of reasons:
- Paradigms, by their very nature, make us blind to aspects of reality that fall outside of those initial set of assumptions that make up said paradigm.
- Paradigms, necessarily, exclude information, ideas and experiences that do not gel with the foundational assumptions that make up their boundaries.
For example, while our apple explorer will undoubtedly become an apple expert, in so doing, he will have to put on blinders to all kinds of other possibilities that exist about fruit or agriculture or the nature of love and dung beetles.
Now let’s tie this back to race relations in America, shall we?
We have now learned that, in order for us humans to function efficiently and without going mad, we must have a set of basic foundational assumptions by which we interpret the world. These assumptions, by definition, include some aspects of reality and exclude other aspects of reality.
When two individuals from different ethnic backgrounds enter into a conversation about race, more often than not, they enter this conversation without understanding or acknowledging the possibility that they are living in two different paradigms. Thus, for example, when these two individuals see the exact same image, they are interpreting it entirely differently based on the assumptions and beliefs they carry with them as they view the image.
As Hargrave points out, what’s missing in the story of two individuals coming together is cultural context — that is, getting clear on the foundational assumptions that frame an individual’s reality. As he highlights in his article, "White Man # 1’s" “actions are neutral because the cultural context is neutral. In his mind, they're just two individuals having a conversation about a neutral issue. In ["Black Woman’s"] mind, here's another white man playing out a script she's tired of and wonders why she keeps engaging. This missing of cultural context is one of the most predictable patterns of white men online. It shows people of colour that we, as white men, have no idea what time it is or where we are.”
This is where we will step away from the content of Hargrave’s subjects and into a meta-analysis of Hargrave’s article itself. His exploration itself offers a valuable example of how we can actually make strides in conversations about race.
Let's step back to Kuhn for a moment. Kuhn highlights that a paradigm shift occurs when irreconcilable incongruities begin to occur in one’s theories. No matter how many different ways the occupants of that paradigm attempt to slice it, something isn't working. A fundamental flaw arises that challenges the basic assumptions of said paradigm. That is, the outcome that individual is seeking (say, a peaceful cohabitation with people with diverse backgrounds) is no longer working no matter how much he continues to try. The problem is that the things he is trying stem from a set of assumptions that no longer apply.
This means that those individuals operating within that paradigm must — gasp — ultimately come to throw out the very foundations of thinking that have shaped their entire existence up to that point. No easy task.
As we spoke about earlier, individuals operating in Paradigm A are operating with a completely different set of foundational assumptions than individuals in Paradigm B. As Hargrave points out, though we are using the same words, we are - in essence - speaking differently languages.
What Hargrave does in Post Mortem: A Conversation Gone Wrong is to serve as a translator to individuals in his own paradigm first so that the people in Paradigm A (in this example, white men from Western cultures) can begin to see that their fundamental assumptions, assumptions that once worked, are working no longer.
He finds a way to let "White Man #1" know that whatever has been done for generations before him can no longer be done - the thoughts, the behaviors, the assumptions that he has relied on for centuries - are irreconcilably incongruent with a working model of society where the goal is justice, equality and a level playing field.
And Hargrave does this, not as an opposing force, but as someone who understands and cares deeply about his fellows in Paradigm A, while also understanding that this paradigm is no longer viable.
This is how issues around social injustice can be resolved. Not by individuals from opposing paradigms attempting to enlighten, convince or coerce members of competing paradigms, but rather by having thoughtful individuals who have come to understand a new way of thinking and being, while also being entirely knowledgeable about and compassionate towards previous ways of operating, serve as guides.
With guides in both paradigms gently expressing curiosity, insight and alternative ways of seeing the world, we can step away from failing paradigms and, ultimately, form a new set of working assumptions altogether which work towards the goal of having a system that benefits all of its members.