Something that’s recurred for me after our last #DiversityJC discussion about the Orlando shootings as well as other diversity related issues is a question I think about as a relatively quiet/closed off person (and a cis white heterosexual male).
And that is the question of whether white culture is one of silence around, well, almost anything.
It’s rather gauche to discuss money openly, careers, the Catholic Church clergy abuses, the looking the other way on so many things. Depression? Don’t talk about it, you’ll hurt your career & “normal” life.
Diversity? Nope, can’t talk about it directly but we can try to be inclusive– or some of us can, at least (I don’t know if I count myself in that number or not…I hope so, but still really learning). Though it may be that the language to discuss whiteness is simply lacking because it’s a new discussion most of us aren’t used to having.
Change takes time. This American Life had a segment about how there are people that know what the better or right thing to do is, but they don’t actually do it because, well culture gets in the way. In the episode, it’s Wilt Chamberlain giving up his underhanded free throws even though it made him better and he scored more points. But he thought it looked silly.
Chamberlain had a high threshold to change his method, to ignore the culture around him, even if adopting a different method would make him better in his social context.
Similarly, white culture and institutions probably also fail to adopt inclusivity because of the rest of the culture out there.
I wonder if the slow opening up about various topics is also a high bar to clear. I’ve been told over and over (by mostly white people in the culture I’m a part of in the United States) that sensitive topics are off limits in the work place. Politics, religion, and yes, even diversity fall into that category. Talking about it at work, especially, is simply frowned upon and so a lot of us struggle with expressing ourselves in all sorts of ways. It’s considered OK simply to treat each other professionally/with some respect (though even this bar is not cleared in many cases).
It’s a controversial decision I made to be open about my mental health and trials and tribulations with anxiety/depression. People say it’s bold, even, because not many people do it for fear of admitting humanity will limit my career prospects. That may be right.
Maybe other cultures have similar principles of silence around some issues. I don’t really know (one example might be the Orlando shooter and his apparent status as a closeted gay person).
Coming out publicly is a fairly big deal, even in 2016. And I wonder if part of what keeps people from being who they are is the preferred culture of silence is in part to blame (yes, I know, there’s also the strong “you’re different and therefore not acceptable” thing too). I wonder if the silence prevents finding support. Articulating what I think is hard– it takes a lot to get me to tell someone things that are deep-seated in me (I also know there are all too many men out there who have no problem spewing invective against women and URMs, especially on the internet).
Expressing genuine feeling is hard. It’s simply not encouraged in white culture, at least not for me very often. There has to be a remove, a distance. A computer screen can work. But even here, it feels like my natural impulse is to dance around a core feeling, not really expressing anything, at all.
I know I can be empathetic/sensitive…but only with those I’ve really gotten to know well. And maybe that’s OK, but even then, I tend to keep things in.
None of this is too take away from the obstacles URMs face, but it’s to ask if it might be better if white men, specifically, could be more open about more topics, even in the workplace. Or does maintaining our seemingly cold and uncaring government and business institutions require silence and distance from those they are impacting?
Could things be different?
Ian Street (@IHStreet)