August 4, 2013

Wringing out My Bias

I live in a predominantly white, 'sidewalk friendly' neighborhood; we're on a first-name basis with some folks but everyone generally keeps to themselves. We do talk quite a bit with the immediate next-door neighbors and a family across the street, all of whom happen to be black.

Between us and downtown Syracuse, where I used to work before my company moved to the 'burbs, is a pretty dicey section of town, still in my zip code but miles away in terms of sensibility.  There's a lot of crime 'there' compared to 'here', a lot of houses in disrepair and empty lots where houses used to stand.  Truth be told, it looks like what people from the suburbs think a city looks like. Unlike my own, those neighborhoods are mostly black, with some Hispanics and very few whites.

A block or so before you get to the dicey parts, there's a house that's well taken care of; the front yard is fenced with a nice vine-covered, gated arbor at the end of the sidewalk leading up to the front door, and the yard is full of flowering shrubs and plants.  The owners obviously take pride in how their home looks. 

One day a few years ago we were passing by, and I noticed a couple standing in the doorway, looking out at the yard.  The gentleman, very tall, had his arm around the shoulder of the woman,  much shorter.  They clearly were enjoying the morning -- and I was clearly shocked.

Because they were black.  And because I assumed that the people who lived there were white.

Why? Because in my experience, the vast majority of the well-tended houses - in all of the different neighborhoods I had lived in -  were occupied by whites.  The people I saw mowing the lawn, tending the flowers, picking up trash, raking leaves in the fall, shoveling and snow-blowing in the winter, were white. And conversely.

President Obama noted recently (after George Zimmerman was cleared of all charges in the death of Trayvon Martin) that we should ask if we're wringing as much bias out of ourselves as we can. When I read that, I remembered that morning a few years ago, and I remembered feeling extremely biased. It wasn't a pleasant feeling, because I never thought of myself  that way. 

And so in the context of Zimmerman/Martin/Obama, I asked myself "Am I racist?"  I really don't care what color or ethnicity a person is, but
  • I care if they're obnoxious or disrespectful or rude.
  • I care if they're blasting horrible music or cursing on the sidewalk, or mistreating people or animals, or throwing walnuts at our house.
  • I care if they're tossing garbage in the yard or not cleaning up after their dogs.
  • I care if they leave shopping carts in the middle of parking lots, or food in the magazine racks at grocery stores.
  • I care if they throw trash out the window on the highway or leave tampons on the beach.
  • I care if they're mean to my mom or anyone else I care about.
I don't know if the people who do the things that drive me nuts are black or brown or yellow or pink or red or peach or white, because usually I don't see them doing the things that make me crazy. I can hazard a guess, in some cases, based on my experiences, where those experiences occurred, and behaviors I have seen with my own two eyes.

And while I would love to always look past the person, look only at their actions, and judge only those actions, I'm not perfect, and sometimes my reactions to situations are based more on my experience than on the blank slate that the President (and others) have asked me to use.  I'm trying to wring out my bias, just as everyone else should, but I admit I'm not completely there yet.

Oh -- back to the couple with the nice front yard up the street. Remember I said we were pretty friendly with the folks who bought the house next door?  Well, guess who?

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