Here’s a question that might get an interesting discussion going. While most middle-class Whites prefer to shift to first names even when there is a hierarchical relation or the person has a title (e.g. Dr., Professor) and these days teach children to call adults by first name, many Blacks prefer to honor titles and seniority and think it is rude to use first names for elders or people with titles. I have seen this pattern often in mixed-race public meetings, with Whites using first names for everyone and Blacks using titles, and watched people (of both races) bounce back and forth awkwardly, not sure which to use. I’ve had conversations with some Black people about this, including one Black graduate student who insisted on calling me “Dr. Olderwoman” even when I asked her to use my first name, telling me that respect for titles was a part of her culture that she was not willing to give up. I assume there are lots of other examples of cultural difference in what is polite. So here’s the question: What is the best way to resolve this kind of cultural difference? Whose norms should prevail? Are there ways of acknowledging these differences that heighten cross-group respect and consideration? Does this vary by context? Let’s assume in the discussion that our goal is to treat everyone with respect and politeness. How do we do it in culturally mixed settings? Given our audience, we might especially focus on academic settings, although some of us do venture out into the larger world.
I’m not sure who (if anyone) has stuck with this series, so I’m not sure what your interests are in wrap-up. Drop comments if you want me to address other issues. Here are my thoughts. This was an overwhelming experience in many ways, and there are many threads one could pick up from the things that happened at the conference. I’ll discuss three themes: the content of what people talk about, the importance of listening along with talking, and cultural differences in public talk. I tried to provide a lot of details about what people said and how they said it because I’m very interested in how people talk as well as what they talk about. I have been struck before how the whole tone of interaction shifts when a meeting is dominated by people of color instead of whites. Although the two day conference in Farmtown was a kind of immersion experience, I have had many similar experiences before. As a White person watching the interactions, I’m most struck by how deeply personal and painful these issues are for Black people.* Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown #9: reflections on the experience”
It is important to place this discussion in the context of the whole conference, so it you are new to this series, please check out the previous post. For a quick recap, I’m writing about a two-day conference on racial disparities in incarceration and education at a university in a rural area I call Farmtown. The previous post focused the first half of the first day and the ways information was brought into the group. This post focuses on the second part of the first day, which ran from 3:15 – 9pm.
Two Farmtown professors do the short version of a workshop they’ve done often before for white faculty at their institution on the ideology of white supremacy. The black social science professor goes first, and it is relevant to note that he is older, in his sixties. His title is “isms and schisms.” The point is about how demographic differences become structures of inequality. He talks about how people respond to experiences of discrimination and then asks people what they see when the imagine pictures of powerful groups (i.e. Congress, Supreme Court). We are supposed to say “white male.” I hear one of the officers next to me say something like “mostly white males with some women and a few blacks and latinos” to Congress, and for the Supreme Court says “mostly white men and a woman and a black man.” At the end of this exercise, he requires the white man to answer his “what do you see?” question, and the answer is “mostly white men.” I’m glad I’m not put on the spot like that. I learn later that the speaker always forces a white person to answer this question. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown (4): white supremacy”
As I mentioned in an earlier post, my UCC church asked me to lead “conversations about race” I described the first week in my earlier post. The second week I did a short version of my presentation on race and criminal justice. Today I began by showing clips of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, first a clip from ABC news “exposing” Wright (the clip starts with a commercial you cannot avoid) and then a six minute clip from the 2003 sermon which places the “God Damn America” line in its context in the sermon, which is about how nations come and go and don’t always follow God’s law, but God’s law endures.* We are a pretty liberal congregation and folks mostly laughed and enjoyed Wright’s political references, as well as saying they appreciated the way the sermon had clearly been planned and was making a point about history. I mentioned why some people objected to the sermon in web comments, even in its longer context, stressing both its political content (as many Whites are unaware of the long tradition of political commentary from Black pulpits) and its “angry” tone, and mentioned that this difference in cultural style is a really big problem. I also commented that there is a similar problem on the other end, with typical Asian interactional styles being considered by many Whites to be too polite and reserved and not assertive enough.
In response, one White woman said that Wright’s angry tone bothered her and she worried about its lack of “solutions” would that just incite racial animosity. Then the one Black participant (the same one from last week; everyone else was White) said that Wright was not angry, that he was just expressing himself passionately and forcefully. She elaborated on this point, talking about her own style and about Black mothers who come in to talk about their children and the White teachers code them as angry when they are just being assertive. She said, “If I’m angry, you’ll know it.” (Not saying I’m some kind of cosmopolitan, but based on my experience, the Black woman’s style was on the very mild and soft-spoken end of the range of Black expression I’m familiar with – well within the range of how I would express myself – and I coded her as warmly and compassionately making the effort to explain a standpoint.) Then the White woman said that the Black woman sounded angry and aggressive to her, and that she was bothered because the Black woman had interrupted her to make the point, and that the expression “If I’m angry, you’ll know it” sounded like a threat to her. Continue reading “culture, style, race, pain”