Social Experimentation

Sometimes when I'm out in a cafe, I just zone out in my own little world. Depeche Mode's "Sister of Night" is vibrating in my earphones. I'm tapping away on my keyboard, visualizing what my character, Claire, is wearing, what she's saying, what she's thinking about...and this world just fades away.

But sometimes despite my best efforts, I am not in that zone. And that's when I'm listening to you.

I'm sitting two feet away from you in a cafe with a laptop, in Silver Lake, the home of wanna-be writers, actors, artists, models and rock stars, and you don't think I'm typing down exactly what you're saying?

You caught my attention when you mentioned the name of the university my mother-in-law attended. And so I started to type down your conversation. Every word of it.

I only typed for a few minutes and then I had to stop. I felt an anger surge inside me and I had to shut my laptop and leave before I inserted myself into your conversation and told you what I think about you and your little "experiment".

But here in this space, here's what you said and what I think about it.


Younger White Female:
I decided to go to a black school that’s less endowed. People who go to Howard or Hampton are from a different social class than someone who decides to go to a poorer black school.

I wanted to be the minority.

Los Angelista's Thinking: Interesting that she thinks everyone who goes to Howard or Hampton comes from a well-to-do black family. And gosh, I just love it when people decide to "opt in" to being a minority when they can at any time use their privilege and decide to opt out.

Older White Male: A little “Black Like Me” kind of thing?

YWF: Kind of.

OWM: Was it a gentleman’s agreement?

YWF: A what?

OWM: A gentleman's agreement. I mean, did they know?

YWF: No. I wanted to be in a place where people didn’t grow up around white people and I wanted to see what it was like just naturally.

Los Angelista's Thinking: How does she know they didn't grow up around white folks? Just because you decide to attend an HBCU doesn't mean you didn't grow up around white people. And why's he bringing up "Black Like Me"? Did she try to make herself "look" more black?

OWM: There’s something about the uninitiated where those things are being formed. So how was it?

YWF: It was hard. I couldn’t figure out how it was going to be hard. I have always been socially confident and this was the first time I walked around with my eyes cast down.

People didn’t speak to me and I didn’t want to assume it was because I was white, when it could be because I have body odor or something. It was good though.

Los Angelista's Thinking: Aww, poor baby. Those black people were so mean they took away your confidence! Maybe they didn't speak to you because they are busy trying to get an education and they don't have time for games and bullshit.

OWM: How long did that last before you were able to break through all that.

YWF: If someone didn’t like me, I didn’t want to blame it on whether I’m white or Jewish or because... maybe I’m just annoying.

Los Angelista's Thinking: Um, yeah! Annoying. Superior. Condescending. You think you're so open minded that you're going to go experiment on the little black people.

OWM: So how’d it end up?

YWF: It ended up well. As time went on, there were some things people couldn’t get over.

OWM: Like the fact that you were making them be a part of a social experiment?

Los Angelista's Thinking: THANK YOU for saying that! Call her out! Preach!

YWF: Well, I tried to not make it seem that way, but there was use of space, use of noise, expectations about being quiet because people were... Cause you know, I was the only white person.

Los Angelista: Wow. This is some serious code language here. So are you trying to say all black people are loud and have issues with space?

OWM: Wow, unbelievable. You're so brave.

Los Angelista's Thinking: I know. Isn't she? Because those negroes could have turned their radios up even louder than they normally do, just to drive her quiet, white self insane. Never mind that black people are in settings where they're the only black person ALL THE TIME and no one ever calls them brave.

YWF: I was thinking, in the North... I’ve never hung out with a group of just black people in the North. I had no idea how different black people are from me.

Los Angelista's Thinking: Yeah, I've heard black people are so different from white folks that they don't eat, breathe air or even watch American Idol. Yeah, these monolithic "black people" you're referring to -- did you know they're all pretty different from each other? Just ask around and see how many black folks you can find that listen to Depeche Mode.

OWM: How long were you there?

YWF: For a semester. Four months.

OWM: What did you study there? Do they even have your major?

YWF: Well at Brown I'm a classics major and they don’t have Latin and Greek there at a black school.

So I did all really Afrocentric courses, so I’d have to talk about “black things” and talk about the fact that I am white.

Los Angelista's Thinking: So this type of dumb ish is what a $30K a year ivy league education buys these days? Wow. I want to really tell you about yourself. I know you think you're all noble to go slumming with the black people and try to find out about them, but I think what you're doing hurts more than it helps because your intentions are all wrong.

And so I had to shut the laptop and leave because I could feel all my classic physical signs of extreme anger (feeling hot, pulse beating wildly, desire to throw something) starting up.

I know some people out there will think this girl should get an "A" for effort, that at least she's trying to foster some sort of understanding between black and white people.

I don't feel this way. To me, this has nothing to do with building genuine friendships or understanding. I feel sorry for the black students who had to be subjected to her experiment.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Oh my God - that is so sick!
Jen said…
I can't even fathom someone like that. Well, yes, I can. And that's the sad thing.

I'd echo Mouzhan on this one.
Lisa Blah Blah said…
"I had no idea how different black people are from me."

WHAT?? I am speechless. And you know that's rare. I'm going to have to go away from this and come back when I can say something coherent.
Liz Dwyer said…
Mouzhan,
Yes, it is sick. And what really makes it so nauseating is that I'd bet this woman probably believes she's really socially progressive. She'd probably be the first to say, "I'm not racist! I'm SO not racist that I attended a black school for four months!"

Jen,
I keep debating whether or not I'm glad I didn't have my headphones on. If I had been, I would have been spared hearing all this. On the other hand, the conversation was enlightening (and infuriating) on so many levels.

Lisa,
I'll bet you understand why I had to pack up and leave, don't you!
Malik Akbar said…
That insufferably condescending attitude of noblesse oblige is worse, and more destructive, than straight up racism. At least racists make no pretense of being friends of Black folks.
Jameil said…
WOW!! Oh but I'm amazed at her gall! Like I'm wide-eyed and giggling. such aplomb she has about her decision. might wanna also let her know there are black people who don't like loud music and white people who do. heavy metal anyone? i'm not gonna lie. i did like that she knew hampton was upper-echelon black school. but that's because i rock the blue and white all day every day. i wonder if she bothered to ever have a real conversation with anyone tho. i'm thinking no. because i a lot of people i know who went to HBCUs, self-included, did so b/c they were surrounded by nothing but whites growing up. girl you're about to have me posting in your comments over here. i'm going deep on this one. i've had an hbcu post in my brain for months now and i think this was the catalyst. fantastic post liz.
Jameil said…
i'm reading the comments and liz! i just for real cackled out loud at "I'm not racist! I'm SO not racist that I attended a black school for four months!" HILARIOUS!!
the joy said…
Better woman than I. I would have been glaring at this dumb broad. How dare she? The worst part is that despite her time with these people she still knows nothing. Did she even bother to make a friend who would tell her how stupid her thoughts were? Because she moved past stupid and on to ignorant.
Liz Dwyer said…
Malik,
I'm sure she's probably taken a class where the concept of noblesse oblige is discussed, but she wouldn't recognize it staring right back at her in the mirror.

Jameil,
For real. Has she not heard of Judas Priest? AC/DC? Metallica? I know these college kids have got to be blasting Foo Fighters and Linkin Park. Heck, even I blast Linkin Park!

You are too funny, reppin' Hampton always! :) It really seemed like she did not converse with folks because not once did she say anyone's name. There was no, "Well, I got to be really good friends with this girl named Jameil and she was so down to earth and normal." Nope. None of that at all.

And you know how indignant she'd be if someone even suggested that what she did is even a little racist. She'd be crying like our friend from Project Runway, Ricky!

The Joy,
No glares because then maybe she might have suspected I was typing her insanity down, word for word. Like I said to Jameil, it really doesn't seem like it because she didn't mention hanging out with anybody. She wasn't like, "I got to know a nice group of girls and we got a spades tournament going every other night." She wasn't even, "I made a couple of guy friends. They were really nice." Cough, cough!

She was just purely an experimenter and that just doesn't have anything to do with becoming true friends or, ahem, doing anything else. LOL!
Anonymous said…
I totally agree with you, Liz. She was just being completely phoney and playing games with people. How could she possibly come to any real understanding of anyone in those circumstances, be they black, white or whatever? And as you say, it doesn’t help to start with a stereotype about “black people” as if they’re all the same. All she does is show up her own (white) prejudices and how dumb and ignorant she is not only about black people but life in general.
Liz, my brother went to Howard. There were a bunch of white folks there. No one really cared.

You know Brown is referred to as the easy/flaky Ivy right? This girl did nothing to change that sterotype.

My brother and most of his friends at Howard chose to go to a HBCU because they grew up around nothing but white people. For once they could just go to school and not have to think about race.

One of my friends went to Spelman. They did an exchange with Smith. She said it great. This was in the 80s. What is this crazy woman talking about in 2008? She needs to get over herself. She is suspect. There are black folks at Brown. She might want to think twice before sharing her "challenging time" with them.

I would have said something to her, so I'm glad I wasn't in that cafe.
Unknown said…
Wow, all I can say is wow, whoa, wow.
Dena said…
people are really blind to their own ignorances and shortcomings. this conversation you overheard makes me feel so angry. i take friendships and relationships with others very seriously and it hurts me to think that there are people like her out there who are so callous, frivolous and just plain stupid!
BlackLiterature said…
OMG..

As a chick that grew up in Northern California, I WANTED to go to a HBCU to be around Black people.

Too bad she didn't use the time to create friendships. She might have learned a few things.
Liz Dwyer said…
Nick,
You know, being that I live in LA, I wouldn't be surprised if she's going to be developing a movie script about her experiences. It'll be the college version of that Julia Stiles movie, "Save the Last Dance". Someone will buy that script. That'll give her even more opportunity to put some stereotypes out into the world.

NYC/CR,
I did not know that about Brown. Well, she fits right in then, doesn't she? Everyone I know who went to a HBCU is like your brother. So if these sorts of exchanges aren't unusual, what was she talking about? Just in her own little world. Ridiculous.

Houseonahill.org,
I just need a sign I can hold up that says, "Stop Talking!"

Dena,
I was really really angry after I walked out of there. I rang my mom and just ranted for like 10 minutes straight about this. I think this kind of stuff makes it harder for those who are genuinely interested in building true friendships and relationships. It makes it harder for folks because they're immediately suspicious that here comes another person ready to do an experiment on them.

Blackliterature,
It is too bad. When someone goes into a new experience with an open mind, an open heart and pure intentions, the results are totally different. It's pretty clear that her intentions were tainted to it casts a shadow over her whole experience.
Unknown said…
Liz,

All I can say is that God is good to me, and he never puts me in a situation where I might let my fiery Aries temper run out of control. I don't always use good judgment in cases like that. My fists seem to have a mind of their own. So God really does watch over babies and fools. Not only that, I've heard that the food in the Sacramento County Jail really sucks. I have no desire to find out if that's the truth or just mean-spirited gossip.

You did the right thing by walking away and blogging about this. So I'm going to do the right thing and tell people on my blog to read this.
anno said…
That's sickening. Aiming for the merit badge and the halo... and apparently getting it from the OWM.
Mango Mama said…
As a Hampton graduate, I can confidently assume my fellow Hamptonians could have cared less about her clueless ass. Her assumptions are so off the mark it's laughable, and yes, sad, very, very sad
Liz Dwyer said…
Angela,
I have no doubt that the Sac City jail is awful. You do not want to end up there. But if you get arrested in LA instead, you might only be in our jail for 20 minutes or so and then back on the street to wreck shop once more. -or does that only work for celebrities?

I'm not worried about you though. I know you were raised with proper home training and know that everything you want to do just can't be done.

Anno,
I think the halo is totally cracked and tarnished. I was thinking today about how white guilt, savior mentality and a dose of inherent superiority causes conversations like what I heard.

Mango Mama,
Hampton grads, taking over the internet! When she comes out with her movie, you all should picket.

The thing is that we have to care about her because people in positions of power in this country are going to listen to her, think she's wonderful and take what she says as gospel. So she may be clueless but she wields a certain influence, like it or not.
Anonymous said…
There's a video that is marginally related to this topic. It's called "No Buttons for White People". Check it out. http://youtube.com/watch?v=PD2xCXrITX4
Nerd Girl said…
Humph! You are a far better woman than I - I don't think I would've been able to leave without saying something. What an ass. Pardon my ebonics!
Mes Deux Cents said…
Hi Liz,

This nation suffers from a mass mental illness with regard to race.

And mental illness left untreated becomes insanity.

The woman in the cafe sounds insane.
1969 said…
Liz....you know my mouth is hanging open right?

The fact that she saw it as an "experiment" to try and examine black people like she was conducting a study on lab rats or something is enough to give me a headache.

It's 2008 people.....wake up.

*sigh* Jesus take the wheel.
Mes Deux Cents said…
Liz,

P.S. Is it raining there too? Our trusty TV weather people are saying it's going to rain for the next 5 days!

Yesterday I bought a variety pack of herb tea and a few lemons and limes! So I ready for the cold and rainy weather.
Liz Dwyer said…
Jstele,
That was so weird. I wish he'd gotten to the point more quickly and stated a bit more about why he thinks black people take the buttons and not white people. It sounded like he was trying to say the white customers are ungrateful and spoiled. Maybe I just need to watch it again.

Nerd Girl,
LOL at your "ebonics"! I keep thinking about how comfortable she was saying all this sitting two feet away from me. Maybe it wasn't even that far of a distance. That's how I know she thought it made her seem enlightened...and I must not look "militant" enough for her to second guess herself. Just wait till I cut this hair off and have a little 'fro.

MDC,
It is total insanity. But I know there are those that think, "Oh, she just sees racism in everything...that's what all those black folks do!" It just makes me sick.

1969,
I had a hard time keeping my jaw off the cafe table as I was typing. I suppose I've tried to perfect the "passive observer" thing in situations like this, but it's so hard to not let what I'm thinking show.

MDC,
OH YES! It has been pouring! We're getting a little break but my goodness, I've been chomping garlic so I can stay well!
MartiniCocoa said…
i admire you for your restraint.

Me? I would have walked right up to her and said

Hi. I've been listening to your BS and I want you to know that I'm going to beat the drums tonight to let my people know what you did.

I'm sure by tomorrow at this time, you should just pack up and move to Rome or something.
West said…
I don't see the "experiment" as badly as you did. It's what people say folks should do - consider if and why you don't have ______ friends, then do something about getting to know some ______ people.

She did so with some misconceptions, but she did it. She was interested and took action.

Some of her observations were off but some were on. I'm sure the same is true of some observations about her.
Anonymous said…
Well, actually, I enjoyed his story. His point was not so much about black people, but just an observation he made of the white people he dealt with for the show. Notice that he mentioned some people responded awkwardly, as if they were afraid of people seeing them take the buttons. And when they do, they take it reluctantly and furtively. I don't think he's saying that those people were spoiled and ungrateful. But he found it very disconcerting that he would get these weird reactions when he presented buttons to them, as if they were embarrassed to be associated with them. As far as the people he encountered, I don't understand why they would go to a show they would be embarrassed to associate with. It's not like porn, but "The Color Purple". I got the impression that those people were embarrassed because even though they could enjoy a show with black themes/cast, they did not want to be associated with a "black show". They could go watch the musical and spend lots of money for tickets, but wearing a button promoting the show was a horrific idea to them. Otherwise, why the extreme reactions?

I don't think he's saying that all white people are one way, etc. Just stating his observations. He kind of left it open-ended.

The black people took the buttons because they liked the show. That's what I got from his video.
Lola Gets said…
@NYC/Caribbean Ragazza

I went to Smith, and I met a few Spellmanites when they came for the exchange program. One even stayed in my house, and we were good friends.

I had no idea Brown was considered the "easy Ivy" - hah, thats what they get (taking out Black president from us, and all)!

Im glad I wasnt there, that chick sounded like she had some major, MAJOR issues. Im glad she didnt have a better time at that HBCU - Im sure the students there could see that she wasnt being authentic.

When I was in grad school at Howard, I befriended the only white guy in my year because most of the other students (Black) completely ignored him. As a Black woman whos attended prep schools (and Smith) I know how it feels to be the "odd woman out" so I went out of my way to befriend this fellow, who was really a nice guy! Had I met this chickie, I dont know what I would have done, lol.

Liz, please come check out my Manic Monday this upcoming week - it should be good!

L
Liz Dwyer said…
IANSJ,
I wonder if people knew what they're saying is going to be written down and published somewhere if we'd say half the things we say. Hmm...I guess that's one more reason I can't run for president. It's going to be interesting in 20 years when someone pulls out archives of some presidential candidates myspace or blog.

West,
But it doesn't even seem like she was actually really interested in making friends. It seemed like she just wanted to analyze how people reacted to her presence. I mean, never did she once say, "I really tried hard to make friends." Never once did she say, "Yeah, folks were giving me the side-eye, but given the history of race relations in this country, I completely understand." Never once did she acknowledge that it hasn't been all kumaya between black women and white women either and that there are specific issues of mistrust that rear their heads on college campuses -- and which you might just need to get past in order to build bonds of genuine friendship. I don't know, I'm just not buying it.

Jstele,
Thanks for spelling it out for me. I'm such a visual learner that sometimes I have to listen to something a couple of times in order to "get" it. :)

Lola,
I agree with you that people can smell a lack of authenticity a mile away. And even if folks are just flat out being mean, well gosh darn, the one time in your life you felt less than and I'm supposed to be crying on your behalf? Whatever!

I'll come over tomorrow and check Manic Monday out!


I heard someone say today that, "If you keep looking over your shoulder at racism, you're going to walk into a wall." I guess the lesson is that if I keep listening to side conversations then I am not writing the things I need to be writing.
Gunfighter said…
Touchy-feely condescending... crap.

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