Monday, April 2, 2012

Race and the "Default Experience"

Following the Trayvon Martin story has gotten me thinking about race. 

First, I just want to say that I am probably not properly qualified to speak on any of these topics.  These thoughts are not the well-crafted ideas of someone who has a deep and nuanced understanding of race issues.  These are the fledgling ideas of a privileged white woman who learned the word “privileged” within the past year.  So bear with me. 

As a white blogger, I feel it is important for me to share these thoughts, rather than just, say, continue to whine about the uncertainty of my maternity leave status.  Because the black community doesn’t have the option of not being affected by this story. 

I was listening to Elon James White’s podcast, “Blacking it Up,” where he describes just feeling hopeless and confused about what to do.  An older woman called in and said she was just “broken.”  How do you react to concrete evidence that your society simply doesn’t value the lives of people who look like you?

I have trouble wrapping my mind around that, I have trouble engaging with it.  It’s too big, too scary, too unjust.  And I think this is why a lot of people just walk away from this discussion – or justify why Zimmerman’s actions were legitimate.  It’s a lot easier to deal with one kid who really was up to no good than it is to acknowledge that the society you live in (in which you may be personally very comfortable) is fundamentally dehumanizing, wrong, and unfair.

I’m not ready to bite off a chunk that large.  So, I have tried to stay aware of race in other ways.  Here are just two of the things I noticed in the past few days:

1. I volunteer at a sliding scale clinic and wellness center in East Baltimore.  Most of our patients are black, most of our staff and volunteers are white.  Today I was helping with a session on stress management and we showed a movie about the physical effects of stress.  The doctor they interviewed was a black man, but all the actors that they had demonstrating the effects of stress were white.  Moreover, they were all white men in ties.  The language the narrator used was generic, he would say “stressful jobs,” but the actor would be a white guy in a tie massaging his temples as he sat before a computer screen in an office.  Clearly, he had a very stressful pie-chart presentation to give.  Bummer. 

This is not the kind of stress my patients are dealing with.  My patients are dealing with losing their jobs for taking too much sick time after their daughter was killed and they took over raising their autistic grandchild.  My patients are dealing with having a stroke at 45 and re-learning how to walk.  My patients are dealing with being laid off from the job that was already barely getting them by.  And sure, on some level stress is stress and we can all relate to that experience.  But it’s always non-whites who have to do the relating.  Because my experience as an upper middle class white person is always the default experience, even in places like Baltimore where it is not the majority experience, either in terms of race or in terms of class.

When I can expect that my experience as a white person is the default experience, that is privilege.  When you are in a position to craft how you represent the default experience, and you perpetuate that privilege – is that racist? It’s not racist the way not arresting Trayvon Martin’s killer is racist, no.  But I think it’s probably a more subtle angle of the same beast.

2. Later, I was working on my thesis, which is about obesity stigma.  I was doing some research into the Body Mass Index and found that one of the problems with it is that the cutoffs for overweight (>25kg/m^2) and obesity (>30kg/m^2) is that they were developed based on studies of mostly white people.  Theoretically, the normal weight range (BMI 20-25kg/m^2) was chosen because it represents the range associated with lowest all-cause mortality.  But it doesn’t apply to non-whites. 

For African-Americans, the lowest mortality rates are found at BMI values in the “overweight” range.  This means the NIH has duped thousands of (probably) well-meaning doctors into nagging black patients to lose weight when they are already in the healthiest range. I myself have done this, I am sure, trying to be the good little medical student supporting lifestyle change.

Here we see the consequences of white being the default experience.  Studies are done on whites and results inappropriately extrapolated to every other race.  Even when studies on other racial groups demonstrate that there are differences, the guidelines remain rigid.  The NIH claims that “there are no studies that would support the exclusion of any racial/ethnic group from the current definitions of obesity.” 

I think this example is particularly interesting because it exists at the intersection of two different kinds of prejudice – that based on race and that based on body size.  (Please note that I am not stating that one is worse than the other or that they are comparable, just that both are coming into play in this situation.)  It isn’t overt racism – no one is using the N word or shooting anyone.  Instead, it’s just this insidious and officially sanctioned suggestion that black people should internalize discomfort with their own bodies, that they should conform to medical standards designed for white people. 

I guess I am frustrated and anxious to move on to the next step.  I’ve noticed this, so now what do I do about it? Even the relatively smaller examples seem too large to wrap my mind around when I consider how to eliminate them. 

So, in conclusion, I am frustrated that racism still exists.  I was raised by hippies and would say I am oriented towards activism (not that I am particularly good at it).  But I have a feeling that on this one, I have a lot of internal work to do before I start grabbing petitions or taking to the streets.

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