Thoughts in a Reykjavík Cafe

A hundred years ago, when international travel was rare and difficult, everyone considered “race” and “geographical origin” interchangeable. In modern times we’ve driven a wedge between these things and started to whittle down the importance of “race” as a carrier of behavior and value, which strikes me as a positive change. This change is not comprehensive though. People with the same origin but a different appearance are still treated quite differently, within their own communities.

Some of this is inevitable, because stereotypes are a very natural shorthand. They’re how we operate in communities larger than a few hundred people, where it’s impossible to personally know everyone we meet. A cab driver can be expected to know the traffic. A frail senior citizen would appreciate your seat on the subway. An angry-looking man in a giant shiny 4×4 is probably not a defensive driver. If that man has a bumper sticker reading “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” he probably doesn’t march in Pride Parade. Et cetera. Without stereotypes, society couldn’t function in real-time.

Stereotypes become even more obvious when we travel. If I meet someone from Saudi Arabia I am fully prepared to assume they pray to Allah multiple times a day, because that’s what modern sociology has prepared me to assume. If I think of the Vikings that sailed around in the North Atlantic, I think “socially conservative, environmentally destructive, and violent in their settling of disputes,” because that’s what historians have repeatedly told me. And despite knowing that people from different places can be all shapes and colors, if you asked me to picture these people in my head, I would conjure up specific clothing, facial hair, and skin colors.

And that’s where things can go sideways, because that’s where “race” gets involved.

I think we should all continue to drive that wedge in, between race and stereotypes, to reduce friction in our connected world. But how do we do that, on our own personal scale?

If I meet a Black man on the street in Oakland, I bring to bear a decades-long and complicated accumulation of assumptions about how that man perceives me, how other people who look like me have treated him, and how I can present myself so as to show I am not bound by those assumptions and will treat him with dignity and camaraderie. It took quite a while for me to be aware of that baggage of stereotypes, not just on an intellectual level by reading about it in a book, but on a behavioral level from living in Oakland. Sorting through the baggage I kept asking myself, “how can I act that actually helps?” I wanted to act in a way that would move the interaction beyond the fear and suspicion and get somewhere else. I didn’t want to just signal that I was what people used to call “woke”. That would make the interaction about the stereotypes, or even about me.

Sometimes I’ve asked myself, in this kind of situation, would it be better for both of us if I was completely unaware of any stereotypes, like my young nephews generally are? Then I would be guaranteed to treat him like anyone else. A little bit yes, a little bit no. It’s likely I am more helpful when I see what we’re all working against. Plus I can avoid saying or doing something stupid by accident.

Like, say, excitedly asking the Icelanders I meet if they can teach me how to forge a sword and build a longboat.

Answering the question of “what helps?” is often difficult, but I find that a good place to start is with another question, “what do I have to offer?” Sometimes the answer is, your social standing is what you can offer, by finding a way to make it transferable.

An easy example: Several jobs ago I was asked to collaborate with a group of software developers, one of whom was a Black man, a first-generation American whose family was from Morocco. Where I live, it’s extremely rare to meet a software developer of that ethnicity. He was shy, very hard to read, and kept his head down in design meetings, but he could write good code. It seemed like he had grown used to being kept at arms length by other developers, and felt that since he would inevitably be marginalized, why fight it? Since I was joining the group in a lead capacity, I had a chance to do something about that.

We worked together one-on-one for a while, establishing some trust. A month later I began to deliberately defer to him for advice during meetings, which raised his social standing just a little bit to the rest of the group each time. Eventually he was comfortable making arguments and presenting his work just as often as everyone else, and I was glad for it. It didn’t just make him more comfortable, it made all of us better at our jobs.

(As an aside, there are people who will actually try to denigrate this sort of action by declaring me a “white savior.” I poked at that for a while and found there was a reasonable conclusion: Those people are jerks!)

Sometimes the thing we have to offer is subtle, like social credit. Sometimes it’s immediate, like protection from physical harm. (That’s come up for me a bunch of times, being out and about in Oakland.) Sometimes it helps just being a witness in a sketchy situation so we can make sure the truth is told later, anywhere from a traffic stop to a classroom to an argument in the street. What’s especially great is that when we move outside our comfort zone to elevate someone else, we are also expanding the range of who we feel comfortable with internally. So, we improve ourselves. We decrease the chance that we might unconsciously be part of a problem.

This is a fine effort. But you know what it demands? Security.

People who do not feel safe – physically, financially, socially – are in less of a position to take risks extending help or protection to people they don’t know, especially people who might respond unfairly. And that means, when you can – when you feel some security – you’ve got to meet people more than halfway.

That’s a lot to hold in your head, when the pace of life and the immediacy of social interaction make things shift around you. Don’t stress yourself out even more by involving guilt. Just think about what you might have to offer in a situation.

Oh, and I suppose this is a bit ironic given where you’re reading this, but … why waste your time signaling virtue online, when you can go outside and have it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *