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White people don't get out much

Posted By: Ross Mitchell on June 29, 2012
Your essay is important, and I am grateful for your willingness to share your experience with the TCR readership. Yours is a tale that is too often not heard.

As an English-speaking, hearing, middle-aged, upper-middle income, white male, I present several markers of privilege in the "mainstream" and predominantly white communities in the United States. However, any one of these markers becomes a liability, or at least a challenge, when I go into other communities in this country, which I have done (i.e., before becoming middle-aged or able to claim upper-middle income status) and continue to do. In other words, learning how to respect those who differ on any marker of social status in this country depends on experience with differences, which is seems just too much trouble, or too scary, for too many people.

At the same time, I have worked in places where deafness demands equal status, and behaving as a "normal" hearing person is rude. These have been valuable and humbling experiences. I did not possess the "master status" nor did I have the ASL fluency to participate in the intellectual discourse community in the same manner to which I was accustomed where English was spoken.

(I have lived in worked in other communities where I was clearly in the minority and was supposed to understand that to be the case, but I will stay with the deaf community tale for this overly long note.)

One of the things I learned was that normative expectations, even when they seem frustrating (or insulting), were just that. Or, at least that was the way I deliberately chose to cope. And, as I worked in the community for a while, I discovered through various cultural presentations that unthinking (if not mean) statements often represented ignorance and misunderstanding much more than antipathy or desire to maintain separate status. Isolation and in-group association breeds myths (and misunderstandings) that are undone when the isolation is broken down, and seemingly silly questions or statements can be discussed.

My favorite example of this was the tale of a hearing child of deaf parents who was frustrated by being asked who was at the door when someone rang the bell (which also activated a light). When her parents obtained a TTY (teletype machine with telephone coupler--this was before the more compact as easily used TDDs [telecommunication device for the deaf], let alone texting and videophones), turn about was fair play. When the light flashed to indicate that someone was calling on the TTY, the daughter asked her parents who was calling. Of course, the parents had no idea but, finally, she had a way to show them how silly it was to ask her who was at the door all those years.

To sum up, what I am saying is that as long as we live in racially isolated communities and go to racially isolated schools (among other social institutions), we are going to need bridge people like the hearing child of deaf adults to make apparent the socially reinforced silliness of myths constructed from ignorance and misinformation.

Your tale highlights a problem that, I believe, is far less aggressive than it is a problem of relationship--really the absence of relationship. I think the choice of the term microaggression, which unfortunately has legitimacy in far too many cases, sets up an antagonistic interpretive frame that need not be invoked in all instances of foolish ignorance. This country tolerates the perpetuation of self-righteous isolation and excessive in-group loyalty in all sorts of forms (e.g., think about various labor unions, political parties, fraternities, professional associations, churches, homeowners associations, etc.).

We need to recognize that the things we do and say hurt, but we also need to operate with interpretive schema that build relationships rather than place blame. I'm not sure what would work better, but I am willing to keep working on sharing relationships.

Ross E. Mitchell
University of Redlands
School of Education
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 White people don't get out much by Ross Mitchell on June 29, 2012
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