Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Oh White People

African American comedian Wanda Sykes did a funny skit on TV one time using that tag line. She would read an actual news headline, shake her head and sigh, “Oh white people.”

I had an oh-white-people experience recently. (I’m white.) I had a lengthy phone conversation with someone I had not met. We talked about growing up in the South, and I shared some of my experience from the early days of school integration. We had further business to address, so at the end of our conversation, I asked her to send me her email address. When she did, it included a photo and I realized that she is Black.

What stunned me wasn’t so much what I had said since I would have shared the same reflections of growing up regardless. No, what stunned me was that I made an assumption. I assumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that the person I was speaking with was white like me. Even more surprising to me was realizing how unconscious that assumption was. I didn’t even know I had made that assumption until confronted with the error. Wow.

It might seem harmless, but in making that assumption, I neglected to hold space that would have given the other person room to share her own experiences growing up in the South, experiences that likely would have been quite different than mine. My assumption closed the door to true listening and prevented genuine dialogue.

I felt embarrassed. That’s okay. I used it as an opportunity to reflect on what I saw as a powerful lesson. Apparently it’s a lesson I need to be reminded of … repeatedly.

When I was still fairly new to blogworld, a commenter on my blog mentioned that he was headed off to bed. Since I was enjoying my morning cup of tea, that caught my attention. Here is the exchange that followed.

Me: Oh, are you a night owl?

Him: No, I’m in Singapore.

Me: Are you traveling or working there?

Him: No, I’m Singaporean Chinese.

Me: I’m studying Chinese.

Him: I don’t really speak Chinese.

Me: Wow, you are a one person lesson in assumptions. Here are the mistaken ones I’ve already made about you. 1) I assumed all my readers are in the US so you must be, too. 2) I assumed if you are reading my blog from somewhere other than the US, you must still be an American. 3) I assumed if you are Singaporean Chinese, you must speak Chinese. I apologize, and thank you for this valuable lesson.

Assumptions. We all make them, regardless of whatever classifications we identify with, and regardless of our life experience. For example, I’m part of a multi-ethnic family, and I’ve traveled and lived overseas in other cultures. And still….

I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate all our assumptions. But if we can become more aware of them, by noticing the conscious ones and seeking out the unconscious ones, we can begin to question them and recognize the impact they have on our interactions. We can begin to see each other beyond our own filters and open the door to genuine communication.

Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in. ~Isaac Asimov

10 thoughts on “Oh White People”

  1. I don’t know why I haven’t been over to your blog before — I know you’ve been writing for a while — but anyway, I’m glad I finally did. Wonderful post about our assumptions (same as prejudices?) and how we need to be careful about the conclusions we leap to. Thanks for a great thought!

    1. Hey Tom, I’m so glad you stopped by. Good question — are assumptions the same as prejudices? They can be sometimes, for sure, but some assumptions are benign, and even positive, I think. Still, they do create a filter that keeps us from seeing clearly. Thanks for commenting and I hope you will visit again.

  2. esther elizabeth

    Great blog – well said —
    I love this quote —-Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in. ~Isaac Asimov

  3. Well, the title grabbed me!

    Except for my brief time in the Army, my life has been spent in white American suburbs. Minorities have been few and far between.

    Over the last few years our neighborhood has begun to shift. On our street alone there are now as many Latino and black families as white.

    I have had to check some of my assumptions and be more open to a changing world. It has been rather refreshing to be part of a multi-cultural environment, for a change.

    1. Many people grow up and live in homogeneous environments. It enriches our lives when we can embrace greater diversity, as you describe in your changing neighborhood. I was so fortunate to live in other countries in Asia and Africa, which broadened my experience beyond American borders, but as the post reveals, I am still a work in progress! Thanks for commenting, Bob.

  4. Assumptions will get you in trouble sometimes. I’m bad, as most of us are, of judging a book by it’s cover. I may meet someone and immediately make assumptions based on appearance, facial expressions, posture, etc. and after talking with that person I find out they are way different than I imagined. I’ve gotten better at not judging so quickly, but sometimes it still happens.

    1. So true, RCS. We are making assumptions all the time. Once I went to the grocery store and decided to pay attention to all the assumptions I made for 30 minutes. Wow, I was making assumptions based on every possible thing, from what someone was wearing to what they were putting in their shopping cart. And those were only the assumptions I caught. How many more went by unnoticed? Thanks for commenting.

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