I can already feel the glances bouncing off of the top of my nappy head as I sit down at the dinner table.
I should have worn a button-down.
Settle in, make eye contact and smile.
Unfold the napkin, place it in your lap.
Bring the silverware to their proper places.
And, by God, don’t take the first bite.
Someone passes the stuffing and then the ham.
“I’m good on the turkey actually, can you please pass the gravy?”
Smile, say 'thank you'.
It’s the annual Thanksgiving-at-a-friends-house, and I’m trying my best not to intrude on the 20-odd family members who have no idea who I am. The conversation starts to flow, family members become more preoccupied with each other.
Good. Focus on finishing your plate. Leaving leftovers would be rude.
“I was walking home the other day and the scariest thing happened,” one of the slightly older relatives says. It is at one of those perfect lulls in conversation that causes everyone at the table to look up in anticipation.
“It was about 9:30 p.m., and I was only a couple of blocks away from my house. As I turn a corner, I started hearing footsteps pretty close behind me. Mind you, it’s dark, and I’m alone. I turn to look around and this big BLACK guy is totally following me!”
The table looks at her in alarm for a split second, as if she had described a masked murderer chasing after her. A second later, people glance at me, and suddenly the air gets tense. They remembered that there was a black person in the room.
My friends have told me that I can’t hide my emotions. I wear my thoughts on my face. So, I’m sure the offended, uncomfortable, and for some reason, guilty feeling in my gut is apparent as I attempt to stare into space as if I didn’t hear her.
But why do I feel I guilty?
Is it because my presence at the table is causing them to be uncomfortable?
Is it because I, as a “good” guy, should have agreed with the overall sentiment that there was something crazy about there being a big, BLACK man in her neighborhood?
Wait a second.
Since when do someone else’s clearly biased thoughts and words become a reason for me to apologize?
Moments like these have followed me throughout my life. There was the moment in the middle school locker room, for example, when someone said “nigga” and then a second later realized that I was standing there and immediately regretted the remark. Then there was the high school party in Kansas, when someone drunkenly belted out the word “nigger” as a “joke” and turned beet red shortly after seeing me.
My response was always the same: either a laugh, or a disapproving smile, or a blank stare as if I didn’t hear it.
This time, sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table, I chose differently.
I’m 21 years old now, and I’ve had enough of hiding from the “R”-word.
So, I speak up.
“Why does it matter that he’s black?”
Silence falls over the table. The looks I get say:
“Really? You have to go there?”
“Oh, great. We messed up.”
“Here we go again…”
But most of all, they all but shout:
“I am so uncomfortable right now!”
I’ll end my story here, because it doesn’t matter what happened with the rest of the conversation. I’ll spare you the backtracking and the lighthearted change in conversation.
I will never forget the look on the lady’s face when I spoke up, however. The look said it all. I knew, that she knew, that what she said and the way that she said it came from a place of bias and misjudgment – a place of, (why is this so hard for me to say?), racism.
Yes, racism is hard for me to say. Contrary to popular belief, it is actually pretty hard for me, a black person, to pull the race card. In fact, bringing up racism as a deep-seated cause for seemingly harmless statements like these is difficult because the phrase “pulling the race card” even exists. Growing up, I was conditioned by people’s everyday response to this card-pulling phenomenon to see bringing up race and racism as an excuse, a way out, a free pass for skirting by the “real” causes of my mistreatment.
It is sad, but true: the more we demoralize those who point to race as the cause of certain issues within their lives, the more we invalidate their experiences, feelings, thoughts, and their pain.
But, this is not just about allowing black people the freedom to confront racism. I wonder, had I not spoken up, would she have confronted this within herself? If I had not been there, would anyone have even noticed the problems with that statement?
Race is one of the most uncomfortable topics to bring up in America, so, to be clear, I’m not on a mission to call everyone out as a racist. Most of us are good, well-meaning people at the end of the day. But when we claim to be color blind, and pretend that we don’t notice race, it is not making matters better. Confronting our biases doesn’t have to be painful, or awkward, or uncomfortable, although it will be at first. I, as a black man, want to be able to talk to you, yes you, about my feelings about race, and I want you to listen. I also want to listen to you and hear your thoughts.
Putting our own biases out in the open and facing the things that make us uncomfortable or that we may not understand is not just “good” from a moral standpoint. It makes us better designers. By making intentional efforts to face these things head on with open ears and open minds, we constantly increase our propensity to see things from a perspective that is not our own. By putting our biases out in the open, we are able to transcend our current frames of mind and see things from an elevated perspective. With enough practice, we can even reach the level where we can drop into others’ frames and truly begin to experience the world from their point of view. As need-based designers, this is one of our most powerful tools; we cannot truly comprehend what people need if we can’t even see what they see, or feel what they feel.
We each have the capacity to design our behaviors, so, as a fellow designer, I urge you to take a daily challenge. In your day-to-day interactions, whether with people, with things, with the systems through which we navigate our lives, take note of what you avoid and what makes you feel uncomfortable. When it comes to relationships, think about how bias can shape how you view the people around you. Proceed to explicitly put your biases out in the open, whether it be a note in your iPhone or a conversation with a friend. Break down those biases. Deconstruct them. And finally, seek out those people you are biased against, and take time to just listen. Not only will it make you a more empathetic designer; it’s a simple, everyday way for you to become less scared of that dreaded “r”- word.
Chuck Allen is a senior at Stanford majoring in Product Design. He is a musical artist who runs a blog at waylesseffort.com.