I See Black People…

salon tv show rectangle graphic

Photo Montage from Salon.com

Today we celebrate a major milestone here at SMBMatters.com.  We recently got our first official flame post!  I guess we’re coming of age.  The comment didn’t just take a jab at the substance of our article, it also lobbed a provocative little bomb.  Someone thought our post on Chicago’s Bucket Boys was “racist”.

This is both racist and a load of crap…” it opened.   After the initial shock at the critique we sparked, it was a quick decision for us to approve the comment for publication completely unfiltered and just as it had been submitted.  The comment’s tone was actually hard to read.  It seemed to be animated, offended, joking and chiding all at the same time, and ultimately closed with a rhetorical question and a smiley-face.  Maybe it was a good-natured challenge.  Anyways, we don’t take it personally.  We can take the critique.

chicago bucket boys michigan avenue

Photo: LensImpressions.net

The blog post was legitimately about recognizing valuable business lessons from unexpected sources.  In this case it was a lesson on having and executing an exit plan for your business. (See the original article for the full story.)  Just because the teacher in the story happened to be a teen less than half my age should in no way diminish my real appreciation for the lesson, or be seen as some patronizing back-handed compliment.  The reader’s comment took issue with the fact that I called the Bucket Boys “savvy”, and laid into me personally, suggesting that I wouldn’t have had a problem with the Bucket Boys if they were suburban white kids drumming in public, or alternatively that I probably wouldn’t want them banging away in front of my place of work or home.

I stand by my article 100%, and I stand by the unexpected lesson I tried to convey in the post, which is the very same concept I’ve heard in some form or another from knowledgeable people, ranging from entrepreneurs to hedge fund managers.  Yes, the kid I described in the post was, in fact, savvy.  His race was irrelevant to the story, and I never mentioned that he (or anyone else) was African-American until this post.

Now I don’t want to be disingenuous.  I recognize that everyone has mental associations that can be immediate or creeping, positive or negative, conscious or subconscious, and it’s not unexpected for people to think that the article is about black kids when they hear the term “Bucket Boys” or see the picture included in the article.  That’s fair.   So I’m going to cop to a few things that honest self-awareness compels me to note, but maybe not what you’d expect.

Some of my best friends are black.  I grew up around black people.  I’ve lived in diverse communities, and had co-workers and business partners who are minorities.  I’ve got black people in my family, and I’d like to think that I treat black people the way I would want to be treated.  Some people even call me black (which I take as a compliment).  I love black people, and not in the sarcastic way that comic Don Rickles would say while rolling his eyes.

I know that everyone projects things upon other people, not just people different than us, but also people who are like us.  Sometimes it stems from our perceptions of people’s personalities, sometimes it’s how they look, sometimes it’s an extension of our own self-image.  So I’ll take this opportunity to take one for the team and own up to the fact that I (like everyone) engage in some kind of bias towards other people.  Perhaps the best reference I can offer here to an insightful discussion of the psychological roots of humans’ bias and powers of projection comes from a recent article on racial images in modern media from Salon.com (Linked Article).

The article’s title is too clever and loaded for me to put prominently here without setting off more alarms that could offend some people’s sensibilities, but I didn’t write it.  One excerpt gives a hint of the article’s core topic, “Colorblindness doesn’t work because we never stop spotting differences in our environment.”   A second excerpt seems to capture a valuable lesson from the discussion, “The good news is that our brains get used to difference; in most situations, exposure to people of different races reduces prejudice. “   My own takeaway and personal thoughts…we all have subconscious and involuntary associations with people of all types, but biases and preconceptions don’t necessarily make us racist.  The article is really worth a full read in my opinion, so please don’t accuse me of paraphrasing or taking liberties with the article’s content.

I don’t have to defend myself against the charge of being biased or prejudiced against African-Americans, or somehow try to prove that I’m not racist in this post.  You see, I’ve been a black person since about as long as I can remember.  While my racial identity is not the equivalent of a racism “get out of jail free” card that some comedians would joke grants me total immunity from racism, I like to think that my experiences and my self-reflection help me to see the biases (both positive and negative) that I have, and recognize when I might be prone to making improper judgments or projections towards others based upon those biases.

“Racist”? That claim doesn’t really hurt me.  “Crap”?  Now that’s offensive.

Paul Wright is a contributor and editor (by default) at SMBMatters.com, and has been proudly black since 1969.


3 Responses to I See Black People…

  1. Anonymous says:

    ” animated, offended, joking and chiding all at the same time, and ultimately closed with a rhetorical question and a smiley-face. Maybe it was a good-natured challenge.” Yes, all of the above! But this post attacks a straw man: if you re-read the comment you’ll see what offended me wasn’t you calling the bucket boys savvy but the joking dismissal that the bucket boys had blown-off school (and quite possibly are complete drop-outs). If groups of white bucket boys were a ubiquitous presence in Winnetka during the school day, people would be calling the cops, not delighting in their “performance.” THAT is the racism I see – the “soft bigotry of low expectations” — only you can say whether it’s completely absent here. Racist or not, it’s still crap (you admit as much when you avoid the fact that, upon reflection, you probably wouldn’t want the bucket boys outside of your office and, if you follow the golden rule, wouldn’t want them outside of anyone else’s office either).

    (PS: Yes, given the picture of two African-American bucket boys combined with the fact that nearly every bucket boy seen downtown, at local sporting events, and off highway exits are African-American as well, this isn’t a great example of racial stereotyping. By the way, the only other picture in my wallet other than my immediate family is an African-American family – so yeah, I fit the “some of my best friends are…” All that said, you got me – I totally presumed you were another white person giving the bucket boys a condescending pass!)

    • Thanks for the follow up. I appreciate that you’d stay with us on the exchange, and do it in an honest and good-natured manner. A blog post (even more so a comment in response to one) is inherently hard to get everything communicated completely, and in the full context. So I hope you see that I don’t mean to knock you and hope you would feel likewise. My response post started out as a bit of a defense or explanation, but did slowly morph into a “Sixth Sense” [shoulda seen that reveal coming] kind of thing. When I was done I couldn’t help with the movie-inspired title, which is also a tagline of the African-American themed TVOne cable network. It wasn’t meant to be a gotcha or check on your post — I really tried to have a thoughtful discussion of the biases and impressions we all have (no matter our race or background).

      I heard your point. So I don’t really take offense to the suggestion that anyone, black, white, red, brown,…whatever is capable of projecting stereotypes on others. It’s legitimate for you to feel concerned that anyone might look down upon the “Bucket Boys” or any youth with condescension. We are all capable of prejudice toward others, including those like us.

      If you really thought my comment on the “savvy” of the band leader was OK, then maybe my post carried some of the intended effect. I really meant that part. If I knew that lesson I described from that kid, I would have avoided some real world “exit plan” mistakes in business. I’ll also cop to a little literary license that seems to have got you going, namely the “shouldn’t they be in school” thought. That sentiment is one I had a few times before, but not really any longer. On the north side of 40, that’s an age thing for me, not a race thing. There are still occasions where I might think a youngster is younger than he really is. Wasn’t meant to sound dismissive, but that can be an impression one could get. I’ll cop to that. Bear in mind that my blog story was a Taste of Chicago event which, of course, takes place during the summer time. So I made a literary leap (honestly) connecting two different thoughts in time.

      You don’t need to open your wallet to show me your honorary brother card. Your comments say enough. Though it’s good to know that it matters to you. I hope you’ve enjoyed our shared journey of self-reflection. Maybe we can do it again sometime.

  2. Pingback: Tidbits #13 – DJ Culture… « SMB Matters – Small and Mid-Sized Business Blog

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