I was still on my honeymoon with the city of Los Angeles, a fresh faced kid from the Southeast with Midwestern blood. My eyes had yet to be perpetually darkened by the shade of sunglasses. One sunny afternoon, standing in line at a grocery store, I felt a new and strange uneasiness creep over me. I heard voices all around–but none in English. Behind me, una familia chatted in fast, lively Español. A tiny middle-aged Asian woman stood behind the register, cooly scanning barcodes without a word. The old man who bagged his own groceries bellowed into a cell phone. Was he speaking Russian?
I sized up my neighbors, curious. Who could match my fair skin with reddish hue? Did no one have blue eyes? Where were the others like me who sported silly brown curly locks as if to say, “I don’t take myself too seriously”? Then, with a sudden wave of anxiety, I realized that I was a White Dude.
Of course I had filled in standardized tests to indicate • White (Non-hispanic) • Male, but until that moment–when I was the exception, yet not exceptional–I was never able to see that I was a White Man. Before then, I thought that I was the Default Setting. I thought I was The Norm. I had taken my identity for granted.
In retrospect I would liken the sensation to culture shock, that sinking feeling you get when confronted with a reality outside of your own understanding. When it hits, you can either learn to accept the differences and order an exotic new dish, or you can be miserable and pine for your favorite Panera Bread bowl of Broc and Chee. Most of the time you can ride out the culture shock and make sure you book a resort on the next trip. My fellow White people, especially White men, the resort is closing and all returns are cancelled non-refundable. The culture shock is coming to us. The White male way of doing things is not always going to be the only way of doing things. The 2012 Census indicates that while Whites will make up the largest group, we will no longer be the majority in 50 years. If you feel a sinking in your stomach reading that, congratulations! Your culture has been shocked.
Borrowing from the culture shock model, I’d say we’re in the “frustration phase.” There’s plenty of frustration on all points of the spectrum, from #blacklivesmatter to gay rights to immigration reform to equal pay for equal work. The recent 2015 Oscars featured speech after speech advocating power for the powerless, giving voices to the voiceless. I do not hold the Oscars up as a cultural zeitgeist, but one cannot deny the talking points as current and, at times, inspiring.
Aside from the dissident rallying, my Facebook feed and the comment sections across the internet are filled with “fed up” White people. The trolls of social media come out of their digital caves to threaten women, minorities, gays, and muslims. These frustrated, and sometimes hateful, people are antagonized by someone else’s way of living. It’s almost as if the world is beginning to speak a new language they do not yet understand. Instead of learning how to communicate, these people devolve into fear and anger.
So how do we move on to the “adjustment phase” of culture shock? I’m not advocating what is dismissed as white guilt. On the other hand, I must condemn the lazy reframing of racial discussion into irrelevant discursions, like blaming Eric Garner’s death on New York’s cigarette tax (a real opinion, to which I refuse to post a link). What I suggest to my fellow White people, namely those who are straight and male, is to listen to the dialogue with sensitivity and attention. We are entering into a complex societal restructuring with high chances of misunderstanding, even between rising constituencies. Perhaps as the most privileged group, the White men in America can relax our capacity to dominate the conversation. We can refrain from adding to the noise with our own perceived needs. We can support those vying for opportunity while letting them guide the conversation.
We are all learning a new language, the language of love.