A couple of years ago, I really stepped in it in a local Crime Watch Facebook group. Someone posted a link to a local news article about some burglars who had been caught. When Facebook processed the link, it displayed an image from the article along with the link and article headline: the mugshots of the two burglars, who were both African-American. As was unfortunately typical for this Facebook group, several members posted short, nasty comments, one of which was just the word “Thugs.” I responded to this comment with “You may not want to use that word. It’s racially charged.”
I thought it was an extremely mild rebuke, but I was totally unprepared for the onslaught of responses that I got. In addition to some really nasty name-calling, several comments were self-defensive: “I can’t be racist; I’m Hispanic,” or “I didn’t mean it racist.”
My takeaway at the time was that I was viewing this interaction in the context of systemic racism: you don’t have to have racist intentions for your actions or comments to contribute to a racist atmosphere. The defensive commenters, on the other hand, viewed racism as a conscious act of hatred. Therefore, by their definition, they were not racist.
Today, my favorite blogger Fred Clark posted OotGOism: ‘Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it …’ (That’s One-of-the-Good-Ones-ism). In his post, he explains that if you see yourself as a good guy, that limits your ability to take criticism, to better understand your intentions, actions and the environment in which they exist:
He’s talking about the temptation to want to be seen as “One of the Good Ones,” and the insidious way that desire will trap us in our idea of our selves, of our identity, such that we’ll never be able to become anything other than that — someone trying to be perceived as good. And that’s not the same thing as actually being good, or becoming good, or even just becoming better.
We white liberal types fall into this trap all the time. Well … not so much fall as leap into it, tripping over ourselves to reassure people of color that we’re One of the Good Ones. This often leads to earnest but awkwardly cringe-worthy gestures that aren’t so much products of good intentions as they are desperate pleas to be perceived as having good intentions.
This explains the defensive nature of the responses that I saw in that Facebook group.
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time chatting with a 29-year-old programmer coworker. During out chats, he mentioned that in addition to his day job, he and his wife ‘have three startups.’ I gather that these are mobile applications that he has developed and deployed to the app store. Furthermore, he explained, while he didn’t really expect any of those projects to ever turn into anything, he had hopes that he would make some money off of one eventually.
My coworker’s use of the word ‘startups’ really struck me. Based on my understanding of what he and his wife are doing, I never in a million years would have described them as ‘startups.’ I would describe them maybe as ‘side projects’ or ‘small businesses’ but not ‘startups.’ The fact that this usage struck me so strongly made me think that he means something very different than I understand in the term ‘startup.’
I took this question to Facebook, and Susan Brumbaugh, who was my partner in similar extracurricular work back in the day, provided the clue that I think explains my puzzlement. Back when Susan and I were in a similar situation, our primary motivation for our side projects was learning, not money. Don’t get me wrong; we charged an hourly rate for some of the work that we did for others, but we also undertook a lot of technical projects solely for the sake of learning and working together.
So, maybe basic motivation explains my coworker’s use of ‘startups.’ Maybe he is more directly motivated by the potential to make money than we were.
Of course, this brings up the bigger question of the meaning of the term ‘startup.’ To me, you start with an idea, work on it, and maybe if it seems viable in some way, you take money from others in order to be able to put more effort in it. And if things work out, maybe you make money from it. I think that’s an ‘old school’ view of what constitutes a startup. These days, I understand, a lot of people have the goal of starting a startup. To me, they have it backwards: the business is the primary goal, the idea is a detail.
A couple of months ago, we bought me a bright blue 2008 Toyota Matrix. I thought it would be funny to put a ‘Blue Pill’ bumper sticker next to the Matrix badge. I’ve subsequently discovered that while most younger people get the allusion, many older people immediately think of a different blue pill. One of my neighbors thinks it’s admirable that I can be so open and playful about my ED problems**. Oops.
** NOTE OF CLARIFICATION: I intended the movie allusion. If I do have ED problems, it’s nobody’s fu***ing business.
SAB: What causes white fragility to set in?
RD: For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”
In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.