When everyone thinks you're crazy

2016/06/20

I’m a scifi fan, and there are many television shows and movies that include a character who knows something crucial but is disbelieved or dismissed by everyone. The classic archetype is the prophet Cassandra, but I most recently saw this an episode of Farscape: the main character gets “copied” into a hairy, animalistic version of himself. The other characters hunt for “the creature”, which “captures” on of the characters and, through many anguished attempts at communication, shows her that he is, indeed, the main character. Everyone dismisses this animal-man until the end of the episode, when he turns out to be the morally upright “version” and saves the day.

The animal-man’s experience of desperately trying to get others to see him for who he is despite his exterior reminded me of two other things I read recently. In a blog post, astrophysicist Dr. Prescod-Weinstein says of black women in academia, that “When a white person in her building doesn’t recognize her, they may threaten to call the police or actually call the police and label her an intruder, which will remind her that no matter what she achieves in life, she will always be seen as a threat and only sometimes recognized as a competent member of the community.” Jerome Groopman’s How Doctors Think quotes physician Dr. JudAnn Bigby who says, when mentoring black and Latino medical residents, “Always wear your white coat, always wear your name badge, and always have a stethoscope visible in your pocket. […] Despite all that, they will still sometimes be asked if they have come to take the meal tray.” These are words from professional black women; I don’t have the quotes on hand, but similar words apply for, say, black men and for white women. For example, a friend of mine who is a head baker. She wears an distinctly-colored apron that shows that she is in charge in her part of the kitchen. Regardless, when a delivery guy arrives, he invariably approaches the tallest man in the room, assuming he is the one in charge. I’ve been in the uncomfortable position of sitting a table with my more senior female colleagues and watching our male collaborators speak exclusively to me. My only defense has been to look at my female colleague while the male colleague is talking in the hopes of showing him where his attention should be directed.

As a white man from a privileged background, I’ve struggled to find ways to understand what it’s like to be on the butt-end of these kinds of situations without being idiotic or patronizing. I think this is one of my best ones: Imagine, white man friend of mine, that you’re on the planet of the apes, and everyone looks at you like _you__’re_ the ape, and maybe listens to your words, but always thinks that they are coming from a place of irrelevance, incompetence, or stupidity. This is part of what it feels like to not be a white man.