Face, Eyes and Touch

By Thomas Kochman - 04.11.2012

I remember a sign in a store in the ski resort town of Vail, Colorado, which asked customers to remove their ski mask when entering the store.

Behind that request, no doubt, was the association of robberies with “people who wear ski masks” and an attempt to forestall the public alarm and fear that a covered face would otherwise create.

We can now add to the ski mask, the “hoodie”, made infamous now by the role it played in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The issue there –apart from who wears it—is that it denies access to the face, which people often use to determine whether someone is “up to something or not.”

Because of racism, if the person wearing the hoodie is an African American male, what starts out as a general suspicion, ends up in specific certainty.

The public requirement that people present themselves with an “open face”, at times, goes even further.

Mainstream US culture also asks that people “look them in the eye” when addressing them and especially when learning is required, as in US classrooms.

Not doing so means, “you’re not listening”, or “not paying attention”, either of which, adds up to disrespect.

This takes on additional meaning in the context of a subordinate being chastised by a teacher or adult.

In Mainstream US culture, for example, it means accepting the punishment that is being meted out to you, whether you agree with it or not.

Looking away or down is seen as being evasive and cowardly, making whatever you did that got you into trouble, even worse.

In other cultures, by way of contrast, looking an adult or superior directly in the eye when being addressed or criticized is a sign of rebellion or defiance, and taken as gross disrespect of that person’s authority and position — the opposite of what it means in U.S. mainstream culture.

Add to face and eyes the matter of touch.

A recent article by Mark L. Keam highlights the problems that happen cross-culturally when Korean store owners or their staff in black communities interact with their African American customers.

As Keam points out, “In some Asian cultures, it is considered rude to look at a stranger directly in the eye or to physically touch a stranger in an intentional way.  So when a recent immigrant from Asia who is working as a cashier in a small grocery store refuses to look at his African American customer in the eye or to place the change directly in the hands of the customer, it is not because the immigrant wants to be rude. Instead, the Asian immigrant is actually showing respect to the customer. “

From the African American perspective, however, a store owner not looking at them directly, and perhaps especially, avoiding touch, such as not putting money in their hands when returning change, conjures up the experience that Blacks had in the South of being “untouchable” and, therefore, also the image of being less than fully human.

So how can we move forward in getting and setting things right?

From our perspective, it starts with having a conversation. Not just any conversation, mind you, but one that  deals with topics and issues that are difficult, and up to now, mostly impossible to discuss.

Things that make us who we really are.

Especially things that make us different.





The New Creolism

By Thomas Kochman - 03.27.2010

The 2010 census that allows people of mixed racial ancestry to write in their own racial/ethnic identity gives them a unique opportunity to define themselves in ways that don’t subscribe to any of the previously recognized official categories –themselves the result of racial and ethnic mixing historically — like “African American” or “Hispanic”.

What’s different today is that first generation individuals whose parents are of different racial backgrounds choose to characterize themselves as “mixed”, resisting the mindset of earlier generations that compelled individuals to choose one (but not both) of the officially recognized racial/ethnic classifications. Apart from what it says about personal loyalty issues –as our tribally mixed American Indian colleague says today when people ask him to declare which tribe he belongs to: answers, “Which grandparent would you have me deny” – it also says something about “the new rules of the game” in our ever-changing society. Read more »

“Brother, Can you Spare the Time?”

By Thomas Kochman - 12.12.2009

Charles Blow’s comment in his op ed column “Paranormal Flexibility” of Americans “bending dogmas to suit them instead of bending themselves to fit a dogma,” reminds me of a quote from American composer Virgil Thompson who said, \”American music is any music written by Americans”.

These statements speak to a hallmark and feature of U.S. culture, not only “individual freedom” but also “primary control”, which is shaping the environment to accommodate oneself, as opposed to “secondary control”, shaping oneself to accommodate the environment.

This view has many corollaries. One is that within the U.S. individuals don’t have to accept the givens.

If God, fate or society has dealt you a hand that you don’t like, it’s very mainstream U.S. to say, “I want a new deal,” as opposed to, “I need to learn to manage these cards as best that I can.”

Mainstream U.S. folks tend to look at difficulties as “problems to be solved,” as opposed to “situations to be accepted.”

This cultural difference also leads to different sets of expectations on how individual and social problems should be addressed. Read more »

Solving our Racial Problem—or, When is a Neighborhood Integrated?

By Thomas Kochman - 12.05.2009

Charles Blow’s op ed column Black in the Age of Obama points out that the lives of Black people have not gotten better since Obama’s ascendancy to the Presidency –he cites statistics and examples that show in many respects black lives have become worse. He also points out the dilemma blacks face “how to air anxiety without further arming Obama’s enemies [which] has rendered blacks virtually voiceless on some pressing issues at a time when their voices would have presumably held greater sway.”

What also needs to be mentioned is the effect the Obama Presidency has had on whites, those who generally support Obama, and, prior to his election, could also be counted upon to oppose racism and ongoing injustices against blacks and other ethnic minorities. How has Obama’s Presidency affected their ability to speak out?

The answer to that can be partly found in the response that people gave to the question we asked a mixed racial group during the height of desegregation some years ago, “When is a neighborhood integrated?” White Answer: “When the first black family moves in!” Black answer, “When the ratio of blacks and whites is about 50-50.”

These different responses are telling. Read more »