WARNING: This article may contain twists and turns that you were not expecting.
I was in a very nice restaurant with three friends, having dinner. It was about seven o’clock, maybe a little earlier. Because the place was full, we were in the bar area, but it was still very nice.
Honestly, I was trying to focus on the conversation amongst my friends. It was actually quite engrossing; a riff on the convoluted psychological makeup of Trump supporters, and how they were similar to Bernie supporters, or something like that.
I really tried; I’m not exaggerating. I was interested and, at least for some of the time, fully engaged.
On the other hand, anyone who has spent “quality” social time with me will know that I have a tendency to get distracted if I see something intriguing happening around me.
Just ask my kids.
What was playing out at the next table was a vignette that insisted on getting my attention. Three adults – two men and a woman – at the table. No food, just alcoholic beverages (a beer, a glass of red wine, and some mixed drink with a lime in it). The men were in their mid-thirties or so, one a little older, the other a little younger. The woman, who had a laptop open in front of her, was probably late twenties.
The dynamic of the three was clear. The younger of the two men was the boss, and the other two worked for him. He was a big, confident man. Fit, strong-looking, with a powerful voice and an imposing visage. He was giving instructions (at one point dictating invoices, for example, which the woman was producing) and eliciting dialogue from the others on decisions he was planning to make. It was quite respectful, but there was no doubt the hierarchy of the three. It was a friendly business meeting, but still a meeting. The boss was unquestionably the dominant personality in the group.
Periodically the meeting was interrupted by phone calls. The boss took them, dealt with them quickly, and then came back to the meeting. Everything was proactive on his part.
Orbiting these three adults like a somewhat erratic comet was a seven-year-old girl, full of energy, hair flying, interacting with the servers, with other customers, and with the three adults. Particularly, I should add, the boss, who was obviously her father.
The servers, all female, were doting on her. While her father was trying to run a meeting, they were getting her ice cream, and soft drinks, and just making sure she was happy. When she was ready to eat the ice cream they helped her commandeer a table next to her dad so she could focus on the treat, and stay close, but not interfere in the meeting.
The father was the best. Without missing a beat in his meeting, or his phone calls, he kept his daughter in his focus. He was joking with her, happy to be with her. Not thirty seconds went by that he wasn’t talking to her, giving her his attention.
It is a difficult thing to do, run a meeting, deal with customers and suppliers on the phone, and interact with a child at the same time, but he did it, and it wasn’t just for show. When she interrupted to ask for more attention, he gave it freely. There was little doubt where his priorities were. More than once he simply stopped what he was doing to play with her for several minutes at a time.
His daughter was not necessarily happy that she only had part of his attention, but she was accepting what she had, and she was enjoying at least that part.
Observing what was happening, you could empathize with the father as well. On the one hand, clearly he was running a business that was demanding all of his attention. On the other hand, his seven year old was there, and she was also demanding all of his attention. He was juggling both, generally successfully, but with the emphasis on his daughter when the choice had to be made.
Life can certainly suck. Sometimes you have to handle all of your priorities at once.
In the middle of playing with her father, the girl suddenly shouted “Mommy, mommy, mommy,” and ran towards the door. Then, just as quickly, she ran back to her dad saying “Mommy’s here”. He got up, took her out of the bar, and when he came back ten minutes later, he was alone.
“Her mom has finally been able to finish work, so she’s taken Diana to Starbucks.” He was relieved, but not necessarily in a positive way. He had enjoyed being with his daughter, even while having a meeting. It was just taxing.
So far, so good.
Then, he had to add: “My wife should be looking after her more, but she wants to work, and I can’t really stop her. I can look after the money – for her, for the kids. There’s more than enough. My business is solid. My wife is just not willing to be their mother full time. She feels a need to get back into her profession, be successful. Sometimes I have to be the parent.”
The other two looked at him – a bit dully, I would say, but remember that he’s their boss.
Their silence prompted him to say more. “I want my three daughters to have a stimulating home life. My wife is smart, well educated, a respected professional. She should be making sure that they are always challenged intellectually. I don’t want my daughters to be limited in their lives. They should think: the sky’s the limit.”
“But,” he says, “my wife is more concerned about her own career than about making sure our daughters are brought up right.”
The woman was looking down at her laptop, but then she looked up. “How are you balancing your business with her career?” The comment was perhaps gutsy – not consistent with her previous subservient attitude – but he didn’t jump all over her.
“In the end,” he said, “I have a business to run. That’s what puts food on the table. My wife has to understand that the kids are her responsibility. She was OK with my oldest daughter, who’s now in high school. It wasn’t even too bad with my middle daughter. But, with Diana she doesn’t seem to have the same focus on her parenting role. I don’t know what to do sometimes.”
So, stop right there.
This is not time you have heard a father who loves his kids, but is tone-deaf to their real needs, or to the concept of shared parenting.
On the other hand, you were a little shocked that he would have such backward views. I have described him as a well-off, urban father in his thirties with a spouse who works as a professional. Yuppies, in other words. Yuppie fathers are not supposed to say things like that.
You also assumed the ethnicity of the people in the story. At the very least, you assumed they were white. That was part of the reason why you were shocked.
But that is not the case, not in this story. The two employees were white. The father/boss was black, as was his daughter and his wife.
You see, that changes everything for you, doesn’t it? Now you are no longer shocked. Now, you “understand” why the father/boss had such gender biased views of the parenting roles he and his wife should play. Now, the fact that he wants his daughter to be empowered is a credit to him. Kudos to the black father who wants his daughters to have everything in life.
Racism is about expectations.
This article is not actually about parenting; it’s about racism.
Just as disclosing that the father and daughter were black affects your view of the situation, so would saying that the mother was wearing a hijab. The same would be true if the family were described as Filipinos, or as Hispanic.
I didn’t give them an ethnic label in this story, and as a result almost every reader of this article assumed they were white. The effect was to engender feelings of surprise that the father would be as sexist as he was.
Expectation: white people are not as sexist as non-whites.
So now, once you have your implicit assumption put to you, will you embrace it? Will you agree that white people are not as sexist as non-whites?
The answer, for most of you, is that you will resist with all your might. That sort of statement is racist. Canadians don’t believe things like that.
A few of you might fight back, saying that yes, statistically people in some ethnic groups are more consumed by outmoded gender rules. Yes, men in the black community are more likely to be sexist. Or Muslim men. Or Filipino men. Or Hispanic men. (I could go on. Not white men, of course. No, no, non.)
But let’s assume for the moment that those “statistics” are true. (Just assume it. Humour me.) Does that mean that it is appropriate to expect a black man to be sexist, but not a white man?
Eight nanoseconds of reflection will show that is not true. Everyone reading this knows at least one black man who is a fully engaged and interactive father, an equal parent to his kids. Everyone reading this knows at least one white man who takes the more traditional (British, French, German, Hungarian, Polish…you name it) parenting role, i.e. being a parent is something that women do.
Biases come in all shapes and sizes. In all cases, they are expectations that, because of some attribute or another (skin colour, ethnicity, religion, etc.), a person will have some other attribute or predilection. We know intellectually that the connection between the stereotype and the assumption is generally not true (except sometimes in a probabilistic sense, and often not even then).
We still have the biases, though. We still expect people to be a certain way because of the colour of their skin, or the language they speak, or the ethnic background they possess.
We assume because we are lazy. We don’t want to be. When it is pointed out, we recoil, and try to avoid the truth.
The fact is, though, that in this story your perceptions almost certainly changed as soon as race, or religion, or national origin, was added to the story. It doesn’t even matter your own ethnicity, or religion, or background. Adding a descriptor like race changed things. (Yes, there are exceptions. Are you really one of them?)
But here’s the worst part. I saw this story unfold in real time, so the race of the father and daughter were not a surprise. Did I already have the racial bias embedded in my expectations as I was watching? The answer is: How would I ever know? To me, it seemed to be just people acting in the sorts of ways that people do. A father enjoying time with his daughter, while juggling his business responsibilities.
In Canada, a black boss or a black father, or both, is nothing unusual. We see it all the time (in contrast, perhaps, to some other parts of the world). When the situation unfolded, those things appeared to be irrelevant.
Then, when the father revealed his true views of the situation, was it surprising? Certainly it was. He seemed like he was so in tune with his kid.
But, was it less surprising because he was black? Did I subconsciously see his words later as “expected”, because of his skin colour? The answer is, I don’t think so, but how on earth would I know?
Racism is not just refusing to rent your apartment to someone because of their race or religion or ethnicity. It is not just choosing the white person for the promotion over the non-white. It is not just streaming the white or Asian kid into the academic courses and the black or Hispanic kid into the trade-oriented courses.
Racism is about expectations. If we want to challenge racism, whether in ourselves or others, we must first challenge those underlying expectations in ourselves, whenever we encounter them.
Of course, those expectations don’t always wear name tags. We sometimes have to look hard to find them.
– Jay Shepherd, September 4, 2017