Fruit of the poisonous tree

It’s not even really that new, and to me, it’s always been the more insidious version of the two… but there’s a different type of discrimination than the obvious, and it’s worth noting if only to better understand the scope and breadth of what this really is, that it’s not all black and white (pardon the pun). I know someone who would (in bad taste) joke that racism is different in the south… that walking down the street is like “mornin’ nigger” “mornin’ sir”. Bad taste or not, that type of discrimination is wholesale, and upfront; it’s obvious. I almost prefer that method, so there’s no confusion or period of adjustment – this person has made things clear from the outset, so we’re all on the same page about their views. But that’s not the only type of discrimination, and it’s certainly not the one that makes my lips curl up as my skin tries to crawl off my body and my insides scream to get out the hard way. That feeling is reserved for a different kind of experience.

My grandmother is dark skinned because she’s half Filipino and half Alaskan Native, but she was raised in Seattle and has never spoken another language aside from English… she was raised catholic, and attended Holy Names Academy. My uncle has a quarter from each of her sides, and his father provided some European genetics so my uncle is light skinned. My uncle was a teen in the ’80s, tried eyeliner and New Wave music like any kid of the day, and then got married in the ’90s, had kids, and maybe someday in the future he’ll be a grandpa, but not yet. On a road trip with his family when he was a toddler he fell ill. My grandfather was a postal carrier and had full health insurance coverage for his family, but he wasn’t with his wife and son at the moment. When she entered the small town clinic nearest by, my grandmother explained that she had full medical coverage and that her son was sick – that he needed medical attention.

How long do you sit in the waiting room of a virtually empty clinic, watching appointment after appointment go by before you realize they’re never going to serve your child? that they’re not going to call your son’s name because you’re darker skinned than the other people in the room? how long do you sit and wait and wonder about coincidences and schedules before you come to the conclusion that no, they’re not going to tell you, they’re simply never going to call your name? Whether they don’t believe you can tell if your kid is sick, or they don’t believe you have insurance, or anything else… discrimination is not always flagrant, it’s not always obvious or straightforward, and it may not be intentional in a conscious way – more on that soon.

So, aside from perceptions and realities, if she had known of the issue, maybe my grandmother could have taken him to another clinic, or another town for that matter. This was a child who needed medical help, and please let me assure you my grandmother is a ridiculously patient person – she waited more than long enough, this was not a case of her misinterpreting or misunderstanding. I’ve seen plenty of this type of discrimination in action. Frequently the culprit believes their discomfort lies in some other aspect of the recipient of the discrimination, like my peers who were told it was their youth that roused suspicion, despite us all knowing and seeing the proof that magically, well-to-do children were not cause for extra vigilance;  just the ones who appeared disadvantaged, regardless of race.

Perhaps that first story was too vague, too easily misinterpreted to be counted on as enough proof though – maybe my grandmother misunderstood after all. To put an even finer point on unspoken discrimination that is real and specific (and more impactful than denied service), I’ll share something that has haunted me since I was told about it. My grandmother’s auntie gave birth to her son around the same time my mother was born, give or take a few years. She gave birth to him in a modern urban hospital in liberal Seattle, after the civil rights movement. Yet when she was done, and went home, there was something she didn’t know. She tried for a while to have another child, but no pregnancies arrived, not even miscarriages. She had never been told by her doctors or husband that they had decided to sterilize her after giving birth to her first and only child. She didn’t misunderstand the intent or nature of this action – it isn’t up for debate as to whether or not this choice could have been happenstance, it was deliberate. Whether it was racism or the sexism of asking her husband and not her, they did this to her without her consent or her knowledge.  How long do you wait for a baby before you start asking what’s wrong?

We can say these are stories of time past, but they certainly happened well after the civil rights movement had secured assorted rights and assurances for minorities, including women. There’s droves more anecdotes I could research and present and we all know that too, so I’ll let you look them up should your sensibilities require more timely or pertinent proof than my own family’s experiences. These aren’t intended to be the only stories or even wholly representative of the newest manifestations of discrimination either, but they are intended to highlight behaviors well after supposed equality was reached (on paper), and to illustrate that they need not be upfront or harassment oriented. It’s not always about petty micro-aggressions or who goes first in line. It’s about a fundamental lack of respect for certain parties based on pre-conceptions or assumptions about their fitness to make decisions in their own lives and that of their families.

The problem with the upgraded version of racism is that it isn’t about public displays of domination and control, it’s now about subtler feelings, finer tunings. The receptionist or even the health care providers who denied a child service weren’t throwing him out of the clinic appalled that he came in through the front door with a brown person. They were more likely uncomfortable with or unsympathetic to someone they don’t know how to relate with (his mother). They saw someone who looks different enough that they assume they can’t interact with this person comfortably, and thus they avoid what they perceive to be an upcoming confrontation. Despite the fact that the minority person at hand may have no intention or awareness of possible confrontation, the authority figure feels discomfort associated with confrontation, and acts from a place of defensiveness.

Discrimination has changed in the wake of legal changes eliminating institutional support of bigotry. Now, it’s not necessarily with purpose or structure that people discriminate, but out of a place of unfamiliarity with the other party, which carries a lack of empathy and shows the emotional distance placed between the well known and the unknown. It’s no longer about asserting open boundaries between groups as much as representations of how we instinctively prefer those who we relate with, and feel discomfort around those who are different from ourselves.

But to finally get to my battered and ignored thesis: discrimination is now connected to a matching type of experience – favoritism.

Favoritism is the new manifestation of discrimination; it’s the other side of the same coin. It’s convenient in many ways, and offers an alternative that makes perpetrators feel significantly more comfortable with their own decisions. People feel free to engage in favoritism because it’s seen as inherently inclusive rather than divisive, and is less controversial, but also harder to identify and even harder to prove as discriminatory. They don’t see it as “favoritism” though, they simply feel feelings of comfort, familiarity, acceptance or agreement with the person they’re favoring. They feel a connection through shared experience or history, they relate with the other person in some way, so they feel some small sense of loyalty to this person over others who can’t or won’t work on that emotional connection or don’t already share overt genetic/cultural similarities. The receptionist probably felt like she was prioritizing existing clients rather than discriminating against a child (in my grandmother’s case). The doctors and nurses (or her husband) probably assumed that they knew what was best for my auntie based on their own understandings (rather than consider her judgment as fundamentally different yet still valid). I’m not defending those cases of discrimination, I’m illuminating that they probably did not see their actions as discriminatory.

It can become very difficult to get people to understand, let alone admit or change the fact that they’ve been engaging in favoritism at all. To their way of thinking, they have simply been operating based on what they feel – they haven’t acknowledged that their feelings are biased even when they’re aware of the concept and attempt to keep it in mind. Many folks don’t just happen to think that they never had bias (which happens, and is challenge enough). Many truly believe they have been able to cast off bias… especially because feelings of comfort and agreement do not seem suspicious so we don’t examine them, we accept them as correct and base our decisions on them. People trust their “gut” on this stuff.

If we were only dealing in interpersonal relationships, it would be more than fine for someone to only choose to interact with people who they can relate with or have some sort of shared connection with. However, when dealing with the provision of services, hiring and firing, etc., this type of behavior is inappropriate, despite how common it is. Of course when people insulate themselves with like minds they get more entrenched in feeling connection with a limited segment of the population and draw further from the center, regardless of which direction they head.

But if they don’t think they are biased or bigoted, then they will never absorb or accept messages aimed at bigots – because they don’t identify themselves that way. Just like opening up a letter with “Dear Jerks,” will never garner much change from jerks who have no idea it’s even directed at them, the same is true for bigots. More importantly, in the same vein as jerks, if someone is self aware and continuing that behavior then they don’t care and they are choosing their actions with purpose, which means it’s going to be monumentally difficult to change their mind – shaming them probably won’t work as well as we wish it would.

This is why we need to have strict guidelines for the provision of services etc. that are not based on how we feel, because our feelings are subjective and relative and irrational. As long as people like to feel favored and participate in giving special treatment, favoritism will keep its stronghold on decision making. And we do like receiving special treatment, so we issue it when we have the power to do so. It is up to each of us to realize that we can’t make rational decisions if we are unaided by structure that ensures adherence and accountability. Without it, we will continue to have pockets of bigotry;  microcosms that perpetuate favoritism and discrimination. I’m going to call them whiners when people want to complain about being forced to comply with evenhanded protocols, because doing so indicates some level of unwillingness to fully respect others, as well as a desire to skirt rules for their own benefit, be that direct benefit or the power of bargaining in social currency.

If racism is the root and discrimination is the trunk, then favoritism is fruit of the poisonous tree.



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