Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Strings attached

A few days ago, I participated in an exercise, part of a day-long retreat among people working against racism. The exercise involved one person holding a ball of yarn, declaring an observation about how racism had affected her or him, then tossing the ball to another in the circle while holding on to the end of the yarn.

As the ball passed back and forth, often across the diameter, the string formed a web. The group was made up of black and white participants, whose experiences with racism were all different but related, and the yarn linked us all. It was a lovely illustration of a hateful and insidious subject.

What we all noticed, but gave no formal voice to, was a curious pattern, made all the curiouser given the subject of our discussion.

There were eight of us in the circle, five white and three black. The yarn passed from the first person, a white woman, to me, a white man, and I tossed it to another white man, who tossed it to yet another white man, who tossed it to another white woman, who finally tossed it to a black man.

The last white woman may well have done so anyway, but if she was going to pass the yarn to someone who had not yet received it, she was compelled to pass the yarn to a person of color.

So here we have a kind of segregation, surely inadvertent, surely an accident, but of what?

It was only after I had passed the yard to the white man that I noticed the emerging pattern. I told myself I had simply passed to someone across from me – but there were two African Americans also across from me. One of them, a black woman, sat next to the white man to whom I’d tossed the yarn. Why hadn’t I passed it to her? And even if it was a matter of seating, why had we seated ourselves in that way, such that across from each of us was a white person?

Another explanation could be that there were five whites and three blacks and that meant the odds were greater to toss the yarn to a white person, even if the decision was random (which these sorts of human decisions never are). I don’t buy the odds as an explanation. It might have been true if there had been a hundred whites and three blacks, but five and three isn’t that wide a spread.

My thought is that this is one of the ways race works, through a sense of familiarity that affords a link, makes a relation - in this case, the passing of a ball of yarn - easier. It’s like the principle of the path of least resistance, or water seeking a lower level. It needn't be much. It need only be a little bit easier. A little makes all the difference.

Without our even being conscious of it, our arms tossed the ball to the safer "other" in the circle across from us, the one with whom we most identified, or the one who seemed most receptive; at this point my words fail me. I don't know the factor, or factors. It doesn't really matter. Let’s just call it an affordance. The decision involved no malevolence or bigotry: all of us in the room knew and liked each other.

And still the pattern appeared: Until we became conscious of the pattern, whites tended to pass the ball of yarn to other whites.

Of course, it saddened me. I am embarrassed to report it.

But the outcome also encouraged me. For once we whites became aware of the pattern, the pattern changed, the exchange thereafter was interracial, and thus equitable. So in the end the exercise was a lesson in the hard work of race matters, showing us the importance of awareness, consciousness, attention.

The woman among us who led the exercise pointed out the significance of the color of the yarn: red, like the color of all of our blood.

 (Photo by Obsessessed - Vampire [sic])

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