Commentary

What the Angry White Man Teaches Us About Social Norms, Power, and Bias

Jul 06, 2017

A curious thing happened over the long holiday. I watched as one angry white man scared other white people. It was...instructive.

It started as just another evening at a multiplex, in a mostly white suburb of St. Louis, Mo. On a normal night, kids would typically be begging for super-sized slushies, or hustling quarters for the retro arcade games. But this time something was off. Instead of five or six lines of happy people in front of the long concessions counter, the crowd had grimly queued up into one long line that was now snaking past the ticket taker toward the front door. The big, wide lobby was empty. And everyone was silent -- the stare-straight-ahead-and-hope-to-survive kind of silent.

This was the scene I walked into. I approached an older couple hovering in the back of the lobby, and whispered, “What’s going on?” They looked like they just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting or some such. “We’re trying to figure it out,” they whispered back.

It quickly became clear what was what. The new “line design” was the brainchild of one man, standing about ten customers back from the counter, who had decided that it would be “more efficient” this way. He snapped at anyone who attempted to break ranks, insisting they get back in line. So, nobody moved, including his embarrassed wife and kids. Nervous teen popcorn purveyors stood behind silent cash registers and prayed for a savior.

Managers were nowhere to be found.

Finally, the Grandparents finished their assessment and made their move, walking calmly past fifty-three people (yes, I counted) and up to an increasingly nervous-looking clerk. “Why is this so hard for you to understand?” the man hissed at Grandmother, before turning to the rest of the crowd. “Just go to the next open one!” Grandmother shot a smile over her shoulder.“The way we always do it is fine,” she said, just the right amount of loud. "I'm going now."

Little by little, people began to follow her lead, tiptoeing past him and his grumbling. Soon lines formed as they normally did. Peace was restored. But the man remained in everyone’s peripheral vision. And when we all ended up getting served before he did – the poor kid who was doling out the goods in his lane had gotten frazzled and screwed up an order – he stomped off angrily, leaving his wife and kids behind.

I didn't stick around long enough to see if he was a Twizzler or a Dots sort of person.

It was as if I’d stumbled into a sociological experiment exploring implicit social norms and the compliance of crowds, an experience more frightening than funny. A man with an assumption of status briefly held an entire lobby hostage. He was sober, dressed in a familiar "suburban dad" uniform, with a completely overgrown sense of entitlement. And he had a new, innovative idea. It didn’t go well. And as he stormed off, the thought actually crossed more than one person’s mind that he might return with a gun.

I don’t know what kind of implicit bias or other training would have to be invented to help the Line Design guy get better at managing negative feedback. Or what kind of "culture change" would help the self-directed teams that form to solve unexpected problems reach collective decisions more quickly. But there is one thing I am fairly certain of: if an Angry Black Man had decided to spontaneously re-tool the concessions process, we would have seen a manager and he wouldn’t have seen a movie. Lots of takeaways here.

(The gun part, of course, is a different problem with a different solution. But you get my point. Backlash is always on the menu.)

I thought about my night at the movies this week as I read through the testimonies of women about their harassment at the hands of powerful men in tech, along with the lamentations of their abusers and the silence of their peers. I was reminded, yet again, how scary white men with power can be, even if they don’t see the contours of their outsized influence, even if they don’t care how quickly a simple system designed to make everyone happy can be derailed by their certainty and need. And yet, they persist. That’s what that kind of power does. It demands your collusion and enlists your fear.

While there may be no easy answers, one clear role model emerged from my evening at the multiplex. If you can safely be the Grandmother in your work life, be her. If you can’t, then take good care of yourself until you can.

On Point

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Time Out

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MSNBC

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Wired

The Woke Leader

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danah boyd, a technologist and researcher, says the recent revelations of sexist behavior in the venture community is both troubling and widespread. “To say that discrimination, harassment, and sexual innuendos are an open secret is an understatement. I don’t know a woman in tech who doesn’t have war stories,” she says. (She shares a few of her own.) For a sector that purports to change the world for the better, the tech industry is profoundly unwilling to reflect on its own systemic weakness. boyd lays out a four-point plan to move past individual mea culpas into real change: Recognition, repentance, respect, and my personal favorite, reparation.

Medium

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Catapult

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