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

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

Small businesses in NYC launch an inclusion campaignNYC may be one of the most diverse cities in the world, but it has seen an increase in hate speech and other incidents. Enter “Hate Has No Business Here,” a new campaign designed to celebrate inclusiveness and acceptance at a grassroots level. The phrase, downloadable for free in poster form, is being placed in storefront windows of various businesses across the five boroughs. More than 20 business district associations are participating. The inventor of the campaign says it’s about speaking out against divisiveness and hate. “I thought it would be powerful to come together with one message, one visual to signal that we stand together, for each other,” says Amanda Neville, a Brooklyn wine shop owner.Time Out

Health care disparities cost the lives of 4,000 black infants every year
The new research, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, shows that while infant mortality had declined overall in the U.S., those improvements haven’t been enjoyed equally by white and black babies. Instead, black infants are more than 2.5 times as likely to die during their first year than white ones. Further, if black babies had access to the health care available to white babies, nearly 4,000 lives would be saved. Researchers from McGill University in Canada found that while infant mortality rates for black babies had improved dramatically during the ten-year span from 2005-2015, the rate has remained relatively flat since then.
Los Angeles Times

Study: Media overrepresents Muslims as terrorists
MSNBC’s Ari Melber built a panel discussion around an important topic – the propensity of the broadcast media to emphasize violent attacks by people who are or may be Muslim. He begins by citing a study saying that “attacks by people claiming to be Muslim received 449% more coverage…on average…than those perpetrated by virtually anyone else.” Laila Lalami, a novelist and columnist, says the problem is getting worse, partly because it’s a now familiar narrative. When attacks occur, “we have an already built in story that we can follow… [with the] villainy of the Muslim perpetrator and the innocence of his victims.” In fact, 88% of terrorist style attack are perpetrated by non-Muslims, according to the Global Terrorism Database.

How Facebook created its supplier diversity program
Here’s the takeaway: A committed group of people made the business case and the CFO signed off on it. Bärí A. Williams, currently the head of business operations at StubHub, North America, was one of those committed people. Back in the day, she was lead counsel for Facebook and deeply dedicated to improving tech’s dismal diversity numbers. She says that a supplier diversity program is an often missing element in transforming a company’s culture while driving retention rates. “Imagine how you would feel if your employer expected full assimilation and culture fit, but knew nothing about nor inquired about you, or your culture. Would you stay?” Click through for how she made the business case, but also the moral one for a supplier program. “It’s where community engagement and having a positive economic impact on social capital of the communities in which you do business becomes a priority. In other words, it’s not just making money, but also investing in local communities so that they can make money, too.”

The Woke Leader

danah boyd: Tech can change. But it will require re-tooling the entire culture
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.

An interview with Teju Cole
Teju Cole is many things — a gorgeous novelist and searing art critic; a wide-ranging essayist and curious photographer; an artful Twitterer who is equal parts American and Nigerian. He recently sat down with Steve Paulson, the executive producer of To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio. The visit was to promote Cole’s new book, “Blind Spot,” a collection of photographs and essays, woven together in a unique style that references both documentary and novel formats. But the conversation became, as one might expect, a rich exploration of observing both the world and the observer. “Now I realize that looking at the world, making images, writing about images, writing about things that are not images, all of it is an attempt to testify to having been here and seen certain things, having looked at the world with a kind eye but an eye that is not ignoring questions of justice and history.”
The Millions

On black lives, the police and mental health
Jodi Savage’s searing story of her mentally ill Granny begins with a cringe-inducing memory: The night she woke up with a blonde and crew-cutted police officer standing over her bed. “Ma’am, your grandmother called us. Do you mind if we take a look around?” The clay mask, ratty t-shirt and headscarf were the least of her worries. “My grandmother sees people who aren’t really here,” she explains as the officer begins touching her things. What follows is a beautifully rendered piece that touches on her fear of police and her desperation to keep her increasingly confused grandmother – who had begun feeding and clothing phantom children – safe from further harm. Hers is a tale familiar to many, but with the powerful overlay of fear that many do not share: That the first responders society relies on may actually make things worse for her family, not better.


It’s not hard to argue that white men have done more harm in history — from the keeping of slaves to the genocide of Native Americans, and a thousand other examples — than any other single group. But it can also be argued that they have done more good — in combatting evil regimes, in developing medicines, in inventing everything from the automobile to the cellphone to various methods of birth control. White men discovered penicillin, Novocain, the drug regimen used to treat people afflicted with AIDS. In many places the chances are good that if your home is on fire, it will be a white man who comes to put it out. And, if it were not for the millions of white men who gave their lives in World War II, we might all be starting the work day with the Nazi salute.
—Roland Merulo