When you’re in the majority, white, with all the privileges afforded by that demographic status and ethnicity, it’s easy, maybe even natural to patronise blacks who are the minority population, and carry the opposite of privilege. Moreover, our typical narratives in personal and public life make it highly unlikely that white folk will ever have discussed how not to patronise black people. People are simply never taught anything about this and not because they already know how, despite all the legislation that supports equality. If the legislation did the job there’d be no discrimination or prejudice, but we all know the answer to that one. So here are some pointers on how not to patronise people we often inadvertently, by our socially and culturally learned behaviours, casually patronise without even being aware of it.Compliance with your world narrative.
The first thing is not to expect black people to ascribe to your narrative of world and social events. Their narratives are likely very different to yours for good reasons. They were on the wrong side of colonialism, empire and the prevailing but rarely frankly stated attitude of white supremacy. The biggest mistake is to expect that they will see or experience life as you do. To assume that is the greatest, most patronising act of all.
Censorship of Speech
There is an unwritten but very active social contract which bars discussion of the black experience from “polite” conversation. Their speech is censored often to spare the blushes, shame, guilt, sometimes ignorance of the majority population. Being patronising is to expect a sovereign individual to live in the box you and folk like you have created for them. One must listen to what they say in the clear without asking them to bite their tongues just because their truth might upset or make you feel uneasy.
You’re not the normal standard
While white folk might be in the majority, they are not the normal standard, that by which all others are judged. In social habits, this would be akin to judging a fish by the behaviour of a bird. It just doesn’t work. Culinary tastes, appearance, standards of beauty, social memes, dress styles, even body types will vary and each is beautiful in its way. When you expect people to be judged by your standards in these social affairs and tastes you patronise them and set them up for failure as would be the case if the tables were turned. This does not conflict with our mutual need to agree on the basic positive human values like respect, compassion, kindness, fairness and truthfulness.
When you don’t censor the speech of others you will likely hear truthful and meaningful narratives which are new and unfamiliar. Some may be uncomfortable for you to hear some will make you laugh out loud, some will show vulnerability you never knew existed. Whatever the impact, when you actively listen rather than hold an expectation you unreasonably expect to be met, you get to the truth of the situation and engage with the other as a real person, not some poor reflection of yourself.
Become and present as “You”
Through years of shared experience, often conflictual, it’s easy for relationships with folk of other races to be very scripted. My observation shows that people snap into role play when in such encounters and fulfil the socially scripted stereotypes society has imposed over the years. That is why many whites subtly expect black people to accept their leadership and imposed narratives. Some don’t know or have never been taught to see black people as having real , self-determining agency, but pretend they do. It’s very transparent. The only solution is to be yourself, not the role society has created for you as the white supremo or leader. You should be able to express not only your thoughts loves and aspirations but also your natural vulnerabilities and anxieties in a constructive, honest way. The relationship is not one of conflict, domination or subjugation though social stereotypes may impose that conflictual dynamic. The relationship is one of sovereign equals, and if what you do wouldn’t be done to a white person, don’t do it to a black person. It’s very simple. That’s hard to do when social values place one group at the top of the totem pole with the role to lead, and the other at the bottom with the role to follow.
No new skills required
Nothing above requires new social skills. You behave like this to other white people all the time and don’t think about it for a moment. All that is required is that the same happens when you meet black people. It won’t be lost on you that what is written above applies to black folk, just in the reverse. They should not invite patronisation by compliance with a world narrative that is untrue for them, censor their speech for the comfort of others, should recognise that they are another perfectly normal standard, actively listen to hear the real person behind the role play they associate with inter racial relationships, and fight the impulse to be defensive in the face of overwhelming privilege given to others by society and denied to black people.
It just requires the will and effort to unlearn ingrained behaviours.