on the invisible structures that surround us
writing to you live from tanzania (!!), from a car where i have no service on a two hour trek to a national park. this thought will be not as tiny, not as organized, and certainly not as coherent… but here it goes anyway!
yesterday was pretty epic — we spent the day in moshi, where we we did a gorgeous hike, visited a coffee farm, and saw a hot spring. there were several other people doing the tour at the same time as us, with different tour guides. we met a very nice white couple from the netherlands who had been in tanzania for a few weeks now.
we got to talking, and they explained they spent the last two days living in a hut with a tribe that gave them bows and arrows to go hunt food with. “it’s really important for us to understand how privileged we are,” the dude told us solemnly, while his wife nodded. “this is a tribe that chooses to live this way everyday, and it’s important for us to see that and understand how lucky we are.”
on the way out of the coffee farm, we saw their car pulled over on the side of the road. concerned, we asked our tour guide to stop so we could see if they were okay. “oh yeah we’re great!” they said. they pulled over at a school. “we just wanted to play with the kids here while they’re in recess, and take some pictures.”
ok so bear with me here. on paper, there’s nothing wrong with this. in fact it’s very nice. this couple is going out of their way to firstly, try and challenge their own privilege, and secondly, to play with some kids.
a thought that kept tugging at me, though, is why that felt like such a normal thing for them to do to them, and effing weird for me. i mean could you imagine if i visited the netherlands and went to go — uninvited — play with a bunch of white kids at recess and take pictures of them? lol? instead, in this example, there’s a “why woudn’t they want me to do this” mentality that is pervasive in the way white people often move through spaces. it’s also a symptom of a broader theme around the power structures we accept, and the ones we never challenge.
like, we don’t think it’s weird when white people visit african countries and take dozens of non-consensual pictures of other people’s kids. (so ironic, when i got wifi again, i saw this random news thing on instagram. jennifer lawrence is pregnant, and she’s lamenting how her kids deserve a level of privacy she’s committed to giving them, no matter what.) we don’t think it’s weird when they traipse through these countries, tipping minimally and demanding experiences that pull them out of their privilege into the (often happy) lives of others. (that tribe they visited is literally people living their own lives… they don’t exist to make someone else feel better about theirs)
imagine caring about *someone else’s* sunglasses
“the worst clients i have by far,” our tour guide was telling us, “are white and french. one time they complained to my manager that i was wearing sunglasses for too long. i’m not sure why that bothered them, but i had to take it off for the rest of the trip after that.”
why this is relevant: the crux of this is that for many white people, existence — ours and theirs — revolves largely around their sphere of comfort. even their discomfort exists in a sphere of their comfort — the challenging of their privilege is limited to the fringes of a space they’re willing to embrace (“it was really nice to challenge our own privilege [by living the way a regular, happy african village here does] for a bit”)
these structures are not few and far between — in fact, they are the invisible forces propping up the world as we know it. we see it in travel, sure, by not batting an eyelash when white people parade this way through african countries.
but we also see it in entertainment — in the black/brown best friend in almost every tv show and movie. not net bad per se, but its so pervasive that this is once again an infuriating snub at whose stories get to be told, and who we get to view as nuanced and complicated (spoiler alert: it’s the main character, who is almost always white.) to quote a genius of our time:
it may not feel like the same thing to you — this couple, the sunglasses, and these shows. but these are all sides of the same coin re: what behavior we accept from whom, why we accept it, and the way we tell the stories we tell. it dictates who matters (all lives?) — in fact, not even your sunglasses are exempt from the sphere of what is relevant to someone who is consistently the protagonist, on and off the screen.
and that’s kind of what it all comes down to. ultimately, (this brand of) whiteness is being the main character, even in everyone else’s stories (… or someone else’s village). and the pervasiveness of these structures is such that they are often the main character, even in our own.
it’s not a “them” thing
it’s probably fairly easy to agree with me after all of this (“true, hareem, that’s kind of weird of them”). but i promise you the version of diet dei so many of us ascribe to at home creates (and maybe even exacerbates) this reality every single day.
how? well firstly, in silicon valley, dei is, at best for some, a speed limit that is optional to adhere to. for others, its an unachievable utopia — but one that enough blogposts or checkboxes can satisfy a base need for. both these views center our own comfort, and prevent us from the harder view of dei the verb — the choice you make every single day to challenge a status quo that is quietly thriving.
and this is where the hard work is — in training our eyes to challenge the default settings the machine came with. because contrary to popular belief, dei isn’t waking up everyday and not being racist (that is basic human decency). instead, it’s challenging ourselves to expand the structures we take for granted, in understanding (or at least acknowledging!) the invisible forces that power a world where black and brown people were never the faces we imagined as the main characters in the books we read as children, so they could never be who we will imagine in the companies we build as adults.
did this even make sense? i promise i think that couple was well-meaning, and that i’m fairly optimistic about the future. but we owe it to ourselves to ask harder questions about why we accept the things we do. and i think if you’re building teams, and you’re not asking yourself who to invest more meaningfully in, how to challenge who you imagined filling your next role, how you think about growing people differently based on the structures that exist that prevent them from fully thriving, who is growing you, what your friend group looks like, or even just how you’re going to watch your next show with a bit more of a critical eye, you’re not doing the work here.*
it’s not easy, and it’s probably not comfortable — but nothing worth it ever is.
*happy to chat about this if you’d like! also might write more about it later.. hmmM