How to Trigger White Americans: Longitudinal Case Studies with Poorly Constructed Koans
Case #1: Ask them what predominantly white institution they matriculated from.
It’s a mindfuck of a question. Asking a white person what predominantly white institution they graduated from forces them to reconceptualize what education, specifically higher education, is, especially in terms of choosing a college or university based on “cultural fit.” In this case, cultural fit extends beyond having the right major(s), right athletic team(s) with commensurate exposure opportunities, having the right male to female ratio, or being in a desired location; it can often mean the literal ability to feel safe or welcomed not only in the community(ies) the campus resides in, but on the campus itself.
Abigail asked her guidance counselor, “What is the difference between a PWI and HBCU?” Her guidance counselor replied, “Location, location, location.”
Case #2: Ask them to explain what the “good old days” are and when they were.
Invariably, “good old days” are tied to nostalgia. “Nostalgia,” as a word itself, is a rough Greek approximation of “homecoming pain.” Ironically, this pain to return to some version of “home” often results in trading one type of pain for another.
Brett was just one of the boys when he drank one beer. Brett was just one of the boys when he drank another. Brett was never not just a boy.
Case #3: Challenge their viewpoints beyond topics political in nature.
Social media provides quick access to dopamine hits in curated echo chambers. Part of the curation means being judicial in terms of who can access your information to guarantee the least amount of dissension possible. Offering opposing viewpoints is not only a good technique to use in debate and writing, but can also be enough to stop the cycle of repetitive thought patterns and behaviors a person is stuck in and otherwise, tacitly or explicitly, encouraged to continue.
If a post is made when no one is around, does it have impressions?
Case #4: Call them racist.
Nothing makes a white person madder than calling them racist when they can list no event or pattern of behavior in their life that plays out like The Birth of a Nation.
The thought that Amy could be racist never occurred to her, because there was that one time in college she let the black guy from her biology lab go down on her.
Case #5: Respond to any sort of behavior with a blanket “white people.”
The idea of American exceptionalism is core to the American identity. Part of this exceptionalism is the belief of being in control of one’s own destiny, carving out one’s own path by one’s own efforts alone, and being quintessentially unique. If uniqueness is stripped away, there's reconciliation that has to occur where one must ponder whether every conscious and unconscious act they've made to differentiate themselves has only resulted in shades of sameness.
Karen, looking at her stylist, holds up two bottles: “L’Oréal or Redken?” Her stylist looks up, and excitedly shouts, “Lowlights!”
Case #6: Call them privileged.
Largely, white people will note in response to this assertion that they do not come from backgrounds normally classified as privileged—they will remind you that they went to public schools, aren’t well-connected, and there is no safety net of generational wealth for them live off of if the whole “working” thing doesn't pan out or becomes too frustrating. To call them privileged when they explain their journey can be disorienting, especially as Case #5 requires all their successes in life to be attributable to hard work, not something out of their control, like the circumstances of their birth.
Lena looks at her dress, then screams across the table, “Why won't anyone talk to me?” The talking continues.
Case #7: Ask them which laws they have no second thoughts about breaking.
The classic response to unfolding, police-related drama on screens is to say, “Well, this is what happens when you break the law.” Asking white people to consider what laws they don’t mind breaking or routinely break without a second thought, such as speeding or smoking marijuana without a card to do so, creates an interesting, often unacknowledged, and easily exploitable way to leverage Case #6. Their “not privileged” privilege has allowed them avoid considering the following: that it could be literally their body being “restrained” under foot or knee or forearm or any other object; that it hadn't even occurred to them that the person breaking the law had no second thoughts about breaking the law in question, either; or that, somehow, there is justified treatment for some that isn't even fathomable for others.
An officer approaches a young man named Dylann and asks him to put out his cigarette, pointing to a sign with his baton that indicates the distance he needs to be away from the building to smoke. “Or what?” “Yes.”
Case #8: Tell them you don’t like pets.
Dog or cat or other, white people use liking pets, or their pets liking others, or at least the tolerance for pets, as a sign of good character. Liking pets, to them, shows compassion, or the ability to love and take care of someone outside of the self with the only expectation being reciprocated love. Not being a pet person implies to them that you are not able to provide the love to them that they expect or are accustomed to.
Joanna turns to leave the dog park when her dog, Vick, gently pulls on her khaki cargo shorts with his mouth, indicating he would like her to stop. His canines scrape her thigh. “Aren’t you the cutest!”
Case #9: Ask them if OJ Simpson is guilty.
As a seemingly glaring example of the failure of the American justice system in most people's current purview, thinking of the possibility of innocence for this specific case is considered knowingly problematic at best and deliberately hurtful at worst. After all, how could a case with so much damning evidence and compelling testimony turn out any other way than the one expected?
Brock, fresh from the courtroom, excitedly proclaimed, “Justice is blind!” A janitor walked past and muttered, “Isaac Woodard.”
Case #10: Ask them to pick out a black person from a lineup.
Any identification process, especially concerning criminal identification, immediately places Case #4 squarely in their mind. Part of the identification process is acknowledging differences. This is an intellectual process that would have to continue well after establishing someone was, well, different. And that would mean that a person would have to have been focused for a while to make a correct identification, with the implication being that they were expecting trouble, or a situation where correct identification would be paramount. And if they make the wrong pick, under duress, coercion, or otherwise, it's easy to distill that the inability to properly identify a person was a direct result of only casual observation. A classic no-win situation.
Linda pulls out a coin, flips it, and catches it in her palm. “Heads or Tails?” “Tails.” She opens her hand to reveal a full-page ad.