Stuff White People Like’s #20 Being an expert on YOUR culture is about pretentious white liberals and leftists who consider themselves “experts” on non-white cultures. Unfortunately, whites who self-identify as “antiracist” may still write as “experts” on non-white cultures, and believe that such writings are “antiracist”. At least one white antiracist believes that he has direct access to the mental states of non-white people, as well as unique insights about non-white cultures.
How psychologists accessed the thoughts of others
One problem within the history of psychology has been the problem of how a psychologist can access the mental processes of other individuals. Originally, psychologists used introspection, i.e., they asked subjects to self-report their own mental processes. However, during the behavioral revolution in psychology, introspection as a method of psychological investigation was considered unreliable and unscientific.* During the behavioral revolution in psychology, mainstream psychologists studied only human behaviour and considered the concept of “mental processes” as extraneous and irrelevant. After the behavioral revolution in psychology was the cognitive revolution, however, and now psychologists are interested in mental processes again, in addition to behaviour. However, psychologists use more advanced experimental methods to investigate mental processes, and they generally consider introspection unreliable as “direct access” to human thought.
Basically, accessing the thoughts of another individual, and drawing conclusions about what she is thinking and how she thinks, is a non-trivial task. Although it is already ignorant for a person to make psychological observations about another person without any background in psychology, it is both profoundly ignorant and oppressive for a person to make psychological observations about an entire race of people.
When this person is white, and this white person is making psychological observations about non-white people in general, it an instance of racism. Such a situation would be a continuation of the white-supremacist assumption that white people are more objective than non-white people, and know better about non-white people than non-white people know about themselves. That is, under this white-supremacist framework, the white person’s assessment of the non-white person’s mind is given higher priority and more validity than the non-white person’s assessment of her own mind or mental state. (Although a person’s introspection is still unreliable, a person interpreting another person’s introspection adds another layer of unreliability.) If a white person believes that he has obvious and direct access to the mind of a non-white person, he is under the assumption that he is objective, omniscient, and completely free of any cognitive biases that human beings have.
How anthropologists studied the cultures of others
The fields of cultural anthropology and social anthropology study human culture and human society, respectively. Socio-cultural anthropology has a history of racism, as it originated from European colonialism and the colonial project of managing and pacifying non-white societies (usually colonies or potential colonies).
In early socio-cultural anthropology, white intellectuals made generalizations about non-white cultures and societies using what is now referred to as “armchair anthropology”. Basically, these white people sat around in armchairs—literally or figuratively—and theorized about non-white people based on the personal anecdotes and travel diaries of white explorers, white traders, white Christian missionaries, and white colonial officials. The white intellectuals who “studied” non-white cultures and societies never visited the places or met the people that they studied, relying on the ostensibly “objective” reports of the white observers who did. When social anthropologist James George Frazer was asked if he had met any of the non-white people he had studied, he replied, “God forbid!”
Later on, the white, socio-cultural anthropologists began actually visiting the places that they wrote about, but they did not venture too close to the people they “studied”. These white people made generalizations and observations about the non-white people by watching from afar. Anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski was perceived as a revolutionary, because he actually mingled with the non-white people living in the Trobriand Islands, learned their language, and lived among them, since he eventually got bored from being stranded on the Islands, as he had been exiled there by Australian authorities. As white people perceive living amongst non-white people to be a heroic and self-sacrificial act of voluntary demotion, white anthropologists celebrate and immortalize Malinowski’s coming “down” to the level of non-white people in the film Off The Veranda (1986).
In contemporary ethnographic research, socio-cultural anthropologists are required to live amongst the studied people and participate in the studied culture for at least two years. As the very act of writing about and interpreting the cultures and societies of others has been criticized as reinforcing the control of the powerful over the image of the powerless, postmodernists argue that an ethnography should be a collaboration between the researcher and subjects, and that the subjects’ voice should be equal to or greater than that of the researcher**.
Basically, white people have been studying non-white people, cultures, and societies for centuries, and this activity of white people has a history of racism. Contemporary socio-cultural anthropology has been criticized internally and externally as being oppressive, and new perspectives and research methods were introduced to combat and minimize white bias in the observation of non-whites, and white control over the image of non-whites. If a white person writes about the culture and society of non-white people without taking into account the racist history of socio-cultural anthropology, and without employing the research methods honed from the field’s recognition of its past racism, the white person ends up repeating and perpetuating this historical racism.
Stuff White People Do on the handshaking preferences of non-white people
When two American adults meet for the first time, or when they know each other but not well enough to hug, they usually put their right hands together. Especially if they’re men. As a handbook on American customs posted on a University of Texas-Arlington web site says, “Some men might not shake hands with women unless the woman extends her hand first. Hand-shaking among women occurs even less frequently.”
Now, here’s the rest of what that handbook for foreign visitors says about how “we” shake hands–is this really how all of us shake hands?
When Americans shake hands, they normally exert a small amount of pressure on each others’ hands, move their clasped hands a bit upwards, then a bit downwards, then release their grip. People from other places where handshaking is customary may hold the other person’s hand more or less firmly than Americans do, sustaining contact for a shorter or a longer time than Americans. One’s character in the U.S. is often assumed by the appropriateness of their handshake.
Obviously, many African American men in particular have other ways of putting their hands together, and other racial groups do as well (though I’ll admit, I don’t know what forms the latter take). So this visitor’s handbook may be explaining the “normal” American method, but it’s really the “white” method.
Macon D is criticizing the University of Texas-Arlington’s handbook on American customs for claiming that the above handshaking method is the “normal” American method. Macon D argues, instead, that it is really the “white” method, and that African American men have “other” ways of putting their hands together. Not only is Macon D making a claim about African American culture, but he asserts that how African American men put their hands together is “obvious”.
Macon D’s post shake hands our way suggests that a more correct handbook on American customs would inform non-American visitors that greeting African American men with the “standard” American handshake may not be entirely appropriate (with respect to human relations programming). In other words, if Macon D had written that part of American customs handbook, he would tell non-American visitors that an American’s culture can be determined from the color of his skin, his race. For Macon D, the culture and handshaking custom of American man is immediately “obvious” from a simple visual examination of the American man’s racial features. Of course, judging the culture of another person based on the person’s racial appearance is an instance of racial prejudice.
Additionally, when Macon D “admits” that he doesn’t know “what forms” the handshaking methods of non-black, non-white racial groups take, he suggests that he knows the handshaking methods African American men. That is, he claims to be knowledgeable and informed about that how African American men shake hands. Moreover, when he “admits” ignorance of the handshaking methods of non-black, non-white people, he suggests that he does not need to admit any ignorance on his part regarding how African American men shake hands. That is, he believes that his knowledge about how African American shake hands is sufficient for him to be discussing it, and for him to be discussing cultural differences between white and black Americans.
Although Macon D’s blog is supposed to be about “stuff white people do”, shake hands our way is one of many of Macon D’s amateur excursions into socio-cultural anthropological studies of non-white culture. Unlike contemporary socio-cultural anthropology, however, Macon D’s generalizations about non-white people lack any kind of rigour or concern for the observer’s biases and assumptions.
Macon D continues in the same post to make psychological observations about the mental processes of non-white people:
What’s more interesting, though, about differences in handshaking techniques is that if a white and a non-white person encounter each other in a casual setting and decide to clasp hands, there may be uncertainty about which handshaking method to use–the one that’s become the standard, “white” one, or a common non-white one. When there is uncertainty about which to use, the fall-back is usually the standard handshake, that is, the method more likely to be used by the white person than by the one used by some non-white people. The non-white person often represses a preferred method of contact, and the white person feels little if any discomfort about being the enforcer of a standard.
In this paragraph, Macon D claims that non-white people “prefer” the handshake (stereotypically) associated with their racial group, and he claims that when a non-white American shakes hands with a white American, he is “repressing” a preference. As Macon D is a white American, he does not have direct access to the thoughts of a black, African American. As Macon D is a white American and claims that white Americans shake hands with African Americans using what he calls the “white” method, it is unlikely that Macon D himself participated in “African American” handshake culture with African Americans for an extended period of time.
Given that it is impossible for Macon D to directly access the thoughts of an African American, and given that it is unlikely that Macon D has used first hand participant observation to draw his conclusions about African American culture, an important question is how exactly did Macon D come to his conclusions about non-white thoughts and culture with respect to handshaking.
How Macon D accesses the thoughts of non-white people and studies non-white cultures
Fortunately, Macon D reveals his research methods in a comment, responding to one of Nquest’s criticisms of the shake hands our way post (Nquest is a black man). Macon D writes:
Nquest, if you can’t even remember if the post is only talking about Black people, go back and read it again. Why all the confusion? It’s about the default way that white and black men tend to shake hands when they meet each other. It’s not about how all members of one group shake hands one way and all of another group shake hands another way, and it doesn’t say that they don’t sometimes shake hands within their groups in various ways. And it’s not something I pulled straight out my azz either. It comes from watching hundreds of people shake hands. Get a grip, dude.
In other words, Macon D believes that he can access the thoughts of non-white people and study non-white cultures by simply watching with his eyes. Macon D’s research method of accessing the thoughts of another person is not even as advanced as that of 19th-century psychology, when introspection was de rigeur. Although introspection was a crude and flawed research method, at least it was better than mere speculation by the researcher about another person’s thoughts.
If we view Macon D’s “watching” method in terms of the history of socio-cultural anthropology, it is unclear whether Macon D’s “watching” method should be classified as (i) armchair anthropology racism, or (ii) “on the veranda”, pre-Malinowski, observation-from-afar racism. If Macon D’s impressionistic memory of watching “hundreds of people shake hands” is correct and all his observations were real-life observations, then his “watching” method of observation would be best classified as observation-from-afar racism. However, if Macon D’s “watching” data includes fictional portrayals of African Americans on television shaking hands—such as in the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—then his “watching” method would be better classified as armchair anthropology racism. (However, classifying the latter situation as “armchair anthropology” is a charitable interpretation, since even historical armchair anthropologists relied on non-fictional second-hand accounts.)
In any case, both armchair anthropology and observation-from-afar methods of observation are archaic and racist vestiges of a colonial past. As white people who studied non-white cultures and societies were considered “liberal” during the colonial periods, it is unfortunate that some contemporary white people who are considered “liberal” or “left” today ignorantly continue to repeat the errors and racism of history. That the blog Stuff White People Do is popular with white people suggests, again, that white people are ignorant of white history.
- African American men don’t shake hands like that at Stuff White People Say
* Introspection assumed that people cannot be mistaken about their own thoughts, for example. Contemporary psychology shows that people can have false memories and unconscious biases, which makes self-reporting unreliable.
** Barrett, 1996, p. 29.
Barrett, S. R. (1996). Anthropology: A Student’s Guide to Theory and Method. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated.