How can white people talk to other white people about race?

I’m trying to write a scene for my dot-com play in which Sally (who is white) tries to explain to Thee, her boss (who is also white) some important things about race. The most touchy thing she tries to explain to Thee is about how Thee treats Janiece, her African American employee.

God, this scene is hard! White playwrights out there, have you ever written anything similar?

What Sally really wants to say to Thee is that Thee is being discourteous, insensitive, and downright rude to Janiece. Not that she’s not aware of it. She just doesn’t understand that she’s white any more than a fish understands that it’s in water. But I can’t imagine Sally being that blunt, because after all, she’s talking to her boss.

Here’s the scene — anybody have any suggestions?

You can look at the PDF if that’s easier for you to read: Sally Explains.

     (SALLY and THEE are talking over wine in a bar.)

SALLY. I don’t know how to explain it to you. Have you ever been in a place where no one else is like you?

THEE. Sure, all the time.

SALLY. No, I mean, really unlike you.

THEE. Every time I meet with clients.

SALLY. Where everybody else in the room is, say, African-American?

THEE. I’ve been around African-Americans. No, I have never been in a group of all black people.

SALLY. Janiece experiences that all the time. Everywhere she goes, she’s surrounded by white people. No one else is like her.

THEE. When I was little, my grandmother’s friends would come over, and they’d all sit around the kitchen table speaking Greek. I hardly understood a word they were saying. I sure wasn’t like them.

SALLY. Okay.

THEE. They were all born in Greece. Their gestures, the way they talked, it was different from how Americans talk.

SALLY. Your mom, did she act different around your grandmother’s friends?

THEE. Yeah. Of course.

     (The WAITRESS comes by.)

WAITRESS. Can I get you anything else?

THEE. No. Thanks.

SALLY. Nothing for me.

WAITRESS. I’ll bring your check, then.

     (The WAITRESS exits.)

SALLY. So, your mom…

THEE. Yes, she acted different.

SALLY. Right. Okay, so she was a social chameleon. So is Janiece. She has to act a certain way at work because she’s in a white world.

THEE. We’re not white, we’re just people. I don’t see her as black, I just see her as a person.

SALLY. Okay, but, I’m white – we’re all people, / but I’m white –

THEE. Right, people; we’re all just –

SALLY. – George is white, Bradley is white, you’re white, / almost everyone at work is…

THEE. No, that’s not – I’m Dutch and Greek. I’m Dutch-American and Greek-American. Not white American. Why should I be proud of being white?

SALLY. It’s not a matter of whether you should be proud or not, / it’s a matter of who…

THEE. Of course it is. It’s a matter of – am I supposed to be proud of slavery?

SALLY. You don’t have to / think about it in those terms…

THEE. I’m proud of my Dutch ancestors. They came to a rough, harsh land, and they made a life for themselves. They wanted a better life, so they came to the New World. I’m proud of them.

SALLY. Sure, but they came to make money. / They came for furs and tobacco.

THEE. Of course they… That doesn’t mean the, the streets were paved with gold! Look, I think Janiece acts a certain way at work because it’s a professional environment. It’s just how you behave in business.

SALLY. No, actually, Janiece acts white.

THEE. No, she acts professional. I act different at work than I do around my friends. I don’t act “white.”

SALLY. You’re / just not aware…

THEE. You act different round Janiece. When it’s just the two of you. The social chameleon thing? And Nestlé, when you’re talking to Nestlé.

SALLY. Of course, but – it’s whether or not you have a choice.

THEE. You always / have a choice.

SALLY. Whether people will…

THEE. I don’t see how this is answering my question.

SALLY. It’s whether people will think less of you if you behave a certain way. If you’ve never been a minority, it’s hard to understand. / Maybe if I…

THEE. Sometimes, Sally – can I be blunt with you? Sometimes you act smug.

SALLY. Do what, now?

THEE. You come across like you’re smug. Like you think you’re better than other people, better than me, because you know all of this stuff about race relations that nobody else does.

SALLY. No, I don’t. / I don’t think that at all –…

THEE. And like you think you’re a better person than we are. Than I am. Yes – well, that’s how you act. You have this special bond with Janiece, and Nestlé. / I’m sorry, but …

SALLY. I do get along with Janiece / and Nestlé better than…

THEE. “She has to be different around white people, you have to act different to black people, you always have to be aware of race.” I don’t care what race people are. I just want the work to get done.

SALLY. You’re not necessarily aware –…

     (The WAITRESS comes by, puts the check on the table.)

WAITRESS. Have a good evening.

THEE. Thanks.

     (The WAITRESS exits.)

SALLY. I’m not saying you’re aware, and I’m not saying you’re racist, I’m just saying that everyone has unconscious beliefs about people.

THEE. I don’t care about all that. All I want is for this company to operate in the black, I want to be able to pay everyone what they’re worth, I want to make clients happy. To do that, I have to feel confident that employees will take direction from me and will tell me if something’s wrong. And I need you to help me – I’m not getting that from Janiece, and I’m asking you to help me tell her what I need from her.

SALLY. It’s really difficult if you don’t have direct experience with racial prejudice. Maybe if I told you about / some of my experiences, that would…

THEE. I do have experience with racial prejudice. Do you know that my dad’s family wouldn’t talk to him for 16 years because he married a Greek woman? Sixteen years. I met them for the first time at Christmas when I was 13. And even then, they were always nicer to my brother because he doesn’t look so Greek. He’s blond haired and blue-eyed – yes, I have a brother – My grandparents slighted me for years. They paid for his college, but they didn’t give me anything for mine. They have this beautiful – and I’m still paying off student loans from college. And they have this beautiful house in upstate New York, a summer house? They’d invite him to stay for the summers, but never me. They’d say he needed to get away, he was a sensitive kid, but that wasn’t – well, it was true, but that’s not why they did it. And even little things, like he always got nicer presents than me at Christmas. And birthdays. It sounds petty now, but when you’re a teenager, it’s a big deal.
     He’s a drug addict. Last we heard, he was living on the streets in San Diego. He took his college money and spent it all on drugs. My grandparents will spend all kinds of money to try to find him and help him. But I asked them once for $15,000 to cover payroll. $15,000! They have it, easy. But no. This was when Rose Media wouldn’t pay us? They’ve spent easily 10 times that much trying to find him and help him. And he just spends their money on more drugs, and disappears again.

SALLY. You never said you had a brother.

THEE. No, and can you blame me? I’m sick of people’s pity, and how they look at me, once they know.

SALLY. I’m sorry to hear that.

THEE. So, you see, just because I’m “white,” doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about prejudice. I do know something about being discriminated against because of how I look.

SALLY. Okay. I see. Well, I don’t know how to relate that to Janiece… Listen, can I take you to church with me sometime? I go to the Ebenezer AME. / You’d experience what –

THEE. What?

SALLY. It’s a black church.

THEE. I’m not religious. What? Why?

SALLY. You don’t have to be. / It’s just –…

THEE. Did you hear what I just said?

SALLY. Of course I did. It’s just – I don’t want to be another person who just pities you. It’s just, some of what I’m saying will make more sense. You won’t be the only white person there, I promise. No, I know you have experience with prejudice, I’m just saying, you were asking about Janiece. This will help answer your question. I go the first Sunday of the month. Just let me know.

THEE. I’m not sure I have a question anymore.

SALLY. Can I be blunt with you here?

THEE. You haven’t been already?

SALLY. I mean, really.

THEE. Of course. You don’t have to ask.

SALLY. Well, but, I do work for you.

THEE. Right. Okay.

SALLY. You asked why Janiece seems standoffish. / You asked why –

THEE. She is standoffish. Sorry.

SALLY. You asked why she doesn’t seem at home here. I was just trying to… If people don’t understand someone else’s experience, they can act in ways – totally unconsciously – that come across as… too nice, or objectifying, or even patronizing. Like, stating things that they “know” to be true but that aren’t, about a certain group of people; or assuming they have the same experiences as them; or even getting indignant about – or angry, angry about times when they experience something, but the other person has experienced a lot, and they don’t acknowledge it. Like… okay, take me. For example. Take me, when I assumed you didn’t have much experience with prejudice? So imagine you have a lot of people, all the time, telling you what prejudice is like or assuming your experience is like theirs just because you look like them. Over and over. And after a while, you don’t bother to explain because you know they’ll never understand.

THEE. Like you did to me just now.

SALLY. Okay, yes, but over and over and over.

THEE. I wouldn’t hang out with them.

SALLY. Right, but, suppose you had to work with them. And there were a few people who were also treated the same way you were and they’re the only ones who understand. What you’ve been through with your grandparents. You could let down your guard with them because you know they won’t see you differently just because you look Greek.

THEE. That doesn’t mean I’m racist.

SALLY. No, but – I’m not saying you’re racist. I’m saying, you know they understand. Other people don’t. That doesn’t make them racist, they just don’t know.

THEE. I still don’t see how this is going to help me. I really am – I read the books you told me, I watched the videos, I really am trying, but I feel like the more understanding I try to be, the more she – I think she knows how much we need her now, and she uses that.

SALLY. Oh, no, no, she doesn’t do that, I know that’s not… You know, I’m beginning to think that words, and movies and books, aren’t enough, that you have to have certain experiences. Because that’s how I learned it. I have experiences being a minority that most white people don’t. That most people don’t. I was the only white guest at the 60th wedding anniversary celebration of my husband’s grandparents. It taught me things I could never have / learned by just…

THEE. Wait, what? Who?

SALLY. I was married for five years to an African-American man. That wedding anniversary celebration, / being the only white person…

THEE. You were married? To a black man?

SALLY. Yes. I don’t talk about it much. He passed away.

THEE. Oh my God.

SALLY. I don’t mention it much – it’s kind of like with you and your brother, I get tired of people’s pity about how I was widowed at 28.

THEE. Wow. Yeah, I know. God.

SALLY. So, what I was saying, I went to my husband’s grandparents’ 60th wedding-anniversary celebration. I’d been the only white person around his family before, like at church, but this was the most shocking and profound and dislocating experience I ever had.
     It was in South Carolina. That’s where his family was from? We get there, and we’re waiting for everything to start, and I notice who’s there. I’m among a bunch of older African-Americans who remember having to get off the sidewalk if a white person came along. Who remember their parents being called “uncle” and “aunt,” while they had to say “Mr.” and “Mrs.” People like me, they had to give up their seat on the bus for. What’s more, I was dressed wrong. This event was very formal? Not like Seattle. I didn’t know. And the way they do it, the family all eats up on the stage in this hall. Everyone else, their tables are on the floor. So I am extremely conspicuous. Then when I go to the buffet line to get my food, I suddenly realize that there are other white people there. They’re servers. I immediately feel this kinship with them. Like they get me. I’m drawn to them. But at the same time, they’re servers. And I’m a guest. But I’m white. The other guests are all black. In that one moment, I got an inkling of what it must be like to be Janiece. Or Nestlé. It was like… you know how there are some earthquakes where the plates just sort of slide against each other? The tectonic plates. And there are some where there’s this major shearing and dislocation, and I felt like my whole experience, my whole understanding, got completely shifted.
     It’s hard to get this, this experience, this understanding, in Seattle. Seattle is so white, it’s easy for us to not think about how racism really does exist. Because we’re never confronted with enough people to make us think about it. We get along with everybody we meet, so we don’t have to think about the problem. I talk the way I do to Janiece and Nestlé in part to be polite, and in part because it feels familiar to me. I got comfortable, I learned to be happy and comfortable around my husband’s family. I miss it.
     Anyhow, if you ever want to go to church with me, see what it’s like, just let me know. I go the first Sunday of every month.

THEE. Why only the first Sunday?

SALLY. Because… here’s how I see it. The church has always been one place where black people could go and there weren’t any white people around. Where they didn’t have to watch how they talked and how they acted. There are people in the church, older people, who grew up in the South and remember the Jim Crow era. I love the church, but I respect it as a refuge.

THEE. I see. No, I think I sort of do.
     The thing is, I had to let some project managers go, but we need her, and until we build up our client base again… She’s a good project manager, we have to keep her, and I thought she just missed usability work, that that’s why – and if clients would pay for it these days, I would have her back doing usability design in a heartbeat, but nobody is… but if she’s unhappy with the way I’m treating her, I have to figure out what’s wrong and fix it.

SALLY. I think you’d have an easier time – if you’d have some experiences like she’s had, you’d have a, she’d… you be able to express it better. You and she would work together better, you’d feel more secure in working with her. I personally want her to stay, she’s someone I can talk to about things I can’t talk to anyone else about. And she’s good at what she does, even though she doesn’t like it – … well, I mean… what you said, she misses usability work.

THEE. She doesn’t like it?

SALLY. You know, her real passion is usability design.

THEE. No, I know that, I didn’t know she didn’t like project management… does she really not like it?

SALLY. No, no, / it’s just not her thing…

THEE. Is she thinking of – I’m not asking you to betray her confidence, I’m just worried, is she thinking of leaving?

SALLY. No, no, it’s nothing more than just that she… she really hasn’t confided in me. I’m just saying, you’re right, we need her, she can do a good job even at things that aren’t her first love. And I think that if you have some experiences of the things you’ve been reading about, and the videos you watched, you and she would get along better.

THEE. Okay. Good. You had me worried there for a while.

SALLY. If you’re not busy this Sunday morning, do you want to go to church with me?

THEE. Sure, but it’s not the first Sunday, is it? / That was last Sunday…

SALLY. No, it’s the second… let’s go this Sunday, otherwise you’d have to wait another three weeks. I can go twice in a row.

THEE. Okay, thanks. Yes, I’d love to go to church with you.

SALLY. Can we talk about it as we walk? I really should get going.

THEE. God, yeah, me too.

     (They both put money on the table to cover the bill.)

THEE. Is anybody going to… you know, speak in tongues?

SALLY. No. Probably not. (Talking about the bill.) No, let me put in some for the… cause I ate as much of them as you did.

THEE. It’s okay. What do you mean, “probably” not? (About the bill.) Though you could put some more for the tip if you wanted… (Back to the topic.) Do people usually?

SALLY. Oh, yes. Depending on if the Holy Spirit really moves the preacher.

THEE. Wow, really? (About the bill.) I think that’s enough. (Back to the topic.) Nobody does that in a Greek Orthodox church.

SALLY. No fainting? No “Amen!” and “thank you Jesus!”?

THEE. No, good God no.

SALLY. No “hallelujah?”

      (They are gathering their things to leave.)

SALLY. Okay. First thing you should know, the services are long. Two hours, at least, usually two hours 15 minutes or even two hours and a half.

THEE. Um… do they… I mean, what if I have to go to the bathroom?

SALLY. When the choir’s singing. When they’re sort of doing filler music? You can slip out then.


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2 Responses to How can white people talk to other white people about race?

  1. Pingback: How can white people talk to other white people about race? #2 | Playwright's Muse

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