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

I wrote another version of the scene for my dot-com play where Sally (who is white) tries to explain to Thee, her boss (who is also white) some important things about race.

I brought this scene to my playwrights’ group yesterday, and it read well. It’s a little… calmer, I think.

What do you think? Does this version of the scene leave you with a different feeling than the previous version?

You can read the scene as a PDF if that’s more convenient:  Sally Explains v2.

     (Early 1998. THEE and SALLY in a bar.)

THEE. So, I wanted to ask you something. Do you know why Janiece doesn’t come to the SWT meetings? I keep asking her to come, I ask her why she doesn’t come, and she just gives me evasions. And her friends. The group is for women in technology. Seattle women in technology. I don’t see why she doesn’t come.

SALLY. Well, have you asked her?

THEE. Yes, I just said I asked her. / I’ve asked her a bunch of –…

SALLY. Why she isn’t coming? Not, just asked her to come.

THEE. Yes, I’ve asked her why she doesn’t come. She just, she just dodges the issue.

SALLY. Well, she doesn’t have to come. I know you want her to, but not all women in technology in Seattle come.

THEE. I know. I’d just like to know. You guys are friends, I just thought you could help me understand.

SALLY. Okay. Well, I’ll tell you. I mean, I tell you what I think, why I think she’s not coming. And her friends. And other nonwhite women in the Seattle area.
     You say that – you and the other organizers say that it’s a group for all Seattle-area women and technology. But it’s… the way it operates, in practice it’s a white Seattle-area women in technology.

THEE. It’s not white. It’s women. It’s all women.

SALLY. I’m not saying it’s deliberate, I’m not saying you guys are aware of it… I’m just saying that you’re white, so of course the organization is white.

THEE. If black women don’t come, then of course it’s – and Asian women, and women from India, and everybody else – then of course it’s white.

SALLY. What I mean is, the organization is run by white women who see things in a white way.

THEE. We’re not white. We’re just people.

SALLY. Okay, but you’re white. Janiece and her friends are black.

THEE. I’m Dutch and Greek. I’m Dutch-American and Greek-American.

SALLY. But see, that’s part of the problem. / You guys don’t see that you’re white –…

THEE. I wasn’t even alive during slavery. My ancestors didn’t own slaves.

SALLY. No, nobody’s talking about slavery.

THEE. Well, that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it?

SALLY. No, no, it’s not about… Look, I’m not very good at…

     (The WAITRESS comes up to their table.)

WAITRESS. How are you guys doing here? (To SALLY, speaking of her wine.) Could I get you a refill? (To THEE.) Another gin and tonic?

THEE. I’m good, thanks.

SALLY. I’m still working on this.

WAITRESS. Just let me know if you need anything.

     (The WAITRESS exits.)

THEE. My ancestors didn’t own slaves. Slavery ended a long time ago.

SALLY. Right, but what I’m saying is, it’s not about slavery. I’m not very good at talking to white people about this. No, I know you don’t like the term “white” people, / I’m just saying…

THEE. I don’t care about the term “white people.” All I really want is for all women in Seattle to come to the meetings and to get involved. We’re all women, we’ve got the same experience in this field. We all know what it’s like for men to ignore us, act as though we don’t exist, / our opinions don’t count…

SALLY. But that’s the thing… But that’s the thing, we don’t all know. Women of color have different concerns. We all have, we all face discrimination because we’re women, but nonwhite women have it worse. They get discriminated against because of their race, too.

THEE. I know, of course, and we can talk about that.

SALLY. They won’t. They probably won’t talk about their concerns.

THEE. Why not? That’s what the group is for.

SALLY. Okay, can I be blunt with you here?

THEE. Of course you can be blunt with me.

SALLY. I do work for you.

THEE. Yes, but… okay, yes. You can be blunt with me.

SALLY. The people of color I know, don’t want to be in an organization where the white people who run it think they know what their concerns are. They get that all the time. Like, thinking because we’re all women, we all have the same concerns. We don’t. And white people, we generally don’t know that. So, we’re not being malicious, we’re not trying to ignore their concerns, we just don’t know.

THEE. I’m not trying to ignore their concerns, I’m just saying that as women, we have things in common. Besides, if they won’t tell us what their concerns are, there’s nothing we can – we can’t talk about them if we don’t know what they are.

SALLY. They’re tired of telling us. They are tired of telling white people these things over and over.

THEE. I even asked Janiece, I asked her, is there anything I need to know?

SALLY. That’s why I’m trying to tell you.

THEE. Okay, but, I don’t do that. I don’t talk about things I don’t know about.

SALLY. Okay, but, if you don’t know you don’t know, you’d never realize you were doing it. Okay, here’s an example. Do you remember, about a month ago, maybe a couple months ago, you and me and Parker and Janiece all went to that new Ethiopian restaurant on 12th for lunch?

THEE. Right… Mesob (“mee SOHB”)?

SALLY. (Correcting her pronunciation.) “Meh SOHB.”


SALLY. And we started talking about hair, I don’t know why, and you said… oh, yeah, Parker had just gotten her hair cut really short, so we were talking about hair, and different things we do with our hair, and at some point you said, “I think black women have more options with their hair than white women do.” The thing is, Janiece was sitting right there, but you spoke about black women and their hair.

THEE. Okay… but I do think it. All the things black women do with their hair? It’s beautiful. Besides, Janiece was sitting right there, she would have corrected me if I was wrong.

SALLY. But the thing is, you don’t know about black women and their hair. You don’t know about how much work it is, the chemicals they use to perm it, ”good” hair and “bad” hair, about the pressure black women are under to have “white” hair, things like that. Think about Janiece’s hair. There are a lot of things she’d like to do to her hair, but she can’t, because she knows people wouldn’t take her seriously as a professional. And I’m not saying you did that deliberately, what you said about black women and their hair, I think you were trying to say something nice and to include Janiece in the conversation. But… if you really want women of color to come to the SWT meetings, you are going to have to – and I mean all of you – you’re going to have to talk about your experience as white women, and not talk about “all” women.

THEE. I had black friends in school. They talked about their hair. Hell, in the 70s, they all had Afro’s out to here.

SALLY. Yes, but also, you said it like you were trying to say something nice to Janiece, like you wanted to, I don’t know, praise her and make up for years of people calling black hair “dirty” and ugly.

THEE. I was saying what I thought was the truth. Look, I don’t look at Janiece and say, oh, she’s black, so I can’t say certain things to her, or, oh, she’s African-American, so she’s fragile. When it comes to SWT, when it comes to work, I don’t see her as black at all. I see her as a colleague, as an employee, and I just want everybody to get their work done.

SALLY. But if you ignore someone’s race, you ignore a big part of who they are.

THEE. I’m not ignoring her race.



If you say you don’t see that Janiece is black, you’re saying that you’re dismissing or discounting all of the slights and insults and appropriation and discrimination she’s experienced in her life.

But you are. You’re not doing it deliberately, but you are.




I am not.

I’m not doing anything like that at all.

THEE. I know she’s black. I’m not saying she’s not black. All I want is for Seattle Women in Technology to serve all women in Seattle.

SALLY. And what I’m saying is, maybe it never will. Because Janiece and her friends, all the women of color in Seattle, they don’t want to educate the white women about what they need. They just want to be around people who get it. This is really hard to explain. I’ve had experiences of being a minority that most white people don’t have. I’ve been the only white person at all kinds of gatherings of black people. I’ve been the only white person who was a guest, and the other white people in the room were servers. If you don’t have those experiences, experiences like that, it’s hard to understand.

THEE. God, you are really being smug. Do you know that?

SALLY. Excuse me?

THEE. “I have all these experiences that you don’t have, I know all this stuff that you don’t know, you have to do this and that and the other.” You think I don’t have experience with prejudice? Try this. My dad’s parents didn’t talk to him or to us for 16 years because he married a Greek woman. 16 years! I didn’t meet my grandparents till I was 13. And even then, they discriminated against me because I look “so Greek.” They’ve always been really nice to my brother, because he looks Dutch. They paid for his college, but they wouldn’t give me a dime for mine. I’m still paying off student loans. He used to spend summers at this great house they have, in upstate New York, but I’ve only been there once. They even gave him nicer gifts at Christmas and birthdays. Maybe that sounds petty to you, but when you’re a teenager, it’s a big deal. My dad talked to them over and over, but they still do it. Even now. So don’t tell me I don’t have any experience with prejudice. Because I do.


SALLY. Okay. I didn’t know that. I’m sorry.

THEE. Yeah. Don’t tell me I don’t know anything about prejudice. Because I do.

SALLY. Okay. Well. I don’t know what else to say. I was trying to answer your question. You asked. So I tried to answer.

THEE. I even told Janiece this. She knows I have experience with prejudice.

SALLY. Oh, God. That’s another thing white people do. They say that they have an experience with prejudice so they know what people of color experience.

THEE. I do. I do have / experience with prejudice –

SALLY. Right, so, everywhere you go, people discriminate against you because you’re Greek? Everybody thinks you’re less intelligent / and less qualified and less deserving of a promotion, because you’re Greek?

THEE. It doesn’t have to be everybody! … And you think my grandmother didn’t get that? My grandfather? / Because they sure as hell did.

SALLY. Yes, but they weren’t slaves. Janiece’s ancestors were.

THEE. See? I told you it was all about slavery.

SALLY. It’s not about slavery! It’s about the here and now.

THEE. You just brought up slavery!

SALLY. It’s about the fact that you say you’ve experienced discrimination, / but you still don’t understand Janiece’s experience.

THEE. I have experienced discrimination!

SALLY. Well, it sure as hell hasn’t helped you understand Janiece any better.

THEE. I’m trying, but all I get is people telling me I’m racist!

SALLY. Nobody’s calling you racist!

     (The WAITRESS has come up.)

WAITRESS. How you guys doing? Can I get you something?

THEE. No. I’m fine.

SALLY. No. Thank you.

WAITRESS. Would you like your check?

THEE. Yes.

SALLY. Yes. Thank you.

WAITRESS. I’ll be right back.

     (WAITRESS exits. Silence.)

SALLY. Look. I’m sorry I assumed you didn’t know anything about prejudice. I think it’s a great idea to make SWT inclusive. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you.

THEE. You’re backpedaling.

SALLY. I’m just trying to say I’m sorry.
     Of course I’m backpedaling. I do work for you.

THEE. I hate it when people backpedal.

SALLY. Well, sometimes you don’t make it easy to talk to you.

THEE. I get frustrated when people are being all “Seattle.”

SALLY. It’s not just that we’re being “Seattle,” it’s also that we work for you.

THEE. I do not ever take advantage of the fact that you’re my employee.


THEE. If Janiece and her friends would be happier having a Black Seattle Women in Technology group, that’s fine. I think I’ve had enough of trying to help. (Sincerely.) I wish them luck in finding enough black women to make a group.
     How can I understand these things if nobody will tell me? I really am asking.

SALLY. I tried. Just now. And don’t tell me I called you racist, because I didn’t.

THEE. Okay. Sorry. I was… I was angry.
     Are there books? Web sites? Anything?

SALLY. There are books you could read. Web sites, I don’t know.

THEE. I’ll try Alta Vista.
     Could you recommend some books?

SALLY. Sure. Okay. I’ll send you an e-mail with a list.

THEE. Thanks. I’ll read them. I don’t know when I’ll find the time, but I’ll read them.
     Maybe I can ask Janiece again after I read them.

SALLY. I think you really have to – and I’m just saying this, I’m not saying you don’t have experience with prejudice, I’m just saying I think you have to have certain experiences being the only one of your race in a gathering, or being around mostly people of another race. Those are the kinds of experiences I had, and that was the only way I really learned. It’s like what Mr. Washington said, we’re like fish who don’t know that we’re in water.

THEE. Yeah, I remember. Okay, how can I have those experiences?

SALLY. That’s kind of tricky. Most people can’t have the experiences I had. I guess the best thing would be to go to a black church.

THEE. Okay, I could go to a black church. I’ll look in the Yellow Pages. Is it okay to just show up?

SALLY. Actually, it’s not okay to go just to get the experience. When white people do that, people often feel like they’re on display, or they’re in a zoo.

THEE. Then I really don’t know what to do.

SALLY. If you really want to find out what it’s like, you could come with me to the church I go to. If I invited you, if you were my guest, it would be okay.

THEE. If you ever feel like asking me – and it wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t – I’d like to go.

SALLY. Okay. I only go the first Sunday of every month. I’ll let you know.


SALLY. (Speaking of the waitress.) I think she’s forgotten us.

THEE. Why can’t people have the experiences you had? If I can ask.

SALLY. I was married to a black man for five years.

THEE. You were? Wow. I didn’t know that.

SALLY. So, going to his family’s church, social events, celebrations, this was in South Carolina? I was always the only white person there.

THEE. Wow.

SALLY. Yeah.





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One Response to How can white people talk to other white people about race? #2

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