Thinking Out Loud – Ep: 11 – A White Guy With a White Eraser: Learning How to Play Fair

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TRANSCRIPT:

Andrew J. Mason:

This is Thinking Out Loud with Dr. Joe Currier. Episode 11: A White Guy With a White Eraser Learning How to Play Fair. Welcome to Thinking Out Loud with Dr. Joe Currier. My name’s Andrew J. Mason, and this is the show where we hit the pause button on life, head to the locker room for some life-changing halftime inspiration, and then zoom back in and grab the tactics direct from Dr. Joe’s playbook to pull it all together when we’re on the field. Today, Dr. Joe expands the concept of white privilege with the idea of a white eraser. He shares a bit of his personal history and offers personal reflections that can only be discovered by looking in the mirror and listening. Here’s Dr. Joe,

Dr. Joe Currier:

You and I may look the other way at times and we may argue over the call on a playing field, but the overwhelming majority of kids learn very early on in life to play fair. The same does not apply to the racial imbalance and injustice that are quite obvious and screaming for change in the American culture, or should I say American society. In this podcast, I want to be clear that I am only speaking for myself. You decide for yourself. The decisions I make are deeply rooted in the stories I make up in my mind. In fact, I would like to propose a key social psychological principle, namely that human behavior, why we do what we do, is to a very large degree determined by the stories we make up in our minds. Our core beliefs centered on our primary needs, beliefs driving needs. These are the two key forces that cause us to lean one way versus the other in the decision making process.

Dr. Joe Currier:

I also propose a second corollary principle, something that lies naturally within the stories we make up in our minds. Namely, there are usually built-in lies in our stories, not conscious decisions to deceive people, simply misperceptions, misinterpretations, misunderstandings, ego defenses that protect us from the truths we struggle to deny, and frankly the white lies we tell in order to justify our behavior that we know on some level to be inauthentic, untrue, otherwise self-serving at the expense of others.

Dr. Joe Currier:

A term that has been repeated lately to explain the racial divide is white privilege. To be honest, my first impression was negative. It felt offensive. It seemed inaccurate. Why? Because I felt trivialized, misunderstood, and frankly undervalued for my best effort in life. The story I made up in my mind was that no one gave me anything. I earned it on my own with the sacrifice and support of my family.

Dr. Joe Currier:

One of the built-in lies in my story came out of the false belief that opportunity knocked for anyone with drive and dedication to succeed. Shame on you if you didn’t open the door. I am now really understanding that most black doors were locked, bolted, and padlocked with big signs in bold white letters that read Stay Out. Keep back.

Dr. Joe Currier:

I am the grandson of Sicilian immigrants who fled the patron system in search of one thing: opportunity. They were under-educated but anxious to learn. When they arrived on these shores, the men worked as laborers on construction sites while my grandmother, a true entrepreneur, eventually opened a small grocery store. They worked from sun up to late into the night. Our grocery store customers were our neighbors. We fed them and they supported us in the back of the store. Where we hung out, when we weren’t working, the family spoke mostly in the native tongue.

Dr. Joe Currier:

However, my brothers and I were told not to speak Italian. I was taught you are an American. This was especially important because remember I was born in the early 1940s. Mussolini was our enemy. My uncles went off to World War II. Our government was not sure if they could trust the sons of Italy, so the young boys were given a rifle and shipped elsewhere. I paid no attention to the fact that black members of our community who helped build this great nation for centuries long before we came here. They were economically running in place. I met no ill will. I was just operating out of ignorance. The words, Guinea bastard, dago, wop, and other Italian putdowns during and after the war were common. We had the neighborhood grocery store in the middle of our red, white, and green neighborhood. The Irish were two blocks over on Elm street. The black families were on Jefferson Street between Elm and Madison. Everyone knew their place.

Dr. Joe Currier:

Well, sort of. I didn’t realize it then, but I not only had white privilege, I also had a white eraser beginning with my name. My name was French. Currier. Courier. They didn’t associate it officially with the grocery store or my grandmother. My dad was French. He was killed when I was four, and with his death, so too went my parental cultural heritage. In those days, I knew nothing of where in France my dad came from or the cultural do’s and don’ts. I didn’t eat French food, I didn’t hear French words spoken, and I certainly didn’t feel French. I felt Italian, but my name and my white skin erased the slurs from otherwise genetic footprints that I carried. I heard about those Guinea Italian bastards, but did not have to stand up and be counted.

Dr. Joe Currier:

I had a choice. I could simply erase whatever didn’t work for me. I was not put out of the economic game because of name or skin color, but I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that my best friend growing up in the inner city of Albany in New York was black. Billy Dixon. I once called him the N-word when we fought like kids fight. I loved him like a brother and I know that he loved me. I look back and I asked myself, “What were you thinking?” The story ahead in my mind back then was it’s just the word. No different than when I heard people call my family names, Guinea and whatever, but I was so wrong. The N-word is so deeply insulting and demeaning. It isn’t the same.

Dr. Joe Currier:

I didn’t realize it then, but I had a white, emotional eraser. My skin color did not give me up. I could play whatever cultural card I wanted. In fact, no one seemed to even care. I had a sort of anonymity as long as I did not do anything outrageous. I carried no verbal accent like my grandparents and no skin color like my dear friend Billy in this black versus white world. I was really not paying attention when Bill told me that he was going to transfer to the public school for high school. He told me that we would not be seeing each other like we had been before. We lived in each other’s homes to this point. I used to laugh when his uncle Moon joked, “What’s that white boy doing in my house?” on my way up to Billy’s room. I thought it was hilarious. No one in his family ever spoke badly about me or showed me anything but love and care. I was part of their family.

Dr. Joe Currier:

They also never spoke about skin color. I never heard the dangers that they faced in the community. It was easy to avoid racial bias in those days. I could just erase it. I was not burdened by Bill’s skin color and the social boundaries that he faced, but Billy was. Bill and I were becoming young men. I was making eyes at girls like teens do. What I failed to see was Bill’s dating options. We went to a Catholic school, one that taught inner city kids the moral right and wrongs, work ethics, and how not to use dangling participles, but they never spoke of race. They didn’t treat Billy differently, but he was different. Bill was the only black boy in my class, one of three African-Americans in the entire school. By the way, did you hear the words black boy? This is an example of my white emotional eraser.

Dr. Joe Currier:

I was not acutely aware of it back then, but over the years, as I listened to how I spoke, I erased the word boy from my vocabulary when referring to a young black person. I’d ask a Caucasian friend, “Hey, how’s that little boy of yours?” But I shifted the question to, “How’s that little man of yours?” when checking in on a black friends or a black associate’s child. So on some level I was listening and learning.

Dr. Joe Currier:

Bill slowly disappeared from my life after going to public high school. I saw him on the gridiron. He was a great athlete. We made the usual necessary lies, and I believe we both meant them when after a game, I’d say, “Hey, we got to get together.” That was a promise. But our entire worlds were moving in different orbits. I joined the United States Marine Corps at 17, he joined the Air Force after high school, and I never saw him again.

Dr. Joe Currier:

The older I got, the more white privilege I gained, but I called it something different in those days. It was the American dream. I had the belief, but now I know it was a false hope that opportunity knocks for one and all. It’s your problem if you don’t answer the call. Be patient with me and please don’t be too quick to judge, but I bristled when I first heard talk of reparations to pay for the suffering and labor of former slaves. I ignorantly equated the treatment that peasants received and the lack of ownership and opportunity faced at the hands of landowners in Sicily. No one ever challenged my beliefs, so I used my white eraser to clean my mental chalkboard.

Dr. Joe Currier:

I was the first to get a college degree in my family. I eventually resigned my commission when it was time as a Marine officer. I had decided to shift my career path, and as I moved on as a psychologist and later as a consultant with professional sports organizations like the Ravens, I often heard how athletics was “my way out.” I assumed that this was because of poverty lines, not racial lines. The story I made up in my mind was that best effort, any best effort, regardless of color, could set a person on a path to success. No, I wasn’t smoking dope, but I sure was acting dopey.

Dr. Joe Currier:

One final example, I could give you more, one other example of white privilege is the mere expression of healthy emotions such as anger. A man that I respect and look up to personally and professionally, not because he stands very tall and physically powerful, it’s because of his character and intelligence. I’m going to leave off his name. I’ll leave him to tell his own experiences.

Dr. Joe Currier:

We were in a conflict situation that caused me to speak my mind, and I walked away with a lot of anger and frustration. I was wondering why my friend didn’t toss in a bit of his emotions, his language, his feelings. He looked upset, but he remained quiet. When I later asked him why he didn’t jump into the argument, he said, “Joe, it’s because I’m a BBM.” In my mind, I had the M. He was a Methodist, and I asked him, “What’s the BB stand for?” I was just a little bit off. My friend smiled and said, “I’m a big black man. Whatever strong emotions, as healthy as they are, whatever strong emotions I share will be misinterpreted as black rage dating back to slave days.” He was correct 100%.

Dr. Joe Currier:

The message in this podcast that I could shoot my mouth off and get pissed off, but if he did it without white privilege to simply air his emotions, healthy emotions like any human being, he could be labeled and perhaps more. I could go on and on from confession and excuses to naivete and misunderstanding, but instead I’d like you to help me. Better yet, I’d like you to join me and join the spirited movement of Black Lives Matter.

Dr. Joe Currier:

I’m going to stop talking and I will be listening to my and sisters, paisans as my grandmother used to call all of our neighbors, black and white. I encourage you to listen. And I’d like to send you on your way with an important model, but first, I’m going to close this podcast with a message. Those who want to look at the cognitive model that I’d like to share can do so after the podcast is complete.

Dr. Joe Currier:

So in ending, please don’t use your white eraser to hide the truth. Please play fair, listen, learn, change what needs to be changed. Let’s do this together. Thank you for your patience and blessings on your way.

Andrew J. Mason:

Dr. Joe. I don’t want this to sound like too elementary of a question, but I think you’ll at least understand where I’m coming from. When somebody doesn’t feel like they’re already a part of the problem, how do they truly really learn to listen? And I suspect that this might have something to do with the stop action that you’ve talked about in other episodes, but would you maybe speak to the idea of how we catch ourselves in assumptions and prejudices? I mean, the nature of assumptions is really that they’re beliefs that we no longer even think about, right?

Dr. Joe Currier:

Andrew, I love your question and your concern. First, I’d ask each of us to look at the stories that we are making up in our mind, each of us. Am I feeling criticized? Blamed? Attacked? Well, I have a question. Are you responsible for the problems and challenges we face? And if so, even in a small way, fix it. By the way, if you are not, fix it. Either way, take a deep breath in, open your mind and your heart. We all have work to do. I’m asking each of us to help achieve a promise. One nation with liberty and just.ice for all. It’s written. It’s in stone. In so many parts of our nation. Every time that any one of us burns bridges rather than builds bridges, when there is tension between the eye and we all are in danger, we especially lose the ability to live a life filled with peace and joy.

Dr. Joe Currier:

Let’s begin by simply listening to each other, first for the data points, all the information available, accompanied by the emotions and the impact. Let’s throw in Covey’s fifth habit, seek first to understand, then to be understood. I believe it’s time for what in business we call straight talk between partners. Carefrontation. Caring enough to share and be open to each other’s ideas, emotions, and the impact we’re experiencing in our communities. I’m not asking you to get caught up in white guilt or black anger. I hope we’re not about struggling to beat anyone over the head with my truth. I’m asking you to be a leader for change a citizen of the world and someone who will stand up to bigotry and demand that we play fair. I’m asking you to be the I in the we. Now would be a great time to begin.

Andrew J. Mason:

You mentioned in this podcast that there’s a model you’d like to share. Do you mind sharing that with us right now?

Dr. Joe Currier:

During the podcast, I mentioned that there are three levels of communication. All conversations are actually three separate, unique, and important conversations. The first is what we call content conversations. These are the data points. Information is exchanged. Facts are provided, often to the point that people get caught in a debate or an argument to prove who is correct. Now, while data and information is always important, it does not build relationships. It can burn bridges rather than build.

Dr. Joe Currier:

The other two conversations that I’m about to share, they build emotional and social bridges. The second is affect communication. They’re emotionally-based interactions, how each person feels in the moment. It’s important to listen to properly identify and engage in each of the four primary emotions. Primary means they are universal. There is happy, sad, fear, and anger. Often we will see that people deflect or hide. They move into a second emotion. We often say that anger is a second emotion because again, it covers up the sensitivity or the vulnerability when fear occurs, or we feel some shame. It’s often we get angry and have a hot reaction to cover our tracks.

Dr. Joe Currier:

The third conversation is the impact conversation, which typically begins with the words, “It feels as if.” “It feels as if you’re talking down to me. Do you think I’m stupid?” A second example: “You’re never on time. It feels as if I’m not important to you.” And last but not least, “Damn it. What do we have to say or do? Black lives matter.”

Dr. Joe Currier:

When you’re communicating, watch all three levels of communication and pay a special attention to what people are feeling and how they’re being impacted regardless. It isn’t about “who is right.” It’s who is willing to be listened to and understood and respected.

Andrew J. Mason:

Unbelievably good. Thank you so much again for listening. My name is Andrew J. Mason, and this was Thinking Out Loud with Dr. Joe Currier. Leadership transformation, growth acceleration.