Letters to My Tutor…

My dearest Simone,

I will continue with that conversation concerning white people on TV by describing a  situation with which I had some difficulty. My interlocutor appeared to be a traditionally-minded middle class white woman. She was talking to me about her home life and detailing a list of things she does for her husband and children with undertones of passive-aggressive complaining set to a positive and bouncy beat. I recognized the form of her speech. I’ve heard it many times in movies and on TV. It’s a speech that I associate with a common way that middle class white women speak about being wives and mothers. And while I recognized that speech, I do not have the lived experience of hearing women talk this way around me my whole life growing up. I have had little access to the traditional grouping of responses to this speech.

The women with whom I would tend to be friends are the types to have responded that this woman’s husband and children could learn to be more appreciative of the things she does for them. The TV and movies that I watch that depict middle class white women giving this type of speech also tend to have this type of commentary. And this one type of response overwhelmingly makes up the mass of my experience with this stereotypical speech. Now, I knew enough to know that my interlocutor was not seeking this type of response, but it was the first one that came to mind for me and I did not immediately know what the alternatives were. And so, I smiled politely without giving any significant verbal response. There was tension.

Quite some time later, I believe I was able to figure out the response my interlocutor expected. I was to have complemented her on what a good mother she was and to have confirmed that there were all these things that we women know are important to do and that these things were part of our special intuition as women (an intuition that men and children didn’t share). Given the level of tension following my polite smile in response, I believe that my interlocutor felt that she had given me clear and obvious conversational cues to complement her mothering and I had purposely decided to not do so.

And even if that weren’t exactly the case in this situation, it’s representative of a general difficulty I’ve encountered more so in Southern California than anywhere else I’ve lived or visited – being in the midst of a conversation in which my interlocutor expects a very specific type of response and believes that this response is obvious and natural. Missing these types of conversational cues can significantly affect how others view how nice you are or how well you get along with the group. I’ve found that asking for clarification in these situations usually meets with a negative response particularly with women. Generally speaking, women are expected to know more of these learned cultural conversational interactions than men, and the expectation of this level of knowledge is part of why I believe the demands on a black woman assumed/expected to be middle class white are more than those on a black man assumed/expected to be middle class white.

In my personal experiences with cross-cultural communications, such as occurred during my time in law school in London, my women friends who spoke English as a second language expressed gratitude that I took care in my use of these types of learned cultural conversational cues. Many of these do not reach the level of idiomatic expression that would be found in a language text, but nevertheless are difficult to navigate without specific knowledge of the language culture.

Yours truly,