The whistling is all around you — if you listen

June 4, 2020

Here is a quick story to illustrate what awareness of racism looks like in a well-intentioned but insufficiently attentive white guy.

In 2014 or 2015, I read Claude Steele’s book “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us And What We Can Do.” The title refers to a black graduate student (Brent Staples, now of the New York Times) who would whistle classical music to make his presence seem less threatening to white people on the streets of Chicago.

At the time, my reaction to this anecdote was:
* Yes, racism is real, important, and tragic.
* What an efficient, clever way of putting everyone at ease and avoiding conflict!

Note that my reaction did NOT include the following:
* What a shame that this innocent black guy had to take it upon himself to calm everyone else.
* Gee, I wonder whether such defense mechanisms are common among people of color?

Now fast-forward to the present. George Floyd has just become the latest unarmed, nonthreatening black man to be killed by out-of-control police officers. I come across the article It Does Not Matter if You are Good by R. Eric Thomas. And some more grim realities finally start to sink in:
* Whistling Vivaldi, in the metaphorical sense, is VERY common among people of color, and especially among black men.
* It’s deeply unfair that potential victims of racism should have to whistle as a means of protecting themselves.
* No matter how loud or how tuneful the whistling is, it doesn’t always save you.

This reminds me of another metaphor — one that reveals the seemingly cheerful opening of Steele’s title to maybe not be so cheerful after all.

“Whistling in the wind” is an old phrase referring to an action that is utterly ineffectual.

Enough whistling!


One comment

  1. Great post, Greg!

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