Is race relevant to this anecdote?


Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind” (1939)
(Click to enlarge.)


On Friday, I listened to a speech by Richard Mouw, president until recently of Fuller Theological Seminary in California and a very prominent Evangelical theologian for whom I have great respect.  (I’ll be reporting on my impressions from his speech and from a subsequent panel discussion as soon as I get around to it.)


He told an amusing story about our frailty and our persistent inability to live up to our highest aspirations.  He is the author of a book about “Christian civility.”  As he was thinking about its second edition, somebody reminded him that civility is needed not merely in large and weighty matters but in small, mundane ones.  So he added that to revisions.  And yet, shortly after the revised book was published, he fell short of his own resolution:


He was returning a rental car in a distant American city, and arrived rather late to the airport rental car facility.  But not quite late enough to have incurred a penalty.  He pulled into the return lane and then stood there by the vehicle, with mounting impatience. while the attendant who should have been receiving the car chatted with a customer about nothing in particular.  By the time the employee got to him, he really was late.


“I’m going to have to assess a penalty,” said the employee, “because you’re returning the car late.”


“But I was here on time,” Mouw told him.


“Sorry.  I can’t help it.  I can only go by the rules.”


“But,” Dr. Mouw sputtered, “it’s your fault.  You were shooting the breeze with the other customer and you made me late.  I’m not going to pay.  You pay.”


They went back and forth and back and forth, neither giving an inch.


The rental car employee’s middle-aged African American supervisor noticed the row and came over to find out what the problem was.  After she had heard both sides, she sent the underling to take care of somebody else.


“You don’t have to pay,” she told Professor Mouw.


“You’re darn right I don’t have to pay.  It wasn’t my fault.  And I’m not going to pay!”


“You don’t have to pay,” she said again.


“Of course I don’t have to pay!”


“Honey,” she said, “you need a hug.”


And she gave him one.


Now, the really important thing is that we’ve all — or, anyway, most of us — been there.  We’re human.  Such things happen.  We feel abused, wronged, unjustly treated.  And we won’t stand for it.  Even after it’s become apparent that, actually, we won’t have to stand for it.  We all, in other words, fall short of our own ideal of how we ought to behave.  In multiple ways.


But my question right now is, Do the race, age, and gender of the supervisor add anything to this story?  Dr. Mouw expressly mentioned that it was a middle-aged Afro-American woman.


I think her gender and race add a lot to the story.  They make it believable.  I can easily picture her and imagine her action.  And I would have a considerably harder time “seeing” this story had she been a white Episcopalian from the Midwest or an Italian-American in New Jersey or a Mormon lady of Scandinavian heritage living along the Wasatch Front.


Some will eagerly brand me a racist for this, but the fact is that I think this kind of woman — wise, kind-hearted, and sometimes fairly blunt — is a human treasure.  However, she seems to me to be a very specific type.  Not completely fungible, as it were.


Does anybody out there disagree?


Is this a harmful stereotype?  Should Professor Mouw have suppressed mention of her race?  Should I?


Posted from Park City, Utah



"ISIS opens new front in Egypt"
When will the super volcano under Yellowstone erupt again?
Happy Independence Day!
New Testament 194
  • CaliBornUtahnByChoice

    From a political point of view I would omit race. Isn’t relevant. Skinny northern older ladies give hugs, so would less skinny, further south, younger ladies. I can see my dear friend Virgie (African descent from Akron) doing this and my Aunt Mable (Scandinavian descent from Cali) doing it as well. But, as a story teller I’d put it in. I love character details and they give a warmth to the story. In the end, we’re too darn sensitive on this issue — and maybe for good reason that I hope will one day be gone.

  • MormonDem

    “However, she seems to me to be a very specific type.”

    The “type” you’re looking for, I believe, is *stereotype.*

    If you can “easily picture her and imagine her action,” and describe her as “this kind of woman,” who is of a “very specific type,” it means that the inclusion of race in the story resonated with you because it evoked one of a limited number of stock “charming nostalgic black person” stereotype characters in your inventory. In fact, I found your description of your reaction to the inclusion of race in the story rather more racially problematic that the inclusion of race in the story, because your description reinforces and celebrates a stereotype; Professor Mouw’s inclusion of race in the story is just an observational description. Not particularly necessary, but it doesn’t really try to essentialize some kind of “blackness.” But I’m afraid your description of how easily the mention of her race pulled up a stock “sassy sweet black lady” character–”this kind of woman”–from your brain’s central casting office undermines the intent of this entire post.

    (That does make me curious, though: which “very specific types” of white people are easy for you to conjure if all you have to go on is their race and a couple of observed actions? Is there a “this kind of [white] woman” that, based on a similar amount of information to that found in this story, you would also call a “human treasure”?)

    • DanielPeterson

      Thanks for your response. I was curious whether I would receive a specimen of this type of reply. And I did!

      Your note plainly views me as a “type,” too, which enables you, presumably on the basis of little or no personal acquaintance with me, to write very confidently about my brain functions and my limited stock of mental categories.

      Again, I appreciate and have profited from your comment.

      • MormonDem

        Dr. Peterson, you said: “Your note plainly views me as a “type,” too, which enables you, presumably on the basis of little or no personal acquaintance with me, to write very confidently about my brain functions and my limited stock of mental categories.”

        I made no extrapolations beyond what you wrote in your post. I invoked no “white racist” stereotype. I didn’t make any claims about your personality beyond what you revealed of it in the post. I didn’t reach beyond my grasp and engage in any brain-reading. I just looked at your words on the screen and said “Here’s what those words amount to.”

        Are you really protesting that you didn’t invoke a stereotype? I mean, if you want to defend the invocation of stereotype (as Thad did in his comment), fine. But are you really taking umbrage at my pointing out that part of the reason the racial part of the story was appealing to you was that it resonated with a black stereotype? I’m sorry, but you can’t use phrases like “very specific types,” “this kind of woman,” “I can easily picture her,” etc. etc., and then complain that someone points out your invocation of stereotype. This kind of language is *exactly what the word stereotype means.*

        I don’t have to go past your words and imagine things in your brain in order to arrive at that. Now, if I’d said “Dr. Peterson, white male Mormons like you are *always* saying X, Y, and Z when they talk about race,” I’d have been putting you into a “type.” But I did no such thing. (Indeed, I would personally take umbrage at someone doing so, because I am a white male Mormon who works in an academic discipline in which it could be very common for people to try to extrapolate lots of things about me from my being white, male, and Mormon.) I simply said that when someone uses certain kinds of language, it reveals a discourse of stereotypes, and that stereotypes can be problematic.

        More generally speaking, though, as a practical matter: it is almost always a bad idea for people, especially Mormons, to get themselves into a situation where they have to explain why what they are doing or saying is not racist. Explaining why we’re not racist is just about the most counterproductive type of explanation Mormons can engage in. When race is no longer an issue for Mormons and Mormonism, we won’t have to engage in explanations to that effect, because it will be apparent.

        • kgbudge

          “I made no extrapolations beyond what you wrote in your post”


        • DanielPeterson

          It will be necessary to deny that one is a racist so long as the mere mention of race draws implicit accusations of racism, as my mention of race did from you.

          • MormonDem

            A 500+ word blog post stretches any reasonable definition of the word “mention.” Dr. Mouw did indeed “merely mention” race, and I took little issue with it. But you did not “merely mention” race.

          • DanielPeterson

            Keep it coming! You’ll soon be completely candid.

          • MormonDem

            You’d be pleased as punch if I’d just call you a racist, so you could point at me and say “Look he called me a racist! See what I’m talking about?” and then you wouldn’t have to answer any of the issues I raised in my original comment. You’d have your reverse-racism persecution complex confirmed and could call it a day.

            I should have realized from the beginning that when you ended your essay by explicitly soliciting input about the racial sensitivity or insensitivity of Dr. Mouw, or the racial sensitivity or insensitivity of your reading of Dr. Mouw, you weren’t really interested in anyone’s answer. You were just hoping to draw fire in order to have a wound to submit as evidence. (My pre-teen son uses a similar strategy when he goads his older brother to the breaking point in order to demonstrate unequivocally how mean his brother is.)

            I’m not saying you’re racist. In fact, I have read enough of your writings to be quite sure you are not. But it’s apparent from the way you write about race that you don’t understand racism. Misunderstanding racism is not the same as being racist. If you were racist, you’d discriminate against someone in the workplace or tell racially prejudicial jokes or forbid your kids from playing with black kids–and I’m certain that you’d never do any of those things. Because you’re not a racist.

            But I don’t think you understand racism. I think, based on your words, that you underestimate the problems associated with essentializing through stereotype. I think you tend to be dismissive of present-day claims of racial injustice or racial insensitivity, and that you bemoan the the burden of “political correctness” as a problem more grave and immediate to you than actual racism is to minorities.

            I will not give you the satisfaction of being called a racist, because I don’t think you are a racist. But I most definitely think you just don’t get it when it comes to racism.

          • DanielPeterson

            I class you as the liberal judgmental type.

            And the longer you go on, the more you flesh it out.

            Thanks for your posts!

          • MormonDem

            I’m happy to contribute to the smooth operation of the Rube Goldberg self-congratulation machine you’ve got chugging away here.

          • DanielPeterson

            Good stuff. Fascinating.

            Please continue to comment.

          • Cynthia L.

            “I don’t think you understand racism. I think, based on your words, that you underestimate the problems associated with essentializing through stereotype. I think you tend to be dismissive of present-day claims of racial injustice or racial insensitivity, and that you bemoan the the burden of “political correctness” as a problem more grave and immediate to you than actual racism is to minorities.”

            Exactly right, as Peterson’s silly taunting that follows for several comments further demonstrates. Nobody who understands racism or understands that it is a serious problem would treat it so lightly. Peterson may not agree with what you’ve said here, but it was serious and reasoned, and even if it weren’t, playing childish games is beneath this topic. Disappointing.

          • DanielPeterson

            I live, it seems, to disappoint a certain type of person. And I’m happy to do it. If I can give them reason to feel pleased with themselves, to recognize their superior moral sensitivity and insight, I’ve justified my existence to at least some small degree.

    • Thad Gillespie

      Stereotypes are not always bad. Rather than storing all possible combinations of physical, cultural, and character traits, our minds automatically make categories to simplify things. They are approximations based on limited knowledge, and they have great utility and reasonable accuracy, since they are based on our previous experiences.

      Of course, there are harmful stereotypes, but I would argue that the real harm comes from being unwilling to allow modifications to our preconceived categories when we gain more knowledge about them. When we refuse to see someone as a real person and only treat them as a caricature.

  • Jeff Elhardt

    Dr. P is looking for 60+ comments on this one, folks. Of course it will be the same cast of ‘caractors’, same opinions and argument. I want to post early and get my snarky reply out of the way. After this we will return to the less commented posts, concerts and Book of Abraham discoveries.

  • Jeremy Alleman

    My only reason for including race would be for the following:
    When we read about other people in books or newstories, or hear about them from other people, if we don’t hear any description about them, we attribute to them our own characteristics (for good or for ill).
    As an illistration, I remember that Orson Scott Card wrote a story about a woman, and give no physical description of her. When his editor complanined about this lack of description, he asked her to describe what she pictured when she thought of the character. She described herself.

    If the only reason we give for a description like this is to show that those that are different (phisically) from us can show the same kind of compasion and emotion as us, then we can relize that ultimatly, we are all fundamentally human, and deserving of respect.
    I do understand that people judge based on physical appearence (and not just on race), and that we make snap descisions on people based on what we are taught, exposed to, or experience in the past. However, we need to make allowences for others to be different from what we assume them to be, and to show us how they are individuals.

  • Ray Agostini

    “Is this a harmful stereotype? Should Professor Mouw have suppressed mention of her race? Should I?”

    Given the context, I don’t see any harm at all. Did anyone object to the recent photo and associated article about an “Orthodox Jew” and a “black man”? (Also noted on this blog)

    Would this story have had any impact at all without the race/religious descriptors? If, say, it was an Orthodox Jew and a Mormon missionary, would it have been newsworthy? So what is it about an Orthodox Jew and a black man that makes the story so poignant? *Our* stereotypes?

  • RaymondSwenson

    I cannot imagine a Japanese woman (like my mother) who grew up in the classic Japanese culture of constraint, having both the emotional intelligence and openness to physical contact with a stranger that was needed to make that disarming gesture. I cannot imagine a German woman doing it either. If he had described a Japanese woman doing it, the narrative would not have verisimilitude.

    • Lucy Mcgee

      “I cannot imagine a German woman doing it either.”

      My parents opened a restaurant in Pinedale Wyoming in 1954. Both immigrated from Austria; my dad in the the late 20′s, my mom in the early 50′s. Their restaurant nearly failed because they spoke with an accent and were surely once part of the Nazi state, the locals rumored. People came up with all sorts of theories that my parents were buying beef from Argentina, employing Nazi criminals, etc, etc. This went on for several years when all was nearly lost. Then came three sisters, friends of family from Kaufbeuren (a city in southern Germany), who wanted to experience the “wild west” and cowboys. They gave out hugs and smiles to every patron. Within a few months, they melted the hearts of even the most strident haters and the business was off and running, with such eventual success that no US Senator, Congressman, or well known personality would not stop and partake of the best cuisine Pinedale had ever known. Ernest Hemingway signed autographs on napkins at the restaurant. When my parents retired in 1972, people begged them to stay. What would they do without the lovingly prepared food or amazing service? Who would prepare the szegediner goulash, or spätzle or freshly ground hamburgers with home cut french fries (dad butchered his own meat twice a week)?


    • rameumptom

      I often think it is more cultural than race. And culture often follows racial lines. Spending a lot of time in our Spanish congregation, my wife has gotten used to lots of hugs from the sisters there. Yet, in our own ward, many of the members are highly suspicious of that kind of behavior. It is neither right nor wrong, just different, and all based on cultural expectations and norms. I’m sure Richard Mouw would have been disarmed by a hug from anyone, it is just that the hug was in this woman’s inventory of cultural tools, and she used it effectively.

      • DanielPeterson

        I completely agree.