When it comes to race, Audrey Thompson says, whites tend to see themselves as "with it," but often even the most enlightened are out of touch, despite their good intentions.
"White folks tend to be judges," Thompson, a white woman and University of Utah professor in the Department of Education, Culture and Society, said of race issues.
"We tend to assume that we know best," she said. "We tend to assume that we get it. ... As it turns out, most of us are not very good judges about anything."
However, speaking Monday at a U. Diversity Week event, Thompson said that unlike other races or ethnicities, whiteness is something that can be taken for granted, an "unmarked category."
As an example she points to the presidential race. While people are talking about the significance of a potential black or woman president, no one asks, "Are we ready for a white president?"
"You will find yourself marking race and gender," she said. "When a category is marked it becomes explanatory."
As a way to explore their own perceptions, she encouraged audience members of all races at her speech Monday to attend an upcoming presentation of "N*W*C: The Race Show," a show that uses humor and emotion to take on racial slurs, stereotypes and the concept of race.
Miles Gregley, Rafael Agustin and Allan Axibal, who wrote and perform the play, say they drew upon their own experiences to create the show, which blends theater, hip-hop, stand-up comedy and slam poetry.
In a statement, the creators say it "traces the origins and evolution of three derogatory terms that shaped our lives and took the place of a genuine understanding of our distinct cultures. In doing this show we hope to de-power these words for ourselves and our audiences."
Thompson warned that if people go see the play they may feel anxiety about when to laugh. She suggested that how people respond to humor is telling of their own perceptions, adding, "We have to own our own feelings."
She drew upon her own experience when a co-worker of color chided her for making fun of a white colleague who had suggested he didn't want to see a person of color fill a particular post. That colleague used an example of a white speaker who at times had white audience members laughing, while the non-white spectators were quiet, to say, "you're not seeing it as painful."
White people, she said, see things differently because they don't want to see their own biases. She used her grandmother, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as an example.
Her grandmother, who wasn't supposed to be smoking at all, had told her that ladies never smoke while walking. In doing so, her grandmother created an alibi for her behavior.
"She talked about other women," Thompson said, explaining that her grandmother would sit lady-like in a chair and smoke, yet criticize women who walked down the street while smoking.
In the same way, she said, white people tend to create alibis for themselves when looking at race issues.
"We frame ourselves as innocent," she said. "We frame someone else as more problematic."
If you go ...
WHAT: "N*W*C: The Race Show," a dialogue on language and respect
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2-3 at Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle in Salt Lake City; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7-8 at Peery's Egyptian Theater, 2415 Washington Blvd. in Ogden