Sunday blogging against racism #21a–true tales from my former workplace

I wrestled mightily with the decision to leave my good-paying job at the phone company two years ago. Sometimes I still wonder about my timing (that I would have left was, I am certain, inevitable eventually, but sometimes I wonder if I should have held out a little bit longer), but in another sense, I just knew that it was time to go.

hmm. none of what I’ve said thus far has anything to do with what I’m about to say . . . except for the fact that I am occasionally reminded of the rather “unique” culture of that place . . .

I was reminded anew this weekend when a friend related a story of a recent incident at my old workplace. Apparently, there was some minor issue between two employees, and after the one woman involved (who is black) walked away, the other woman (white) said, “If she was hanging from an apple tree, I wouldn’t bother cutting her down.”

(yes, this is hearsay, blah blah blah–and perhaps if I hadn’t heard so many similar comments myself during my time there, I would question this account, but I can assure you that such comments were far from uncommon in that place.)

 There are two aspects of this that are particularly maddening to me:

1) It was another employee who overheard this comment and went to management with it. Apparently, the manager who received the complaint is friendly with the person who (“allegedly”) made this remark. The issue was eventually brought to a higher level of management, but although an obligatory statement was made about this being “unacceptable”, apparently one manager also encouraged the person who reported the incident to contact the company’s EEO department for more help.

I am quite familiar with the tendency of the management there to sweep such things under the rug, to fall back on, “but it’s a ‘he-said, she-said’; there were no witnesses.” (They could get away with this in large part because of the reluctance of the other employees to admit that they had heard anything.) From what I understand, the woman the comment was directed towards (although she did not actually hear it said) is reluctant to pursue this and apparently doesn’t want to “make waves”. BUT THIS IS NO TIME TO BE MAKING FLIPPANT REMARKS ABOUT PEOPLE HANGING FROM TREES! (not that there’s ever a “right” time for such comments, but in light of the events of the past year, such a comment is even more egregious, and I don’t care WHO claims that they didn’t hear anything, it’s still NOT okay to sweep this under the rug. It was like this when I was there also–that whole mentality of, “if we don’t talk about it, it will go away.”

2) I would be remiss if I presented this story without exploring my own complicity in the matter, and the fact that it is so much easier for me to express outrage about blatant, “out there”/”not me” racism than to examine the mess that lurks within my own heart. This would be a perfect example of how we so easily get stuck in Power¹–the ways that racism hurts people of color–and avoid looking at the exponential damage that racism causes in Power² (the ways that I benefit as a white person, such as the fact that my manager, who is likely to be from the same majority culture as I am, will more easily dismiss complaints against me) and Power³ (the fact that racism ultimately destroys us all.)

“True confessions” time–in my first year at that same job, I made an offhand remark about a name I saw on an order I was writing, and a colleague of mine was very upset by what I said. We were called into a room to discuss it, and I cried hysterically, maybe partly because of my ingrained fear of “being in trouble” that goes back to my elementary school days, but more so because here I was, this supposed “good” white person (I’m not sure I had the language at the time to refer to myself as an “anti-racist”) and I had been (stupidly) insensitive. The comment I had made (I won’t give details here, but suffice to say that it had to do with hair. If you really want the specifics, let me know and I will e-mail you privately) hit a nerve for this person in a way that I would not have predicted, and I was so angry at myself for having been so thoughtless.

I think it helped somewhat that she could see that I was so clearly grieved by what I had done; this colleague quickly forgave me, and in talking about it later, she told me that she had gone home at lunchtime and talked to her father about it, and he had told her not to say anything. Apparently, he told her that “these things are going to happen” and that she had to learn to take such things in stride. She was not willing to accept that, however (for which I am grateful), and chose instead to speak up, as her gut was telling her to do.

She did me a huge favor that day as well. It doesn’t matter how much I want to cry “not me!” when it comes to racism; I still need to be reminded that it really IS about me. It’s about all of us.


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