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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Is This Workplace Racism?

Several years ago, I worked for a small family run manufacturing business, with less than 30 employees.  It was run by two college buddies, who were the president and vice-president of the company.  The company also employed the president’s son and daughter.  For the most part, the employees were respectful, cordial and we all usually got along. I am actually grateful to the company for hiring me straight out of vocational school and giving me an opportunity, with no related work experience.  However, there was this one unpleasant experience which never left my memory of that place, even after all these years.

While I was a new employee with the company, I was having lunch in the company break room one day.  The company vice-president walked in and sat at the table near me and we started to have this dialog. He was a White, Canadian guy in his late forties- early fifties.  The conversation went from the getting-to-know-you type of stuff, to him talking about his high school aged son going off to college.  He boasted about his son getting accepted into MIT but in the same breath, he expressed concerns about the costs of his son’s college tuition.  He further went on to say that he didn’t want to take out any student loans but that he may not have any other choice.  His son had not been awarded enough money in scholarships and grants to cover his full tuition.

Now, this is where the conversation took a strange turn.  He asked me what high school I went to and I told him.  Then, he stated something to the effect that he didn’t believe that anyone who graduated from that school could ever get accepted into MIT.  I was taken aback by that statement and it felt like he was simultaneously insulting me and making major generalizations about the student body of the school.  I am quite certain that he understood that this school was not a high standard public school.  I said as much in a previous post about public education.

But, then I feel that he was wrong for making a blanket statement and presuming that anyone graduating from that school is not smart enough or resourceful enough to attend an Ivy league or top-tier college or university.  Never mind the fact that there were exceptional, alumni who chose to go above and beyond with their curricula and normal course of studies.  And just completely ignore the fact that you can’t know where a person is going in their life just by examining their current circumstances and from whence they came (poverty, homelessness, etc.). 

I challenged this man, asking him what would make him think that.  He was silent for a few seconds and couldn’t come up with any logical reasons for his statements. He said some other stuff about Affirmative Action that exposed some of his political and social leanings as well. He talked about how he didn’t think that it was fair that poor people get free money to go to college. 

I suspect that what he really wanted to say was that he didn’t think it fair that so many Blacks and other “protected classes” of people were getting financial aid, while more “deserving” and “capable” White people are deprived of their opportunity to get an education.  That’s what he really thought but couldn’t be so blunt about it. 

Now, I could be wrong but I had a very strong suspicion that he is a racist and/or bigot after that interaction. He never used any blatant racial slurs or derogatory statements towards racial and ethnic minorities.  However, a person doesn’t always have to be blunt or direct about their opinions on certain matters.  I am pretty good at reading between the lines.

This was not my first encounter with a person who has racist ideals but it further confirmed to me that some White people just don’t have very high expectations of ethnic minorities.  Some White people seem to think that they are culturally and intellectually superior by default.  A lot of racism and discrimination these days, is very subtle or covert and that is what makes it insidious and pernicious.

Another thing that I found bizarre, is that he complimented me on my English.  WTF?  Was he expecting for me to attempt to communicate with persons outside of my culture in Black English Vernacular?  I can visualize that scene right now on a meme with the caption:  White people be like…“Wow, a real live Black person speaking proper English!” And, then the guy kept trying to talk to me in French after I repeatedly told him that I am not Haitian and that I don’t speak French or Creole.  LOL!

Now, the company president’s son, daughter and others were in the break room while this exchange took place. I glanced over at these people as the vice-president spoke.  They either sighed in exasperation, rolled their eyes or shook their heads.  It was like they were non-verbally saying, “That guy is a real asshole!”

At that point in my career, I didn’t feel like I was in any position to further challenge him and call him out on his bullshit.  I was trying to keep my job and get past my probation period.  I was definitely in no position (financially) to tell him to go fuck himself. Later on that day, the president’s daughter, Kris pulled me to the side and told me to just ignore the vice-president because he’s an idiot.  I took her advice.

Ironically, there was a White male, Hill-Billy-looking employee who worked for that company, who was in fact a racist.  We didn’t know it at the time, though.  I just thought that he was a little weird because he would always stare at me funny.  Sometimes, I’d speak to him and he would either grunt or not respond.  So, I usually acted as if he didn’t exist.  Some of my co-workers gossiped about him saying that the man is racist.  I just sort of brushed it off, not giving it much thought.

Well, several months after the gossip spread, a co-worker (who happened to be White), showed up to work one day with a clipped newspaper article.  He said, “I told you guys he was racist!”.  The article detailed how the man had set his own yard on fire in protest to the amount African-Americans that were moving into the neighborhood.  When he purchased his home, the neighborhood was mostly White but years later, shifted towards a more mixed-neighborhood.  I actually lived in some condos just a few blocks from his home.  Funny how life plays out sometimes.

Every human has his or her own prejudices.  It’s not quite right, but it is part of the human condition. But, this whole racism thing is just so foreign to me and I don’t understand it. Most racism comes from a person’s upbringing and media propaganda.   I wasn’t raised to be a racist or bigot.  My godparents were White people and some of my father’s best friends were White people. When I was growing up, I never heard my parents express any hatred or malice towards a person of any other race or culture.  Mistrust- yes.  Hatred- never.  So it is just not in my blood.   

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