Yes, I’m supposed to be on vacation. But I have something to say about Charlottesville, so I’m “reclaiming my time,” in the words of the inimitable Maxine Waters. I have a story you might need to hear, a true story about my racist coworker.
For about six months in 1985, I lived in Jacksonville, Florida. I hadn’t yet discovered my calling as a speechwriter, so I worked at a place that churned out forms for retirement plans. People elsewhere in the building plugged paragraphs into documents; I made small, predetermined adjustments and sent the documents to the printer, then collected the printouts and shuffled them off to the next stage.
The system had been designed for two people to do what I did, but the company had a hard time keeping anyone else in the job. Because the work was too boring? Nope. Because the work was too hard.
So I was thrilled when they finally found someone who could handle it. We’ll call her “Misti”—with an i instead of a y at the end because giving her two i’s allows the Misti of our imagination to dot the first i with a star, maybe, and the second with a heart. That was just the kind of ray of sunshine Misti was: perky and petite, always smiling. If you imagine she’s also white and blonde, you’ve got the picture. A high-school cheerleader straight out of central casting.
Misti proved quite capable at her job, so she stuck around awhile, and I was glad to have someone to chat with. I don’t remember what we were talking about that day, only that her next sentence came completely out of the blue. With all the authority an 18-year-old can muster, she announced: “You know, Elaine, the n*****s are trying to take over the world.”
My racist coworker
I don’t know whether I was more shocked by her statement or by the fact that she’d just used the N-word, right there in the office—with our Black colleagues working just a few desks away.
“What…?” It was less a word than a strangled, shocked sound.
“Oh, it’s true,” she replied, in the same chirpy tone she used to describe what she’d brought for lunch. “You always hear them complaining about discrimination. You never hear white folks complaining about discrimination. Do you?”
It’s not easy to render me speechless, but that bit of twisted logic did. Of course, it’s hard to complain about something you never experience. But I didn’t say that. In fact, I don’t think I said anything to Misti. Ever again.
I left town in pretty short order. Hightailed it back to New York, to Brooklyn, where I could imagine that people never thought those kinds of things. Because they certainly never said those kinds of things. Not in polite company. Not around me.
It’s a privilege to walk away
Racism is like that if you’re a white person. It’s a casual remark you can ignore. Change the conversation, leave the room, move out of town and you can believe you’ve left it behind.
I don’t know if I could have changed Misti’s mind back there in Jacksonville in 1985. But I could have given my racist coworker something to think about. I could have introduced her to a different worldview. Instead I left her with her hateful beliefs intact, ready to pass on to any kids she might have in the future. Or, by now, grandkids. That’s three generations of racists I might have prevented. Or maybe not. But the point is I didn’t even try.
Thirty-something years later: Christmas with my relatives, one of whom started a conversation that veered dangerously close to racism. Did I say something? Reader, I did not. I walked out of the room. I felt guilty about it at the time, but a few weeks later I would feel even worse.
My partner was talking to some Black friends of ours, telling them about the experience. I tried to head her off, but she plowed on. I left that room, too. Couldn’t bear to see my friends’ faces when my partner reached what seemed to her like a triumphant conclusion, “…and Elaine just left the room!”
Later I said, “I wish you hadn’t told them that story.”
“Because,” I said, “if I found out they’d heard someone saying disparaging things about LGBT people and all they did was walk away, I would have ripped them a new one.”
Forgive my salty language, but I feel strongly about people who ignore their responsibility as allies. Of course, I have no standing to criticize. As you now know, I’ve walked away too.
I wasn’t actually in Charlottesville
I left Misti behind when I moved out of Jacksonville. But her illogical argument, her strange racist reading of social interactions—those things pop up everywhere. And they’ll persist and spread until we can educate the people who believe them. And, worse, who act on their beliefs.
So no, I wasn’t part of the angry white mob in Charlottesville last weekend. But who knows how many people have crossed paths with my racist coworker in the 30 years since I declined to talk some sense into her? I stood by as she threw a pebble into a dark and ugly lake; the ripples of her hatred have had a long damn time to expand.
Let one racist continue in their ignorant thinking and that thinking will spread exponentially. But engage in thoughtful conversation with a racist—tell a story, speak about your own experience or the experiences of others—and you have a chance to stop the spread of hate. A slim chance, maybe. But that’s still a chance.
We can’t afford to be silent any more. To paraphrase the Buddhist teaching about planting a tree: The best time to have a conversation about racism is 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.
Yes, I’m looking at myself when I say that. And I invite you to look at yourselves, too.