One morning several weeks ago, I arrived at work to find a new cleaning crew in our office. Specifically, I saw two middle aged black men swiffering and carefully dusting desktops. Immediately I was curious to know who they were; our office was regularly cleaned by two Polish ladies and it seemed clear that this was a different company. As I waited for them to finish up in our wing I sauntered over to the production coordinator and inquired about who they were. He told me they were from a new service he had found; not everyone was happy with the previous ladies’ work so we were trying somebody new. Then he told me that when they had finished, he wanted to know what I thought of the job they had done.
As the guys wrapped up and moved into other offices, I thanked them and settled into my space. I had to admit, I wasn’t impressed. While I abhor strong smelling toxic chemicals, I did expect things to smell a bit fresher. They didn’t. I tend to walk around the office barefoot but I kept my slides on at first expecting the floors to be wet. But they weren’t. The mops I saw them pushing around must have been dry. There was still dust on the window sills and a bit of grit on the floor; overall, it didn’t seem much cleaner than the day before.
After they left, my production coordinator came in to see what my officemates and I thought of their work. That’s when I started twisting and turning in my chair. I started, “Well, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, but wait, what did other people think?” He immediately looked confused. He knew I was not one to mince words, ever. He could always count on me to tell him exactly what I thought, so why was I being so wishy-washy over a cleaning company? “Well,” I began, trying to explain. “Well, perhaps we could make a list of things we’d like done better, and let them have one more go at it?” He told me that was fine, that it sounded like a plan, but he was still eager to know why I seemed so hesitant to badmouth them. That’s when our eye-opening conversation began…
I grew up in a mixed race household–my mom is white and my dad is black. This and my parent’s personalities created an environment where race was talked about openly and often. My dad would make jokes about race all the time that white people were never sure they were allowed to laugh at. One time we were at Subway, and he asked the sandwich artist what was in the seafood sensation. The employee assured him with much certainty, “Some imitation crabmeat, but mostly all white fish.” My dad looked up at him with an unflinching straight-face and replied, “Is that opposed to Negro fish?” The teenager in the green cap behind the counter stood there confused and a bit horrified as my dad burst into uproarious laughter. I laughed about it when we got in the car, but I was embarrassed as it happened; I felt like the word ‘Negro’ had to be reserved for home, people outside didn’t understand us using it.
Some of my best friends over the years have been mixed. I married a white man. My openness in discussing race has continued throughout my entire life and often extends to my coworkers. I spend 10 hours a day with these people–shit gets real, real fast.
So I didn’t sugarcoat it when my production coordinator wanted to know why I was so anxious to give these cleaning guys another shot at our office. I told him that if I can be a part of giving a black-owned company regular business, I wanted to do that. I knew the work had to be right, and I wouldn’t say it was if it wasn’t. But I felt both the desire and the responsibility to allow them the opportunity if I could.
My officemates in my department who know me well did not flinch at my statement. They hear me shoot off at the mouth all day long and what I said fell right in line with previous comments. My coordinator though looked surprised. Well, not surprised–intrigued. He wanted to explore what I had said, he wanted to know more. He said as a white man, he had never felt any obligation or desire to help out any other white person in that way; it had never occurred to him and he didn’t feel connected to his race in the same manner that I did. Knowing what I believed to be the answer, I asked him why he thought that was. He responded accordingly. He told me that it would never come to his mind to “look out” for other white people because he had never needed to, white people were usually fine. I couldn’t help myself, I immediately shot out the thought that in my mind was inextricably linked: “So I’m guessing when some white dude shoots up a church or blows up a building you feel completely disconnected from that right, like it has nothing to do with you?” He smiled and looked up at me. “I’m not gonna lie, being a white guy is a pretty sweet gig.” I smiled back at him and agreed, “No shit!” We all laughed and eventually broke our huddle to grab coffee and eat our breakfast.
All this got me thinking about the sense of responsibility and the connection I have felt towards my race my entire life. I wondered how different it must feel to be white–to walk around feeling a complete sense of individuality. To only know your actions as your own, and not representative of a group. It pissed me off for years that on standardized tests and other forms I only had the option of checking “black” or “other”. (It’s only recently that we have been triumphantly able to fill in a “mixed race” box). For a long time I switched back and forth between each box. When I checked “other”, it was out of defiance–they didn’t get to know what I was if they wouldn’t make space for who I was on the form. When I checked “black” it was often out of a sense of solidarity and obligation. I generally got pretty decent test scores and I wanted those numbers to count for black people. In my mind, anything I could do that was positive might be helpful for my race; I thought it might enable other people to see us in a different light, to see the positives instead of the far more frequently highlighted negatives.
It’s always bothered me when people say they don’t “see” color, that they look at everyone the same. I’ve only ever heard white people say this. I think they think it sounds good, and it may make them feel better about who they are, but it’s not true. I don’t think it helps in having a real and frank discussion about race and it definitely does not serve to establish a more equitable society. When a white person says they don’t “see” race it’s like salt in the wound. I think, not only do they get to live comfortably under the protection of their white skin, they get to pretend that that protection does not exist, and deny the fragility of living as another race in this country. I grew up filling in the “black” circle because I wanted people to see us as better, because I knew we were seen as not as good. Although ethnically I am as white as I am black, it’s never been an option to fill in the “white” circle on a form. I knew that. My teacher who directed me to fill in the “black” circle when I told her my race wasn’t on there knew that. Color has always mattered. It is seen by all of us, whether we like to admit it or not.
While I was taught that everyone was created equally, it was clear from a young age that most people didn’t really believe that–including myself. Why else would I have been so anxious to straighten my hair? Why else was I happy that my skin was lighter than the other black girls’ in my class? No one ever had to say out loud that they thought white was better. In fact no one around me ever did–but I still knew what they believed because I saw it every day.
I saw it, and so did my production coordinator. It’s why I feel specifically compelled to help, protect, and represent my race–and he does not. Our mindsets are born out of necessity–out of what we have seen throughout our lives. If you persistently force me to experience and witness injustice, you can’t then turn around and insist that I pretend that it’s not there. If you can’t see it, please, don’t deny the possibility that it still might exist. I beg you, look harder. You know what would get black people to shut the hell up about race? Make things equal, truly. You wouldn’t hear a peep. Race is not a card we are anxious to play–it’s just the tired hand we’ve been dealt over and over again. If you don’t like groups like Black Lives Matter–by all means, please, stop making them necessary.
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