Thursday, September 24, 2009

Racism in the Work Place

Whenever I teach the workshop The Top 10 Things Every White Parent Needs to Know When Raising African American Children, I talk about the existence of racism in our country. I explain that as white people, we may not be aware of racism if it weren't for the media. This is part of our white privilege - not having to be aware of racism. It is easy to see racism when you're talking about the Civil Rights Movement or South Africa. It isn't always easy to see the subtle forms of racism. I try to give examples in my workshop of the ways in which racism creeps into our lives, but I now have a GIANT example to share with the class I am teaching on Saturday at the Settlement Home.

I was working late Wednesday night when I overhead an employee use the phrase "white is right" in front of clients. My jaw dropped to my chest as I confirmed to myself what I just heard. I said to this employee, "I cannot believe you just said that out loud!" I turned to the clients and apologized for such an offensive statement. I was in total shock. It is 2009 and this 23 year old punk just perpetuated the most ignorant of beliefs! While I am a member of management, I am not his supervisor. In that moment, I wanted to cry, scream, yell and I am not ashamed to admit I wanted to hurt this kid. I was so mad. I was anything far from professional and I didn't trust myself to address the situation any further.

I knew I would fail if I tried to speak with him calmly about his statement because I was too emotional. I decided to speak with him the next morning when I could be more level headed. Of course, that didn't happen. I am, after all, a mama bear.

I thought about the situation all night, struggling with the appropriate way to handle the conversation. I knew for sure I could not maintain the same working relationship with him. I was horrified that A) he would say this out loud to a roomful of strangers in the workplace, including clients and B) that he could know me and my family and still repeat this statement. I guess that is also part of my white priviledge, being outraged in the face of racism and hell bent on doing something about it. During the night I remembered the line in our employee handbook regarding zero tolerance. In my opinion, his statement was grounds for dismisal.

This morning I asked to meet with the management team, of which I am a part. I explained what happened in my presence last night as we worked late. I explained how outraged I was. I went on to describe the ways I was now questioning my ability as the sales director to represent our product when I knew a biggot would greet the clients I was bringing to the business. My anger grew and grew as I recounted the story until I finally had to stop speaking to breathe.

Part of me wondered if I would feel this much outrage if I were not the mother of three African American children. I would hope, as a human being, I would be just as angry to hear such racist words from a co-worker. Much to my relief, the management team was equally outraged and this employee was terminated a few hours later based on the company's policy on tolerance and insubordination (that part had nothing to do with me. )

I feel better now. I know these people exist in the world. I know I am surrounded by racism. I know our country was created on a system of racial hieracrchy. I also know I don't have to work with it anymore. Or, at least, for now. My little piece of the world is a little more peaceful today and I pray this experience of losing his job will make my former co-worker re-evaluate his position on the browns and the pinks of this world. Score 1 for this pink parent!

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