Saturday, October 20, 2012

Race Relations

This week, two young men were fired from their job for a racial dispute. Neither needed to be fired until they were called in to speak with their boss and settle their differences and began threatening and justifying their behavior. I happened to be present when the original offense went down. I have worked side by side with both these young men for a couple weeks, so had a chance to get to know each of them a little on a personal level.

First allow me to describe the environment because race relations vary widely from inner city to outlaying rural areas and the black experience in America varies by their environment. In Western Arkansas, true racial hatred for blacks exists to this day albeit much more rarely and much more hidden than in living memory when a couple of passers through stopped at a gas station to fill up and ask for the fastest way out of a local small town. As a white, you still feel the stiffening of a room full of black people when you enter a business who's patronage is primarily black people. I hate it. It breaks my heart to feel unjustly feared by virtue of my skin tone.

Greg is a charming black man with the customary American black experience chip on his shoulder. What I mean is, when he first arrived on the scene in this work environment, an environment which gives him legal preference, his first social action was to feel out his immediate supervisor's racial preference by accusatory inquisition. She happened to be divorced from a black man and prefers to date black men, thus he was rapidly set at ease in the work place.

I cannot and would not pretend to know any black's personal experience with prejudice, but I can identify to a degree with prejudiced treatment. Forty years ago my parents divorced when it was still shameful, and was jerked from a very small rural Eastern Oklahoma town to land in Aneheim, California. We were poor, carried a very strong Southern twang in our speech and I hit a growth spurt so none of my clothes fit. I stood out like a sore thumb at school at a time when the full effects of Socialism had gripped the school administrators so that corporal punishment was unheard of and the students ruled the schools while teachers went in fear of losing their jobs. On any given day I could expect to be insulted, punched, kicked, shamed, tricked, etc., This went on for two years but the first one was the worst. So when I say these young black men don't know real prejudice, please understand my perspective is at the very least experiential though I am not black. Prejudice light as in hurtful words are enough to justify anger. However, anger must be measured against the offense.

Brent is a veteran and a charming white man. He'd been at this job about three months. He and Greg both were favored by the night shift supervisors. They seemed to get along well with one another, laughing and engaging in mental jousting, even seemingly becoming fast friends. That night, the pressure was on to get an order out and each of us were doing our best to get it done fast and get it 100% right. But something went wrong. Something was out of order and Greg was struggling to get it back in order and commented to Brent and myself that it was wrong. The supervisor sees we're talking rather than producing and orders me and Brent back to work. Brent defends himself by explaining he would be working except he's being criticized by 'the black guy.' It was an attempt at humor and it was inappropriate on purpose as one of the tools of humor but poorly thought out, and poorly employed. For one thing it was all but shouted across the shop and for another, it was couched in a greater criticism. The same kind of humor had previously been used in their mental jousting and Greg had not been offended then, so for Brent in an off the cuff comment, it didn't register as potentially offensive. Brent did not exhibit true racism, but a poor exercise in humor under stress. A few minutes later the supervisor came over and quietly explained to Brent that though he probably didn't mean it to be, the comment was offensive and to refrain from references to Greg's race.

I was a little late clocking out that night, so I happened to overhear Greg pressing the issue further as I was passing by to get out of there. The particular comment I'd overheard was one threatening potential violence. The next day neither Greg nor Brent are present and it didn't take long to hear they'd both been fired. Later the manager comes in and calls the whole place to a halt to explain why neither would be retained on staff. Threats were made, and justification for their behavior... I suspect Brent could have saved both their jobs maybe if he'd simply acknowledged it was a stupid attempt at humor and not meant as a slur, that he liked Greg personally and truly did not mean to be offensive. "I'm very sorry to have offended you for any reason much less to degrade your entire race." Apparently, this is not what he did.

Last night, two days after this event, we learned Brent committed suicide. Losing the job was not the only contributing factor to Brent's choice. It was the final contributing factor. A side note on suicide. I hold very little remorse for the supremely selfish actors of suicide. The thought processes which lead to suicide go along the lines of; it would serve them right to have to deal with their guilt over my death. The survivors of suicide perpetrators do have to deal with their feelings of guilt over his choice to self destruct in self involved drama. This is me dealing with mine. I knew he'd broken up with his girlfriend. I knew how much he wanted to get on permenantly with this company. I was there when all this happened and I did not follow up with him to mentor, to check on how he was dealing with these losses. I did not know he was this unstable. Such a waste of potential. Such a loss of amiable knowledge and ability. Such a tragedy. Such an unnecessary loss. This weekend, I have repeatedly broken down in tears over this. Last night the manager came in and assessed the emotional situation. I'll have to post another article on this piece of work later, but with half the staff breaking down emotionally, he didn't release us for the night. Instead he gave us the weekend off as we've been working long shifts 7 days a week. So, for five hours we continued to attempt to work while emotions kept overcoming one and then another.  (update Monday night/Tuesday morning; my supervisor confessed she'd made the call to keep us on for the completion of our shift and she apologized to me and thanked us for hanging in there with her.)

Young black man or woman, I don't know your experience in prejudices, neither do you know mine from the black community. I've heard black people tell me because I'm white, I cannot know prejudice. They are wrong. That statement is evidence in itself of racial prejudice. The definition of racial prejudice is prejudgement based on race. In that statement, they have judged my experience and first hand knowledge based on my race. The violent prejudice I experienced was not based on race, but it was violent prejudice none the less. The racial prejudice I experienced was and is from the black community, from the hispanic community, from the Middle East communities, from every ethnicity other than Slavic European and even that is not entirely excluded, and I suspect as frequent as your experience from the white community and others. So please don't assume you know anything about my handle on prejudice. In fact, try not judging me at all based on my race. After you've tried this for a month or two and found how impossible this call for an end to prejudice is on you when you consider an ill timed joke to be prejudice, perhaps you'll learn to measure your anger in context to the offense. Hateful slurs and violence against you and yours are another matter.

Given that you must prejudge me based on my age and race, expect the same from me. You represent your race to me as much as I represent mine to you. So, when your first act in the workplace is to feel out the supervisor's racial preferences, when you walk around expecting me to hold ill will toward you and search out any possible inference which might be construed as a slur against your race, when you believe all whites are prejudiced to one degree or another, you must also know that you are adding to the racial divide rather than helping to heal it. I honestly don't want to walk into another establishment where men stiffen because I am visually different. Not as one to be abused and certainly not as one to be feared. Not anywhere in this great land. That does not mean we are excused from using our judgment or the tools of judgment like generalities of race, age, gender. Statistical evidence indicates whites are more at risk in a black community than blacks are in a white community. In Western Arkansas, blacks are in a predominantly white community and in Western Arkansas whites are still more at risk from blacks than blacks are from whites. Both races are at greater risk from their own than from any other race. The reasons behind these statistics are the young blacks' assumption of victimization on a personal and group think level however justified, and the popularization of intentional ignorance. According to Jayzee, you're trying to be white if you seek an education and that is meant as a criticism! How racist is that? To be white is wrong AND to be educated is wrong!?!

This tragedy does not sit squarely on the shoulders of reverse racism, it was only a contributing factor to the poor choices of a supremely selfish couple of young and charming men. I miss both of them and I'm angry with both of them. I'll never get the chance to express either sentiment with one of them.

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