Race-Related? Watch Your Mouth.

mistake A couple of days ago, I walked into the lunch room at our school, and into an ongoing conversation about Zimmerman being pronounced “not guilty.” I said “Oooh boy” under my breath but also out loud, as I got my lunch out of the fridge, kind of without thinking about it. You know — sort of an involuntary reaction which says, “This should be good…” even though i had no intention of injecting myself into the conversation. Then he looked at me and said, “Oh, well what do you think would happen if it was a black man killed a white man?”

I should have said, “Hey, OJ got off, didn’t he?” but instead I took the diplomatic route: “The same thing that would happen when a black man kills a black man. It’s murder, he’d go to jail.” Or, he’d be voted not guilty by a panel of his peers. Or they wouldn’t have bothered trying him at all, because the DA knew right out of the gate that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict.

I thought he was going to be alright just discussing the topic. It isn’t smart to discuss these things at work because they can get people riled, but I don’t get offended easily and am careful about the opinions I put forth. I also respect others’ right to their opinion, and don’t go off the handle when someone disagrees with me. He also kept a pretty even tone, and didn’t appear to be losing it, so I was open to what he had to say. But he somehow then managed to go straight into slavery –f*cking SLAVERY — telling me about, “Why is it right that some people get reparations and others don’t?” (That’s a direct quote, I’m not making this up.)

This is a black, late-fifties security guard, asking me this in front of another instructor of ours, who happens to be black as well. Who I happen to have a pleasant working relationship with. Way to put me on the spot there, pal.

My immediate reaction was to tell him, “Because neither you nor anyone you have ever known was a slave in this country.” He told me that his mother’s grandmother was born in 1886 (or some similar personal fact), but it’s irrelevant. Even if his great-great-great grandparents were slaves, we are five to six generations removed from those atrocities, and an increasing majority of people in this country had little or nothing to do with them. My family wasn’t even in the United States yet, while that was going on. I continued, “Also, because taking money from people who had absolutely nothing to do with what happened and giving it to people who didn’t either is wrong.”

He told me, “No, it isn’t,” and I knew that we could no longer have an intelligent, rational conversation. He made a big stink about “ending the conversation” as he left the lunch room, and after he left, all I could think of was, “WHY did he have to go and do that?”

After we got back from lunch, I told my class that sometimes, discussing things of that nature at work gets dangerous, and that once they are said, they can’t be UNsaid. They kept pushing me to give them the details, to figure out what happened and who said what; I declined but told them, “I didn’t tell you this to talk sh*t on this guy behind his back; I told you this so that you can watch your mouth when you’re in the field and working around people you don’t know.”

I realize that I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to have a family history related to that era, and for folks who do, the memory of what happened never really dies. I also believe, however, that it makes no sense for people to direct anger at each other over something that happened over a hundred and fifty years ago. Doing so is a large part of the reason that problems are the way they are in the Middle East, for example. Senseless atrocities happen all the time. There’s no minimizing them, of course, but when there’s no one to hold accountable, there’s no choice but to find a way to move on. Penalizing people unrelated to the crime is wrong, however good it might make one feel.

In any case, I want to caution you to bite your tongue at work. I am not much for ‘polite’ etiquette, but as I said to my class, you might reveal something about yourself which will change your coworkers’ — the people you see more than your own family, in some cases — opinion of you for the worse.

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  1. Your point about watching what you say at work is essential to anyone that wants to keep their job. I have to bite my tongue with kids, parents, teachers, and fellow administrators on a regular basis, no matter how much I disagree with or am even offended by what some people say. It’s a life skill that too many people have to learn the hard way.

    • I can understand that, Weasel…it must be frustrating as all get-out sometimes to have to bite your tongue in the face of clear ignorance, discrimination, or irrational behavior. I, for one, have learned to do it when it counts, but I’m terrible at it outside of work!

  1. September 11th, 2013

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